Sarah and I disagree about improv. She says it’s only improv if it follows a set of rules laid out in a book from the ’70s. I say that’s ridiculous—there’s no ruling body governing what is or isn’t improvisational comedy. She corrects me: “Improv is a particular thing,” she says, “separate from improvisational comedy.” “So it’s like a brand name?” I ask. “No, it’s an artform,” she says, “with very particular rules.”
We are driving east from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree. We’re deep into San Bernardino County at the moment, and the desert mountains are in view. The only other tall thing on the horizon is a glass casino that looks like a yacht turned sideways. For miles we’ve seen advertisements for comedians playing there. Stand-up, not improv. This casino is the only structure larger than a few stories anywhere around, and it looks like a place you could disappear into for days. I have half a mind to stop this trip before it starts and waste my money gambling.
Olivia is driving. Nathan is in the car too, smoothing out the unexpected tension between Sarah and me. He tells us about growing up in central California and eating Basque food. I say something about how taking source texts too literally is a form of fundamentalism. Sarah says, “It’s not fundamentalism; it’s improv.” We make our way toward the mountain pass, and big white windmills churn the desert air.
Lungs live a house. If the air of a house is part of the house then the house moves in and out of the body, slowly on the inhale, then the exhale.
Developers fight with cities and each other over air rights. They want to build up, make money off the sky.
Public service announcement: If a company makes money using public infrastructures then that company should have to return some of its profits to fund these shared resources. The sky is a public good.
The sky is not well. The sky is changing. The sky is big in the desert, too big, kind of alarmingly so.
It was Marx who said, “All that is solid melts into air.” This means that capitalist logic transforms, dislocates, abstracts. It means that coal burns, exhaling carbon. Air warms, ice melts, sky turns chemical blues, greens, alarmingly beautiful hues.
Breath is resistance, the praxis of a radical politics of being.
Air bed ‘n’ breakfasts / cities under water
We stop by an art gallery in a shipping container. The gallerist commutes from Joshua Tree to Santa Monica for work—hopefully not too often. The outside of the space is corrugated metal, faintly orange, faded from trips overseas. The interior has been finished and furbished with natural wood flooring and gallery-white drywall. The show was curated by an art professor on the east coast, and the work is great. Most of it is in this one kind of floral post-post-expressionist style that I’ve been seeing a lot lately—pink limbs bending across wide petals, a mellowness that seems to both reclaim painting-as-painting and gesture knowingly at the artifice of formalism. Olivia and I talk a lot about how to stay tuned in to the subtlety of sensory experience. How not to get lost in the monolith of critical judgment. We talk about how sensation is political, attention is for sale. We both feel great despair at things like: technology, environment, politics. I read the brochure for this show, look over the artists’ bios. I’m not the first to say so, but art press materials are so weird, are a form of clinical, capitalist ekphrasis. It’s amazing how much interesting art they fit into this shipping container, a hundred miles from the coast.
The AirBnB is on a huge property in Pioneertown, just outside of Joshua Tree. It’s a compound, really—a slope-roofed ranch, hot tub, private hillside, corrugated hangars on the sprawling grounds. The hangars, giant Quonset-looking things, are locked. We speculate about the contents. Obvious choices: guns, four-wheelers, crossbows, piles of salt and/or gold coins, thousands of cans of beans and corn and tuna fish.
AirBnB is less “Get off my lawn” than “never, never under any circumstance ask about the contents of that locked room.”
Clearly no one lives here at the moment. There’s nothing in the fridge, a handle of Tito’s brand vodka in the freezer. There’s a pair of snowshoes hanging in a crossed pattern in the living room. A guy could get a lot of thinking done around these parts.
One theory, about which we all mostly agree: The place is owned by a prepper who wanted to make some extra cash before society falls apart.
“What if we just stayed here and started a new society?” someone says.
“I am worried that survivalist scenarios reconstitute settler-colonialist fantasies in a way that’s harder to detect,” I say. I have read some books recently, and I’m in a pious mood.
It’s amazing to think about all of the Quonset huts in the country, ones containing racks of tuna fish and assault rifles. What do those cans of tuna fish mean to their owners? Does the tuna fish mean something different before an ostensibly monolithic collapse than it will after? Anticipation is a powerful force. It’s the difference between “prepared” and “equipped.”
