The Desert Studies Project: More From Less Than Zero | Dick Hebdige


“In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be ‘desert’), absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen…”

—Reyner Banham, Scenes from America Deserta [1]

One weekend in March 2010, students from seven University of California campuses (UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego) gathered in Wonder Valley with friends and collaborators from outside the UC system in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park between the Pinto and Bullion Mountains adjacent to the 925 square mile Twentynine Palms Marine Base on the eastern edge of the Mojave desert to install artworks guerilla-style in the abandoned jackrabbit shacks and surrounding terrain for an audience that comprised local community members, regional media and other interested parties, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to participate. The weekend event which included screenings and performances at the nearby Palms Bar and Restaurant and which ended with the opening of an exhibition of wall works at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center eighty miles to the west on Frank Sinatra Drive, a world away from the rough and ready Palms, in the golf-and-condo world of Palm Desert, was the last of three roving workshops (what we call “Dry Immersions”) that together represent the culmination of the first phase of the Desert Studies project organized by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA).


The Wonder Valley site looked like an outtake from a Weather Channel special on tornados. Sculptural installations mounted on exposed foundation slabs or stuck directly in the dirt in the empty spaces between the shells of long vacated homesteads found a temporary foothold in a landscape strewn with construction debris—the shrapnel of exploded, unsustainable domestic arrangements.

A piece by Elcin Joyner (UCSB) concretized this feeling of precariousness: 16 cinderblocks each with four caster wheels glued to its base were stacked to form a “Mobile Ziggurat” – a diminutive echo of the first pyramid at Ur in the Sumerian desert in what is now Iraq. Erected in the shadow of the nearby US Marine Base, the modular, mobile, easy-to-assemble structure appeared to stymie any fantasy of precedence or permanence (the Ozymandias effect: Empires come and go).

Other works engaged head on with the institutionalized framing of the desert as spectator sport – In “Desert Die” (The Unmanned Minerals Collective: Jared Stanley [UC Merced], Matthew Herbert [San Diego State] and Gabie Strong [UCI]), we were offered a discombobulating alternative to the educational interpretive displays available in national parks. When visitors lifted and replaced the metal cube housed within a replica park trashcan, a mechanism was activated which triggered pre-recorded commentary on everything from  mirages to military history.

Other pieces used technology to explore and expose hidden features of the landscape. “Trace: Resonance Field,” a sound installation by David Wicks, Peter Hawkes and Elaine Hu (UCLA) used a device concealed beneath ceramic plates reminiscent of desert tortoise shells to translate the constant thrum of low level seismic activity deep under the earth’s surface into audible form.

Meanwhile Masha Lifshin (UCSB), positioned at a table next to a sunk-in-upon-itself pitched roof equipped with a brand new U.S. flag, dispensed freshly squeezed orange juice and handouts detailing a local 1950s scam that had realtors tying fruit to Joshua trees to draw in gullible aspiring citrus farmer pioneers.

The permeability of fact and fancy also drove “The Deuce Nine is a Ghetto,” a docu-fiction video installation by Claire Zitow, Elizabeth Chaney and Ash Eliza Smith (UCSD) screened on laptops inside a ruined cabin strewn with costumes, stills and props. Part ethnographic document, part improvised communal performance, the video featured escapist fantasies acted out by local residents, most notably by Chris Nelson, a sixteen-year-old with shoulder length hair, marooned in family quarters on the Marine base, assisted by his skate park posse. Tropes of entrapment and arrested motion – at one point Nelson’s crew annex an old wooden speed boat sunk into the sand – alternate with scenes of break out and magical transcendence as the idea of elsewhere merges with the mirage of anywhere but here.

As the sun began to set on the Saturday evening, with a late winter storm blowing in from the west, the screech and throb of improvised noise accompanied spectral images projected onto the three sided remains of what had once been someone’s (second?) home in recent UCI grad, Gabie Strong’s “UR Rituals”. As night fell, the lit up walls of the dilapidated structure at the center of the circle formed by the ten participating artists and musicians appeared suddenly animated, brought back from the dead  thanks to the rickety 16 mm projectors in a profane or holy resurrection – Dracula or Jesus? – feedback-heavy Second Coming shack attack.[2]


Desert 101: (Re)Boot Camp

The Desert Studies project is an ongoing pilot program in interdisciplinary, California-embedded, arts-centered research, experimental pedagogy, immersive curriculum design and process —curating organized by UCIRA. The idea is to articulate remote location immersive fieldwork to issues of contemporary concern via research-based art works, exhibitions and performances.

