High Desert Test Sites advances Andrea Zittel’s vision of creating art within the context of everyday life. The organization stewards A-Z West, Zittel’s 80-acre compound and artwork, where artists, writers, and thinkers spend time in residence while realizing projects that engage with our surrounding desert communities.
Co-founded in 2002 by Andrea Zittel, Andy Stillpass, John Connelly, Shaun Regen and Lisa Anne Auerbach—High Desert Test Sites has hosted the work of more than 460 artists, 12 expansive site-specific programs, and 25 solo projects.
Who We Are
PO Box 1058
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Office hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 10am-5pm PST
Vanesa Zendejas - Executive Director, email@example.com
Connor Schwab - Facilities and Grounds Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Foreman - Director’s Assistant and Visitor Services, email@example.com
Lisa Anne Auerbach
Shaun Caley Regen
WEBSITE AND DESIGN
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
David Knaus - Chair
Andrea Zittel - Founding Director/Treasurer
Brooke Hodge - Secretary
Marilyn Loesberg - Member
Susan Lubeznik - Member
Aram Moshayedi - Member
Paul Bessire - Member
High Desert Test Sites is grateful to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Tides Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation - Arts Regranting Program/Inland Empire at The Community Foundation, Strengthening Inland Southern California through Philanthropy, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, The Ranch Projects, California Arts Council, Sky Village Swap Meet, Copper Mountain Mesa Community Association and our generous donors for their support over the years.
When HDTS was founded in 2002, part of the original mission was to run on a zero budget. The idea was to support artistic visions in practical terms—provide help, guidance, tools, a cot, and infinite space. For many years this worked and it produced self-driven projects that were ambitious and independently spirited.
Over the past ten years, HDTS has been working towards building a more substantial funding structure for artists’ projects. This has included hosting recurring fundraising projects such as our Artist Painted Rock Auction, Gem/Mineral Expo, pop-ups at art fairs and art museums, and producing limited edition artworks for sale.
But these endeavors never quite add up to what we need—to pay our artists fairly, for venue rentals, for staff, liability insurance, the bookkeeper, to feed our volunteers, pay for all-terrain forklift rentals, and so much more.
As our programs grow every year, so does our budget. And although we make every effort to raise the money that we need with Andrea’s self-sufficient spirit in tow, we still rely on support from donors to make it all happen.
HDTS has been a registered 501c3 since 2013. Please consider a gift in any amount to help us in providing access to engaging, experimental, contemporary art in the high desert region.
Donate via PayPal, via Venmo (@hdts_azwest), or via check:
PO Box 1058 Joshua Tree CA 92252
Many past HDTS projects have only been temporarily sited, but some are permanent and scattered throughout the Morongo Basin. The best way to find these works is to follow the directions on our current HDTS driving map. This map also includes sites we’ve partnered with in the past and admire as independent projects. Most HDTS works are located at sites that we regularly activate and operate out of. Those sites include:
Our base of operations, A-Z West is Andrea’s project, where she lived and worked for 21 years. Located a few minutes outside downtown Joshua Tree, this 80-acre compound includes four restored homestead cabins, several experimental living structures, permanent sculptures, 4,000 square foot studio space, and pristine desert landscape.
Public tours of A-Z West are offered twice a month. Tickets for these tours can be purchased through the West Works store. All funds raised from tour ticket sales support HDTS programming and operating expenses.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left, then the next right. At the hanging wooden signs, go straight to park in the Encampment lot, or make a left to go to the house, cabins, or studio.
Behind the Bail Bonds
Sited on this 10-acre boulder strewn parcel adjacent to A-Z West are several works that may take some deeper exploring to divulge: Morongo by Nathan Lieb, Surveillant Architectures by Julia Scher, and CA Truck Heads by Sarah Vanderlip. Feel free to visit this site sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking and do not block the road.
Directions: Head east down Hwy 62 past downtown Joshua Tree. About 1 mile past Park make a right at the “Bail Bonds” sign onto Neptune. When the road hits a “T” make a left. Follow along power lines, park just before the turnaround area.
Andy’s Gamma Gulch
Co-founder Andy Stillpass has generously allowed countless HDTS projects to take place on this wildly beautiful 100-acre parcel north of Pioneertown off of Pipes Canyon Rd. Several works are sited here, includingGradually/We Become Aware/Of a Hum in the Room by Halsey Rodman, Trail Registry by Scout Regalia and Tapwater Pavilion by Tao Urban. Andy’s is also available to visit from sunup to sundown but make sure you park in our designated parking or if you do need to park off the side of the road, be careful not to end up in soft sand.
