SDSU “Shelter” Project

The wood grads at San Diego State University, where we are currently working as artists-in-residence, have been given the theme of “Shelter” to inspire their first assignment. Their professor, Wendy Maruyama, is requiring they keep a blog about their project (I don’t think we influenced this a bit!). We realized, especially after our recent five day excursion (yes, more road tripping!) to the SoCal desert (which will eventually be more thoroughly posted) that what we’ve been thinking about on this trip, along with the exhibition we’re planning to mount here in early May, also fits very well with this theme. So–we have started our own “Shelter” page to coincide with what the students here are doing. We are dedicating this page to the humming bird we spotted sitting on her nest along our path from the parking lot to the woodshop shortly after we returned from the desert last week.

Chele has seen the babies–they look like little blue bees.

We are currently working to flesh out our plan for a multi-media installation in the “Dock” at SDSU’s downtown gallery. On our desert trip, Chele took lots of photographs as usual, and more video this time (not so cold out there!). BA finally sported the OGM suit and walked through the Joshua Trees, trying not to get stuck by cacti (because Chele did get really stuck by a cactus that BA had to knock off her finger with two rocks!). BA also skinned her knees and hands crawling and climbing on rocks– in the OGM suit, with his leather suitcase–that were higher up than she cares to remember now. (OGM stands for Orange Gingham Man, a character who appears in a lot of Chele’s video work and who is most often portrayed by BA). Chele also did a lot of her own climbing with camera and tripod in tow. And of course, we met a lot of folks and had more interesting and insightful conversation. When we returned, it was time to get down to business and figure out exactly what it is we are going to do in this unusual gallery space that was actually once a loading dock. Chele had taken several sets of panoramic photographs from the different locations we visited. We had several conversations about repeating patterns that have been occurring on this trip–in landscape, in human intervention on that landscape, in ideas and concerns expressed by folks we’ve talked to, in things we’ve listened to (The Grapes of Wrath, the news at home and abroad), and in an overarching sense of decline and decay. But as always, and as we often admit is one of the biggest reasons we work together, we never cease to find beauty and something sublime amidst all this. We always know that one thing is a given–we want our work to be beautiful. So we decided to use the panoramic images as a starting point, because we realize they have an inherent beauty. They will feature in a two-channel projection and will also be the backdrop for three dioramas built into a case that will act as a false wall, replacing an 8 foot wide roll-up door opposite the wall we’ll project on.

Chele drew this sketch of an idea for a way to distort the interior of a diorama (because we have, after all, set out to disrupt fixed images) by canting the floor and ceiling, to which BA responded with an “ugh” and a small fit of self-doubt.

Then Chele went off to edit images and stitch them together into continuous panoramas in the computer lab, using a new program she learned through on-line tutorials at night in our little motel in Joshua Tree….

while BA started doing algebra and complicated geometry. She recovered from her self-doubt, mostly anyway, the next day to scrounge up some scrap materials in the woodshop and started putting together these little mock-ups of several dioramas configurations…

The following is a bit of commentary and many of the images that led us to realize just how well our project was fitting with theme of “shelter.”

Our first destination was Salton City on the west shore of the infamous Salton Sea, which exists today as a result of an engineering error in the early 20th-century. The towns along its shores were once vibrant resorts with the hope of becoming the next Palm Springs–a true “American Dream” whose hopes dissolved after disastrous floods in the 1970s. The sea is saltier than the ocean, and although it doesn’t match the Great Salt Lake yet, it’s salinity levels are growing as we speak. As the shores are now receding, decades of agricultural run-off takes the form of air born particulates. As you can imagine, we are not the first artists to take an interest in the Salton Sea, and although we had done our homework, we still weren’t quite prepared for the stench. Nonetheless, we managed to spend a bit of time there. It began with Chele taking some panoramic shots from a desolate parking lot on the sea shore populated only by forlorn palm trees and some scrub brush.

While BA was sent away in Roxy in order to stay out of the photographs, she came across this deserted camp ground.

When BA returned to retrieve Chele, she was talking to Tim, the “Salton City Hobo,” who filled us in on the nuances of the place. We have hopes that he may make it out to SD for the opening of our installation.

As we continued on to Palm Springs and the turn off for the Morongo Basin, BA was very excited for Chele to see the windmill farms for the first time.

The next day in Joshua Tree National Park was a stark contrast to the Salton Sea, and yet it all feels like a continuation of the same thing.

Ok, she’s not actually hiding in the brush, but…

This is the box canyon you cut through (Box Canyon Road) as you head southwest out of the park toward Mecca, at the northern tip of the Salton Sea. You’re surrounded by rock on all sides.

