The Electric Desert has died. Long live the Electric Desert!

The Electric Desert as a super lo-fi collection of free and reclaimed materials is no more. What began as a vision/whim during “the Good Life” at Tortuga Gallery, summer 2018, went through NINE iterations in a variety of Albuquerque venues, and connected with hundreds of kids and grownups. Thank you, Electric Desert, for taking me all over the place, and helping me grow as an artist. 

The cardboard tubes that formed the major structures of the installation were coughing and wheezing during the Harwood show. And I can commiserate… they’d been drilled into, hauled on, stacked like cordwood, painted, drawn on, cut and bandaged so many times now that they got pretty rough around the edges. Some of them died during the windstorms at this year’s SOMOS, which knocked big towers of them over. And while some of them were still hanging on, their once-stiff joints now flappy, I’ve pulled the trigger on the material. It’s now chopped up, and headed for recycling. 

I’ve gotten to tinker with it within a bunch of different contexts, and it now feels complete. I had the opportunity to think about interactivity in its first iteration; about activating and relating to spaces, both indoor and outdoor; and about balancing “enough” and “too much,” every time. It’s been the topic of a couple of big applications, and as such I’ve gotten to sink my teeth into the feeling of a didactic, political version of the installation, AND a joyous, welcoming version of it. The joy won out, and I learned that clear political speech, in the form of visual art, is not at the heart of my gift. 

Here’s what I played with, and some of what I learned along the way.

Sound as environment, and Tech

Jon Pearson did sonic improvisations for the Desert’s first go at Tortuga, and at its next outing for a Harwood open studio. I met Jon at his opening at InPost some months prior, and had temporarily lost my mind over his beautiful, weird sense of color/music. Finishing the build at Tortuga while Jon evolved a sonic world across an entire day was a real privilege. I loved the feeling that images I had nursed through many months of exploration were being picked up and played with by an artist I found inspiring.  

In November 2018 and 2019, the Electric Desert got to inhabit the Keshet’s lobby, forming a welcoming committee for their “Alice” production. Arne Gullerud created little singing robots for those outings. His piece evoked a child-like space in my heart; a dark desert Wonderland that felt cold and empty, and yet filled with beautiful artificial life, like Willy Wonka’s factory.  To me, he clarified the voice of the project, releasing improvisation in favor of a smaller narrative. In between the two events, Arne refined his programming and increased the number of Raspberry Pi-based robots from five to seven. To my ear, this seemed to make the sonic environment darker and more chaotic. The harmonies they made were exquisite–Romantic strains within a pared-down, Minimalist frame. 

I can’t wait to combine the methods of the Electric Desert with more of the Arduino-based Maker tech that’s out there. I can’t wait to learn about CNC routing via CNM’s Ingenuity Lab… once it re-opens. 


Interesting to me that with installation work, I really need audience interaction to learn what a project wants to be. In the case of the Electric Desert, an accident of the process opened my eyes to the project’s interactive possibilities. I’d barely finished my build when the opening began, and I’d left boxes of the pre-fabbed materials at the bases of some of the Desert’s “guilds.” Audience members became participants by using those materials to build onto the process, and I saw that in a way, the Desert was really a kind of building-kit, like Legos. Other audience folks danced with Jon’s music and the environment itself, opening my eyes to that possibility. 

So for SOMOS, I got ambitious, and provided the audience with bigger boxes of play materials. And got schooled by the audience immediately! Audience participants wanted to remove red+white Nopales I’d made and place them in the new holes in the “tree trunks,” avoiding the sidewalk chalk and PVC sticks I’d provided for play. 

Letting go

I experimented a ton in 2019, and the Electric Desert was a great vehicle for experimentation. Out of all that experimentation, I was able to discern the live wire of my deeper fascinations. I led myself to a place where I could let go of some fascinations, and step deeper into what I’ve never been able to get enough of–paint on a brush. Paint on a surface. Paint as substance and color and feeling, indistinguishably one. Simplifying enough to let a world come to life. Elaborating enough to tell a story. 

Stepping into those mysteries is stronger and scarier than not. It’s where I’m called, and it’s because of that call that I know I’m ready to let this installation go. The formal, political and content concerns of the piece are all still vital for me–I still love the High Desert, I’m still fascinated by the Sonoran Desert, and I’m still convinced that relationship between ecological and political borders needs healing for all of us, not least our more-than-human world. 

The images below were taken in the final days of the exhibition. They show the Desert in the range of lighting that the “day” and “night” cycling LEDs, programmed by Arne Gullerud, created every six minutes. 

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