Sean J Patrick Carney on the farewell edition of the High Desert Test Sites biennial
“THE SEARCHERS” marked the final iteration of High Desert Test Sites’ sun-scorched biennial in Southern California’s arid Morongo Basin. Since 2002, the nonprofit has worked with over four hundred and fifty artists on a dozen biennials, twenty-five solo projects, and countless events. Primarily, programming occurs around the rapidly growing cities of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Wonder Valley. HDTS 2015, though, absconded to Green River, Utah, and the edition I participated in, HDTS 2013, stretched seven hundred miles, with sixty projects from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque. Guest curator Iwona Blazwick, ex-director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery and (in an eyebrow-raising career move) the newly appointed chair of a massive public art initiative developed by the Saudi Arabian government, organized “The Searchers” around Robert Smithson’s concept of “regenerative ruin”: Blazwick selected nine artists, five from outside of the United States, who, across sixty baking miles, riffed on entropic processes, patterns of ruin, and imbricate timelines, both human and nonhuman.
Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Lerato le le golo (…la go hloka bo kantle), 2022, built from the terrain and melting back into it, represents for me an apotheosis of HDTS. On the outskirts of Wonder Valley, several wavy, mortarless brick structures seemed paused, mid-undulation, in the optical heat distortion. Bopape, who is South African, enlisted locals to hand-shape bricks with earth culled from the bed of Sunfair Dry Lake, located one hour west. At Sunfair, multidisciplinary artist Gerald Clarke, who lives and works near Anza, California, on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation where he is an enrolled member, installed Earth Memory, 2022, an uncanny kinetic rumination on geologic time. Hypnotic winds rippled hundreds of colorful fish, painted onto white pennants by local schoolchildren, over the desiccated phantom of the ancient lake.
Thirty miles east, parched breezes also animated Wonder Valley–based artist Kate Lee Short’s Respite, 2022. The partially sunken, octagonal wooden structure featured four semicircular arch entryways. Descending stairs, sheltered from oppressive ultraviolet rays, you are enveloped by silence. Then, as wind picks up, Respite becomes an understated chantry. Steel tubes embedded outside—woodwind embouchure analogs—transmit breathy, layered humming.
Approaching on foot, Respite resembles the forsaken “jackrabbit homesteader” cabins peppered throughout the desert, remnants of the 1938 Small Tract Act, which offered five acres of free federal land—stolen from the Serrano, Cahuilla, and Chemehuevi, among others—to those with means to “improve” plots by constructing dwellings. After World War II, materials rationing ceased and homesteading boomed. Boosters boosted desert life, and popular westerns romanticized pioneers conquering rugged landscapes. Of course, “The Searchers” shares a name with John Ford’s 1956 frontier epic, wherein John Wayne’s antihero hunts Comanches who kidnapped his niece from a West Texas homestead. Over Zoom in April, Blazwick, who has been visiting California’s high desert for decades, said the exhibition wasn’t referencing Ford’s film, but “the legacy of the pioneers who went [to the Morongo Basin] in the 1940s.” Coincidentally, cinematic and literary depictions of the Southwest inspired those (largely white) postwar settlers to search out adventure—and assets.
Plenty of ex-urbanites couldn’t cut it, and abandoned shack. In scenic Pipes Canyon, British blue-chipper Rachel Whiteread cast two of these ditched dwellings in shades of gentrification-gray. Titled Shack I, 2014, and Shack II, 2016, the concrete negatives are architectural dirges for desert populations in perpetual flux. Having never seen a Whiteread in-person before, I was skeptical of what seemed to me like formal schtick. Consider me converted. Yet they felt dissonant within HDTS’s scrappier canon. Sure, they’re site-specific—permanently so—but they were commissioned years ago by a collector on private land.
Outside famed dive The Palms Restaurant, Jack Pierson’s The End of the World, 2012, risked similar incongruity—the Instagram-ready Hollywood sign satire debuted at an eponymous 2013 solo exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Pierson though has significant history with the region, as a part-time resident and participant in several early HDTS programs, giving The End’s permanent installation a eulogistic weight. Bearing mention: Pierson’s desert redux recalled, aesthetically, Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin’s much-discussed Never Forget, 2021, which read “INDIAN LAND,” from last year’s geographically adjacent Desert X Biennial. The resemblance was purely coincidental—planned for 2020, “The Searchers” was delayed by Covid—but, as with HDTS 2022’s title, coincidences can be meaningful. Certain populations have already survived an apocalypse.
Across Amboy Road sat another work loud enough for the flashier Desert X. German artist Paloma Varga Weisz’s monumental Foreign Body, 2022, a towering woman impaled by a phallic branch, seemed more scale than substance. Plant-becoming makes for provocative weird fiction, but Varga Weisz’s hybrid was an anodyne read.
