Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

neville wakefield



portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM


At the crossroads of nature and site-specific projects, Desert X’s founder reinvents land art as an experimental antidote to art and commerce. 


OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start by asking where a source of real transformation could come from today. For me, the only places are art and fashion. I don’t really believe in transformation coming from political organizations…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — What about corporate interests? We now have these nation- states of Microsoft, Google, Apple, OpenAI, and so on transforming the way we see knowledge. They are the ones now controlling the networks, neural and otherwise, on which we build culture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a major issue now, coming from California to the rest of the world. This is, for sure, a source of transformation.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — There’s a certain immodesty to identifying our times as transformative, as all times have identified themselves as transformative, I think. But certainly, when we think about major paradigm shifts — the Industrial Revolution, the information revolution, now perhaps the AGI [artificial general intelligence] revolution that we seem to be on the cusp of — it really does seem that large language models, LLMs, are changing how knowledge is perceived and consumed. And it’s interesting for artists because a lot of those datasets are being effectively stolen. These models are being trained on copyrighted images that often come from art and artists — harvested from the Web. So, we now have this moment where artists, with programs like DALL·E, are looking and saying, “These models have been trained on my work.” We live in interesting times, for sure.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, it’s also going to change the way that art is being created.


ALEPH MOLINARI — Because everything is already measured and part of the subset of data. So, I think that artists now have to become more poetic in the way that they create art — it’s more surrealist, in that sense.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. In general, all that programs like DALL·E can do at the moment is synthesize existing images. So, on the positive side, you could say artists then have to really take responsibility for original thought and content creation because that’s what AI can’t do yet. On the negative side, it’s getting close to doing that. [Laughs]

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, you think that from the corporate side, there can be deep transformation? Because that also comes with corporate interest and the monetizing of anyone who uses technology.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yeah. I’m pretty alarmist about what’s going on.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s what happened with the Internet.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Right. It started off as this utopic free exchange of ideas. And now it’s telling us what to buy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, where is all this headed?

ALEPH MOLINARI — With an AI engine behind it, it’s really your psychological patterns, your biometric impulses.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yeah. I’m not so anxious about it in terms of stultifying creativity or challenging that birthright as there are much more alarming effects that it can have on culture and society. But art is the canary in the coal mine, and the compro­mising of creative authorship is probably one of the first things that we’ll see happen.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about Desert X because, in a way, you counter AI…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — There’s no artificial intelligence there. It’s debatable whether there’s any neurological intelligence there. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — In a digital world, with the hyper commercialization of art, you decided as a curator to go back and reactivate this ’60s utopic idea of land art.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — [Laughs] Yeah, you’re not wrong. Desert X is built on the legacy of land art, for sure. The ’60s version was slightly different — it was largely white men with bulldozers scarifying the Earth’s surface. I think we’re trying to do something slightly different.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. But you also had Robert Smithson. He was using the bulldozer, too…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. But he was also using entropy as a creative force. That’s really interesting. I think one of the things that something like Desert X can model is how entropy and natural forces become part of a creative process. And that’s very exciting to me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Beyond the artist.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. I think what we’re trying to do is create living artworks, and one of the ways that we do that is obviously to take them outside of the white walls, the institutional walls and ontological walls, and allow them to take on this life. And it can be a life that’s as simple as something like Doug Aitken’s Mirage, where you’re seeing that it’s constantly transforming with each cycle of the sun, each part of the day, and each season, in some cases. But it can also be a different kind of life through artist interaction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And through interaction with organisms.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — To make living organisms. The paradigm of art, at least prior to the ’60s, has been so much about preservation and conservation. We’ve had a few centuries — at least since the beginning of the museum, which is obviously also the mausoleum — where we’ve been extracting our artworks from their context and putting them in this context of no context, which is the institution of the white cube. And in doing so, we kind of kill them. One of the impetuses behind Desert X is to create these living artworks — living in the sense that they change over time, but also living in the sense that no two experiences of them are the same. And I think that’s what appeals to the audience.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very personal. As the observer, you have to commit to the concept. You have to go there, experience it. It’s something that’s totally personal and intimate.


OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not going shopping in a gallery.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — I mean, it has this weird double life. On the one side, they do exist in social media, and they operate as spectacles that have that kind of imagistic draw. But on the other side, they’re also really ineffable experiences where the atmospherics of the day can completely change it. I’ve just come from the desert, and the sensation of the wind and the heat are really sentient and visceral, and they’re part of the experience.

