Pod People

Three days encamped at Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.
Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

Toronto artists Morgan Mavis and Christopher Bennell share their experience of A-Z West, the American sculptor and installation artist Andrea Zittel’s private residence, studio and communal artist encampment in California’s high desert.

Andrea Zittel solidified her place in the contemporary art world by leaving it. Some artists make beautiful objects; Zittel’s work makes life beautifully efficient by giving it a functional structure and order. Her compulsion to order, control and structure her personal environments drives her comprehensive practice, which has a way of streamlining one’s needs and heightening a desire for minimalist living that elevates efficiency, functionality and appreciation for the surrounding environment.

Early work found her designing living modules for chickens in a Brooklyn storefront. With Six Month Uniforms, Zittel designed a simple black dress that she could integrate into her everyday attire, simplifying the processes of waking and dressing. In 1999, she fabricated a 54-foot-long floating island, A-Z Pocket Property, a dwelling and vehicle all in one, off the coast of Denmark. That same year, Zittel founded A-Z West, a 1940s-style homestead off the 29 Palms Highway on the fringe of California’s Joshua Tree National Park. A-Z West is a landscape that Zittel transformed into a modernist utopia and studio, and the test site for “An Institute of Investigative Living”.

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

Years ago, sitting in our living room-turned-art project, we recalled Zittel’s words: “Every space I’ve lived in I have turned into an art project”. These words gave us reassurance whenever self-doubt crept in. Last summer, we drove a convertible across California on a honeymoon constructed as an art project, with an itinerary not too tight for flâneuring, and posted snapshots to Instagram that fetishized what culture makes synonymous with the American desert: wild, dangerous, Technicolor lust and freedom. Those 15 days created an unquenchable longing to go back to the high desert of Joshua Tree.

One facet of A-Z West is Wagon Station Encampment, a bi-yearly residency in California’s High Desert. It attracts artists, designers, thinkers and those who share an affinity for personal research. Encampment is an intimate community that consists of 12 wagon stations, open air showers, composting toilets and a communal outdoor kitchen. On September 28, we worked up the courage to reach out to Zittel, knowing full well that the start of encampment season was only three days away and that the highly sought-after residency application process closed last December. Our hope of securing even a site visit felt slim. Twenty-six hours later, we received a reply: “Hi, Morgan. We actually do have space for one more wagon station to be occupied.” We were overjoyed, but would only have three days to spend at Encampment whereas people usually spent ten. How to make the most efficient use of our time?

In preparation, we began a pseudo-scientific study of media representations of the California and Nevada deserts, examining cinematic depictions of what draws people to this landscape, and what they do when they get there. Debauched, lonely activities are a common theme of desert exploration. We created a field journal full of illicit, illegal and lonesome activities to frame our experience. You put a lot of pressure on yourself when given an opportunity to work on the same ground as an artist you have admired for years.

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

Driving down 29 Palms Highway (with the top of our black Camaro down), we felt exhilarated, excited and anxious about what the next few days would bring. Following directions to the site (“turn right at the dinosaurs”), we drove slowly along a caramel-coloured sand road towards an outcropping of structures in the foothills. A glint of aluminum shone in the high sun. We pulled into a sandy parking space next to a white Corolla adorned with a plethora of bumper stickers, like patches on a jean jacket: Kill your television; Boldly going nowhere; Question Reality. Our instructions were to find “Wobbie”, who would walk us through orientation. She is an emotive, warm artist and past resident, who Zittel asked to oversee Encampment for the season. Wobbie lives in the Land Yacht, a prefab trailer parked under a sleek mid-century inspired carport. She describes herself as a “32-year-old woman in the clothes of a 12-year-old boy”. We walked to the middle of the encampment, where we were shown the communal kitchen, outdoor propane-heated showers, the fire pit and the outhouses — open to the sky with a pail of sawdust to sprinkle into the bucket after use.

In close proximity are nine Wagon Stations, clustered at the base of the stony mountains. Wobbie led us behind the stations and up an elevated mountain path snaking above the encampment. Our home for the next three days: Wagon Station 10. We were told to always keep the hatch and the rear door latched shut when we were not inside, as the Santa Ana winds that blow through the valley could damage the pod. Our wagon had a stunning view over the boulder-strewn parcel of land, with roads stretching enticingly into the horizon.

