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Birth of a Notion

It’s a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and the low sun illuminates the scorched and rocky, but still spring-green, sandscape of Joshua Tree. Andrea Zittel sits cross-legged on the floor of A-Z West, the homesteader’s cabin the artist re-engineered into her most recent living experiment. She is reminiscing about the issues that led to her return from New York City to the desert near her grandparents’ home in the Antelope Valley. Among her concerns, it turns out, was the gnawing notion that maybe she was losing cherished aspects of herself. “Like my mall-girl accent,” she laughs.

Outside, a bulldozer makes room for one of the next A-Z West projects: a horseshoe-shaped work area. The sound of earth being recast filters in through the windows, and every so often Zittel turns to monitor progress.

This weekend, the area surrounding A-Z West will host another one of Zittel’s art/design brainchildren as the second High Desert Test Sites happens on seven locations in and around Pioneertown, Joshua Tree and Wonder Valley. HDTS is as much an event as an art show, and the nature of the projects varies a great deal from piece to piece. (Last fall’s inaugural included a pig roast.) From a dinner at the Palms restaurant in Wonder Valley featuring exhibited paintings and short films, to an outdoor museum that artist Noah Purifoy began working on 13 years ago (the Noah Purifoy Foundation), attendees will have a chance to see creative life forms in the desert rarely glimpsed on the Palm Springs Pool Party circuit. The criteria for participation in HDTS at this point remain gleefully vague, if not completely nonexistent: The Man has yet to trample the “anything goes” spirit that fuels the event.

Zittel is an experimental artist/designer whose projects often examine the potential and limits of compartmentalized living. Among other things, she is known for “A-Z Escape Vehicle,” her 100-cubic-foot, self-contained mobile home, and her compact, multiservice living spaces called “comfort units.” It’s tough for Zittel to pinpoint the exact genesis of HDTS. She does, however, recall a weekend just last spring when she drove New York–based gallerist/curator John Connelly and collector Andy Stillpass in her pickup to see a parcel of nearby land. There, she shared her vision of the surrounding desert acting as a vast experimental art site. Much brainstorming ensued, and for all intents and purposes, a collaborative was born. Stillpass subsequently purchased the parcel, and it is now known as High Desert Test Site #2, off Gamma Gulch Road. This weekend, its attractions feature an installation of inflatable monsters coming out of a suitcase by Fabienne Lasserre and Christy Gast.

For Zittel, it’s been a long, strange trip back home, to say the least. Though she earned an MFA in sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design in 1990, the Escondido, California, native first made waves in the art world with her now-infamous experiments in chicken breeding. After discovering that most domestic chicken breeds were hardly more than a century old, Zittel set her sights on creating her own brand. She put the results of her unnatural selection on display in the storefront window of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, digs, known as A-Z East. Ultimately, the local board of health intervened, halting that particular project, though not before the stunt had turned many well-coifed helmet heads in the Manhattan art world.

“When I got to New York, a place I never thought I’d live to begin with, I just assumed that I wouldn’t get a gallery, at least not right away, which is why I just began showing my own work, which really proved to be a powerful lesson,” she remembers. “The next thing I knew, three different galleries were interested in representing me.”

Paced by her own DIY momentum and fawning critics, a steady stream of shows followed featuring Zittel’s living units, mobile workstations, clothes, and just about anything else that might bring order, efficiency and a subtle sense of style into a humanoid’s daily life. In a sense, Zittel views every modern man/woman as living on an island defined by the parameters of his/her property, houses, cars, etc. This theory was epitomized and subsequently put into action by the artist herself back in 2000, when she constructed a 54-foot-long island off the coast of Denmark and then spent a summer month living there in a kind of fishbowl isolation. Obviously, Zittel’s work comes from hardy conceptual stock and often is not conveniently hung on your run-of-the-mill living-room wall.

At the same time Zittel’s exhibition career was blossoming, she began teaching. Currently holding positions at both Columbia and Yale, she’s found that the act of instruction has forced her to more clearly define her own artistic terms, ideas and philosophies as they relate to the world outside the rarefied space of the gallery or loft.

“At first, it’s great, because you’re really just applying the principles to other people and their work. And the more you do it, the clearer it becomes how the work of younger artists could be strengthened with just the littlest bit of [looking outward]. But then,” she laughs, “you start to go, ‘Wow, you know, I’m telling these kids to be more involved with their world, civic-minded, but what am I doing?’”

For Connelly, who is helping curate the event, HDTS’s appeal was more about the enduring allure of the desert’s open spaces than any civic-mindedness. “I was immediately taken by the terrain, it was so different from anything I was used to back East. Just beautiful,” Connelly says about his initial excursion from his own gallery, John Connelly Presents, in Chelsea, to Zittel’s desert headquarters. “I was interested in what was happening on the West Coast, and I’m always excited about being involved in projects outside of the white cube, so the High Desert project was really a big draw for me as a curator.”

Since the initial HDTS last fall, the number of event sites has expanded from four to seven, while artist-participants have ballooned to more than 30. The first time around, Zittel chose a date for HDTS that coincided with her Los Angeles show at Regen Projects, thinking it would be a good way to cultivate a little synergy for the event. Gallerist Shaun Caley Regen agreed to print invites and do a mailing to help out. “This time I’m more involved in a kind of official capacity,” Regen says during a visit to her gallery on Almont Drive. “I think what Andrea’s doing as an artist and her enthusiasm for the desert is so great that I just wanted to be involved.” Regen’s involvement has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of this spring’s HDTS and has brought contributions from Regen-affiliated artists Elizabeth Peyton, Raymond Pettibon and Jack Pierson.

Despite the growing interest in HDTS, there remains little to no funding for the gathering. Talking to Zittel, Connelly and Regen, one senses that the event is pushing maximum capacity. The “loosely knit governing body,” which also includes Andy Stillpass as well as artists Lisa Anne Auerbach (who has also done a publication for both events) and Till Lux, seems likely to soon be confronting paradoxical questions about establishing parameters in the future for the wide-open HDTS events. Whether the answer lies in turning HDTS into an invitational, or creating a jury or some other form of participation criterion remains to be seen.

Given her somewhat restless yet extremely productive history, Andrea Zittel, hybrid creator of systems for a better tomorrow, is content to wait and see, although she has an opinion or two on the matter: “I think in seven years it [HDTS] shouldn’t exist anymore. I have this vision that it’s going to be something really, really great that people are going to talk about forever, but it doesn’t have to last forever.”

And then she smiles and adds, “And I think it should always stay kind of small and a little disorganized and that people should always have to hunt for the parcels.”

High Desert Test Sites takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 24 and 25. For more info on locations and schedules, go to www.highdeserttestsites.com.