ALEPH MOLINARI — And also going there — going to the desert, to the artwork.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — The act of pilgrimage, if you want to call it that, as a framing device.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your project started as a critique of land art as a colonization of nature, with the bulldozer, the big rocks? Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — De Maria is a good example of a late postcolonial reading of that because there’s this iconic image that we all see, the decisive moment, which is the lightning and the arcing of energy between the sky and the ground. And that’s what I thought it was about. And then when I went there, of course there wasn’t really any lightning. What you have is this cabin in which you stay for 48 hours. It’s basically a settler’s cabin. So, architecturally, it speaks to this language of land colonization. And you have a grid that is one kilometer in one direction and one mile in the other. You have these two types of measurements — imperial and metric, both European forms of land survey — imposed on the land. There’s this other reading that, as you say, is…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Occupying the territory.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. Without any regard for whose territory it is. One of the pieces we did with Nicholas Galanin, a First Nation artist from Alaska, was a remake of the Hollywood sign, to scale, which read “INDIAN LAND.” It referred to the history of Hollywood, which was originally a real-estate development marketed to whites only and actually taken from indigenous land. And it also talked about the connection between Hollywood and Palm Springs. But what was cool about it: it was really a Trojan horse. It was this incredible spectacle that people went to photograph because, like the Hollywood sign, it looked good, and it was iconic, and people recognized it. And then, once you thought about it, it had all this genocidal history attached to it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Blood everywhere.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Rivers of blood.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The beauty of land art is that it’s more an experience with nature than an object.


OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a good starting point to revisit how art can modify our own perception or vision of this planet.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — And different versions of ownership. You know, the artwork as portable art object that you put above your couch or whatever is one version, but then there’s this other version that’s about experience of the kind we’ve been talking about. And that has a completely different value set to it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And “Desert X” started in Palm Springs, right?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — It’s based in Palm Springs, but it’s really the Coachella Valley, of which Palm Springs is one of nine cities. So, it’s actually pretty diverse. When you think of Palm Springs, you think of a history that goes from midcentury architecture, through the social architecture of the LGBTQ movement, which are of course very recent layers. But the other cities have very different landscapes, both socially and environmentally.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s much more diverse than we imagine. And from there, you went to Dubai?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — We went to AlUla in Saudi Arabia, which is a complicated trip.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a big move.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yeah. I mean, obviously things in that part of the world are challenging in different ways.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a totally different culture!

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes, but it’s also a desert culture. And that was important. We wanted Desert X to be about cross-cultural dialogue, so that we could understand both the differences and the commonalities between desert cultures. In a very literal way, it connected what we have here in Southern California with the desert culture of that part of Saudi Arabia. And it has a lot of history. It’s the southern part of the Nabataean Kingdom. It was a trading crossroads, and it has a nomadic culture. It has the markings of four-and-a-half thousand years of human exchange.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, with climate change, the desert is a metaphor of destruction. Does that play into your work?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes, totally. There are two things. One is this whole history, from biblical narratives to psychedelia, where people have gone to the desert to escape or to find themselves. So, it has this spiritual, existential backdrop to it in history. And that’s been going on since time immemorial and stuck in these various religious [experiences].

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the one-God, monotheistic view… It always starts in the desert.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Totally. The Bible, Carlos Castaneda, and the flight into Egypt… Origin stories.

ALEPH MOLINARI — It’s a passage tool.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — And then the other side, is that with climate change, we live in a deserti­fication of the planet overall. So, the desert becomes a harbinger of the future. It’s also a place where we can prototype new ideas about how we might be forced to live.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To accept nature. And to learn to adapt to an old-style environment.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yeah. And it’s no coincidence that something like Neom in Saudi Arabia, which is a city constructed as a line…It’s insane. But it’s no coincidence that, with the evolution of cities, from concentric cities to grids and then to this idea of a line, that that line would exist in the desert. That’s the place where these ideas, for better or for worse, get prototyped.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s so weird to me — this idea of constructing a planned smart city as a line, cutting the landscape in two with no access.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — It’s a bizarre idea. I under­stand the philos­ophical impetus to break with the paradigms of city formation or to try to reimagine them. But I’m not sure I get the other side
of it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because originally the city is a crossroads, where people meet and exchange. And now, it’s a frontier, a wall.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — It’s a passage.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Very strange. How do you find your artists? There’s real diversity. Because land art at the beginning was more American than European, even if there were also some British artists in the original land art…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Some walkers, yes. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Richard Long.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Some guys who took a hike, quite literally. Yeah, it’s not a precise science, as you can imagine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you also involve artists who are not necessarily connected to land art.