We saw several of these container trains on route 111 that runs along the east shore of the sea. Talk about sheltering sky!

The Salton Sea is a migratory stop and sanctuary for thousands of birds. Many of them die off at times from botulism. We figure that strange and beautiful white light on the sea must somehow be a result of the salt, although we haven’t confirmed this.

We came across this circle of chairs while driving through the streets of Bombay Beach on the east shore of the sea.

There was a locked chain link fence around the lot. Here are the two signs that hung on the gate…

We asked around until we found out who owned the lot and Chele convinced Lloyd to unlock the gate and let us in. We filmed OGM sitting on one of the chairs. Then we explored some more of Bombay Beach.

The FIRST humming bird sighting…

Chele emerged bleary eyed from a little too much time spent filming inside one of the abandoned and looted shoreline homes, behind which you can see the dike that’s been built to protect the little town from flooding again. Unfortunately, it also prevents a view of the sea, which despite it’s reputation as a cesspool, is eerily beautiful.

We stayed the night in Calipatria, just south of the bottom of the Salton Sea and back tracked a little the next day to Niland. On our way to check out Salvation Mountain, we spotted something bright and interesting off a dirt road and we couldn’t help ourselves, so we turned down the road. We could tell the place was inhabited because there’s a pair of pants hanging on the clothes line.

No one seemed to be around, so we kept a respectful distance as Chele filmed a lot of plastic bags blowing in the wind, and BA, while in OGM costume, talked to a few folks that passed by. Finally, Jerry emerged from the back side of this bunker–his home for the time being–and sat up on top of the berm as if waiting for us to notice his presence. The puppy was an easy in and once again, we found ourselves a new friend. We spent a couple of hours talking with Jerry and learning about his life and what he was doing out in the desert. He filled us in on the area, including Slab City, and he even agreed to act in some of the OGM video.

These berm structures are abandoned army bunkers that folks now squat in. Jerry had read about them and wanted to check out the desert, so he came here from Nebraska in November and found the back half of this one empty. Recently this puppy wondered over from Slab City and now they’re kinda stuck with each other. While Chele shot some more film from on top of the berm, Jerry showed BA the many treasures he scavenged from out in the desert–he pulls a trailer behind a bike and collects things. Once he had around 60 lbs of grapefruit from a tree he had spottted. He rode home through Slab City with his load and by the time he reached his place he said he had less than 10 lbs in his cart. People kept asking him if they could have some and he just kept giving away the loot. Eventually from one of the piles of stuff he fished out a metal figurine of a marlin mounted on a chunk of wood that he proceeded to present to BA as “a desert Oscar” for her performance as OGM.

We stopped briefly to take in Salvation Mountain. BA never went in because she became fascinated with something at the edge of the parking lot–this strange rag canopy over what looks like a make shift day bed sitting under a tree in the desert. It vaguely conjured a story form the Old Testament. Something about it was very serene–a combination of things–the white of the rags and the metal swing structure, it’s placement under the tree, it’s starkness in contrast to the over-the-top (Pee Wee Hermanish, as Chele put it) presence of Salvation Mountain.  As BA was standing here staring at the bed, she met George, who offered her a Pepsi and told her all about the place and Leonard, the artist, whose health is ailing and is not as up for visiting with folks as he used to be.

This is George’s motor home. He comes to the Fountain of Youth RV Park in Niland and visits Salvation Mountain several times every year.

And finally, off to Slab City, a squatters village on the concrete slabs and street grid the military laid out to house Marine Barracks during WWII. We were told that the site was also used as a Japanese internment camp. It’s now home to a WIDE diversity of campers and squatters from all over (including many from Canada)–those lying low to keep under the radar of the law, artists wanting time and room to do their thing with little distraction and low living expenses, folks wanting out of the greater society and “off the grid” so to speak, the poor, the strung out, and elderly snow birds. Most are here seasonally, as temperatures can reach 110 degrees plus in the summer months, but a few stay year round. This place will take many more visits, maybe even an extended stay, but for now, more shelter…

and some wreckage…

a soup kitchen…

Before departing Slab City we were treated to a spectacular, impromptu performance in a boat, that was actually a car (“The Captain” drove this thing all the way down here, in February no less, from Grand Rapids, Michigan!), by who we are sure must be some of this place’s more notorious residents…

Once again dumbfounded by the wonder and richness of our experiences over the course five days in the desert, we headed back to San Diego and the shelter of things we know–a computer lab and a woodshop–to explore things that are unknown, or are perhaps only knowable to us as paradox, in other words, in a state of aporia.