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
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
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”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Nick Earhart writes in a variety of creative and scholarly forms. His recent work has appeared in the Indianapolis Review, Entropy, and the scholarly journal ISLE. He lives in Pasadena, CA.