Directions: From Hwy 62 turn right at Pioneertown Rd. Drive about 7.5 miles. Turn right on Pipes Canyon Rd. Drive 2.2 miles to Gamma Gulch Rd, turn left (respect our neighbors – do not drive above 20 mph on this road!) Drive 1.6 miles to God’s Way Love (if the sign has blown off look for Dave & Jeannie’s sign), turn right. Drive 0.4 miles.
This 40-acre site, located at the most eastern edge of Wonder Valley, in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness area, is surrounded by BLM wilderness land. Located at the very end of the valley, but feels like the end of the world, this site is home to several permanently sited works, including Dineo Seshee Bopape’s HDTS 2022 work, and a mostly “invisible” project: Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt’s Secret Restaurant. On the opposite side of Ironage Rd and slightly to the north is a work by Kiersten Puusemp (Untitled) that you will probably need to get out of your car and explore in order to find. Be very careful when parking off the side of the road as the sand is very soft here.
Directions: From 29 Palms continue east on Hwy 62. Drive forever (23 miles) and turn left at Iron Age Rd. Drive a mile or so until you see something. (Iron Age Road connects both Amboy Road and Hwy 62, so you can reach it using either access road.)
AZ West is the home of both the Wagon Station Encampment and High Desert Test Sites — the two entities that are collaboratively working together to create this desert destination log. A-Z West is also the private residence of Andrea Zittel and is dedicated to personal practice and special programs.
High Desert Test Sites is a non-profit support entity for artists whose practices explore the intersection between contemporary art and life at large. Part of the HDTS mission includes “learning from what we are not.” HDTS programs include guides to the high desert’s cultural test sites, immersive excursions, solo projects, workshops, publications, and residencies.
Over the last 25 years I have developed spaces, objects and acts of living all intertwined as a single ongoing investigation into what it means to exist and participate in our culture today. “How to live?” and “What gives life meaning?” are some of the core issues in both my personal life and my artistic practice. Answering these questions often entails the examination of social norms, values, hierarchies and categories. For instance, I have come up with theories that pertain to the relationships between our needs for freedom, security, autonomy, authority, and control and have observed that often structure has the ability to make us feel more free than open-ended choices.
Most of these questions and resulting works are based in the act of day-to-day living, and play out at the site A-Z West—my life-project in the Southern California Mojave Desert. Since 2000 I’ve committed the entirety of my time and resources toward creating this testing grounds for my work and ideas: a site where works can be experienced in the same context for which they are created.
Before moving to Joshua Tree, I first began working this way in response to a series of small spaces in which I lived in the early 1990s in Brooklyn, NY. The project that is best known is “A-Z East”— small, three-story row house that functioned as a showroom testing grounds where I would prototype and then live with various experimental designs for living.
A-Z West follows the same basic format, and expands many of these experiments to the land and outdoor living. The grounds now consist of over 75 acres, as well as several other satellite properties. Some of the projects and structures around A-Z West include my home/testing grounds, the Wagon Station Encampment, Regenerating Field, the shipping container compound, my studio and weaving studio, our guest cabin, a ten acre parcel for High Desert Test Site projects, and several adjacent parcels slated for future projects. We host monthly tours, a work/trade residency program, and overnight visits to the Wonder Valley Experimental Living Cabins.
A-Z West first began in the fall of 2000 with the purchase of a five-acre parcel and a small cabin. I had been living in New York since finishing my MFA in sculpture at RISD, but this move felt like it had been in the works for most of my life. My grandparents (and great-grandparents) had been ranchers in the Imperial Valley, just south of Joshua Tree National Park. I spent my vacations at the El Centro ranch riding horses and taking trips out to the surrounding desert. Their lifestyle, while incredibly challenging, seemed to me like the best possible world. I loved how each ranch or homestead in the valley felt like an island - surrounded by acres of open land. This model of a self-contained universe, and the resourcefulness that is required to live this way, remains one of my personal ideals. In addition, as a contemporary artist, I am committed to creating a context for my works that will allow them to exist the same context for which they were created — a situation where works are conceptualized, realized and experienced in a single location in which their meaning and relevance is the most direct and potently engaged.
