Documenting the Desert
Written by Genie Davis
Captivating and inclusive, artist Kim Stringfellow’s latest documentary work, The Mojave Project, takes viewers on a compelling ride into the Mojave desert. Evocative images show us beautiful and lonely places, tourism in off-beat locations, the people who inhabit those locations, and the culture they create. It is both intensely real and dream-like, inviting us to step inside a world we might not otherwise see.
I’ve long visited many of the desert locations Stringfellow explores, and met some of its denizens. Her evocation of place is dazzling; it’s both a return for me and a deep dive.
According to Stringfellow, The Mojave Project “pretty much continues my interest in documenting culture, history, environment and geography of the American West’s arid regions.” However, she says it differs from past bodies of work because this time around she shared her documentation as she researched and produced it via a long-form blogging platform. That platform “allowed my audience to suggest tips or subjects for upcoming field dispatches or comment on past ones.” Prior to this project, she conducted and complete her research before releasing a finished project, whether that was an audio tour, a book, or exhibition. But the “open format” this time around worked well for the artist, who also began creating short documentary films.
She says “Another difference with Mojave Project is it is open-ended. Greetings from the Salton Sea, which was an overview of its environmental and cultural history from 1905, when the sea was last ‘created,’ concluded at its centenary in 2005. I did do an afterword for the second printing of the paperback in 2009, but kept the story to those 100 years.”
Stringfellow’s work serves as a connector between social and environmental practice, documentary work, and art. This coalescence came about when she realized that her interest “in human-induced climate chaos and other troubling environmental issues were just as, or more important than, the ‘art’ I was making.”
During graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she recognized this impetus, and advisors encouraged her documentary work. “The writing came about because I realized that the photographs I was making required further and deeper explanations than what could be provided in a wall caption or even an artist’s statement. I felt that both my audience and I needed background info that was detailed and well-researched.”
The rise of the Internet’s research capabilities allowed Stringfellow to research from her office, rather than traveling to various archives, she relates. “Being able to easily work across digital multimedia also transformed my practice. The digital audio format is something I really enjoy, as it allows participants to multi-task while listening…I’ve always been interested in getting my audience out of the confines and limitations of the traditional museum into the field, so creative and critical audio mapping is a medium I continually return to.”
Her first such project was collaborative in nature. “Amy Balkin and I envisioned Invisible-5 (Amy was the lead artist for this project) as a self-guided critical audio tour along Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles using the format of a museum audio tour to guide the listener along the highway landscape. The project investigates the stories of people and communities fighting for environmental justice along the I-5 corridor, through oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music, and archival audio documents.”
The direct documenting of the project for participants has carried over, as has her continued collaboration with sound designer Tim Halbur, in projects such as the Jackrabbit Homestead audio tour as well as There It Is—Take It: Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1913-2013.
According to Stringfellow, more recently she’s hosted multiple field tour events for the Mojave Project, including a three-day bus tour for some 40 participants to locations in the northern Mojave Desert and Death Valley, as well as a single-day tour in the Morongo Basin/Joshua Tree. “I really enjoy bringing people together as a ‘tour guide’ to experience places I really love or feel outsiders need to be present in physically to gain a fuller, deeper understanding.” She adds, “The emerging conversations and interactions between participants that occur over the course of the tour become the art.”
The artist had also planned a collaborative performance event for the project, but it is currently on hold due to the pandemic. But, looking toward the future, those interested should sign up for the project’s e-mail list on the Mojave Project website.
Despite the variety of activities around The Mojave Project, Stringfellow finds the writing and researching perhaps the most personally meaningful, as well as her reason to spend more time in the region.
“The Mojave Project is best if you spend some time with it. The idea is that you will begin to make connections across the diverse subjects that my contributors and I are delving into…I feel that a place can’t be truly understood by scratching its surface, it takes time and energy to do so.” She has spent almost six years on the project so far. “I am attempting to distill my first-hand experience and knowledge of this extremely complex landscape—The Mojave Desert—into a form that will allow the casual visitor to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of this unique and varied ecotone,” she attests.
As both a Guggenheim and Warhol fellow, receiving both awards opened some doors for Stringfellow, she relates. “The Mojave Project was included in my Guggenheim statement of plans, so the foundation very directly supported this particular project. I teach full-time as a Professor at San Diego State University so having the time to focus on my research and work during a year-long sabbatical supported, in part, by the Guggenheim really helped a lot. It was great to be fully immersed in my subject both physically and mentally without distraction. Keep in mind that the Mojave Desert covers land in four states, so a lot of traveling is involved.” Additionally, the AWF funded the large 2018 exhibit at LACE and the two desert tours. Stringfellow also relies on grant funding through sources such as California Humanities, and she credits them as the reason she can do the work she does without commercial support such as advertising.
While she has a great deal of empathy for her subjects, she notes “I feel that my job is to provide a conduit or platform for sharing these stories. I simply enjoy doing so. The quiet images that reveal subtle details are what interest me the most now.”
One such example is a recent photograph taken at Gypsum Cave just east of Las Vegas. “This is a very sacred cave of the ancestral southern Paiute and contemporary Indigenous people of the region. Gypsum Cave was first excavated during the 1930s by a well-meaning but culturally destructive archeologist. More recently, it has been overrun and destroyed by thrill-seeking recreationists due to its proximity to Sin City. Ancient ground sloth remains dating back to 33,00 BP have been recorded here, as has the oldest fragment of a 9,280-year-old basket that is one of the oldest of its kind ever located in in North America.” But despite the preciousness of these finds, her photo also reveals “very contemporary Halloween decorations—a common RIP Styrofoam grave marker, a fake spider web that really makes that photograph work but also says a lot about how non-Indigenous users/observers of that space value or devalue it.” The photo itself can be viewed here.
Stringfellow’s work creates an encompassing view, wherever she goes. Prior to the Mojave Project, as she explored the Salton Sea, she spent time with Leonard Knight, the creator of the folk-art masterpiece of Salvation Mountain. “What I loved best about him was that he equated what he was doing as something for everyone and anyone—regardless of your religious orientation, or lack of it in my case. He said to me once that certain Christian denominations would try to get him to represent their “brand” and belief system solely. Leonard would have nothing to do with that. He said, ‘I don’t care if you are Baptist, Isalm [sic] or Buddhist, the Mountain is for everyone.’”
Similarly, Stringfellow’s own work is for everyone – everyone who wants insight into a rich world beyond their own, and an involving understanding into ecosystems, social constructs, and pure beauty.