The Desert Initiative

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“Desert Initiative Remote Shuttle,” 2012
Miguel Palma stakes Palmaland on a basaltic lava flow in northern Arizona. The area landscape is used by NASA to train astronauts because the terrain, with little to no vegetation, closely resembles extraterrestrial planetary surfaces.

Every day of Miguel Palma’s international artist residency in Arizona opened his eyes to new wonders of the desert, says the renowned Portuguese artist. Many preconceptions fell away, and the resulting mixed-media works and installations by Palma–now on view at the Arizona State University Art Museum–form a kind of ode to the desert’s harsh beauty. It is this consciousness of landscape that informs a wide-ranging, multi-state project called Desert Initiative. Palma’s “Trajectory” at ASU is one of the first exhibitions to open among the more than 30 cultural institutions participating in the inaugural year of Desert Initiative. Like the recent, highly visible Pacific Standard Time (PST) in Los Angeles, Desert Initiative is less a single, coordinated exhibition program, than a broad thematic umbrella, under which the participating institutions are invited to generate their own exhibitions and events, from the ground up. Indeed, participation stretches from Riverside, California, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and beyond.

In this, its first year, the initiative goes by the nickname DI:D1, and has four thematic focal points: “create, collaborate, educate and explore.” Director Greg Esser notes how “create” stands out among the four goals. “The creative lens that artists bring to bear on critically pressing issues facing desert communities is at the heart of DI:D1 and, more importantly, where innovation and new solutions and ideas may begin to emerge,” he explains. In addition, he is pleased with “collaborate” as a focus because of its potential to generate synergy and reach new audiences. The education focus of DI:D1 serves as a powerful, storytelling tool in reaching across social, political, economic and cultural divides, he added. And “explore” will bring home to arts patrons the incredible beauty, diversity and resilience of the desert, he adds. “The desert regions of North America–contrary to the popular notion of deserts as barren wastelands or empty space–are, in fact, among the most spectacular landscapes in the world.”

Conversations among curators, environmentalists and others regarding a desert-focused consortium of art programming have been kicking around for at least a few years, notes Esser, whose background includes public art management for Phoenix, Denver, and the county of Los Angeles, as well as directorship of the Roosevelt Row project to revitalize the arts in downtown Phoenix. He also studied arid lands policy while living in the Middle East. As director of DI:D1, he works under the aegis of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, which runs the ASU Art Museum.

Just as the American desert is diverse, so is the lineup of programming. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, will feature the desert architecture of Paolo Soleri and the desert-inspired installations of Hector Zamora. The Phoenix Art Museum will mount the first museum survey of works by Iraqi-American painter Ahmed Alsoudani. The University of California-Riverside ARTSblock will tie together art and space exploration, and the Rubin Center at the University of Texas at El Paso will examine turmoil in the desert countries of the Middle East through videos from the region. That’s just a sampling from participating museums and galleries, with desert research facilities, military test sites, and cultural centers still to take into account.

To keep it all straight, and to help market the project, Esser and his team created the “Passport.” It is the size and feel of a real passport and is available to visitors at each venue. The booklet’s pages depict the various venues and give brief descriptions. In addition, passport holders can register their unique number at desertinitiative.org. Cleverly, each venue has its own unique stamp with which to emboss the passport when visitors enter.

The passport is designed not only as a tangible piece of marketing, but also as a means of drawing greater attention to arts and cultural institutions throughout the Southwest. A number of smaller, outlying institutions are in the passport, along with art venues in Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque and other cities. In addition, DI:D1 marketing efforts take a cooperative stance with other major regional arts efforts, such as “ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness.” Based in New Mexico, ISEA2012 launched about the same time and has included over 100 artists and 400 presenters from 29 countries. In fact, ISEA2012 and Desert Initiative fall under each other’s umbrellas, explained Suzanne Sbarge of 516 ARTS in Albuquerque, who serves as executive producer of ISEA2012. “We included the Desert Initiative in the ISEA2012 collaboration, and the Desert Initiative has included ISEA2012 in their series as well,” Sbarge says. “We realized that we were doing parallel projects, and it made a lot of sense to link up with one another.”

Thus, the centerpiece of Miguel Palma’s work in the desert, the faux-military “Desert Initiative Remote Shuttle,” a working truck, is doing double-duty with both programs. The work debuted at the ISEA2012 Block Party in downtown Albuquerque in mid-September. Then Palma drove the truck to Arizona in time for the ASU opening on September 28. The ASU show also features earlier mixed media works and installations by Palma.

Many of the shows open from now through January 2013, and DI:D1 comes to a close in April with a street party in downtown Phoenix. The organizing artists are Clare Patey of “Feast on the Bridge” fame in London, and Matthew Moore, a mixed-media artist whose desert-inspired works have shown at the Phoenix Art Museum and elsewhere.

