TRACKINGSHOT.1: DESERT SESSIONS
TRACKINGSHOT.1: DESERT SESSIONS
TRACKINGSHOT investigates frontier spaces through art practice and cross-disciplinary research.
Trackingshot.1 Desert Sessions took place in the California Mojave Desert in April 2017
Over two weeks live artworks were broadcast daily from A-Z West directly to viewers desktop/mobile device as a transmitted interruption. Associate collaborators Chris Fite- Wassilak, Ellen Mara De Wachter and Jonathan Griffin contributed texts in response. All artworks and essays are archived and freely available via this website.
Enroute to the Mojave Desert, artists embarked on an investigative roadtrip to explore the relationship of the desert to the body, time and production. Artist field notes have been uploaded onto an online directory, as a performative test site for the production of 14 live broadcast artworks,
We drove for a few hours out of the city, to a site near a small river where a set of grassy mounds dotted the area. Even, rounded small hills, with wooden steps leading to the top. Once up, they each just had a brown balding patch of dirt, the mild elevation hardly giving any view at all. Our parents had let us roam on our own, and, slightly bored, we began racing each other up and down the sides of the inclines.
We tired quickly enough, heading back to the visitors’ centre to find our lift home. It was on the way from the Etowah Indian Mounds, driving back to the suburbs of Atlanta, that we were asked what we thought. A shrug of the shoulders. Why were the stairs there? It’s so you don’t walk on the mounds, one of the fathers explained. They were graves. We exchanged a wide-eyed look in the back seat. Or houses, or just walls; it’s all that’s left of a culture that had been there until around four hundred years ago, now only called Mississippians. Like the state? Kind of, before that. Only a few of the mounds have been excavated, so we don’t know exactly what’s in them. We both stared at our feet for the rest of the drive home; we both knew it was bad luck to walk on graves.
That evening it was one of the father’s ideas to treat us to the first Star Trek film. Why aren’t they wearing their usual uniforms? In one scene, two new crew members are meant to be beaming aboard. The control board for the Starship Enterprise’s transporter sparks and smokes, a malfunction with the teleportation device while the crew are en route, de-materialised. Kirk rushes to the transporter room, fiddling with knobs: two misshapen bodies partially appear, crying out in anguish, before fading again. They try to send the atomised bodies back to where they came. Fortunately, for my nightmare-prone mind, they don’t show the deformed lumps of the unlucky travellers, but a curt transmission that still managed to plant far worse in my head: ‘What we got back didn’t live long, fortunately.’ Fortunately.
I was remembering that day, its transgressions and unease, while walking down a short, steep slope in an Essex forest just outside of London. It’s part of a ridge that begins to bend and, following it around, form a rough u-shape, a design that reveals some sort of human intention in shaping the dirt. Trees and shrubs grow on it as anywhere else, and like the Georgia mounds, it might well be a few hundred years or thousands of years ago this shaping took place: the dormancy today is the same. I get an odd sense of a déjà vu of sorts, wondering who else might have walked up and down these banks, wondering about how such marks, just pushing a lot of soil around, have remained over time. The trees around here – oak, beech, hornbeam – are all considered native to the UK; the earthwork was also probably used to hold cattle, an animal that is considered indigenous as well. Though they’ve been attempting to clear rhododendron, brought here in the 18th century, from the forest, and have installed fences to keep the fallow deer out, a species that used to be found in Britain until melting glaciers restricted them to closer to the Mediterranean. The Normans re-introduced the animal for hunting; it is now considered ‘naturalised’.