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

After settling into our pod, we took a short hike down the foothills past Zittel’s sleek white home, nestled among cacti, and her long modernist studio. We walked by the raised vegetable garden, an oasis of desert trees, a compost pit and an elegant chicken coop, all encircled by the well-stocked shipping container storage complex. We explored one of the “High Desert Test Sites”, Behind the Bail Bonds. HDTS is a conceptual foundation, co-founded by Zittel, that facilitates immersive experiences and landscapes for experimental art. We clambered onto boulders that support a large convex mirror, a sculpture by Sarah Vanderlip. While carefully shifting our weight from one large rock to another, feeling the freedom of solitude in the vast desert, we were surprised by the slim silhouette of a fellow resident, Sugar Vendil, a pianist and director, who stood 100 yards down the slope, in front of a tripod. The desert fosters a sense of isolation and introspection, but at second glance the evidence of people and their creative practice was all around us.

Night comes early at A-Z West. We arrived after daylight saving time, when Zittel says the weather takes a turn, temperatures drop and the winds grow volatile. At 4:00 p.m., the sun slips behind the mountains and isn’t seen again until 7:00 a.m. In the evening darkness, artists gather in the kitchen, working independently, preparing meals, sharing ingredients. It was a shy, warm, yet standoffish greeting; a self-aware meeting of new people in an established community. Anders Jakobsen, a strawberry-blonde artist from Sweden, steps away from his exceptionally coloured knitting project to grate some cheese over his dinner. We chat with Rachel Bujalski, a photographer/filmmaker documenting people who live off the grid. We talk about Lasqueti Island off the coast of Vancouver and share cacao covered almonds in the dim lantern light. After spending time by the fire for warmth and socializing, we returned to our pods, like desert reptiles burrowing in for the night.

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

The air was a crisp five degrees Celsius, but felt colder with the dampness caused by our breathing inside our pod. The pods are well-designed, but tight for two people. The thick canvas mattress was cold and took time to warm up. The window on the roof of the wagon framed the hypnotic star-lit sky, and the competing light of Joshua Tree on the horizon seemed closer at night. We lay in the pod watching the sky, catching sight of shooting stars. After a light sleep, we awoke, slightly chilled, to a soft pastel-coloured sky, lit mauve to pink to peach.

Everyday at 10:00 a.m., residents gather for the “hour of power”: a collaborative 60 minutes of chores that keep A-Z West pristine during open season. This was this first day residents had seen Zittel. (She had just returned from Berlin.) Our tasks were to paint the open-air kitchen and to excavate an area for a sunken garden. We assigned ourselves the tasks. It was during this hour of power that we learned how to pronounce Zittel’s name. (It’s An-DRE-a Zitt-EL.)

Our days were spent experimenting with 250 feet of gold and magenta fringe, made for an event last summer but never used. We unfurled the fringe in the powerful Santa Ana winds, making sound and video recordings and performing small experiments that had us driving at top speed on sandy roads. Using our belts to secure a selfie stick to the passenger seat headrest, [Christopher] sped past our camera while [Morgan] released the fringe that blustered, whipped, and inevitably tangled and tore in desert brambles. We explored Yucca Valley, taking a sound bath on one of the many vortices of the Integratron. Our days were full, and nights and mornings came early.

Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, location photographs by Christopher Bennell. Courtesy the artists.

On our last morning at A-Z West, we rose with the sun and followed instructions for how to wash the Wagon Station: up and down, never side-to-side. Here, everything has a well-thought-out and documented procedure. Afterwards, we made coffee and then hiked into the north end of Joshua Tree National Park. We spotted a coyote on the ridge directly ahead of us, and another a few yards away. They noticed us just as we noticed them. Suddenly, a desert hare dashed frantically in our direction with one coyote in close pursuit, making a quick sprint towards us, then stealthily away. Still in the shadow of the mountains, the low sun lit the landscape with pale blue light and we hiked several miles into the park, coming upon contemplative, hidden installations, including finely braided grass that marked the border of the national parkland.

The morning air was calm when we left A-Z West. The specimens of desiccated cactus and rose quartz we’d gathered, our audio and video recordings, and the tattered and dusty remains of our fringe now shallow mnemonic vessels that can never contain the contemplative loneliness and reassuring cycles of desert living.