An essay by collective members Brett Stalbaum and Paula Poole
It was an examination of works by eteam – artists that some of us have known of for some time – that framed the development of the Calzona Collective. Over a decade ago eteam explored the new kinds of marketplace that ebay had enabled, but using frames of reference that only artists can enable or possibly anticipate. Purchasing site unseen – except by raster – some land in the deserts of the American West, then going there and conceiving of an “artist residency program” to conceptually improve the landscape and – flip it.
“Flip it” is not eteam’s term. It is part of the the parlance of a large number of Americans who buy and sell real estate. Flipping is the practice of buying a property, maybe fixing it up, but in all cases reselling it relatively quickly for a profit. Beginning in the early 2000s, flippers became the marks in a confidence scheme led by Wall Street that would famously crash the world economy by 2008. Flipping real estate through sub-prime loans was a pathway to wealth, albeit without the effort required to be a participant in the emergent knowledge economies (recently renamed the “Blue State Model“) of our time. Before the 2007-8 crisis overseen by U.S. President Bush II, real estate speculation had appeared as lucrative as what became known as the Pine Barrens Speculation of 1789 to 1796 once did. After the Pine Barrens disaster, claimants were left to sort out property titles for a generation. After the sub-prime loan scandal, those who took out the various adjustable rate mortgages and “liar’s loans” were left holding the debt and often driven into foreclosure if not bankruptcy, all while Wall Street got handsome bonuses. Indeed in the Calzona Collective’s studies, we found that the scoundrel ridden world of real estate speculation goes all the way back to the founding of of the United States. (Professor Ross H. Frank of UCSD’s department of Ethnic Studies turned us on to the Marshall Trilogy.) Donald Trump’s “Trump University”, a real-estate related fleecing of yet more hapless marks that became of some concern during the 2016 U.S. presidential contest, is simply nothing new in a historical sense. More often than not, the Trumps, the Wall Street Bankers, the Neil Bush types, the Andrew Jackson’s of our history; all of them get away with their depredations without much if any penalty. In their wake rests historical manifestations such as the Trail of Tears, Swamp Land in Florida, the 1980’s Savings and Loan scam, and the Sub-Prime mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession of 2008. Same as it ever was. A nation founded on real estate fraud.
In eteam’s 1:1 Acre Flat Screen, the present authors who would later help found Calzona Collective were happy to play along with a parallel practice of real estate speculation under the alternative terms that eteam had first spotted across the digital horizon, using their web browsers as periscopes, thus re-configuring the newly “clickably liquid” (our term) marketplace for speculative land sales into a prescient pre-critique of the Great Recession. There is a land art of the 21st century, and this is what it looks like. Today we can see eteam’s project as a clear and prescient parody of something terrible – for most people – that was still brewing in the near future as the parody was written. But for all of that weight, it was nevertheless exciting to play along. In all of their work, no matter the sometimes depressing conditions underlying it, eteam also understands dopamine: the direct the neuronal joy of digesting novel landscapes, of exploring and understanding these places and making friends with the people who inhabit them; all in a lovely, kind and clever way that unpacks location in ways not unpacked before, and sometimes is even capable of bringing a forgotten desert airstrip back to life – conceptually at least!
And that brings us rather indirectly back to the land use disaster known as Calzona. Calzona is an official place name in the USGS gazetteer, a portmanteau created from the U.S. states of California and Arizona. Calzona lies on the California side of the Colorado River that generally represents the border between the two states, just south of the communities of Big River (CA) and Parker (AZ). There is a lot to talk about here that for reasons of space, must wait for other publication. But the American (read U.S.) legacy of chopping (the legal term is “subdividing”) land into units that are useless for any reasonable economic purpose, other than perhaps real estate scams of course, describes the Calzona area well. Calzona includes hundreds of 5225 square foot lots, not large enough to justify individual water wells, and insufficient in size for individual septic systems. The lots would barely fit a mere double-wide manufactured home! Yet in the early 1970s, these were created as taxable lots complete with APN numbers and an annual property tax bill from the county of San Bernadino. Other lots in the area are larger, but our neighbors report natural arsenic in their well water. A few people do live in the area: nominally tough desert people with otherly life stories to tell, but who are also somewhat isolated from society, sometimes stoned, we think, totally reasonably so. (The essay’s title does not refer to THAT kind of recovery.)