And here I am, an American born to Midwesterners of mixed, mostly European descent, on a wet afternoon walk, pondering how we get to understand what a land used to be, how that seeps through to the now, when my phone buzzes. A video broadcast begins: a blurry shot of the ground, moving over a set of large rocks in the sun. I angle my phone to see it more clearly, shielding the surface from reflecting the greys of the forest. The person carrying the camera keeps it focused on their shadow as they move, panting, and then singing. The song, after a few lines, becomes recognisable as ‘I Hung My Head’, a tune I know as sung by Johnny Cash. My phone becomes a tunnel to a hill in California: the walker goes through the song, stopping occasionally to regain their breath. ‘All for no reason,’ he pants, pauses, before giving an exasperated ‘Bloody hell.’ Then continuing to sing his way slowly up the hill, ‘…just one piece of lead. I hung my head.’ Once he reaches the top, surveying the dry landscape around him, I put my phone away and continue on through wet leaves. The song stays in my head as I walk, humming it as I think about all that Cash, the ‘Man in Black’, embodied to his fans, a vision of the American lone wanderer, the bad good guy, being evoked by a British man in their own walk in a desert in the West. But then I remember that the song was actually written in the ’90s by Gordon Sumner, who was himself penning an idealised tribute to the Western films of his youth, long after Sumner, from Northumberland, had renamed himself Sting.
A few days later, I’m sitting on the tube in London, on the District line pulling into Blackfriars station. I don’t expect any reception, but my phone buzzes: a video from within a yellow structure, the angles suggest some kind of a geodesic dome, a hilly desert expanse all around it. The sound cuts in and out, the fuzz of the wind, fragments of a man talking; the camera pans shakily to see him, with a ponytail and soul patch explaining…something. I hear the words ‘quasar wave transducer’ before the train moves on and it cuts out again and freezes, the man gesticulating some unknown theory with his hands.
Kirk, at the start of each Star Trek episode, called space ‘the final frontier’. The word frontier manages to denote limitations, borders, the unknown, while still carrying so much baggage: of expansion, maps and settlements of Europeans in the 18th century, or the more popularised version of white Americans heading towards the Pacific through the 19th century. By the time Kirk was broadcasting his version of the frontier in the mid 20th century, space was the next perceived border – ‘Spaceship Earth’ was filling up, and the great wide open of the sky beyond was the next empty place to be colonised. That projection seems to have quieted, or been subsumed, into the 21st century frontier, a place where these dreams of unending open plains and songs of freedom might echo into eternity: digital space. And while the former sense of frontier – of a materialised place that is ‘wilderness’ – might be understood as an urban phenomenon, devised and directed from crowded city spaces outwards, this newer frontier is more pervasive, elusive and permeating. The use of computers is becoming globally standardised, while the internet is somehow pitched as a survival necessity; which is to say, the digital frontier is, hypothetically at least, everywhere to everyone.
The next week, I’m working at my computer at home, looking up recent writing on Carl Jung when a ‘ding’ sound goes off. My desktop image is an abandoned truck loading bay on the outskirts of Copenhagen, and over that a small window pops up. This broadcast seems to be a lecture of sorts on lichen that live in the Mojave desert; the connection must be slow, as the words keep dropping out, but the most fascinating part is the way the images materialise. Each still image in the sequence appears first as a pixelated blur, a rough stain of blotchy colours, resolving itself after a few seconds into a sharper, legible picture of yellow or brown growths on rocks. The distance these images have travelled is palpable, the routing and wiring enacted, reassembled in front of me. These daily interruptions, arriving to me in the UK, have come to feel like an occupation, an alien intrusion of sorts: short, single take videos from a long-distant elsewhere being beamed onto my phone and computer. I’m sure Shatner and his crew took the day trips from Los Angeles to film episodes of Star Trek among the slanted and oddly ordered rocks around Joshua Tree; the first impression the geologic formations give is that of being from another planet. Not to mention the myths of Gram Parsons that might echo around the place, or moreover the scant traces of the Serrano tribe that lived here before the frontiersmen came through. Each video, in itself, is a misplaced documentary, with a sense of the British artists of TRACKINGSHOT exploring this new surrounding. But this isn’t straight up topolatry, worshiping the landscape rightfully or not. Perhaps what they cumulatively capture isn’t the place itself, this other-worldly-other, but the process of coming to some sort of terms with it, temporarily tracing its weather, its people, its geology. Any walk on the ground involves a back and forth of projection, of amnesia, of understanding that shifts over time: it’s that process itself that is being mediated, excerpted and beamed up.