We decide to go for a walk in the actual Pioneertown, an Old West film set created in the ’30s by Hollywood investors like Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers.
I peek my head into a saloon and see a real-life wedding happening. I look into the post office and see a rickety old cot. I imagine sleeping there, dreaming forever.
It’s a sunny, cool day. We go to check out some of the sights around Joshua Tree. We can’t book a sound bath at the Integratron—a supposedly perfect acoustic environment—since it’s all booked up. We can’t check out the Institute of Mentalphysics since there’s a retreat in progress. The buildings at the institute were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Lloyd, and you can sort of make some of them out from the side of the road. We drink coffee. I admire people’s dogs. We head north, off the main road, and off the side road, onto an unpaved stretch of dirt leading to the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, which is part of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.
Born in Alabama, Purifoy became a fixture in the L.A. arts scene in the ’60s and ’70s. As part of the community of black artists working around the Watts Towers Art Center, Purifoy brought together assemblage and readymade strategies of the Modernist avant-garde with a conceptual approach shaped by the social upheaval and racial tension of the time. His 1965 sculpture series, 66 Signs of Neon, for example, was made from melted signage and detritus the artist found in the wake of the Watts Riots. These works anchored a group show focusing on the riots that toured the country and helped popularize a new type of socially engaged and aesthetically adventurous art. Purifoy worked for over a decade at the California Arts Council, focusing on art and public policy, before decamping to Joshua Tree, where he would spend the last 15 years of his life making the 10-acre sculptural installation that is now the museum.
In the middle of a residential area of prefab houses and gated compounds, the museum is a friendly place. At first glance it looks like a junkyard and/or a roadside attraction, and it has a homespun “Welcome” gate made out of driftwood and old tires. No one works there, so you’re left to explore the grounds on your own; it doesn’t take long to realize the intricacy of the built environment, and the depth of care with which Purifoy transformed his junk.
Describing the scene would be an ekphrastic odyssey. There are igloos made of sheet metal; assemblages of bicycle wheels and aluminum canisters and plastic tubing; stacks of TVs, VCRs, ancient computers, all manner of antennae; endless arrays of household appliances; succulents and spiky shrubs coming up from the ground; Quonset huts framing cryptic combinations of metal mesh, painted plates, and canoe paddles. There’s an eerie gallows and a vacant theater and what looks like a trio of bathroom stalls with pants and boots visible between floor and door. Stained and painted toilet seats, walls of letterpress plates, bowling-ball totem poles, and precarious formations of corrugated metal, hanging rocks, and plate glass. The place has an inexhaustible quality, a proliferation of aesthetic vitality and unannounced meaning drawn from the discarded remains of culture.
It’s a sight to see, for sure. One doesn’t have to lead with a critical eye to recognize the singular beauty and strangeness of the place. In the basin of the Yucca Valley, where one has the uncanny feeling of being on top of the earth, it’s a fitting remix of things people around here seem to want to get away from.
But as with most things, and especially with singularly monumental works of art, the Purifoy museum has layers to it. There’s the harshness and tactility, the vitality and decay, the irrepressible “natureness” of the surroundings and the constant reminder of humankind’s footprint. Certainly the installation draws attention to the mysterious presence of objects, what Jane Bennett would call the “vibrant matter” that exceeds conventional notions of meaning and utility. But it’s exactly when the human—the social and cultural and historically situated—reenters the picture that the installation reveals its depth. Really, such intervention is a two-way street—“nature” encroaching on “culture,” permeating it, and vice versa.