One of the first neighbors we met in Calzona threatened us with a gun – importantly – a gun that if it actually existed (probably it does) was never actually produced, brandished or displayed to us in any way. Being of the American West ourselves, the present authors are also white Americans long engaged in gun culture, so we fully understood this rhetoric as completely sincere, but not dangerous. Quite a few others among the collective would understand this firearms related scenario regardless of race, having grown up in the desert, having grown up around guns, and otherwise having spent much time in the U.S. western outback. We hold no kind of grudge, that is just how the Western deserts are. Quite to the contrary, we became grateful for the thought of having neighborhood eyes and ears who care about the place! This is to make a corollary point: many of the lots in Calzona have presently negative economic value – the annual property taxes cost more than some of the lots were legally acquired for! And when you let that kind of land use disaster happen thorough your planning and zoning policies, the people who most often turn up physically as actual visitors to the actual territory are those who do not hold title to the lands, and frequently these folks have a much less respectful attitude toward the landscape. They are trespassers (often on dirt bikes and ATVs), illegal dumpers, sadly some shooters who don’t know how to behave, and other rapscallions. Our neighbors who actually live in the landscape full-time are far outnumbered by these kinds of informal guests, and are right to be concerned with outsiders, because outsiders often bring with them destructive and annoying behaviors.
This being remarked upon, other guests to the region are the occasional true believers (flippers who still believe in buying low and selling high, which is absolutely hilarious in the Calzona context), and as the Calzona Collective is working to stimulate, artists. It is artists who often play the role of first-wave gentrification in other contexts, but we think the arrival of the arts in Calzona is probably not such a sign. At least it is not a sign of gentrification qua bringing residential and business development, or economically displacing the neighbors. But it does bring some new neighbors who care about the place. It is important to note too given the above reference to the present writers’ whiteness, that the Calzona Collective is actually very diverse and international, consisting of professors and students from around the globe. China. Taiwan. Spain. U.S. Brazil. Mexico. So our early experience with meeting the neighbors as described above simply happened that way because the present writers are among artists who first owned land in Calzona; again it is understandable to be suspicious of outsiders, but only as long as they are outsiders. Noting also, not many students or young people have the resources to spend however modestly on the acquisition of negative value lands! Unsurprisingly and in marker we take as progress and health, the diversity of the collective admittedly comes in large part through our students, and we do hope those diverse perspectives will balance our own. The present writers speak for the collective only insofar as we are able, and if there is a discursive voice to the collective, all the better. This writing is not a “manifesto” or something that all of the founders sign onto, nor does it need to be.
So, that is some approximation of where the Calzona Collective is, figuratively, literally and discursively. We know this place is full of rich cultural value, even if much of that is found in a histories of sadness, regret, and even internment. But there is a hopefulness too.
What value can art and design discover in these kinds of places? What technological and social interventions can activate these spaces beyond their current status as – at best – poor planning decisions? There is wild environment there – plants and animals who continue to occupy these lands because the earth here is of little to no practical use to humans (other than the profits inherent in various confidence games and land scams.) Maybe the sunlight shining (again figuratively and literally) on these failed micro-parcel desert landscapes can become the energy sources of Calzona’s future! Maybe humans can learn to re-engage with nature without the soft handrails of interpretive trails, traffic jams in national parks (traffic included in the price of admission), or warning signs for stupid people regarding taking selfies too close to bears or the dangerous edges of cliffs. Maybe the puritanical fear of the sweaty human body, or the weakness evident in those who fear life without air conditioning, maybe these are things that our a tougher-by-necessity millennial generation can crush under foot? Calzona’s older generation can only hope.
Or maybe we can all – no matter age or background – just laugh. This is what we are obviously interested in: recovery, and sometimes laughter is a powerful cure. We also indexed a little of the Dionysian or otherwise happy making sensibility when we discussed eteam’s spirit of learning about and working with the people in places that are obscure, yet interesting for it. The Collective certainly had fun completing projects together on May 21st 2016, channeling eteam’s sensibility having studied their work in some detail. A China Town. A Bus Stop. (Ok, Uber stop.) A recycled garden. In various attempts of certainly variable effect, we are working to repair the foolish mistakes of generations that have preceded us, even if it is with some our own joy along the way. Hard problems, these are the best problems! The easy answers repetitively mouthed by aging idiots (and also by the aging powerful who who are increasingly losing control of “their” idiots), none of this is any longer to be favored. Sometimes it is best just to try things, see how they turn out, laugh. Analyze. Critique. Iterate. Write and rewrite. Artists get to work that way; a unique privilege of the arts as vocation.
Given a world that has left an entire younger generation with an inheritance of problems, angst, failure, distrust, and general clean up duty following those baby boomer Woodstocks and Burning Mans, we hope most of all that we can create an art that discovers whatever life, peace, isolation, environmental balance and justice that is still possible to find in the spent and relatively valueless, yet ironically really expensive, world that remains to millennials for sorting out. Calzona is an excellent testing ground to do research on what is left to be recovered from all of the economic and environmental destruction that are being left to upcoming generations. It is at least the possibility of intervention in the waste lands left behind, which we view as a step up from debauched consumption in precious BLM wildernesses.
Calzona is a multi-generational, mostly accidental laboratory for discovering what can be made out of whatever remains. It should be added, that the Calzona Collective is open to contributions to the space from others who might become neighbors. From our perspective they do not need to adhere to anything stated here or elsewhere, as that would obviate our desired experimental attitude toward land use.