So what’s the project about and why deserts? ARID subscribers don’t need reminding that deserts are significant environments in terms of their character, variety and sheer planetary stretch.  But our students are subjected to a Desert 101 resume that includes the following facts and figures: There are deserts on every continent except Europe, the majority, contrary to the popular stereotype, composed of dirt and rock not sand. The Sahara at 350,000 square miles is the world’s largest sand desert though it’s dwarfed beside the 5.5 million square mile Arctic and 4.5 million square mile Antarctic, both of which are classified as cold deserts. California alone has 25,000 square miles of desert terrain straddling two distinct systems—the Mojave and the Colorado. In addition to the almost 3,000 square mile Death Valley National Park, located east of the Sierra range, and the 1,234 square mile expanse of Joshua Tree National Park in the state’s southeastern corner, California’s protected desert lands include the 2,500 square mile Mojave National Preserve, wedged between Interstates 15 and 40, and  California’s  largest State Park, the 500 square mile Anza-Borrego spread across San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties. Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1994, the California Desert Protection Act protects 7.7 million acres of the state’s arid BLM and National Park land. With this much designated desert wilderness on their doorsteps, even metropolitan Californians should need little introduction to what a desert looks like and how much of it there is though beyond the park boundaries California’s deserts host sizeable urban populations of their own, most conspicuously in the unbroken line of development yoking LA to “Indio and Other Desert Cities“ (as the freeway signage has it) along the 1-10 corridor.

Depending on the criteria used, deserts take up between one fifth and one third of the earth’s surface and are home to between 500 million and one billion people – between eight and fifteen percent of the world’s population. The wide variation in these figures derives from competing criteria on what constitutes a desert though there’s general agreement that a desert is any place that gets less than ten inches of rain per year or where more moisture is lost through evaporation than falls as precipitation.  The word ‘desert’ meaning “empty, barren place” is then fundamentally misleading: the Desert capital ‘D’- as opposed to actually existing lower case deserts in the plural – is an ideological category or non-category: an imaginary non-place against which actual places get to define themselves. This discrepancy between actual and imagined deserts is what gives the ultra arid landscape its peculiar strategic value and significance for us as artists and teachers because the D/desert can serve as a conceptual as well as an actual place to retreat to, regroup, rethink everything we take for granted: a place where we are always challenged to start again from scratch. The Desert capital ‘D’, when approached bi-focally in tandem with the actually existing lower-case deserts we study and immerse ourselves in, serves as a conceptual and practical boot camp (or re-boot camp) where we get a refresher course in basic social, survival  and what the Disney people call ‘imagineering’ skills.  So while we want to get beyond the ‘Desert’ to see how complex, fragile and resilient actual deserts are, we also want to take advantage in this project of the ‘Back to Square One’ factor – to use the d/Desert as an opportunity to review and revise fundamental principles and modes of operation.

As a growing global consensus around paradigms of environmental crisis combines with mounting evidence of human geological agency to highlight the finite nature of planetary resources, the desert biome has shifted from the margins to the center of attention. Concerns with conservation, bio-diversity, resource management and the impact of expanding populations on sensitive wilderness areas pull deserts everywhere into focus as dynamic but fragile eco-systems that need to be studied not just in terms of what and where they are right now but symptomatically, in terms of what may or may not be coming down the pike in the future. While scarcity and epidemic drought ensure that water will soon rival crude as the benchmark commodity, conflicts in oil-rich desert regions continue to constitute many of  today’s political hot spots. Closer to home the arid Southwest serves as the rehearsal site for the US contribution to some of those militarized encounters in other deserts while the sealing and securitization of the southern border around Tijuana has pushed the war fought between illegal immigrants, the Border Patrol, professional ‘coyotes’ and vigilante groups farther and farther east into the Sonoran desert with increasingly deadly consequences.

