Julie Tolentino is one of the first artists that my classmates and I met with while starting to envision the exhibition, Ecotone Lab. A queer performance artist trained in a variety of bodywork and meditation practices who splits her time between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, Tolentino personified our burgeoning interest in the assumed dichotomies of the desert and the city within artistic practices. Our eventual visit to her off-the-grid abode and artist residency, FERAL House and Studio, marked the first time that we explored Joshua Tree as a group and fortified our commitment to researching the many issues related to site-specific curatorial ventures. I found myself particularly drawn to Tolentino’s references to the physical and mental shifts that occur during the drastic transition between remote and urban environments. As a result, I worked alongside classmate Amanda Courtney to create an event with Tolentino that might encourage others to similarly contemplate and comprehend such bodily experiences. The resulting GROW ROOM workshop occurred on April 4, 2014 and enabled six participants to spend the day at FERAL while engaging with Tolentino, and their own sense of self, through one-on-one meditative sessions that took place on fur-lined waterbeds situated directly underneath the desert sun.
While planning this event, Tolentino invited me to stay at FERAL for two nights on my own in order to better understand the importance of the isolated site within her personal practice and its conceptual underpinning. What follows is a diaristic account of my experience at Feral Studio.
I tried to make an early departure but, after the craze of the prior week, the unusually gray Los Angeles morning waned any residual enthusiasm. I reasoned that my laziness was actually a well-designed scheme to avoid traffic on the 101. Getting out of the city can be a nightmare on a weekday; might as well sleep it off. The desert wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, however, I lugged my bags to the passenger seat of my car- sunscreen (check), toothbrush (check), layers for the cold (check), journal (check), yogurt-covered pretzels, oranges, and wine (check). I was eager to limit my assumed necessities for the next few days. Heading east from Hollywood, I drove in silence till merging onto the red-light disaster of the 101. “Not all plans are perfect,” I consoled myself as I turned on the radio.
Some time later in the afternoon, I finally glimpsed my favorite highway sign- “Indio and other Desert Cities.” Not only does it mark my escape from the San Bernardino Valley, but I also find its blatant relegation of the smaller Morongo Basin populaces as “other” manipulatively enticing. Who wants to go to Indio when there are other unnamed sites to explore? I pursue the familiar route. Desert Hot Springs fades quickly to Yucca Valley, which then merges into Joshua Tree. To the uninitiated traveler, it all looks the same- an infinite beige terrain littered with gas stations, secondhand shops, Del Tacos, and the occasional crooked vegetation of the latter towns’ namesakes. It is hard to remember what the draw is from a bug-splattered car window.
FERAL House and Studio is remotely located at a distance from the desert’s coronary artery, otherwise known as Route 62. I scan the roadside for the easy-to-miss markers of where to turn. Eventually the paved road ends and my station wagon rattles over rocks and sand. I wave to passersby (per Julie’s instructions) while in awe of their tearing speeds and apparent disregard for stop signs. I get the sense that the law contains a few more shades of gray within these inhospitable outskirts. My car continues on slowly until I spy FERAL’s silhouette.
Julie’s property consists of the primary, solar-powered residence that she built by hand and an extended jackrabbit homestead from the 1950s. The former’s sleek, modernist design sharply contrasts the latter’s lilting wooden walls and lopsided foundation. I pull up in front of an old, dusty piano placed eerily outside next to an unhitched wooden trailer. The afternoon sun feels warm, but not unpleasant, and the sporadic breeze whistles discontentedly against the buildings’ obtrusive contours. I walk around the property to re-orient myself with the site. It is overwhelmingly quiet after the roar of the highway. However, as my ears adjust to the silence, they soon perceive another almost inhospitable hum. The creosote bushes dispersed amidst the sandy terrain and abloom with yellow flowers are covered in pollinating bees. Their buzzes percolate, like flies amassing over a forgotten carcass, threaten with the suggestion of industrious doom. I head inside and close the door.
For the remainder of the day, I explore the house. I scan the library in the sunken living room, eat a can of tuna fish from the kitchen cupboard, move the solar-powered light panels outside to collect as much fading sun as possible, discover a squashed lizard underneath a cushion, and sprawl my body across the white shag carpet set before the sliding glass doors. I feel, for the first time in many weeks, relaxed. There is nothing to do but sit, watch. The sun sets slowly and creates a momentary, hazy rainbow upon the horizon. I soon, however, feel the chill snaking its way indoor. The bees disappear and the house is swallowed up in an impenetrable blackness. I layer myself in wool socks and a sweater but I cannot shake the cold. The solar-powered lamps cast a murky light on the interior. I realize, surprisingly for the first time since I arrived, that I am alone. There is no one with whom to speak or listen. I feel untethered.
Reality seems to have slipped away with the day. In its stead, a childlike anxiety sweeps over me that the city, and all of its discontents, usually sublimates. In Los Angeles, the maddening pace of schedules and highways and commercial entertainment easily distracts me from the more unconscious parameters of being. However, here at FERAL, surrounded by an empty desert terrain, I sense an unbridling of once-closeted tension. My mind manically revisits even the slightest problem from the past months. I have so much to say as I attempt to vigorously record this inner dialogue in my journal. Meanwhile, a car approaches from the distance- my chest compresses. The area is remote and I question this impending presence near my safe house. Of course, the tires bumping over the unpaved trail soon fade away into the night. I attempt to resume my purge.
The everything-ness, all at once and without either interruption or mediation, eventually, overwhelms me. I get up from the vintage sofa and grab a book that continuously caught my eye earlier that afternoon. Propped delicately on a red leather pouf in the living room, its cover depicts a longhaired man laden in metal spikes, black and white makeup, and streams of (real or fake?) blood menacingly holding an upside down cross. Curling up in bed, I open it to read about Norway’s black metal subculture- the anarchist lyrics, the frightening costumes, the drugs, the booze, the mental breakdowns in the form of burned stave churches and murdered lead singers. It is a history of angst and misunderstanding, a rebellion against the forced identities of a once-pagan, now Christian, country. Maybe it is due to my own Norwegian heritage, but the antics of these metal adolescents compel a sense of kinship within my moment of desertion. Perhaps, in the everlasting sunlight of the bitter Scandinavian tundra, they too feel the anxiety of being alone. Alone in the sense of knowing your proximity to others, but, yet, still remaining unable, or unwilling, to forge such connections.
This realization emboldened my spirits as I switched off the bedside lamp. A coyote howled in the distance like a renegade companion in my newfound state of accepted rebellion. The previous onslaught of solitude revealed itself as an inspiration- the anxiety has been, and will always be, within me, regardless of the surrounding environment. It is a fuel, a pivot of creativity, around which I, and others, encounter and challenge the world. I realized how Julie’s workshop would operate on this same meditative level. By separating the participants from their everyday surroundings, GROW ROOM would encourage them to identify both their strengths and issues amidst FERAL’s clarifying silence. Julie, and now I, recognized that it was never about the break between the desert and the city but about the interior connections that we shuttle in-between them. I happily fell asleep into the nothingness.
This essay was originally published in in Ecotone Lab, ed. MA Class of 2014, (Los Angeles: USC Roski School of Art and Design, 2014).