The Desert is Not Your Blank Canvas

First published April 19, 2015, at

When street artist André Saraiva got the notion to tag a parking lot boulder in Joshua Tree National Park, a few miles from where I live, he probably didn’t expect the roof to fall in on him a few short hours later. Saraiva whose work has appeared on blank walls and in galleries around the world, was in the area visiting a family member, and blithely documented his visit on Instagram. That was his mistake.

One of Saraiva’s Instagram followers took offense at his signature “Mr. A.” tag being applied to a boulder with a millennia-old patina of desert varnish. Said follower alerted Casey Schreiner of the website Modern Hiker, who posted the image. Schreiner’s readers quickly identified the boulder as one in the parking lot of the National Park’s Contact Mine trailhead, and the outrage flew.

Here’s the original image as posted to Saraiva’s Instagram feed, which he made private within hours of Schreiner’s post:

Photo by André Saraiva, reprinted here under Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law relating to public discussion of an artwork.

Saraiva’s response to the furor was to deny the rock was in the National Park, then to threaten Schreiner with legal retaliation. Then, perhaps realizing that his attorneys’ letter to Schreiner contained an admission that he had in fact vandalized a rock inside the National Park, Saraiva paid a fine to the National Park Service for the act of vandalism. The case is presumably closed.

Shortly after Saraiva tagged the boulder, I visited the parking lot. Someone had gone to some trouble to cover over the surface with a layer of something like mud and plaster. Here’s my household’s leading street art critic inspecting the work:

Not impressed.

Some weeks afterward, the boulder was flipped so that its painted side now faces the center of the earth.

In the week in which the news broke of Saraiva paying his fine, a remarkably similar act of vandalism was reported in the Nevada desert. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was an ill-considered defacement of a natural desert surface intended to boost the creators’ commercial prominence. Like Saraiva’s tag, the Nevada vandalism was reported to the world by its creators, who were apparently under the impression that they had done something admirable.

But unlike Saraiva’s tag, the vandalism in Nevada was larger than New York’s Central Park. Five and a half square kilometers of Delamar Dry Lake, near the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, now bears a heavy-handed attempt at viral marketing by the Hyundai Corporation. It’s a “feel-good” campaign in which a 13-year-old girl’s message to her astronaut father was carved into the lakebed in January by 11 synchronized Hyundai sedans fitted with special spiked tires that gouged the girl’s message into the desert.

Photo: Hyundai

In the expensively produced video on Hyundai’s campaign site, we see Stephanie’s astronaut dad — unidentified by Hyundai, but likely current International Space Station mission chief Terry Virts, who has a daughter with that name — photographing the dry lake with a long lens. And the crowd cheers.

It’s an undeniably sweet message; a young girl missing her dad, of whom she is proud, and wanting to tell him she loves him in a spectacular way. And in an ideal world, she’d have had grownups around to congratulate her on her initiative, explain to her that even a message as important as this one didn’t justify scarring two square miles of public lands in the desert of southern Nevada, and suggest a less destructive manner to get that message across.

But instead of grownups, she had the Hyundai Motor Corporation, which saw an opportunity to scrawl a bit of feel-good advertising into those public lands. And it’s paid off: glowing praise of the stunt has appeared in venues from Forbes to the Huffington Post to ABC news, with none of the  coverage mentioning any environmental cost.

What environmental cost? It’s a dry lake, after all. Won’t the next big flood smooth out the playa soil, erase Steph’s ❤ as if it were on a Central Park-sized Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe. The next big summer monsoon flood to fill Delamar Dry Lake with water could come four months from now. Or four decades.

Fox News quotes BLM spokesperson Chris Hanafeld as saying the message is fading “quickly.” One hopes that’s true. More likely, though, that fading is as the result of the newly exposed soil drying out, becoming the same color as the original crust.  The damage to the playa would still be there; just less visible.

Delamar Dry Lake isn’t a wilderness: it’s been an occasional airstrip since World War 2, and is the site of activities like amateur rocket launches.  But so far as I can determine, it’s never been the site of a project that deliberately gouged the playa soil a couple inches down over several thousand acres with the sole intention of making some of that soil a different color for an ad campaign.

