CMU 2021 MFA Thesis Exhibition
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Dispatch From
A-Z West
by Coco Allred

Dispatch From
A-Z West
by Coco Allred

A-Z West sits on top of a sloping hillside just past a bail bonds and dinosaur sculpture. Zittel's compound includes her home, studio, several outdoor installations, homestead cabins, shipping containers, gardens, and an encampment of sci-fi looking sleeping pods. I had the chance to visit A-Z West for the first two weeks of December as a Work Trade Resident. In exchange for lodging in one of the two shipping container apartments, I worked two days a week, mainly in the studio making ceramic bowls called AZ Containers. 

At the beginning of the workday, Tuesday through Thursday, everyone in the studio participates in Power Hour from 10:00 to 11:00 AM. The location rotates between the studio, Zittel's yard, and the shipping container and garden area. It’s fitting to start the day with Power Hour, as a gentle reminder of how central maintenance is, both in Zittel’s practice and as a reality of living in the desert. Much of Zittel’s more recent work revolves around planes; horizontal planes are the support structures for life to take place; vertical planes privilege the eye and display information. Maintenance is no exception. The planes in Zittel’s practice are made on working planes. Most of the cleaning tasks address the surfaces of the operation. Mopping the dust of the ceramic studio, vacuuming the fiber strands from the weaving studio, sweeping sand and leaves the morning after a windstorm, treating the wood surfaces after rain. The vertical planes addressed most often in power hour is the glass surfaces that collect fingerprints and dust. The doors display cleanliness reminders; the studio’s greatest enemies are dogs and dust; one is cheekily signed the management.

The shipping container I stayed in was part of a horseshoe shape that used to serve as Zittel's studio and now houses storage, two apartments, and a chicken coop. The front window looks out to the garden beds and the studio and the back window faces the outdoor kitchen and looks out to miles of desert sprawl. The interior of the container is surfaced in warm plywood except for the floor which is covered in a natural fiber carpet. Pushed to the back wall of the container is the bed on the same plane as the desk that wraps around the sidewall. The perpendicular plane is inset to create storage cubbies behind the second horizontal plane at bench height that spans the width of the container, providing prominent space to curate a reading stack and a hidden place to stash a suitcase and crumpled pajamas. There are 4 light bulbs, two flanking the parallel windows centered in the container. In the space to the side of the desk, there is a mini-fridge, kettle, outlet, heater, and three hooks. 

The experience of living and working in the shipping container apartment reminded me of advertisements Robert Probst’s early action office. In these images, there is a precision and purpose to the way the office dweller must move around their cube, pivoting from one surface to the next as they transition between tasks. With most of the interiors stripped to planes, everything seems to find its place clustered amongst likeminded objects. The desk had just enough space to spread out everything I wanted but not enough to clutter. The platform sized to perfectly fit the bed provided just enough room to replace the fitted sheet. Pushing the mattress to the opposite wall created a walking path just wide enough to move to the next corner. With the cubbies nuzzled under every horizontal plane, there were few visual distractions in the room. 

My trip aligned with the final weeks leading up to the winter solstice, and by 5:10 the sky was completely dark. If rain or approaching deadlines kept me from spending enough time outside, I found myself restless and the nights felt long. It took time to acclimate to such solitude, especially arriving after spending so much time with others over Thanksgiving. The feeling of being in the shipping container transitioned from Probst’s Action Office to its more commonly known copycat, the cubicle. I think a bit of pushback is good; it makes since that the action office and the cubes that followed would start to feel like an antagonistic setting in a play. These forms provide clear boundaries, and perhaps that discomfort encourages you to leave the office rather than prolong the work day. A structure can support action but it also absorbs what the actor brings to it. I had to act with more intention after settling into the subtle discomfort of the shipping container. To avoid feeling trapped in the evenings, I structured my routine around daylight. When sunlight streamed through the front window and the rooster crowed it was time to dress, make breakfast and sit on the patio overlooking the Regeneration Field before going for a walk. After that, I would either go to the studio to begin the workday or leave for the day. The sky at 4:45 marks descent to nightfall and a transition indoors. If I spent the day working, hiking, and exploring I happily retreated to the container for the night. I spent the evenings reading, writing, studying, drawing, and listening to audiobooks while learning how to weave on a handloom. I moved from chair to bench to bed, spreading each activity out and consolidating it into a neat pile before moving to the next.

