Tuesday, November 26, 2013

At first, it was just the word desert that drew me to the desert. Or maybe it was songs about the desert that drew me to the desert. Or maybe it was entire albums about the desert that drew me to the desert. The Lonesome Crowded West, we dove out to the desert/just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars, losing all touch/losing all touch/building a desert, This Desert Life [this high life]. But whichever came first, fear came second. Fear that I'd never truly be alone again. Not everyone wants to be loved. Or at least not everyone wants to be loved all of the time. My solitude constitutes my being, and it was that longing to be with the thing that constitutes me that brought me to Moab, to that mesa in Nevada, to Death Valley, to volcanic craters, to Southern New Mexico, to Marfa. But it was love that brought me back. [At least before that love became a desert, too].

In February of this year, Jeff Frost guest lectured in a seminar I was taking on Digital Media in the School of Cinematic Arts [how's that for a lot of capital letters?]. He presented his photographs, his film Flawed Symmetry of Prediction, and his future film, Modern Ruin. After he presented, I wrote a blog post about his visit because I couldn't believe that I'd finally met someone who understood the desert the way I do. After several months, my post appeared on his radar and we began talking. Became friends. And about a month ago, he asked me and a handful of other people to drive out to the desert to help him shoot more of his currently-in-the-works film, Modern Ruin. I was beyond thrilled. It's not often that you write about an artist in the void that is the internet and that artist contacts you out of the blue and gives you this kind of opportunity. That opportunity came in the form of a video that sketched out what volunteers would help Jeff do, and the instructions involved wearing all black and moving Joshua Tree sculptures around in a circle in the middle of nowhere. So...

...Cue me driving to the desert on a Saturday morning at the beginning of November, the morning after an especially incredible Nine Inch Nails show. Or maybe it was the afternoon. Who knows.

I drove two hours east, first found myself in desert-like suburbs, disappointed, then found myself in the real desert, the west, abandon wooden buildings, rode-side shacks, dirt and sand but not a chain store to be found. I remember passing a particularly gorgeous building, clearly abandoned, with colorful paint inside. I could only glimpse it for a second, speeding down the highway, but that second was enough to tell me that I'd found what I was looking for. Yucca Valley. I continued on through town, then turned down a long highway toward the mountains. Desert mountains. They're a different kind of thing. A Hills Have Eyes kind of thing. And suddenly, in the distance, a dome...

The Thursday before I left for Domeland, I told my students that I'd likely only have spotty internet over the weekend, so to expect delays in my responding to emails. I told them I'd be in a dome in the desert. But even I didn't know what I was getting myself into. [And no, students, it wasn't a giant epic crazy mind blowing party rave dance festival].

When I parked my car in the dirt "lot" outside the dome, I didn't see anyone around. And then I saw a girl. I assumed everyone up at the dome knew Jeff well and knew what we were supposed to be doing. But I realized later that there were all sorts of people up at the dome, a community of near strangers, collaborating in art. The girl and I shared whiskey from the backseat of her car before I even knew what she was doing there. It's not that I trust just any stranger. It's that I trust people who carry camping equipment and whiskey in their trunk. It's that I trust people who show up in the desert.

My instinct, my desire, is to narrativize everything that happened at Domeland, but I can't because I genuinely don't know how. It was like showing up to a bar you've never been to before and realizing you and all the patrons have known each other for years. No, that's a bad example. It's like showing up in... the desert, and realizing you and all the... deserters have known each other for years. Or should have. Or might as well have. After J and I found Jeff, I was introduced to the high desert crew: Cain, who owns the land and the dome, and Shig, whose beautiful Joshua Trees we were working with for the film, and other strangers like me.

The bathroom situation was outdoors. The sleeping situation was every woman for herself. The temperature was perfect until it wasn't. J and I decided to run up the hill overlooking the land, got tired, sat down half way up, looked out over everything, talked like we didn't just meet 10 minutes previous, watched everything turn dark, until the stars came out. Oh my god the stars. I haven't seen stars like that since every night I lay on my porch in Marfa till 2, sometimes 3am. The milky way. My Orion guarding the sky. Shooting stars. Small talk simply becomes not a thing when the landscape is incredible enough to break you open. That's my narrative of what happened in the desert. It broke me open. Not forever. But for the time I was there.

Here are the details: the dome itself is insanely, unimaginably beautiful. Like something out of a dream. Or at least something out of my dream, because I know not everyone loves the idea of a wooden structure in the middle of nowhere filled with art objects, old chairs, and little else. But really, who are those people who don't love that idea? I don't want to know. I walked into the dome and knew instantly that I'd made the right decision in driving all that way to the middle of nowhere to a place I'd only heard of the week before to spend the entire day and night with strangers and an artist I'd never really interacted with in real life. Cain has created a space for artists that is filled with compassion and generosity, much like Cain himself. There's no judgement, there's no cruelty, there's no competition. Everyone up there seemed genuinely interested in each others' work and in helping each other in any way possible. I've only ever seen one other community like this, and it's the Denver music scene. But even that doesn't come close to the kind of supportive, communal environment I found at Domeland. Cain is doing some wonderful stuff, not just with his art, but with the space around his life.
I actually took this at 8:30am the next morning, but this sign is one of the
first things I saw when I arrived at the dome.
I slept in the loft in the upper right hand corner.
View from the loft.
My sleeping things.
What I woke up to at 8am.
Cain's credit card guillotine. 