It’s at the juncture between the geographic frontier and the ephemeral frontier, between the conception of last century’s and this century’s ideals of space, where the TRACKINGSHOT project is roughly situated. What we might see, among the pixelated rocks and sand, or hear between the half-words of nu-hippy, old-Western ideals, is a sense of how we might comprehend our current relationship with dirt, landscape, earth, and its reverberating projections into the ether. In the old frontier, altering the landscape – physically changing it – was our way of understanding what it used to be and seeing what it is now. Excavating, digging, demolishing. In the new frontier, it is a more invisible layering, in sending it away, transmitting it in all directions at once, where we might be able to perceive what results. Of course, even most of the time, the transmission is stunted, cut off, mutated, or missed altogether. The question remains of how we tend and relate to this beamed, fragmented landscape, this half-formed body that emerges.
Produced for TRACKINGSHOT.1 Desert Sessions
On a hot July afternoon, I am sitting in the shade outside a cabin on a hillside near Joshua Tree watching cars moving along Twentynine Palms Highway, about a mile away. The sky is clear, but over the horizon a strip of grey haze has gathered, unusual for this time of year. As the haze consolidates into a cloud, the cloud grows a tail, which leads down to a spot in the landscape perhaps three or four miles in the distance. At its tip, I can just about see, is a point of shimmering yellow light. A house is on fire.
A few minutes pass, and the fire continues to burn, and the smoke continues to rise. Finally, in the distance, a siren. Another half a minute, perhaps more, and the flashing red light of a fire engine, moving very slowly as it seems, travels from right to left along the highway below me.
Another minute or so. The fire engine turns right off the interstate, and continues up the road – even more slowly now – towards the fire. I track these two points of light, one fixed, the other blinking and moving as if charting a line on a graph, until the fire engine turns again; the equation has changed. Eventually the two points meet. It has been ten or fifteen minutes since I first noticed that cloud, which still hangs over the horizon.
What chaos is unspooling at the location of that glittering yellow dot? Whose home is being consumed by crackling flames, whose electrics malfunctioned or whose gas cooker exploded? What possessions are being reduced to charred embers? Is anyone inside?
The firemen must have done their job because the light has dwindled, and now it has gone. The flashing light of the emergency vehicle is still visible though. I go inside the cabin and pick up my notebook.
I’m in traffic on Glendale Boulevard, in Los Angeles, and a notification appears on my phone. A Trackingshot broadcast is about to begin. I open the app, and a few moments later, a man in a camouflage cowboy hat is talking about the first time he saw a fireball streaking through the night sky.
Behind him, vintage flying saucer magazines hang on the wall. The man sells them in his shop, and he also writes science fiction, he says, but he seems to be no fantasist. His move from the city out to the desert, he reveals, was motivated by his passion for astronomy – “for the sky, and what falls out of it.” The green fireball he saw eighteen years ago, while drinking wine with friends around a fire in the desert, was an exceptionally large meteor. It is unusual for anyone to see more than one in a lifetime, he says. He has seen a dozen.
With one eye on the too-close bumper of the car in front of me, with the other I keep up with the transmission. The phrase ‘remote viewing’ springs, ironically, to mind. I jot it down in my notebook, knowing that one day in the future I’ll try to remember this moment. The screen of my phone is a tiny portal cracked open not only into a remote place, but into someone’s recollection of a vision glimpsed in another time, the celestial subject of the vision itself being so far distant and so fast moving that, at the instant it was perceived on earth, it consisted of little more than a fleeting blur. What the fireball was remains anyone’s guess.
In the desert, meteors are easier to see than in other places because of the exceptionally clear night skies, and their fallen remnants are easier to find because the hard ground often goes undisturbed for centuries. Stillness and slowness allow light and sound to travel unimpeded.
The man relates that he invested in a metal detector and a magnetic shovel, and he regularly scours the desert floor for meteorites. Mostly, he says, he finds bottle tops and bullets, and sometimes parts of the munitions that the military shoots into the sky over the nearby Marine base. Indeed, some of the most spectacular fireballs are man-made: flash-bombs, flares and missiles ascending into the sky, or – on one occasion, in Oregon – a flaming section of a Russian rocket as it tore through the earth’s atmosphere.
The transmission ends. At the wheel of my car, my remote viewing session continues. I know that the man is still sitting in that room, probably now talking to the artists who two minutes ago were behind the camera, and are perhaps now packing up their equipment, chatting about how the interview went. I know this place they are in. I could drive there now in a couple of hours. Although by then they’d be gone.