For Tyler Stallings, director of the Sweeney Art Gallery at the UCR ARTSblock, at Riverside, CA, the desert’s appeal as a subject for artists is easy to comprehend, especially when considering the desert as somewhat exotic or romantic. “The desert is just something that evokes spiritual journey. There’s this long, long history of going into the desert to discover oneself. I think for artists that connects up,” Stallings says. Also, for artists who are politically and socially minded, the desert conjures up ideas about survivalism, war, famine, water needs, and a climate in jeopardy, he adds.

In agreement is Sara Cochran, curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, who voiced her excitement in the opportunity DI:D1 affords toward sharing ideas with colleagues in neighboring states. “Perhaps we are always obliquely working around the same idea of the desert because the desert has become such a rich metaphor–not just for Arizona,” Cochran says. “We bring up the desert in culture, we bring up the desert in literature, and we bring up the desert in art. It’s just become interesting to see what colleagues are thinking about it.”

Kerry Doyle, interim director of the Rubin Center, at the University of Texas at El Paso, noted that the collaborations that are in place now will generate connections and relationships that can be built upon in the future. She also liked the cross-disciplinary approach of Desert Initiative for its potential to reach a variety of participants. “I like to think about the artist who begins to consider the desert in an art museum, but who is then inspired to go to an environmental site on the passport, or the scientist who ends up in front of photography of the desert,” says Doyle. “This cross-fertilization of audiences and experts means that we will all walk away with a richer and multi-dimensional understanding of the contemporary desert.”

Of course, a project as vast as Desert Initiative demanded a long, evolved process to a
chieve fruition. Julie Sasse, chief curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, remembers being in on initial discussions in 2009. “It was always expected that each institution would contribute their own creative energy and funding for their individual projects,” Sasse recalls. “And Desert Initiative would become the overarching marketing and philosophical framework from which to gather everyone together.”

Augmenting the contributions from the visual arts community in DI:D1, creative thinkers from other disciplines have also been invited to participate: in particular, writers, practitioners and researchers from the worlds of environmental science, architecture, technology, agriculture and military history. A prime example of this cross-disciplinary collaboration is Desert Initiative’s partnership in “ARID: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology,” which debuted online in September. A peer-reviewed, biannual journal, ARID will encompass scholarly articles, interviews, essays, visual and audio projects and other forms of storytelling for a diverse investigation into deserts in the Southwest and globally. The first issue, for instance, highlights several artists who use desert phenomena in their work and also includes a piece that overviews the Desert Studies Project organized by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, based in Santa Barbara. The piece is by Dick Hebdige, who writes frequently on the arts, popular culture and desert aesthetics and is director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at UC Santa Barbara. The Desert Studies Project is known for its 2009-10 “Dry Immersion” series bringing artists into isolated deserts.

When describing the origins of Desert Initiative, Greg Esser points to Hebdige’s work, along with that of Bruce Ferguson and Marilu Knode, who helmed a think tank called “FAR@ASU,” established in 2008. Also called Future Arts Research, the group hosted a desert-related symposium in Phoenix, among other efforts. “Desert Initiative: Desert One is the evolution and expression of the goal of these original collaborators to expand the artistic investigation of desert aesthetics regionally and globally,” Esser says.

Bill Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, says he is not surprised by the degree of collaboration and cross-disciplinary projects that Desert Initiative is spurring. The arts and sciences are cultures that talk to each other all the time, he says, and in recent years artists have been highly concerned about environmental matters, with the fragility of the desert a prime area of focus. “You see art and science right next to each other all the time. It’s not that the relationship is new, it’s just that it’s more visible,” notes Fox. The center, which is in the DI:D1 passport, offers programming and research examining artworks that express the interaction between people and their natural, built or virtual environment.

Altogether there are 31 leading museums, cultural centers and organizations, universities and public agencies involved in Desert Initiative this year. With a scope of five states and four desert regions, the project holds exciting and ambitious possibilities. In the opinion of curators and directors like Anne-Marie Russell of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, the best opportunities lie in collaboration and in network mapping. “The West is vast and in order to ensure that the global art community knows what is happening here, it made sense for us to join forces to gain a critical mass of attention for the extraordinarily interesting things happening in these desert regions,” Russell says.

With DI:D1 passports in hand, museum-goers have several months to see as much of the programming as possible. For Greg Esser, and all those involved in Desert Initiative, the hope is that the diverse wealth of programming will attract a critical mass of attention–not just to the desert, and all it has to offer, but to the panoply of cultural institutions that engage it.