I want to write about so many things. About Cain and his credit card art that completely blows me away. About Shig and his trees that are so disorienting and perfect, they make me like all other trees less. But what I really went out to the desert to do is this:
These three photos are courtesy of Jeff, because he knows I am an obsessive documenter. And anyway, how could I possibly describe this without visual aids? I wouldn't even want to try.

That last photo is me, hugging my tree. Here's how it goes: We started shooting at 11pm because we had to wait for the moon to set behind the mountains because the particular type of photography Jeff does is very light sensitive. If you want to know more than just that, you'll have to ask him because I am by no means a professional photographer. We were each given one or two trees to move around this circle. Because Jeff shoots stop motion, we had to only move each tree a few inches at a time, then step out of the frame, then repeat so that the final video result will look as if the trees themselves are dancing around a center all on their own. Jeff showed us some test shots and video before we started and even those were epic. Trees that are warriors. Trees that are bodies that are light that are dancers that are preparing for something, or nothing. Every time I see it, it reminds me of that Wolf Parade lyric, do they beat that drum to get you back home/or do they beat it to keep you away?

I wrote in my previous post about Jeff's work all of the reasons why I think his specific use of stop motion is as smart and intriguing as it is. But actually participating in the work granted me a perspective on the art form that I could never have imagined otherwise. One of the pieces of film Jeff creates for this section of the project will be of the trees rotating in a circle. The scene will be very, very short. This shoot took hours. What you won't see in the scene in the film: humans, struggle with the trees, laughter, jokes we kept making about where to grab the trees, dances we all had to do to keep ourselves warm as it got later and colder, the chili we all ate when we got back to the dome, the thoughts of chili we all had before we got back to the dome, the strange selection of music we had playing the whole time, the conversations K and J and I had on the sidelines before we were rotated into the circle to take over for those people who needed a break, the need for a break.

All that labor, all that lifting and moving and bonding and dancing, all that cold and all that dirt in my shoes, that stuff won't ever make it into the film. And to me, that is the most important thing about about what we did that night. Each time one of those trees moves an entire rotation around the circle, that's how long it took for me to find a connection to one of the many people out there. That dance, those trees, they're the story that they tell to the audience in the context of the whole film, but they're also the story they tell about the night we moved them, inch by inch, through the desert dirt. My tree was well loved. I clung to to it as tightly as I could any time it and I were out of frame. The story this film doesn't tell is the story of my bruises, the ones on my thighs and on my calves and on my shins from positioning my legs between the legs of the tree in just the right way so I could scoot it, gently, around the circle. The story this film doesn't tell is the story of me and K realizing that sometimes you have more in common with a stranger than with the people you spend time with every day. The story this film doesn't tell is the story of how my favorite boots finally kicked the bucket, how they're covered in dirt and how they'll never be not covered in dirt from here on out. You won't see my hands in Modern Ruin, but they'll be there. You won't see my heart in Modern Ruin, but it'll be there, too, beating between the trees, beating with all the other hearts that were moving around that circle that night. You won't see our exhaustion, our maneuvering, our taking breaks to stare at the stars. But it'll all be there. Because without all that stuff, those trees wouldn't have gone anywhere, there'd be no dancing warriors, there'd be no soul.

The other thing that happened in the desert that night is that R, one of the artists who helped us move trees, brought a piece of his artwork to burn. We gathered around a flame and watched him torch his drawing. The fire started in the chest, in the heart, burst through the page, consumed everything, became ash, became dirt. [Click on the photos for close-ups.]

By 3am, I was eating chili out of a paper bowl under a heat lamp in a busted up leather chair on wheels. By 4am, I was falling asleep in my sleeping bag in a loft next to all of Cain's art. By 8am, I was awake, exhausted, and realizing that I was getting sick. The normal me would have spent hours photographing that place, the land, the small moments of surprise sprinkled here and there, like the burned out sofas and the TV in the middle of nothing and the various objects half buried into the side of the hill. But the sick me got in my car and made the two hour drive back to Los Angeles where I took a long hot shower and slept for hours.

What I'm thinking now is that I don't need the desert anymore. Because I no longer need somewhere to run away to. Because I've been run away from. So now, I'm safe where I am. Safe being a relative word. Safe meaning I am relatively safe. For now. But it's nice to not need the desert. The desert agrees. It's a lot of responsibility to save someone from themselves. The desert already did that for me once. It doesn't need to do it again. Which means now I can move on to new overly-romanticized spaces. I can truly turn my focus toward Antarctica. Or the moon.

&     &     &

By the way, if you want to know more about any of these artists or want to purchase any of their art, contact me or contact them directly:


Jeff Frost said...

What a beautiful account of that night. I'm so glad you were at the shoot, and I hope you do many more 'hipster things' in cool places around the world. Thank you for all your hard work, Ali.

Cain said...

Ali! LOVED reading this. Well done.
SO good to meet you and work with you at Domeland!