I lost my glasses in the desert. This actually happened – this is not an allegory, although it could be.
It happened recently in Wonder Valley, a remote area to the east of Twentynine Palms, where I was staying alone in a cabin originally built in the 1960s as a jackrabbit homestead. There was no electricity, and no running water. The valley is more or less flat, until dark mountains pile up on all sides, a few miles in the distance.
After an afternoon of wandering around the vicinity of the cabin, I realised that my glasses had fallen out of my pocket. My prescription sunglasses meant I could still see – for now, at least, until darkness fell – but they gave the world a deadened, low-contrast appearance, like a dream sequence in a movie. For this reason, perhaps, I did not panic, but started to search, slowly, in the approximate areas where I just walked. Time was on my side, I reasoned. I had nothing else to do.
I soon found that I could track my own footsteps. (My solitude made this activity all the more uncanny.) Whereas previously I had been gazing mostly towards the horizon, now I looked intently at the ground. Grit, gravel, sagebrush, creosote, tiny cacti, yellow desert sunflowers. A darting white lizard. A black beetle. These were the things I saw. No glasses.
If I had to describe the colour of these glasses, I would have to say they are sandy. Their camouflage against the desert floor, I realised, would be absolute.
From beyond a low ridge of mountains to the northwest of my cabin I could hear, all day, the heavy thuds of artillery fire. Located on the Twentynine Palms Marine base, a simulated town the size of Downtown San Diego had been built to resemble the urban chaos of a war-torn Afghan city. The shelling was particularly bad, and close-sounding, the day I lost my glasses.
Creosote bushes are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet, I recalled as I searched. As a bush grows older, its central branches die and it opens out into a ring. There is a creosote ring in the Southern Mojave that is estimated to be nearly twelve thousand years old.
I don’t know how long I was looking before I found my glasses. They just appeared, a notification of their presence, surrounded by nothing. In the sky overhead, two fighter jets ripped through the blue sky in tight formation, a victory pass that no one saw but me.
The next day I was walking with the artist Andrea Zittel across her property, A-Z West, in Joshua Tree. We talked about how the formlessness of the desert landscape is given meaning by the limitations of architecture, how the dimensions of buildings invite the closeness of bodies, how windows make pictures that allow us to perceive, more vividly, the world outside.
I had recently visited Doug Aitken’s sculpture Mirage, a house situated near Palm Springs that is clad entirely in mirrors. In the many stunning photographs of Mirage I had seen online, the work is pristine, entirely devoid of human presence. The photographers’ reflections are never visible. In reality, even on a weekday afternoon, the site is crawling with visitors, most of whom have smartphones and are taking pictures of themselves reflected in the house’s walls and ceilings. The landscape is so much more graspable when collapsed and delimited by a mirror; in the 18th Century, British artists used to paint from darkened mirrors – ‘Claude Glasses’ – to emulate the picturesque landscape compositions of masters such as Claude Lorrain.
Zittel uses architecture, rather than mirrors, to make sense of the desert. She understands the landscape of the High Desert as divided into five-acre sections, parcels that were given away to settlers after the Small Tracts Act of 1936. Her work is shaped by standards and deviations; she tells me that a normal-sized room, for her, is twelve by sixteen feet. A new outdoor sculpture she has made at A-Z West, consisting of black-painted walls and enclosures, is scaled to fall just short of the size that would require planning permission.
Out in the distance, past where three years earlier I had seen smoke rising from a burning house, smoke rose again. On the Twentynine Palms base, the Marines were practicing their maneouvers in a fake town made from shipping containers.
There were other broadcasts. Fourteen in all – one a day for two weeks. Of course I didn’t catch them all. One day, I was sitting in the library where I am writing now, and I saw the Trackingshot notification appear. On my phone, I watched a slow pan of this familar desert landscape while a male voice read from a book, or a script, or a transcript – it was unclear. “Ladies and gentlemen, this broadcast comes to you from the city.” Not this city, at any rate, I think; somewhere else, somewhere far away and somewhere that possibly never existed. Again, I jot notes. “We have smelled the wind in the street that changes weather.” “Here, in the city, the wall of the time cracks.”