I first think this when I walk by a fractured plaster wall with a warped wooden roof. I pause and notice two “drinking fountains”: One standard-issue institutional bubbler and the other a toilet bowl teetering on a driftwood stand. The toilet bowls scattered across the grounds can be seen as nods to Duchamp’s urinal. But this particular construction has another layer of reference: Above the drinking fountain is a sign that says “white” and above the toilet bowl is one that says “colored.” Purifoy’s project highlights a type of elemental decay—it’s a study of things in the harsh desert. But whereas the piece animates a type of long durée material timeframe, this section returns the viewer to the clipped and claustrophobic temporality of American culture, where hateful meanings don’t so much decay as come in and out of mainstream ideological view. Indeed, in a sense, the Purifoy museum entails a certain overlay: tracking the uneven temporalities of dissolution between the human and the earthly. The irony, however, what gives this particular construction and the installation as a whole its tint of humor, is that such a clean overlay is not the way things work. Culture does not have a half-life. And even if we accept that time, broadly speaking, is cyclical, entails ebbs and flows and rhythms of return, Purifoy’s work makes the asymmetry of these cycles powerfully and comically apparent.
The stacks of computers are at once obsolete and enduring. The plastic bowling balls will be here for a long time. What moves me so about Purifoy’s museum is the way it allows for the transcendental awareness that the desert seems to promise, and yet necessarily makes room for the history within which we are inevitably embedded.
Olivia and I pause in front of a stage painted like an American flag. It’s easy to imagine a traveling salesman up there or a politician delivering a stump speech. We both, I think, can’t believe we’re here, in this time and place.
Why is it that every other conversation I’ve had this weekend has proposed a survival scenario? What is it about people needing to know how the story ends?
What’s up with that term “disaster porn”? What’s up with the variable usage of “porn,” generally (food porn, design porn, etc.)?
If we did happen to survive an apocalyptic event, what kind of lives would we lead? Would we all date each other? Would it be boring or exciting?
What would we have for dinner? What kind of government would we make? Would we perhaps feel like our lives were more meaningful, simply because they were improbably saved in the blast? What would be the mythology of this new civilization? Would we talk about Star Wars all the time?
I argue with Sarah about nihilism for a while. I sit down by the fire. I tell her I’ve started using the word “trigger” in earnest, that I’ve really been trying to wrap my head around the platitude that you never know what other people are going through. She says life is not a game, but it is a joke. I ask her if she thinks it’s her role to demystify the world for others. She tells me she can’t be bothered to consider what other people are thinking, because she’ll never know. The fire crackles. The day grows dim. The others look at us not out of interest, but confusion, a strange vibe rolling through like tumbleweed. Sarah says it’s possible to care and not to know. I say it’s possible not to know but to imagine. Sarah says the imagination has better uses. Like what? I ask. Like art, she says. What’s art? I ask. Whatever you want it to be, she responds, a UFO flying overhead.
Olivia and I made pizza from scratch.
The dough was big like a pillow.
There were many toppings.
Ahrum said it was the best homemade pizza he'd had.
Nathan said it was the secondbest homemade pizza he'd had.
The thing about making pizza is you
The fire wanders, its flames like lemons;
Wood turns to black carbon;
The sky is: orange, yellow, blue, pink, red.
We talk about plastic, enormous quantities
Of plastic. Oceans of trash. What to do when
Things get bad, when the world becomes
Unlivable. The sequence of thought goes:
Plastic, bad, fear, speculation. I say I will
Stockpile sweetened condensed milk
In the “apocalypse” and sell it to make
Ends meet. I imagine drizzling it over
Fresh fruit. I like to remind people there
Will still be sunlight after civilization ends.
I am an optimist like that.
My personal feeling is you can’t rent a place that has a hot tub and not use the hot tub.
I slid the octagonal cover off the hot tub. The water was lukewarm, so I fiddled with some buttons on the control panel. The jets began to percolate. Olivia and I got in and the water began to heat up. Ahrum and Daryl came and joined us. The water was really warm by the time we were all in the hot tub. I pressed some buttons on the control panel, and the colored lights in the plastic walls of the tub began to strobe, as if we were in a ’70s disco, instead of a new-build ranch in the high desert. The sky was so dark, and the Joshua trees looked like hat racks holding spiky wigs. The lights danced in the black sky and the beams dissipated in the direction of the stars.
It's probably a good time to point out as plainly as possible that the desert has a certain mythos, that it speaks to a latent exploratory impulse that certainly relates and runs parallel to the colonialist ethos but should not simply be reduced to a violent historical process. People go to the desert, by and large, it seems, because they want to get away and they don’t mind quiet. The Mojave is big and beyond the strip-mall metropolis. It is not empty space. I get a little nervous when I think about settling down, when I think about settlement. There is plenty of land and that seems to be part of the appeal. What would it mean to set up shop here? What would it feel like to breathe this air?
