How to SurviveJune 14, 2011
To survive means to continue to exist despite encroaching death, danger, or hardship. Online search results reveal its colloquial meaning to be more elastic, even dipping into fantasy; the most trafficked inquiries include surviving a long fall, a plane crash, high school, jail, total economic collapse, the apocalypse, and a zombie attack. How to Survive, a weekend-long workshop organized by Los Angeles–based artists Alyse Emdur and Michael Parker for High Desert Test Sites’ (HDTS) “New Everyday Life” lecture and workshop series, dealt irreverently with the model of ameliorative self-help, while pointing out fluctuating and culturally relative notions of necessity and survival. Demonstrations offered instruction in activities ranging from the informative to the absurd and touched on a variety of human needs, including food, communication, exercise, leisure, and energy.1 Each activity, whether it was building a solar oven or distilling moonshine, was informed by cognizance of both the fables that shape and the regulations that codify it.
The Mojave Desert is a fitting place to think through questions of necessity. Its location a few hours from Los Angeles has turned it into a popular escape, but signs of gritty homesteader history are still visible on the plot adjacent to A-Z West, Andrea Zittel’s Joshua Tree studio where HDTS is based. From 1863 to 1977, individuals were encouraged to stake claims on 160-acre parcels, provided they “proved up” by building cabins or outhouses; many of these markers are still tucked in the boulders, abandoned for a more hospitable landscape or economic climate.2
According to the National Park Service and elementary-school textbooks, homesteaders were paragons of ingenuity who thrived by using what they had. The first workshop session, a tutorial on building solar ovens led by Emdur and Parker, tapped into that storied aspiration, though all the necessary materials were already on hand. Emdur introduced the activity as one increasingly undertaken out of necessity; where resources are scarce or difficult to access, solar ovens provide a means of pasteurizing food and purifying water. Where they are not needed, however, they are icons of grade-school science fairs, of a time when experimentation is mandated and reassuringly codified: hypothesize, control, test, and conclude. Guided by a zine entitled How to Build a California Dreamin’ Solar Oven, participants used simple materials such as cardboard boxes, glue, aluminum foil, and papier-mâché. The discrepancy between the oven’s exigent use and its nostalgia-laden symbolic meaning introduced a fissure between urgency, usefulness, and recreation in which each subsequent action could be considered.
For the second workshop session, Flora Wiegmann used military training manuals and wildlife safety instructions as source materials for teaching survival choreography. She guided participants through movements that enable soldiers to communicate directions from a distance and gestures that allow hikers and swimmers to escape animal confrontations. After learning the motions, pairs of participants used them to
direct each other down a dirt road and into a dry creek. One directive, indicated to distant partners by pummeling the air with one fist, instructed them to jab at invisible shark gills or curl up on the sand. Transplanted into a near-danger-free context, signals intended to facilitate survival became forms for interaction that required surrendering self-consciousness. The activity felt like playing pretend, a game defined by the excitement and hazard of rules made up on the spot. It was also reminiscent of team charades, trust-falls or other exercises from corporate retreats that are mandated with an eye toward increased productivity.
Afterward, home brewers Aaron Freeman and Tyler Nathan sat outside over a claw-foot bathtub and demonstrated the distillation of white lightning, a type of moonshine developed in response to Prohibition legislation. Persisting quality regulations are residuals of this history, intended to protect the public from moonshine-induced death and blindness.3 Though Freeman and Nathan produce more than enough for their own needs, they don’t sell their sprits, limited by the cost of commercial licensing. Not bound to produce a consistent product, their process remains experimental, but within limits. This session presented survival as the protection of one’s own interests in defiance of regulation, but also suggested that regulations have the equivocal potential to take the place of self-protection. The rules conditioning notions of survival change over time and through conflict, as needs are systematized in culture and in legislation.
After a solar oatmeal breakfast the next morning, participants traveled the hairpin turns above Pioneertown to tour the off-the-grid property of Aaron and Ronda Mueller. Their two conjoined yurts, hand-built with pool vinyl stretched over floating ceilings, are outfitted with a composting toilet, a bucket with sawdust and a scoop. Solar panels power laptops, a flat-screen, and a standard refrigerator. Their inventive use of resources, a sort of contemporary equivalent of “proving up,” is frequently met with resistance from code-enforcing officials. The Muellers make corrections to meet code one at a time, so they always have progress to show in the event of an encounter.
Means of defining necessity range in scale and seriousness from grade-school guidelines outlining the scientific method to military safety procedures, from land-use laws to rules that regulate leisure. By breaking actions from the contexts that make them perceptible as necessary, How to Survive played with these rules, making them visible as constructions, as malleable as they would be in a game of pretend. This opens them up for questioning and rethinking, but does not suggest that they are always so plastic.
How to Survive did not propose the existence of a rule-free space (even the game of pretend is a gauntlet of rules and volatile power structures), but one in which the motivations and conditions of existing guidelines are susceptible to reevaluation. Because the codification of a process is often meant to exert control over a product, as in science classrooms, self-help books, and liquor licensing alike, How to Survive looked on increased production with resistance. Solar ovens were taken home unfinished; the project generated only as much food and energy as it could use. It enacted a kind of self-regulation, out of necessity.
How to Survive took place at High Desert Test Sites, in Joshua Tree, California, from April 30 to May 1, 2011.