On the last day of November 2011, Yucca Crater, a project by Ball-Nogues studio, is surrounded, most notably, by silence. Desert silence, which makes the sound of two nearby flies a little too tangible. Between the mountains and the mountains (and the desert sun above), it's just me and this structure — a 30 foot plywood basin (depressed 10 feet into the earth), with an exterior and interior ladder, its inner walls dressed with multi-colored rock-climbing holds, and about one foot of dark stagnant water still pooling at its base. In the sand, I find an empty gas station coffee cup — extra large — and a glo stick. The lower left edge of the Crater looks like its been kicked in. This feels like the beginning of a very spooky Gus Van Sant movie. What happened here before I came? And, if my car doesn't start before the Santa Ana winds pick up, what will happen to me on the side of this dirt road, some 15 miles from the nearest McDonalds (i.e. civilization)?
Before I leave Los Angeles and drive the 180 miles — or three hours and twenty minutes — that it takes to get to the Yucca Crater site in Wonder Valley, I speak with Benjamin Ball by phone. "I just hope that you don't try to understand Yucca Crater as a piece of conventional architecture, which seems to be what a lot of journalists want to do," he tells me. "There's an expectation of youthful polish or sexiness, but by now, it's probably a decaying shack." Which has been the plan all along. As Ball put it: "We didn't set out to make something that was going to withstand the elements. It's not something that's everlasting. It's not something that's made to be beautiful in a conventional sense of the word, with respect to design and architecture."
I've read that it's biodegradable, right? I ask Ball.
"It's degradable," he says. "I don't know about bio."
In short, I'm going to see Yucca Crater in the third (of three) chapters of its life: its decay. If I wanted to see the project at its prime, then I came late to the party, Ball tells me in so many words. Above all, this is a piece created for a specific two-day event called High Desert Test Sites, an initiative that generates physical and conceptual spaces for contemporary art. This year, the event took place on 15 and 16 October, and transformed this shockingly quiet stretch of the desert into the site of a bizarro pool party: HDTS visitors were invited to climb up and over the Crater and splash into 8 feet of water. Initial project plans had the water heated by solar power and pumped through a wind powered turbine, though that feature was not realized.
The proposed use of solar and wind power, as well as the fact that Yucca Crater is made of salvaged wood, made many come away thinking (and blogging) that the project is in fact a comment on green energy, re-use, and re-so-forth. Certainly, such ideas are implicit to a project that is begat of another project (more on that in a second), "but the main concern was not to propose some kind of ecological solution through this work, though it's nice if it creates that association for somebody," Ball says. "More than anything, our concern was creating a moment, a weekend, a place." And after that moment has passed, Yucca Crater lives on in the lineage of man-made earthworks, this synthetic left-over now inevitably bound to the soil from which it grows. Its next morphosis is as unpredictable as that of any other abandoned or wild formation of the desert, be it a vacant swimming pool, a homestead shack, a cactus, or a mirage. In that way, the ephemeral nature of Yucca Crater contributes to its longevity as a metaphor for existence and decay in the desert.
That being said, it's important to note that this project does not have a concrete date of birth, or chapter 1. Just as its "expiration date" is nebulous (was Yucca Crater over on 17 October? Or when it becomes a pile of timber on the desert sand, will it be over then?), so too is its inception: Yucca Crater could not have taken shape, quite literally, were it not for the creation of another project by Ball-Nogues, called Talus Dome. Made for the embankment of a freeway in Edmonton, Alberta, Talus Dome consists of 900 boulder-sized polished metal spheres assembled in the shape of a giant pile of gravel. The formwork used to construct Talus Dome — the "method of production," in other words — was then reconfigured as the "product" itself: as Yucca Crater, this anti-monument, which retains many of the trappings of a work-in-progress (protruding nails, and raw unfinished plywood, visible markings from its previous life) and makes no pledges of endurance. Outside of the HDTS event, the project seems to be a comment not so much about reuse, but somehow, about release — to the elements, to time, to human use and misuse, and 'mis'interpretation. For one thing, Ball and his partner Gaston Nogues have discussed at length the tendency of design media to celebrate sexy objects. To quote Ball: "It says something about the design culture we exist in that the magazines only want to publish things that look like Zaha Hadid designed them." Yucca Crater does not look like a Zaha. He continues: "But our intention is for the project to be understood across time, as a transformation, which isn't something that can be summarized in one sexy image." And that, in effect, is a summary in itself.
Yucca Crater has no specific "good side" for the camera, no beginning or end, and outside of a two-day event, no specific function, either. Therefore, the inevitable power struggle that arises between designer and user — the how-to aspect of a structure or designed object — erodes just as the crater itself erodes. In effect, this is a project that forces its designers to take ownership of giving up ownership — to the elements, to the rare passerby in the desert. After all, when I ask Ball whether he's visited the project since the High Desert Test Sites event, he says that he went there once, about a week later. There were people still swimming in the now-dirty water.
"How do you think people will use it, now that the water's evaporated?" I ask.
Ball tells me something I don't hear often: "People can do with it what they want."