The homestead cabin that is now my home is similar to the many other homesteads that populated this area in the first half of the twentieth century. These are the result of the Homestead act which was used to distribute land all across America by giving people 160 acres for free if they could “improve” it by farming it. When the settlers tried to homestead the desert, the joke was that “you could get the land for free if you didn’t starve to death trying to do so”. The insinuation being that it was simply too hard to farm desert land for the five years required to gain title to it. In response, congress passed the “Small Tract Homestead Act” in 1938, making 5 acre parcels available to anyone who would “improve the land” by building a small “livable” structure (dividing up the desert into a seemingly infinite grid system). The original required size for homestead structures was only 200 square feet — but later this increased to 400 square feet. The baby homestead act was good timing for Post WW2 boom war veterans started moving out for respiratory health benefits. (The Homestead act came to an end in 1976). If you visit almost any of the homes built out here and look hard enough, you can almost always find the “bones” of the small original cabin.
The original cabin consisted of the two rooms that now serve as my kitchen and bedroom. The previous owner turned a porch into what is now the living room, and added on the bathroom as well as a small utility room that houses the pump for the water tank. In 2010, after my son Emmett was born I added 499 square feet to my house — the addition included a room for eating, a bedroom for Emmett, an office and a guest bathroom. If you add under 500 sq. ft. you can avoid having to bring the entire house up to code, so you will often see homes out here that have been made by adding on lots of piecemeal additions, all under 500 sq. ft.
One of the recent prototypes that I tested in my house is a piece of furniture inspired by a work by Donald Judd called “Bench.” Judd’s bench looks like a low table with a Persian rug on it. I had been obsessed with this work for many years — and the subtle way that it confuses or collapses distinctions between the surface of a floor, a seat and a table. Eventually I decided to try making my own version of the bench to see what it was like to live with it.
Another prototype is the set of A-Z Aggregated Stacks that are on the kitchen wall. These irregular modular shelving units are made from cardboard boxes fused together with plaster gauze. Many of the day-to-day necessities here at A-Z West are ordered on-line and delivered in cardboard boxes. For years I would keep the boxes thinking that it was a shame to throw them away — eventually I found myself arranging them along the wall and figuring out a way to cement them together into an integrated unit that is strong enough to use for books, magazines and things I collect in the desert. I’ve always been interested in the form of the fractured grid because I think that humans aspire toward the orderly and systematic, however because life itself is quite chaotic, the ultimate reality of these two forces is reflected in the imperfect pattern of the broken or falling apart grid.
The “A-Z Containers” are used in all of our living quarters and have been in use since the early 1990s when I started using bowls for all eating and drinking functions — whether it be tea, muesli, salads or stir-fry. The bowls work better then you might initially imagine - and we are always looking for new recipes for bowl meals.
Information on how to visit A-Z West is available at [www.zittel.org]
Everyone I know in the desert came here in search of some version of personal freedom. When the vast stretches of the American West were first being settled, freedom was often associated with ownership and growth. Owning things and being in charge gave you power, autonomy and independence. But in our contemporary culture now, “ownership” is what actually puts you under the jurisdiction of external systems of authority. In this time of increasing bureaucracy, regulatory codes and administrative agencies, it seems like we are only truly able to find personal liberty by shrinking down to “slip between the cracks” of larger systems and authorities. I like to think of these personal forms of empowerment as “small liberties”.
My own moment of creating small liberties happened about a year after moving into my home in Joshua Tree when I needed to build some simple spaces for people to stay when they came to visit or work on projects. You would think that this desert is a place where you can do or build anything — but in fact this is not true. San Bernardino County is a very large and regulated county, which makes it difficult to get permits to build.
So instead of trying to build something large, I started to research what sorts of structures could be built without asking for “permission” from any outside authority. The resulting Wagon Stations are tiny; 5’x7’ each —the size of tent, with hard exterior shell. They provide a small shelter for sleeping and storing a few basic possessions, and they are totally portable, so they can be carried to almost any location. The name Wagon Station is a nod to both covered wagons and the station wagon (since that was the smallest comfortable place that I could imagine sleeping in.)
I first started prototyping the design for the Wagon Stations in 2002. The first 12 units were scattered across various parcels at A-Z West, but later we moved them into the wash and created the “encampment”. There have been two “generations” of Wagon Stations to date. The first generation were mostly used by my close friends and frequent collaborators — I gave each of them a Wagon Station where they could leave their camping supplies and stay in the same unit each time they came out to visit. They were also invited to customize them, since my works of the 1990s were often fabricated along the lines of mass produced objects and then offered up to “owner-users” for customization.
As a result, each Wagon Station ended up being intensively customized and unique. Eventually however, the units began to to suffer from the harsh desert environment and were either put in storage for safekeeping or sold to institutions. I used the income from the sale of a few of the original units to fabricate a second generation of Wagon Stations that would remain un-customized for people to stay in during our two open seasons each year.
