Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The American Desert: A Beehive?

"In a landscape where nothing officially exists, absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen," Reyner Banham once wrote about the American desert. Desert America: Territory of Paradox proves Banham's point. "In contemporary culture, the American desert stands as a monumental symbol of emptiness, as vast, seemingly infinite landscape that has traditionally served as a powerful embodiment of the 'natural,' the untouched and the sublime," says the introduction to the book. "But a journey through the space of the desert reveals that the experience of its immensity and silence is just a mirage."

"Beneath the muteness of its outward appearance, the sounds and traces of all kinds of activities, experiments, mysteries, fictions and utopias can be heard. Far from its 'empty''appearance, the desert is full of activity: a different, parallel, uninhibited, excessive activity that encompasses everything from oases of entertainment, consumerism and play to the secret stating of military power. The most hostile and seemingly uninhabitable of environments turns out to be an ideal setting for action."

"The story of the American desert is fundamentally one of technology. What distinguishes it from the other deserts to which it is superficially similar is this chemical reaction between the raw material of a landscape and the modern sciences that have occupied and acted on it, producing a hybrid space that is both the most natural and the most artificial of territories."

"Everywhere you scratch the desert ground, there are stories: tales of civilizations that have come and gone, of natural resources and their exploitation, of the elemental struggle to control water and power, of monumental technologies and their unintended consequences."

With a rich combination of photography, essays and history, Desert America takes us on a fascinating journey through the "different, parallel strata of the occupation, appropriation, and transformation of the modern desert landscape," using seven interrelated themes:

Promised Lands: native tribes, pioneers, suburbanites, immigrants; The Elements: drought, dead seas, wind, solar and water power; Eden: mirages, oases, ideal cities, leisure worlds; Hostility: homeland security, nuclear test sites, rocket science, aircraft boneyards; Other Worlds: space quest, biomes, UFOs, giant craters; Expansion: alternative communities, instant cities, suburban grids; and Isolation: alone in the vast emptiness.

An enlightening, most recommended read. You will never feel alone again driving for hours on those 'empty' desert roads.
photos: 1. LA Frog/
2-4. scans from Desert America/5. bekahpaige/flickr

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