I think that’s when it becomes interesting — when you take people outside of their comfort zone. To get people who have a studio practice to go outside and forget the studio and not have that kind of support, whether it’s in terms of fabrication or in terms of a mindset. That’s one of the good things that a program like Desert X can do: it can push artists into new ways of addressing the landscape that they haven’t necessarily thought about.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s really interesting because this is where your role as a curator becomes more of a collaboration between you and the artists, in a way.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Well, it’s more a collaboration between the artists and the landscape. I mediate the collaboration a little bit, but I always talk about it in terms of the real curator of these shows being the landscape. And I don’t mean just the environmental landscape, but the social, cultural, architectural, historical, geological, biological landscape as well. It’s the place that is the curator. It’s the place that is generative — at least where it’s successful. So, it’s a slow process because you have to allow time for artists to truly immerse themselves in the place to come up with a meaningful response. But the landscape is the curator more than I am.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You also have to figure out how the piece will withstand the weather, how it will evolve. It’s a complex process, very technological and scientific.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. It’s harsh, and it’s challenging for a lot of people. Again, it’s an imprecise process. In traditional curating, you’re trying to eliminate any kind of variable. If you think about a museum, you’re trying to keep the atmosphere constant, make everything as predictable as possible, including the narrative that you’re describing. Whereas with something like Desert X, you’re actually embracing those variables. You’re embra­cing the unknown as part of the creative outcome.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you open time frames because some pieces are made to stay.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yeah. And it’s also nonnarrative. If you think about the way you organize an institutional show, you have an entrance and an exit, and there’s some kind of narrative in between. Whereas here, there’s no entrance or exit. It’s nonprescriptive. You can come in at any point. You can see as much or as little as you want.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s free.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — It’s free and open to the public, and all the usual injunctions — to not touch, not do this, not do that — are lifted. So, there’s a level of audience engagement and interaction that you’d never ever see within a traditional context.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s amazing.

ALEPH MOLINARI — How do you choose a site in the desert for a project?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — It chooses us. [Laughs] It’s difficult because, at a purely practical level, there are so many different interest groups controlling the land and the land usage, whether they’re private ownership, the city, the Bureau of Land Management, or conservation orders that may be on it. So, often you’ll be dealing with half a dozen different bodies.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s such an incredible project. And you manage to find sponsors.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Not always. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — For me, what you do is also very optimistic — investing a lot of energy in art but also in the planet. Because nature is really part of the work, like an earthwork. Where does all this come from? Because you could be curating shows or…

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me to! It comes back to what you were implying about art and fashion. Maybe they’re similar in some ways. But we live in an era of increasing specialization. If you think about the desert environment, there are biologists out there, as well as hydrologists, agronomists, all these kinds of specialists. And environmentalists. And I think one of the things that artists can do, and why they’re so often referred to as potential thought leaders, is because they’re non­specialists: they can traverse different domains and create out of them something purely speculative that opens our minds to possible futures, to different relation- ships tothe environ­ment.  As intersectional thinkers, they can take these very directed disciplines and reframe them in a way that we can understand them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s also a deconstruction of all these techniques or technology that are basically used for profitable gain.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Exactly. They all have a goal. And in the same way that pure research is not meant to have a goal, I think art cannot have that goal. The other thing is that art can fail successfully. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, the failure means something.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Exactly. Raymond Pettibon once said to me: “Professionalism’s a hate crime.” [Laughs] You know, that could be a motto for some artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you have an example of a piece that you recently did that you liked a lot? I was looking at your Instagram. The last piece by Lauren Bon is very intriguing

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes, that’s a really interesting piece. That’s interesting to me because art is usually a superstructure, right? It’s the last thing that gets added — it’s the painting on the wall or the mural on the building or whatever. She has this belief that art should be infrastructure. It should be part of the invisible systems that support us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Most notably with Metabolic Studio, which is her studio project. She’s done this thing called Bending the River, which is basically that the Los Angeles River was turned into a concrete sluice in order to prevent flooding, and she’s now trying to recreate the wetlands by extracting water from them and using it to transform the surrounding areas. To do this, she uses a tiny thing — it’s a pipe going under the river, but it has involved 70 different government bodies in order to get it. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s totally invisible.

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. And the project she’s doing for Desert X is sort of a science experiment, where she’s clarifying and purifying water by creating a sculpture through a process of electrolytic accretion. She took some water from the Salton Sea, which is highly polluted, put it in the swimming pool, put the sculpture in it, and then the sculpture becomes a living entity that is pulling minerals out of the water to create this form, and in the process purifying the water.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Wow, what a great project. So, you believe in the transformative power of art?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD — Yes. I believe that artists can help shape a better future. Which circles back to our AI revolution, and why I think a lot of artists and writers and people in the creative communities are so concerned about that role being taken over by AI. Ultimately it will be part of a corporate structure built for profit and aligned with that interest over those of humankind.




Superflex, Dive-In, installation view, Desert X 2019, Coachella Valley, California, copyright the artist, courtesy of Desert X, photo Lance Gerber Shezad Dawood, Coral Alchemy I (dipsastrea speciosa), installation view, Desert X Alula 2022, copyright the artist and Adagp, Paris, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Desert X Alula 2022,<br />photo Lance Gerber Torkwase Syson, Liquid a Place, installation view,<br />Desert X 2023, copyright the artist, courtesy of<br />the artist and Desert X, photo Lance Gerber

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The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

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