Sometimes people ask about the function of the Wagon Station Encampment — which I like to describe it as a cross between a residency, a retreat and a campground. It is a place where you can step outside of their regular routines, patterns and habits of living and focus on a few basic needs. In my own life I have always found times like this to be important for personal growth and learning. I don’t always see productivity as being “productive” — instead, it is those down periods of being totally open to new experiences and input that can often be the most life changing.
The Wagon Station Encampment residency ran until Fall 2017.
The A-Z Work Station was originally designed to function as my home-office when I lived for a brief stint in Altadena, California. Unfortunately it had to be gutted after it suffered extensive water damage. Later we renovated the interior to provide accommodations for our encampment “host” who oversees the Wagon Station Encampment. Eventually the exterior of the trailer needs to undergo renovation — if anyone knows someone with experience working on trailers (or similar types of detailed sheet metal fabrication) let us know.
To the north of my house is a field of metal racks — this is the Regenerating Field, one of the first projects that we took on after moving to the A-Z West. When I moved out here my works were primarily made out of wood and steel, but I was interested trying to come up with new materials and fabrication techniques made more sense in the extreme desert climate. (For the first few years the studio was outdoors, and it was incredibly difficult to make pristine works out in the elements) In looking around for the most plentiful natural resource available, I realized that the one thing I had a lots and lots of was garbage - especially paper waste. Product packaging, shipping boxes, newspapers, magazines, mail order catalogs and junk mail all had to be hauled to the dump (this was before we had a trash truck that comes twice a month) and I started using this to developing Paper Pulp as a building material. Over the years we have had both successes and failures with the panels — sometimes the paper dries too slowly and rots, and other times it dries too quickly and warps. We are currently working to troubleshoot some of these issues. The Paper Pulp Panels are dried in a grid of racks called the “Regenerating Field”. People think that they look like solar panels or modernist sculpture like the work of Walter De Maria, but I often imagine that they are an agricultural field. I like the idea that I can “farm” my art - by setting out a batch of pulped paper each day, and then harvesting it several weeks later when it is dry.
The shipping container compound was the second studio at A-Z West (my studio for the first three years was an outdoor workshop, on the patio behind the house) I liked the idea of using containers because they are so ubiquitous here in the desert — though they are also wildly impractical and took many years to hone into truly functional spaces.
When the containers functioned as my studio we would store materials and completed artworks in the left container, the middle container contained my office and an area for working with textiles, and the right container had the woodshop. There wasn’t much room inside the containers, so we mostly worked outside on the patio, which was of course extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It was rare that we were able to put in a full eight-hour day, and when we had a lot of works waiting to ship out to a show they would have to be stored on racks outside on the patio. Trying to protect fragile artworks from the fierce windstorms, rain, hail and even snow, was always an incredibly nerve-wracking undertaking. (I was so happy when we finally built the new large studio)
Now the shipping container compound contains several well-organized storage for different parts of A-Z West, the middle container has two small apartments for our work-trade residents, and the right container houses a chicken coop with pigeons and bantam chickens (a bit of nostalgia for back in the 1990s when I first started making art and my work was breeding bantams). The courtyard is also my personal garden area and is fertilized with the compost generated by the encampment.
Some of the animals at A-Z West include dogs: Maggie Peppercorn, Mona Winona, and Owlette — two cats: Mood Cloud and Raven — a large adult tortoise and four younger tortoises, as well as a bunch of bantam chickens and four rescue pigeons. Another project that we completed recently is a fenced “native habitat” for a small group of rescue tortoises.
The new studio is now the site of production for my own practice; in addition we use the office to administer High Desert Test Sites (more about that later). While most of the studio is dedicated to my own personal practice — the looms in the weaving studio are also made available to local and visiting weavers who comprise our intimate weaving community.
Up the hill from the studio is our small guest cabin, which is generally used by friends and artists who come out to do projects with HDTS. Similar to my own home, the guest cabin was also an original homestead cabin — but this one was a more deluxe version. The renovations to the guest cabin are more minimal then those in my personal house — and I tried hard to keep the character of the original cabin as intact as possible.
Some of the furniture, like the Raugh Sofa, is an artwork. For several years I was working on a ideology called “Raugh” that embraced “human nature” and developed an corresponding aesthetic and series of designs. The sofa in the cabin was one version of the Raugh Furniture that I was working on until about 2010. The cabin also has a bunch of my mom’s gymkhana trophies from when she used to ride horseback and paintings by my grandmother who taught me to paint.
If you look on the map of A-Z West you will see that the north east corner of the property is a High Desert Test Sites parcel. This is one of several pieces of land between Pioneertown and Wonder Valley that we use for HDTS, a non-profit organization that I co-founded in 2002 with the goal of supporting and drawing attention to works that engage directly with everyday life.
