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When viewed from outer space, the California desert bleeds eastward, into a great expanse, distinct from a mostly verdant continent. It forms a pattern — striated with alternating streaks of browns and greys, dotted with random specks of white — that begins at a sharp point north of Los Angeles; fades out before it reaches Canada to the north, central Mexico and Texas to the south and southeast; and abruptly stops about a third of the way across the country, at the Rocky Mountains. The definitive topography here is Basin and Range: a repeating landscape of mountains and valleys, a visual cadence broken by occasional dry lakebeds and spring-fed oases. Strung across this exposed, stratified landscape — geologic time, manifested — is evidence of human interaction, our rapidly increasing timescale. Zooming in, these manufactured features take shape: cities, mines, highways, landfills, aqueducts, fences, power lines, firebreaks, parking lots and individual buildings. With few exceptions, however, this desert is a perceptual void, overlooked or overflown. It contains most of the protected land in the US, managed under a variety of federal agencies: the National Park System, the USDA Forest System, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, as well as various Native American councils (located on sovereign tribal land).
In between and amongst these differentiated territories are the citizens of this expanse, carving out their individual spaces and experiences, mostly privately. A few live very public lives, encouraging passersby to stop and visit as if they themselves are tourist attractions. Andrea Zittel described herself in this way during a interview with Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina in 2005, conducted as Zittel
See Paolo Morsiani and Trevor Smith (ed.), Andrea Zittel: Critical Space, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2005, p.45. ‘Wigley: “Have you become a tourist attraction?” Zittel: “Definitely.” Colomina: “And is that part of your work?” Zittel: “I thought I wanted to be in one place and have everyone come and view my work in that situation. I thought that would be the ultimate freedom, but it’s actually become another form of oppression […] I think that I wanted the most literal kind of representation or non-representation…”.’↑
See John Charles Frémont and Samuel Mosheim Smucker, The Life of Col. John Charles Fremont and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California: The Memoir by Samuel M. Smucker, New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856, p.436 (referring to Joshua Trees as ‘yucca trees’).↑