Have you ever eaten a half-slab of ribs in front of a pair of vegetarians? If so, did you order fries? And a sweet tea? And did your friends ask you which part of the pig the ribs came from, ask you innocently even though there’s no way they didn’t know the answer? And did they point to specific parts of their own body as a visual aid? If so, did you feel guilty and annoyed at the same time? Did you say that you’ve had a horrible year and you’re really just trying to cope, to enjoy the food and the tangy taste of barbecue sauce? And did you slouch forward for the remainder of the meal, in a protective posture over your plate, and think about other things you could have ordered, other ways you could have been, presented yourself, learned to live and love? Did the air taste like dust? Did you enjoy your ribs, and the puckering sweetness of the sweet tea?
Not knowing when to talk when you hike
Feeling like you’re going to interrupt other people’s experience with nature
Thinking about the thing you might’ve said instead of having an authentic experience
Eventually saying the thing and feeling awkward, like a bad actor
Knowing it’s OK to have bad emotions in nature
Knowing nature doesn’t have to be beautiful
I look out across the high desert
Olivia and I talk about making a movie
Here, a kind of mumblecore romance
Only with aliens instead of people
There is no such thing as empty space
The Joshua trees look like people
We stop to share a Cliff Bar
Earth is convincingly a planet
I breathe the cold, clear air
I say, Yes, let’s make that movie
Refuge escape beauty clarity calm succulents Navajo prints pillow chops ornamental skulls wide-brimmed hats hot tubs backlit trees unhurried people rattan furniture finished, not polished wood rugs on floors and walls
The office could be really lonely at night. It overlooked the holes in the ground commemorating the Twin Towers. It was a giant glass skyscraper, one of the biggest buildings in the world.
I stayed late to help close the new issue. I had read every article of the men’s magazine very closely several times. I was between proofs, so I got up to walk around. I took pictures of oddities from around the office, stuff I wouldn’t notice during the day. There was a stuffed shark and a MAGA hat and a lot of free lotions and colognes. This was before the MAGA thing was too real to make fun of. I looked out over the city, looking at the blinking lights and the 9/11 memorial. I took a slow-mo video as I walked back to my desk. This was the time when I still couldn’t believe how easily images could be produced and disseminated. It seemed scary but amazing to me that I could capture any little moment of my life and “share” it with “friends.”
When I got back there was a proof waiting for me. I moved aside the package that my veggie burger came in and got out my purple pencil. This was a travel feature—this month’s spotlight on an up-and-coming vacation spot. A recent article had focused on Madison, Wisconsin. Another one toured Montreal. This one was an 8 or 10 page spread on Joshua Tree, a place my friends had been telling me for a while was worth checking out.
The design of the piece had an instantly recognizable aesthetic—kind of trippy, curlicue lettering, high-gloss photos of desert sunsets, good-looking people standing near a hot tub under some bulbous string lights in the backyard of a newly renovated motor lodge. This was a time when the mood in the city, at least among my young-urban-professional demographic, was shifting away from an aesthetics of taste—of refinement, of acting like life is a sepia-tinged movie—to a more amorphous sense of political urgency. It was that cusp moment when liberal people still had ironic MAGA hats. I resented the men’s magazine for being so good at what it did. It made consumerism seem OK and uncomplicated in a way that felt like ideological bile to me. This contempt was compounded by the fact that I didn’t feel accepted there, and I didn’t feel seen. It was especially bad when I had to stay late, when I felt tense, tight nerves in my eyes and felt triggered by well-turned descriptions of designer clothes.
Sure, I wanted to check out Joshua Tree. I wanted to try the ribs at the roadhouse the writer talked about. The food and travel photography was downright pornographic. But I felt as I fine-tuned text I was helping to produce an idea of a place and in doing so making the place less cool. The politics of cool still speak to me.
THIS IS KING
by Charles J. March III
... Then Jesus saved sour wine, saying, THIS IS KING ...
by Clara Jeske
... I have never been afraid or unsettled in graveyards ...