The reader begins to describe a crowd-packed plaza, where kites circle in the sky overhead. The landscape that I see, however, is utterly empty of people, save the tiny cars that move down the highway in the distance. The desert is uniquely primed for narrative to affix itself to its seemingly porous surface. Especially in the area around Joshua Tree, certain narrative tropes tenaciously persist, some of which recurred in the Trackingshot broadcasts and some of which recur in my writing here. This is the way of things. Since humans have settled in this landscape, they have understood it through the prism of stories that frame it and refract it.
What emerged during the course of the two week period of Trackingshot broadcasts was the sense of a group of people trying to get the measure of an immeasurable place. The process embraced diverse approaches – documentary, expressionistic, appropriationist, performative, fantastic, empirical – but what the fleeting broadcasts shared was their natural and effortless propensity to transform themselves into myths, almost as soon as they were cast into the wind.
Produced for TRACKINGSHOT.1 Desert Sessions
Why we wait
Ellen Mara De Wachter
Four artists leave the city for a three-week stay in the Mojave Desert. They have instructed those they’ve left behind to download a customised application called Field Broadcast onto their computers and to listen out for the ringing of a bell. The artists don’t know exactly what they will do once they reach the desert, except that they will transmit a live field broadcast each day for 14 days, using the app to reach their audience. The artists have accepted that they will have to wait and see what the lay of the land suggests to them. Who knows how comfortable they are with their unknowingness?
It’s 8.04 on a Sunday night in London, and I’m feeling uncertain, under pressure to perform new ideas in writing, reaching for something that won’t yet give itself. I suppose I might be just about poised to set something down, when my ears begin to ring. As the high-pitched tone travels through the room, I doubt my own senses. Did I leave something on; is something broken? The ringing gives way to the rushing sound of a live broadcast as a new window opens up on my computer screen and shines the light of the desert into my eyes.
A valley slopes into the centre of the image, cut out against a live blue sky. A desert pathway, picturesque in its gentle curves, leads my eye off into the distance. In the Mojave Desert, a man is sweeping his way to the left, crossing the path as he does so, and then sweeping his way to the right. Birds sing, the open space of the desert draws me in, the scratchy sound of the broom, as its fibres encounter endless grains of sand, brings me back to an awareness of the action. The sweeper’s body curls forward, the brim of his hat obscuring his face. He continues his brushstrokes for nearly half an hour, leaving in his wake a smoothed path as he disappears around the bend. His reality is gritty, but from where I’m looking, a high definition image of the path looks as though it has just been smoothed over with a digital brush. I notice a stone on the otherwise clear path; now it’s a skull. I blink and I’m there with the stone. The desert does funny things to your eyes.
Right after the broadcast, I’m visited by the memory of a neon sculpture by Bruce Nauman, another artist who left the city for the wide open plains of North America. In spiralling blue neon letters, Nauman’s sculpture reads: the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.
If this is correct, then was a mystic truth just revealed to me? As a feat of endurance, the action of sweeping the long sandy path reminded me of long-distance running. In its exactness, it resembled the practice of maintaining a Zen garden, in which monks ritually rake gravel around set stones to represent the ripples of water. But monks don’t perform to camera, and in any case, I happen to know the performer is not a monk. Does the mystic truth lie in the action’s apparent futility? People and their vehicles; animals and their prey; wind, rain and time are bound to disturb the sand before long. Or does the truth lie in the way the action evokes other, past, sweepings?
These days, homeowners in the desert rake the sand in their front gardens to tidy it of detritus and to make it look neat. But raking the desert in this way is not simply a matter of gardening; it’s about more than just introducing daily order into an extravagant wasteland. In taming their tiny portion of the desert, homeowners are engaging in a long tradition of transforming the terrifyingly sublime into the pleasingly beautiful. Beyond the sand and gravel in their front gardens, they are managing their own anxieties over the unmanageable wilderness that surrounds them.
