Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States. Tyler Stallings, Blue West Books, 2014. 262 pages.
Aridtopia is Tyler Stallings’ first book, a collection of “essays on art and culture from deserts in the Southwest United States” that is so diverse as almost to qualify as a miscellany. What provides a measure of cohesion is a metafiction the author initiates to create a loose framework for the book. The result is a book that promises more than it delivers, but nonetheless contains valuable intelligence about a desert cultural ecology that has received only sporadic attention over the years from theorists and art writers.
The title of the book refers to a “speculative, secessionist community” imagined in a region that stretches north from Riverside and the Inland Empire of Southern California to the Owens Valley, and east across the greater Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The literary conceit, as well as geographical spread, allows Stallings to bind together columns, reviews and essays into a near-future narrative of dystopian drought. The entries range from reviews of fake Middle Eastern villages constructed by the U.S. Marines as analog warfare environments, to traffic islands in Southern California that he envisions as possible sites of occupation. Stallings transforms the Los Angeles Aqueduct into a Paiute dreaming path, and the train whistles piercing his hometown of Riverside at night into a Zen meme more like a worm than a koan.
The middle of the book settles into a series of reviews that include photographs by Laurie Brown, documenting the conversion of Orange County into a hegemonic housing development; Kim Stringfellow’s survey of 20th-century homesteader cabins in the Mojave Desert; and exhibitions about the citizen exploration of space and the Sonoran Desert as experienced by a fictional alien intelligence. Philip K. Dick meets Michael Heizer, the Hells Angels do battle with Chinese terra cotta warriors, and all of it is pervaded with a miasma of the strange that seems to arise not so much from Stallings’ mind as out of his adopted territory. If Los Angeles was perceived to have been the center of the nation’s weirdness pre-World War II, one can only conclude that its manic schizophrenia has successfully invaded the entire American Southwest.
Among the several pleasures of the collection are fine writing about the polymath artist, writer, surfer and Juxtapoz cofounder Craig Stecyk, photographer Laurie Brown, and research-based multimedia artist Kim Stringfellow. Aridtopia doesn’t offer a sustained thesis, but Stallings’ informed, lucid writing and his informal reframing of the region with its various cultures is strong enough that the collection over time may come to be considered an essential item on library shelves devoted to Southwest cultural criticism.