As currently constituted Desert Studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor has tended to be weighted towards the environmental and agricultural sciences with major input from geography and engineering, with sociology, anthropology and history generally taking a back seat and very little space reserved for the arts beyond the usual minor decorative or alarm bell sounding ‘consciousness raising’ functions. The arts haven’t generally been integrated at a substantive level into the research process. It is that exclusion we’re seeking to redress.

Historically, of course, deserts have played a major role in the big culture and civilization narratives, as the starting points where the major monotheistic religions and cuneiform writing were first introduced. In a more complicated way, the desert has figured for millennia not just as home to diverse nomadic and urban civilizations, but as a screen for contradictory human projections. The desert is pictured variously as:

  • • starting point (‘natural’ home to paleontology) and End Game (Armageddon)
  • • sanctuary and dumping ground
  • • next frontier of leisure and refuge of last resort
  • • unspoiled wilderness and irradiated hinterland
  • • existential, spiritual, military, technological and artistic test-site
  • • precious irreplaceable resource and dirt-cheap real estate development opportunity

As such, the desert is as much a jarring cluster of contradictory metaphors, myths and images as it is a set of distinctive eco-systems or social systems. The need for an expanded interdisciplinary and collaborative effort to grapple with the multiple complexities and challenges contained within the actual deserts of the world and within the no less complex idea of the ‘Desert’ – one capable of incorporating insights from as many stakeholders and relevant fields of expertise as possible is more urgent now than ever.  This drive towards spirited and inclusive convocation is what animates the Desert Studies project.

Dry Immersions 1 and 2

The installation and performance event in Wonder Valley and Palm Desert described at the beginning of this report was preceded by two earlier roving workshops. Dry Immersion 1, co-organized by UCIRA, the Palm Desert Graduate Center and Luminous Green, a European-based arts and media collective, took place over three days in February 2009 in the Boyd Deep Canyon Reserve, a UC Riverside-owned research facility adjacent to Palm Desert, primarily devoted to longitudinal studies of the impact of real estate development on the indigenous flora and fauna. Faculty and students from four UC campuses (Davis, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Diego) together with UCIRA staff and visiting activists, and tactical media artists from Europe and California held a series of workshops over the three days on various topics including GPS-based art work, Native plant lore and sustainable design. Before dispersing, the group adjourned to the shores of the Salton Sea forty miles east of Palm Desert for a swim-dive performance by Long Beach-based endurance eco-artist, Sierra Brown. Brown’s piece titled Honolulu Club drew attention to the history of failed utopian aspirations which led in 1908 to the inadvertent creation of the ultra-saline thirty-five mile long inland sea and to its subsequent development as a now desolate and largely abandoned resort community.[3]

In 2009, Tyler Stallings, Director of UCR’s Sweeney Art Gallery in Riverside received a $10,000 UCIRA grant in partial funding for his proposal to mount a year-long series of public events, readings and screenings to be staged across Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. Tyler’s program was a response to the Institute’s Desert Studies proposal document circulated earlier that year. The initial call invited faculty and students from the nine UC campuses with arts programs to submit proposals for works engaging issues ”related to actual deserts and to the no less contentious bundle of historical projections made onto the idea of the Desert.”

The program was originally planned to culminate in a symposium organized in tandem with the exhibition of solicited art works on land adjacent to the Palm Desert Graduate Center.  However, issues of land use and a competing and previously approved plan for a sustainable garden on the undeveloped site forced us to jettison our initial idea and in effect, to reverse the order of events so that the symposium would now precede by several months a more de-territorialized (at least multiply-sited) exhibition.  As often happens, unforeseen circumstances forced us to rethink our founding premises and to come up with a creative solution more in keeping with UCIRA’s stated commitment both to research-based embedded artworks and to innovative exhibition and conference/symposium formats than the original plan.

