This past weekend, the non-profit organization High Desert Test Sites (HDTS) launched its ninth event amidst the barren landscape of Joshua Tree, CA. However, unlike with past iterations, this year’s curators decided to prolong the festivities for a full week at various desert locations. In order to experience all of the 60 site-specific projects developed for the program, audiences must traverse a scenic route of over 700 miles from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque, NM. This requires a certain stamina, which, unfortunately, I do not currently possess. As a result, a friend and I decided to venture out for a single Sunday afternoon before all was packed up and transported elsewhere.
Since visiting Joshua Tree for the first time this past summer, I have returned often and the two-hour drive now seems almost second-hand. I initially scan for the giant, neon “Rosemead” sign looming over the I-10 to signal my safe distance from the congested traffic of inner Los Angeles. Later on, the conspicuous Morongo Casino and surrounding matrix of wind turbines tantalize with the promise of the upcoming Route 62 exit. After that, the road flattens and the corporate world of Del Taco and Starbucks quickly fades into the kitschy thrift shops, dusty saloons, and occasional, wind-blown tumbleweed of Joshua Tree. Straying even further from the main strip, life accrues a more unpredictable nature. It is this capricious element that appeared to bind the various art projects that we encountered that day.
After checking in at the HDTS headquarters- where we met with cheery staff members eager to talk about both the event and the desert’s allure- we drove towards "Site 6" at Coyote Dry Lake. As our VW Beetle awkwardly barreled down the poorly marked, off-road route, we realized that we were taking a giant leap of faith on behalf of the HDTS curators. Outside of the car windows, the desert stretched on endlessly with only sporadic suggestions of human activity in the form of isolated, parked trailers. We nervously scanned the path ahead, searching for fluorescent markers to reassure us that we had not veered off towards unknown ends. After mistaking an outpost of four-wheeler enthusiasts for the installation, we finally spotted the actual site. Artist Debbie Long greeted us warmly as we got out of the car and thanked us for making the trek. Her work Naima consisted of an airline trailer inside of which visitors could sit and marvel at the changing colors of the desert sunlight as reflected across the interior through tiny holes covered by a nebulous garden of phallic, purple, glass molds. The effect was calming but the structure too closely echoed the permanent glass installation at the nearby gallery Art Queen by local artist Randy Polumbo.
Once we returned to the car, we continued on towards the recommended “Krblin Jihn Cabin.” Situated at the end of a residential street lined with newly developed, cookie-cutter houses, this dilapidated structure appeared sorely out of place. In stark contrast to the surrounding suburban environment, the various plaques surrounding the site alluded to its “religious” history as a haven for the heretic “Jihn Wranglicans." Meanwhile, the cabin’s almost-eerie interior of crumbling walls and fanatic, pseudo-English graffiti amplified the site’s questionable authenticity. While we ultimately did not subscribe to this new faith, my friend and I enjoyed its theatrics of initiation.
A bit exhausted, the day’s adventures eventually culminated in our final visit to artist Bettina Hubby’s glow-in-the-dark cocktail party at the Giant Rock in nearby Landers. As the desert sun slid away and night enveloped our car, the directions listed on the HDTS map again provided little assurance that we were going to arrive in one piece. The road often forked towards unknown routes and the markers were almost impossible to spot within the darkness. We stalled for a moment, breathing in the dry air of the impossibly still evening. Eventually a few headlights emerged in our rearview mirror and we joined a small caravan headed towards the festivities.
The reward was well worth any initial trepidation. A small group of revelers clustered around a table covered in fluorescent lights, cheese plates, and liquor bottles. Hubby’s enormous, roving, light-up eyes watched over these offerings and endowed our proceedings with an exaggerated, otherworldly air. In the background the Giant Rock loomed majestically, lit up like a science-fiction moonscape by a series of projections. We wandered around the rocks, glow sticks in hand, exhilarated by how easily the banal, brown mountainside of this afternoon had metamorphosed into an entirely new, midnight topography. Through such transformative occurrences, the HDTS events revealed how, with a bit of faith, the boundaries of human experience within both time and space might unfold into a myriad of new stimulations.