The container, like the rest of Zittel's work, is designed to support all of your needs, but nothing is in abundance. Stripped to a simple form, these spaces urge intentionality in the objects and actions that live on their surfaces. There was one outlet in the container. Keeping the mini-fridge plugged in felt like a given, and at night I needed the second plug for the heater. To quickly use the kettle for a cup of tea I would unplug the fridge. Rarely remembering to plug in my electronics during the day, I often found myself with a low battery. Even if I did there was still the question of whether to prioritize the phone or computer. After seeing a phone charging in the mirroring container in a position I determined mine did not support, I pushed the mattress back to reveal an identical, single prong extension in the mirrored location.

After learning to appreciate the limited electricity, the third outlet made my electronic devices limitless resources once more. To make up for this discovery, I avoided plugging in my devices to see how long I could conserve the battery while using them when needed. In a capitalistic society where new needs are strategized and pitched to the public, it is grounding to be reminded how little we need. Limiting the number of things, you consider a necessity is a form of freedom. While a flushing toilet is nice, and something I’ve rarely gone without, it isn’t essential. A composting toilet will suffice, but I can’t say that I miss it now that I’m home.

A big part of adjusting to the experience was navigating the solitude. Even as an introvert looking forward to the quiet, I had to adjust to the lack of distractions both supported by my routine and the surrounding area. This trip was my first time hiking alone. Often, I would only see 2 or 3 people on the trail, and I had to trust my ability to find my way. I met a woman hiking that had also come alone, on a “mom vacation” who noted how few women, especially her age she had seen on their own. Most of the solo hikers she saw were men. Solitude is something that often must be sought out at a time where attention is at a premium. I thought about the other mothers in my life and the way they understood and valued solitude, in a gendered experience I have yet to really understand. Part of what this trip made me reflect on that while solitude is essential, it is as important to nurture a community and have people to go through life together.

It’s clear from spending time in the studio how active Zittel is in the community. Friends came in to use the looms in the weaving studio, a designated communal space. Collaborators from High Desert Test Sites stopped by for planning meetings often accompanied by their dogs, helping maintain the studio’s near 1 to 1 dog to human ratio. Zittel herself has three dogs which helps. Visiting artists working on a project for HDTS 2020 hosted music workshops for local veterans using retired weaponry as instruments. The same local cast of characters filled Tuesday bowling at the Yucca Valley Lanes and Sunday brunch at The Palms at the edge of the world in 29 Palms. Learning who's who in a new place the most common descriptions are what people do, and how they are connected. These descriptions were rarely in a clear occupational sense, and I had to keep adding new roles to the descriptions of people that I had yet to meet. Work in this context was localized, and the skills and knowledge people developed accounted for the local ecology and nurture self-efficacy, traits that feel lost in so many places.

Joshua Tree is one of the few places I know of where the possibility of building a room of one’s own so to speak is still relatively accessible. It is the kind of place you go where the life you want to pursue doesn’t make as much sense in other places. The art world’s inquiry into the blurring of art and life is a persistent conversation. There are more extreme examples like Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance from 1980-81, but much of the history in this genre was forged by more subtle gestures like Alison Knowles, Identical Lunch and the experiences Allan Kaprow describes in his writings. A proper merger eliminates a hierarchy between the two activities. As many artistic predecessors show that life can come from art, art can also come from life as exemplified by so many in the High Desert. There is pleasure in maintenance, dressing for the day, tidying one’s things, taking a lunch break, and getting from point a to b. If you can learn to indulge your creative spirit within the habitual requirements of daily life, you don’t spend as much time longing for something else. When the crescent moon that I arrived to, grew full by my last night, I found myself wishing for the velvety black sky that once felt relentless. Living in the shipping container apartment and spending time in the High Desert had allowed me to more acutely examine how I was living, what I valued, and what I needed less of.