In the era of the homesteaders following the Homestead Act of 1863, which made parcels of federal land in the western United States available for adult American citizens to settle, raking one’s sandy front yard served a different purpose: it helped homesteaders ascertain the presence of local forms of life. Making tabula rasa of the land surrounding their home before bedtime meant that any overnight trespassers, human or animal, would leave tracks in the dark that could be read the next morning as so many calling cards.
The desert is often compared to a projection screen, a plane surface onto which we project our hopes, dreams and terrors. When it constitutes a homesteader’s front yard, the desert is perhaps closer to the space of a dream; an infinite, malleable, and sometimes haunting world into which we slip with sleep, and in which the unconscious mind performs its most instinctual wishes. But even as sleep holds us captive, the ability to rest in uncertainty and to wait for a potential foe to make itself manifest is not so easily attained.
* * *
‘Just Do It’, ‘Do-or-Die’, DIY – wherever we look, we are exhorted to do, to act, in the unspoken aim of producing results and, of course, of avoiding at all costs the failure that results from doing nothing. In most spheres, inaction is considered anathema to success. We rehearse the credence that ‘practice makes perfect’, that ideas come through doing. But what if we acknowledged that sometimes success arrives, not through a process of doing, but as the result of not-doing?
Ten days after the sweeping broadcast, I catch another of the artists’ daily missives from the desert. This time, a hand holding a small harmonica reaches into frame from the right side of the screen, as though it belonged to my own right arm reaching into the vast space depicted onscreen. The harmonica is silhouetted against a clear blue sky, which gives little away about the powerful wind that buffets the hardy bushes on the ground and causes the hand to sway and constantly readjust its position. While everything else waits where it is, the harmonica lets itself be played by the gusts, its faint trill rising over the bassy, throbbing sound of the wind. Spasmodically, my breath falls into sympathy with the gasping harmonica. Three and a half minutes later, the broadcast comes to an abrupt end. Something – and nothing – just happened.
In 1817, in a letter to his brothers, the poet John Keats related a conversation he’d had a few days previously, in which he’d described the chief quality that ‘went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature’. For Keats, such a pinnacle of virtue consisted in ‘Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. In Keats’s view, Shakespeare embodied the quality of negative capability better than any other writer, because he created characters that held varying points of view and he avoided imposing any single version of the truth in his writings.
The following year, in 1818, Keats elaborated on his first mention of negative capability with a description of the feelings elicited by good – and bad – art: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.’
Keats’s idea of negative capability is seductive, not least because in the first instance it seems to let us off our own hook and free us from our self-imposed demands to produce at any cost, but also because it acknowledges the value of waiting in uncertainty.
Keats was chiefly concerned with the act of writing; a process anyone who has tried will know is decidedly physical. Hands, head, back and neck are all worked in writing; the whole body is involved when the writer paces the ground around her desk in growing concentric circles, from the few metres of her room to the kilometres of her town, and when she writhes in silent embarrassment at some new attempt to transcend a ‘comfort zone’. But what goes for writing also goes for making art, and the very ability to wait in doubt, without succumbing to irritation or expediency is a prize too seldom won in our culture of constant production.
On the final day of broadcasts, the artists and their new acquaintances from the desert gather in a dried-up riverbed. They set up their camera to film the rocks scattered about the cracked soil. With the short depth of field they’ve chosen for this shot, the stones in the distance appear to form a soft tufted carpet. Out of shot, a woman instructs those in attendance to hold hands and form a circle. She explains that, when the time seems right, the designated ‘transmitter’ will initiate a sequence of hand squeezes starting with the person to her right. Each time someone squeezes the left hand of the person next to them, they are to produce an abdominal cry of ‘Ha!’ After the first complete circle, the transmitter will wait for the right time to start the next round, gradually speeding up the process. Eventually, she says, ‘if awareness is maintained, the circle should be shouting almost simultaneously.’
One participant turns up a little late, and receives a cursory explanation. The uncertainty within the group is detectable in the awkward silences and shuffling noises, as the participants are put through their paces behind the camera. As moments of anticipation give way to scattered bellows, ‘ha’ turns into ‘ha’, until the embarrassed word accelerates into a startling and amazing chorus of laughter.
Ellen Mara De Wachter
Produced for TRACKINGSHOT.1 Desert Sessions