Just Deserts
Sleek Magazine, 26 April, 2016
Whereas mineral water springs from faucets on the edge of sand dunes, contemporary culture is dedicated to the simulation of a total oasis. And yet, the desert grows.

Whereas new days are born in the East, the West is nightly death. In ancient Egyptian myth Amentet – personification of the latter – resides in a tree on the edge of the desert and receives souls who have departed from life. Beating a modern literary path across these Western Lands, William S. Burroughs catalogued a host of local horrors: poison, snakes, centipedes, spiders, guns and bloodsucking. At sunset: the end of the world as we know it. But Amentet – though Goddess of Death – is also associated with fertility, and offers new arrivals bread and water. Thus, she supplies travellers with provisions for their onward journey through another life, in the strange new day to come. Likewise, convenience stores, gas stations, and restaurants dispense basic necessities.

Celluloid testament of the new day: Desert of the reel. Death, the West, mounted on a white horse and wearing sunglasses, deals law. As the dusty mesa stretches, uninterrupted, as far as the eye can see, nothing checks its stride. The new law pushes in every direction – touches everything – and brooks no resistance. Clapboard houses and baby carriages are blown to smithereens and ash: Atomic sunrise; Western dawn, as if the earth now turns in the opposite direction. In this landscape there is no place like home, unless, like the House in the Middle, it is tidy inside and out, and painted vibrant white. On this day you may wish to memorialize a loved one who has passed away by scattering their ashes upon the wind. For this you will require a permit and some rules must be observed. Remains must be cremated and pulverized, and should not be distinguishable as such. Nor should they be left in any type of container.

Endless day of the desert: Deserts stand magically ‘free of time’ as – according to J.G Ballard – they have ‘exhausted their own futures’. Now they belong to human afterlife. The modern conjuring trick performed in every Atrocity Exhibition renders the Storex Sedan Crater on Yucca flat, created during one of the Operation Plowshare atomic tests, near indistinguishable from Canyon Diablo – the result of a meteorite impact that rocked the Western plain with the energy of more than 20 million tons of TNT. This anti-miracle is repeated until you believe it, as though it was never otherwise. In the museum of the desert our contemporary culture is for all time, like a footprint on the moon.

Tripping highways and dust, on the road, those who cross the desert encounter mirages and chimeras ‘surpassing all conception.’ Near the horizon lies a ‘Town that Never Was’. Off the asphalt, after the multimedia display, accompanied by award winning catering, guest astronauts will talk to you about how even the smallest tasks are complicated by a microgravity environment.

The clearest way into the universe is through a wilderness. But when we try to discern the wild by itself ‘we find it hitched to everything else.’ Burning rubber, electric motors and aeroplanes are entangled with granite and cacti. Fossils run through fuel pumps; the ‘natural’ is cultivated by legal instruments, taxonomies and monopolies of power. The prophets of conservation are also the champions of bureaucracy. But to what end? Today, before it can be left alone, the desert must be subject to massive educational access; made an example, with appropriate interpretation. Veneration requires a system of profane interfaces, including wayfinding, PR, crowd control, and risk assessment.

The desert flows through each of us, and what looks like despoil may be a most fundamental condition. To view the desert traveller as an alien neglects his mineral and thermodynamic composition. Better, consider him a grotesque decoration: Of the grotto – like a stalagmite or salt column. On a geological timescale everything is a confection or ornament. Viewed through the lens of eons, landscapes move like liquid; crystals pass through bloodstreams and bladders. Today’s museum of the Western desert is an image of the fluidity of the contemporary afterlife.