The symposium now scheduled for four days in October, 2010 and centered around a rental property in Wonder Valley was reframed as a research and networking opportunity for potential art makers from across the system and beyond with focused discussion groups, presentations by a range of invited speakers and side trips to local points of interest including:

  • • Joshua Tree National Park
  • • Pioneertown, a community  northwest of Yucca Valley based around a 1950’s TV Western stage set
  • • Noah Purifoy’s sculpture garden in Joshua Tree
  • • local architectural non-profit, Eco Shack
  • • a privately owned museum of retired motel signs in Twentynine Palms
  • • the Integraton geodesic dome in Landers
  • • a guided tour of the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Base (including a simulated  Iraqi city constructed out of shipping containers) organized by Lisa Tucker

More than sixty participants, including students and faculty from seven UC campuses attended this Dry Immersion 2 which ended with a guided tour by UCR- affiliated conservation biologist, Dr. Cameron Barrows of protected dune and oasis systems in the lower Colorado desert. Attendees were invited to submit proposals, together with requests for limited expansion funding to cover materials and installation/performance costs to the Sweeney and UCIRA and the resulting art works were exhibited and staged the following March in Dry Immersion 3. Comprehensive documentation of this process and work produced including photographs, podcasts and media coverage is available on-line at the Sweeney Gallery web-site:[4]

While the guerilla installations in Wonder Valley were dismantled and removed the following day, the exhibition at the Palm Desert Center stayed up into the spring. Works included 30″ x 30″ abstract canvases by Flora Kao (Otis College of Art and Design) based on frottage data collected at various sites in the upper and lower deserts; designs for fantasy prototype all terrain desert vehicles by Ken Ehrlich (UC Riverside/CalArts); and a series of photographs by Christopher Woodcock (UC Davis) of the simulated Iraqi city on the Marine base taken with a wide format camera.

“Scrap Matters”, an inventory/archive of the deteriorated texts found stuck to desert brush  collected by Desiree d’Allessandro (UCSB) and J.R.Venezuela (UCLA) during excursions to Wonder Valley delivers the Last Word in and on this summary of works produced for Dry Immersion 3.  Blown up to epic scale and digitally enhanced, the arbitrary pages torn from random books (including in one instance, a page from the Old Testament) form part of an archive composed by desert winds in collaboration with the cacti of half-filled out forms, supermarket receipts, foreclosure notices, incidental jottings, fragments of maps and newspaper ads: a geo-graphic testament to the brevity of history and to our fleeting purchase on the planet: a statement from the dry mouth of the Valley.

To return to the opening quotation, as desert denizens everywhere, human and non-human, know full well, the dictionary definition of the desert as a landscape where nothing exists is palpably false and misleading. Nonetheless we believe as the late Reyner Banham put it, that the desert is a space in which “anything is thinkable and may consequently happen.” The openness of that consequential horizon between what we can, in hope or dread, imagine and what may actually come to pass is in itself, to say the least, forbidding. Our task is to facilitate the varieties of thinking that may help to move us forward beyond the current impasse where we stand as a collective at a crossroads, poised between inertia and apocalypse.

Postscript: Get Lost

As the launching of this journal amply illustrates, UCIRA’s Desert Studies project does not stand alone. Instead it forms part of that more general geographical turn within the arts, humanities and social sciences which is driven by a worldly concern for the planet and the places we inhabit and a more considered assessment of our modus operandi as a species. The mapping trend evident across the spectrum from surveillance studies to the new low impact land art is facilitated in turn by the GPS and digital technologies, which are themselves transforming our experience of space and place. More locally, Desert Studies takes its inspiration and its cue from well established arts-based programs like High Desert Test Sites (now incorporated into the LA Biennial) and the exemplary research, open-source archiving, exhibition, publication and teaching initiatives sponsored by the Culver City-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). It continues to evolve through the emphasis on an ethos of immersion and committed indirection signaled in the very terms we use i.e. ‘dry immersion’ and ‘roaming workshop’. Both phrases reflect our commitment to the idea of moving art students out of the studio, the library and the familiar rehearsal areas into ‘real world’ field-trip settings not simply to install but to undergo a potentially transformative experience. The stress on immersion comes from our belief that art and arts-centered research needs to be immersive as well as discursive – that new work and new ideas can be seeded through a mix of programmed content (the presentations/lectures/guided tours/site-visits, etc.) and un-programmed encounters with friends, colleagues, strangers and ourselves in the stunning if unfamiliar settings that the desert can uniquely provide. We believe that students can learn valuable lessons not just from dialogues with credentialed desert experts or from launching water-powered rockets made out of recycled pens equipped with ‘nose cones’ mounted with discarded cell phone cameras into the vast uncluttered horizon visible from Iron Age Road east of Wonder Valley as Misha Lifshin did one afternoon on Dry Immersion 2 but from talking, and more importantly listening to the veteran desert rats who frequent the Palms Bar and Restaurant way out there on the Amboy Road who live on the just about habitable outer fringes of the Mojave, who know the desert inside out and who on a daily basis make something viable and valuable (i.e. a culture) out of next to nothing. The education is, in other words, socially immersive too – designed to take the subject in every sense beyond itself in a return to criticality defined as the necessary crisis through which practice has to pass.

