The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts supports embedded arts research through critical exchange

THE DESERT STUDIES PROJECT: MORE FROM LESS THAN ZERO (written by Dick Hebdige, UCIRA Desert Studies Project Director)

The Desert Studies project is a pilot program in interdisciplinary California-embedded arts-centered research, immersion pedagogy, and process curating organized by UCIRA in collaboration with the UC Riverside Sweeney Art Gallery. Launched at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center in the winter of 2009, the project aims to integrate arts-based research and the production, performance and exhibition of art works into Desert Studies, an interdisciplinary research field that has tended in the past to be heavily weighted towards the natural and agricultural sciences. It is our contention that widespread public concern with issues as apparently diverse and unconnected as global population growth, suburban sprawl and climate change, natural resource management, wildlife habitat protection ,border conflict escalation and political tensions in regions as disjunct as the American South West and the Middle East have pushed the desert from the margins to the forefront of attention in debates on the future of our planet. We believe that the arts should figure proactively in the debates currently being joined around these issues.

In partnership with other institutions both across the South West- e.g. the Future Arts Research Institute (F.A.R) at Arizona State University in Phoenix; the Center for Art & Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno- and abroad (e.g., the American University in Cairo) we form part of a larger collaborative Desert Initiative bound by a commitment to

  • pursue  embedded research in and on desert eco-systems; cultural, sub-cultural and counter-cultural formations;  histories of settlement; desert lore, desert knowledge systems and political economies
  • facilitate site-visits and the production and circulation of art works, performances and exhibitions focused on and in desert environments
  • catalogue and extend the repertoire of desert aesthetics/poetics e.g. representational and non-representational responses to light and landscape; craft, folk art and Land Art traditions; activist art, radical cartographies and tactical media interventions; utopian architectures, ‘scavenge design’ and repurposing strategies; local and regional  musical cultures;  desert literatures, spoken word and performance practices
  • document desert land use
  • foster collaborations and exchanges with artists and scholars from the 23 or 26 (depending on the criteria used) major desert eco-systems in the world.
  • pursue  embedded research in and on desert eco-systems; cultural, sub-cultural and counter-cultural formations;  histories of settlement; desert lore, desert knowledge systems and political economies


Phase One: ‘Dry Immersions’ 1 through 3

The first phase of the UCIRA Desert Project culminated in March 2010 in a series of installations and mixed media performances staged by students from 7 UC campuses  in and around the abandoned jackrabbit homestead shacks of Wonder Valley east of  Twenty nine Palms in the upper desert for an audience that comprised local community members, regional media and other interested parties many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to participate. The weekend event which included screenings and performances at the nearby Palms Bar and Restaurant and which ended with the opening of an exhibition of related wall works at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center on Frank Sinatra Drive 80 miles to the west in the very different ecological and social milieu of the lower (Colorado) desert was the last in a series of three 3 and 4 day roving workshops designed to stimulate, incentivize and showcase embedded desert-focused art production.

This installation and performance event was preceded by two earlier roving workshops. Dry Immersion 1 co-organized by UCIRA, the Palm Desert Graduate Center and Luminous Green, a European-based arts and media collective took place over three days in February 2009 in the 6100 acre Boyd Deep Canyon Reserve, a UC Riverside-owned research facility adjacent to Palm Desert, primarily devoted to longitudinal studies of the impact of real estate development on the indigenous flora and fauna. Faculty and students from 4 UC campuses (Davis, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Diego) together with UCIRA staff and visiting artists from Europe and California held a series of workshops over the 3 days on various topics including GPS-based art work, Native plant lore and sustainable design. Before dispersing the group adjourned to the shores of the  Salton Sea, 40 miles east of Palm Desert for a swim-dive performance by Long Beach-based eco-artist, Sierra Brown. Brown’s piece titled Honolulu Club drew attention to the history of failed utopian aspirations which had led in 1908 to the (inadvertent) creation of the ultra-saline 35 mile long inland sea and to  its subsequent development as a now desolate and largely abandoned resort community.

In 2009, Tyler Stallings, Director of UCR’s Sweeney Art Gallery in downtown Riverside received a $10000 UCIRA grant in partial funding for his proposal entitled Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map: a year-long series of public events, readings and screenings to be staged across  Riverside County and the Coachella Valley .Tyler’s program was a direct response to the Desert Studies proposal document circulated earlier that year which furnished the prompts for the exhibition call with which the series was to end:

“UC arts faculty and students are invited to submit proposals for works engaging issues related to actual deserts and to  the no less contentious bundle of historical projections made onto the idea(l) of the Desert . Possible tropes to be explored include the desert

  • as starting point (natural ‘home’ to paleontology) and End Game (Armageddon)
  • as dumping ground and spiritual sanctuary
  • as ‘next frontier of leisure’ and refuge of last resort
  • as unspoiled wilderness and irradiated hinterland
  • as psychological, military, technological, physical and artistic test site
  • as precious irreplaceable resource and as dirt-cheap real estate development opportunity.”

The program was originally planned to culminate in a symposium organized in tandem with the exhibition of solicited  art works referred to above on land adjacent to the Palm Desert Center.  However, issues of land use and a competing and previously approved plan for a Sustainable Garden on the undeveloped site compelled us to jettison our initial idea and in effect, to reverse the order of events so that the symposium would now precede by several months a more de-territorialized (at least multiply-sited) exhibition.  As often happens, these unforeseen exigencies forced us to rethink our founding premises and to come up with a creative solution more in keeping with UCIRA’s stated commitment both to research-based embedded artworks and to innovative exhibition and conference/symposium formats than the original plan .

The symposium now scheduled from Thursday October 22 to Sunday October 25th and centered round a rental property in Wonder Valley was reframed as a research and networking opportunity for potential art makers from across the system and beyond with focused discussion groups, presentations by a range of invited speakers and side trips to local points of interest including Noah Purifoy’s sculpture garden in Joshua Tree, local architectural non-profit, Eco Shack,  Joshua Tree National Park, a privately owned museum of retired motel signs in the town of Twenty nine Palms , PIoneertown, a community based around a 1950’s TV Western stage set, the Integraton geodesic dome in Landers and a guided tour of the nearby Twenty nine Palms Marine base .  More than 60 participants including students and faculty from 7 UC campuses attended this, the second Dry Immersion which ended with a guided tour by UCR affiliated conservation biologist, Dr Cameron Barrows of protected dune and oasis systems in the lower Colorado desert. Attendees were invited to submit proposals  together with requests for  limited expansion funding to cover materials and installation/performance costs to the Sweeney and UCIRA and the  resulting art works were exhibited and staged  the following March in Dry Immersion 3. Full documentation of this process and work produced including photographs, podcasts and media coverage  is available on-line at the Sweeney Gallery web-site :


Phase Two: Expanding the Model

The Desert Studies project takes its cue from like-minded arts-based programs like the Hi-Desert Test Sites (now incorporated into the LA Biennial) and the exemplary research, documentation and teaching initiatives sponsored by the Culver City-based Center for Land Use Interpretation  and it continues to evolve and expand.  A collaboration with the upcoming Joshua Tree Music Festival is planned for this coming May. In addition, faculty and students at UC San Diego in conjunction with the Federal University of Juiz da Fora are planning an immersion on the California-Mexico border for spring 2012 that will include, in addition to  a focus on agriculture and immigration issues ,a tour of the drywall manufacturing plant in Plaster City and an examination of the Californian prison industrial complex. Further collaborations, site visits and exchanges are planned  for the future with  Arizona State University via F.A.R, and  with the American University in Cairo.


Dick Hebdige
Director, Desert Studies Project
January, 2011


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