High Desert Test Sites coalesced in 2002 as a collaboration between artists Andrea Zittel and Lisa Anne Auerbach, gallerist Shaun Caley Regen, curator John Connelly, and collector Andy Stillpass. Zittel, who had relocated to Joshua Tree from New York in 2000, drafted an approachable mission statement—later printed in a 2004 Artforum essay—outlining eight tenets for creating “a ‘center’ outside of any preexisting centers” and finding “common ground between contemporary art and localized art issues.” As is customary with manifestos, some aspects seem parochial two decades later: overlooking, for example, outcomes of creative-class colonization, or socioeconomic realities that make “stucco housing tracts and big box retail centers” practical for many. Still, Zittel’s ambitious text remains instructive for contemporary artist-run organizations.
Tenet four is evergreen: To initiate an organism in its own right—one that is bigger and richer than the vision of any single artist, architect, designer, or curator.
HDTS has involved, in addition to its cofounders, myriad talents. Notably, curator and researcher Aurora Tang, of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, was managing director of HDTS from 2011 to 2015 and integral in securing the org’s nonprofit status. Nonetheless, HDTS has been synonymous with Zittel, who invited artists, writers, and musicians to her storied Joshua Tree live-work compound, A-Z West, and who’d forged relationships with regional artists, bar owners, contractors, pilots, sign-makers, horse trainers, and veterans. So it was big news last year when Zittel revealed she was stepping down as director, entrusting the grand desert experiment to artists Vanesa Zendejas and Elena Yu, both of whom have worked for years between A-Z West and HDTS. In fact, it was announced that the two entities would be merging, such that the former’s studio, tour, and lodging revenue would make the latter’s programs sustainable. Today, Zendejas and Yu are reinterpreting Zittel’s mission for a landscape experiencing dizzying environmental, cultural, and economic change.
Owing to those changes, “The Searchers” faced a paradoxical assignment: HDTS asks viewers to wander into the Mojave, to get dusty, sunburned, even lost—in short, to have an Authentic Experience. At the same time, desert experiences (think fashion shoots at Joshua Tree National Park, thousands renting Airbnbs during Coachella, poolside selfies at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs) have become a multimillion-dollar industry, driving runaway regional gentrification. (HDTS’s—and by extension Zittel’s—role in that gentrification isn’t as determining as Donald Judd’s in Marfa, but it isn’t inconsequential, either.) During the two years that Covid delayed “The Searchers,” wealth inequality ballooned; thousands relocated to the Morongo Basin; droughts and fires grew legion; and long-overdue reckonings rocked complacent institutions. Biennials purport to offer zeitgeisty cultural snapshots, but in an era of compounding, breakneck crises, it’s become increasingly obvious that their episodic, jet-set model precludes actionable engagements with said crises.
Local organizations, however, can pursue community-responsive programming. To this end, Zendejas and Yu have secured a physical space: the 1,200 square-foot Firehouse Outpost at Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center. They’ve already held local concerts, smaller art events, and an auto care clinic with artist and mechanic Sarah Lyon—something of vital utility in the far-flung desert. The Firehouse will also host HDTS’s locally curated, multimedia Desert Research Library. Among current acquisition topics: queer desert romance, Chemehuevi mythology, mining, mental health, and earth architecture. Outside the Firehouse, they’ve installed a screen for open-air movie nights. On Saturdays, the long-running HDTS HQ at Yucca Valley’s Sky Village Swap Meet will continue connecting regional and visiting artists with high desert residents through activities like quilting, herb clinics, and performances. Zendejas and Yu are also designing an immersive, yearlong HDTS residency program during parts of which, thanks to the merger with A-Z West, invited artists and curators can live on-site. This model supports deep, open-ended interactions with the landscape, its people, and extant HDTS programs. In lieu of large-scale biennials, each year should yield, Zendejas told me over email, one intimate local exhibition or event.
After two years of delays, and amid major organization transitions, “The Searchers” played a competent swan song for the HDTS biennial, flirting with spectacle but gritty enough to remain distinct from its trust-funder younger cousin, Desert X. (In addition to three iterations in the Coachella Valley, Desert X has occurred twice in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, the same desert region where Blazwick is now tasked with developing a new “Valley of the Arts” with an inaugural lineup of monumental earthworks by Manal Al Dowayan, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Agnes Denes, and Ahmed Mater). In retiring the biennial, Zendejas and Yu take a different tack—slowing High Desert Test Sites down, redrawing Zittel’s nimble schematic, and embarking on their own search for answers to a complex question: What do their desert neighbors want from a cultural institution?
Sean J Patrick Carney is a writer in Berkeley, California.