One of the underlying philosophies of HDTS is to “learn from what we are not.” This is the idea that there are many ways to live, and learning from others can offer new insight and perspectives on ourselves, and environments or situations that we may think we already know well. This mission is inspired by some of the visionary individuals who live in the desert who have made their work their life practice — who create intellectually rigorous and culturally relevant work regardless of the market or other outside factors.
High Desert Test Sites is known for our big “events” which are held every other year and feature immersive artworks that are installed (mostly) outdoors, in very diverse locations, with many miles in between. Originally these events were always held in the high desert, but in recent years they have expanded to locations as far away as New Mexico and Utah. But there are a lot of other programs too. Kip hosts a monthly desert book club and we do workshops, solo artist’s projects and help disseminate information about interesting locations in the high desert. All of these activities are connected by a desire to help support artworks that function as part of everyday life — and to connect diverse groups of people in ways that are respectful and mutually beneficial.
Many HDTS projects are short term or temporary. The upcoming schedule is listed on the HDTS website so you can plan your next trip to the desert, but if you are in the area when there aren’t any scheduled programing there are still lots of other things to check out. The HDTS HQ at the Sky Village Swap Meet distributes maps to some of our current installations, as well as the area’s “greatest hits.”
A lot of people ask what the difference is between A-Z West and HDTS. A-Z West is my home and land in Joshua Tree, dedicated to my own practice and projects like the Wagon Station Encampment. High Desert Test Sites is a support entity for artists whose practices explore the intersection between contemporary art and life at large. The HDTS sites include many different areas and pieces of land scatted throughout Pioneertown, Joshua Tree, and Wonder Valley.
My newest works are still very much grounded in an examination of life and living, and instead explore core questions about reality and the nature of human perception. As my interests become more fundamental (and also more existential), the forms the works themselves take have also become more abstract and elemental.
The physical form that most of my new works are based on is that of the “panel”, “plane” or “field”. Every element in our surrounding physical reality that is flat and has straight edges has been man-made, and almost everything in our constructed environment is made out of these planes or panels — think about plywood, sheetrock, printer paper, even a table-top or a bath towel. Because of this, the format of a flat plane or panel becomes a perfect amorphous shape that can slip between categories and social roles. It is my belief that these panels that exist both as literal and in a psychological fields of reality. These different realities can be as banal as the pages in a magazine (each page representing a different reality), or a wall that literally frames our experience (for instance what we see on one side is often very different then what we see or experience on the other side) or these realities can be as profound as unknowable planes of spiritual existence.
While this conceptual pursuit may sound somewhat immaterial, it intersects with the physical built environment. It has brought me back into the realm of architectural space, which I feel has always been part of my core DNA as an artist. In the last few years I’ve built two large scale works for the GSA Federal Center in Denver and the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. I’ve also had two gallery exhibitions and am working on a third project that works with this “planar” conceptual framework.
But it’s always been an important part of my practice to make work that exists outside of the dominant mode of art world presentation and ultimately my goal is to focus as much of my energy as possible on A-Z West. In 2016 I spent pretty much all of my savings on several pieces of land. Among a few other parcels, I was able to buy fifteen acres between A-Z West and Highway 62 — this includes a large ten acre parcel, as well as a five acre parcel that has highway frontage. While this land will buffer A-Z West from future development, it is also the site of a simple planar sculpture that will traverse the hill in front of the compound down to the highway.
In addition to the 15 acres designated to the work that I’m calling the Planar Pavilions, I was able to purchase three cabins in Wonder Valley, each on five acres, that have been converted into minimal experimental living spaces for people in search of seclusion and privacy. Each cabin a little over 400 square feet and is completely off-the-grid with no water, power or solar, meaning that every function of day-to-day living must be carefully considered. The first two of these cabins have been installed with new works titled “Planar Configurations” that consist of vertical and horizontal panels that literally create support for life to happen on them. The abstracted forms provide surfaces that may be used to sleep, eat, or to sit on. The Planar Configurations suit these cabins in that they are an experiment in which all surfaces are totally neutral and yet highly functional at the same time. The difference between sitting on the floor of the cabin and the 2” high platform becomes obvious as you experience the fact that dirt gravitates to the lowest surface in the space.
If my practice asks the question “how to live” — these works propose that we live our lives aware of the highly constructed nature of our chosen realities — and that we immerse ourselves in them knowingly yet with an awareness of the choices we make in prescribing to any set of constructions — whether they are architectural, environmental, or societal.