The phrase ‘roaming workshop’ refers to the resolutely nomadic questing nature of the project. It also refers indirectly to the new communications infrastructure in which we’re all enmeshed. Even in the desert we carry our laptops and cell phones most of the time and whether consciously or otherwise we end up witnessing the endless procession of the satellites that enable them to function as we gaze up in wonder at the star-clogged night sky even in the farthest reaches of the wilderness. On our field trips we move across the landscape like a cell phone in roaming mode – waiting to pick up whatever signals are available in the remote locations we find (and lose) ourselves in.  And on this latter point it is no coincidence that the course I teach at UCSB in Desert Studies is titled “Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map.” At a moment when technology and hubris may tempt us to imagine that we know exactly where we are at all times, getting lost becomes an essential,  i.e. a vital, part of the exercise.

[1] P. Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (MIT Press, 1989)

[2] Shack Attack was a federally-funded program (1998-2005) administered by San Bernardino County that provided funds for demolition of derelict homestead cabins originally built to satisfy dwelling requirements for the Small Tract Act of 1938. For more info visit:

[3] For “Honolulu Club,”  artist, ‘Hotshot’ wildfire fighter and lobster boat captain, Sierra Brown waded into the sea in a vintage 1960’s wet suit and did a series of dives during which she surreptitiously exchanged the empty net she’d been carrying with a previously planted net containing seven live lobsters (the recreational bag limit in California) as workshop participants sat eating a lobster bisque lunch shore-side.  After removing the lobsters one-by-one and measuring each animal to establish that it met the minimum size limit (3 and a quarter inches) she declared the catch legal. A CBS 2 Local TV crew recorded the performance and interviewed workshop participants and the artist for a segment broadcast later that day on local news program, Eye on the Desert. During the course of the segment the presenter identified the principal ingredient of the bisque as “lobsters from the Salton Sea” though Sierra had at no point made that claim. I rang CBS the next day to rectify the error and a correction was broadcast at the end of that evening’s show.  The performance was triggered by the incongruous spectacle of live lobsters in a tank at an upscale supermarket in Palm Desert during a research trip the artist had made to the area some months earlier. Honolulu Club forms part of a series  of works made by the artist dealing with the environmental, ethical and political implications of global maritime trade and (over)consumption. For more information and documentation of other works see

[4] I would like to  take this opportunity to thank the entire team at the Sweeney especially Tyler Stallings, Director and Shane Shukis, Assistant Director who in addition to providing a solid institutional framework to work within, spent incalculable hours brainstorming/shepherding the project to completion and Georg Burwick, the Sweeney web designer who did a great job with the documentation and archive. I would also direct interested readers to Steven Biller’s review of Dry Immersion 3 in the July, 2010 issue of “Palm Springs Life.” My own account of the work presented owes a lot to Steve’s observant and insightful essay.

Ur Rituals was an immersive site-specific performance created by Gabie Strong, featuring artists Ted Byrnes (drums), Kelly Coats (flute), Helga Fassonaki (pedal steel, effects), Steve Kim (bass, effects, violin), Gregory Lenczycki (keyboards, electronics), Jorge Martin (turntable, trogotronics), Albert Ortega (resonant electronics), Ron Russell (bass, effects), Andrew Scott (guitar, stylophone), Jonathan Silberman (soprano saxophone) and Strong (bass, effects, films). Co-sponsored by UCIRA/UCR Sweeney Art Gallery for the exhibition Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map: Dry Immersion 3.

Banner image: “Ur Rituals” (performance), Gabie Strong, 2010. Photograph by Christopher Woodcock. © 2010 Gabie Strong.

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