Playas such as Delamar Dry Lake aren’t lifeless. They contain unique ecosystems with unique organisms: fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp and clam shrimp, spadefoot toads, algae, halobacteria, and unknown other odd life forms adapted to prolonged desiccation.  Their soils are fragile, and once the surface crust is broken random winds can carry particulate matter far away and into people’s lungs, increasing locals’ risk of valley fever… and considering Delamar Valley’s proximity to 20th Century atmospheric nuclear weapons testing sites, perhaps maladies far worse than valley fever.

It’s worth comparing Delamar Dry Lake to another playa that periodically gets a lot of vehicle traffic. Here’s a satellite photo of that other playa in the off-season:

Google Maps screencap

Marked changes in the playa surface just leap out at you there, and that’s without special studded tires making marks: just regular car and truck tires, bicycle tires, flip flops and ill-advised bare feet.

In fact, in Black Rock City shown above, occupied by people during Burning Man and at almost no other time, the powers that be take special pains to limit their damage to the playa floor. They require that campfires be kept on metal sheets. They ban digging. They urge volunteers to pick up and pack out every last stray discarded pistachio shell.

And yet there’s seemingly permanent damage done to the playa at Black Rock City, or permanent enough that traces will likely still be visible when today’s 20-something burners are boring their grandkids with stories of how the playa used to be cool.

All that said, it’s possible that the direct ecological damage done by Hyundai to the Delamar Dry Lake was indeed minimal, at least by comparison to previously existing damage.

It’s hard to tell at this point. The federal government does have a means by which it’s supposed to gauge the impact of projects as big as Hyundai’s on public lands, and it would have been nice if the BLM had put that to work. It’s called the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that has brought us all those fancy Environmental Impact Statements. True, if BLM had opted for a full Environmental Impact Statement process to evaluate Steph’s note to her dad, that note might not have been delivered until she started college. There’s a short-cut in the process called a negative declaration, in which an agency can determine that a project doesn’t have significant potential effect on the environment. That short-cut can still sometimes take a year.

Yes, that would have interfered with Hyundai’s ability to get those playa-scraping precision drivers out on the dry lake in a timely fashion. That’s a feature, not a bug. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of those mechanisms by which the federal government, when it cares to, can be a grownup when neither private nor corporate citizens are willing to take on that responsibility, a massive “let’s think this through” written into federal law.

At any rate: assume the Hyundai project did not in fact cause significant damage to the desert environment. That doesn’t matter. André Saraiva’s spraypainted tag in Joshua Tree National Park didn’t cause significant damage to the environment either. His black spray paint damaged less than a square foot of the desert varnish ecosystem on one boulder. The old guy I met in the Park three weeks ago heading the wrong way up a dirt road, who politely pulled off to the side onto what had been untrammeled desert soil, did immeasurably more damage to the Mojave Desert ecosystem than did Saraiva.

People were furious at Saraiva. And rightly so. His tagging was an insensitive, self-absorbed act. I have appreciated Saraiva’s work in other venues, but let’s be clear: his endlessly repeated “Mr. A” character has been, since the late 1980s, as much personal brand as artistic expression. Saraiva’s tag on the rock at the Contact Mine trailhead was a billboard advertising the rest of his work, at least to that circle of artistic insiders familiar with Saraiva’s brand. His decision to leave that brand on a rock inside a national park was a decision to usurp public property for his own (admittedly somewhat intangible) personal gain.

Until that rock was flipped, there was no way members of the public could use the Contact Mine trailhead without being subjected to Saraiva’s tag. It was a high-handed, narcissistic act. Anyone at that trailhead is likely there out of a desire to experience the Mojave Desert in a somewhat untrammeled form. Saraiva decided that the wishes of those Park visitors were less important than his desire to have his artwork seen.

It was an act that a trained, professional psychologist might well describe in technical terms as a “douchebag move.” And the reaction to Saraiva’s act was almost immediate, and fairly intense.

Why then the difference in public reactions to Saraiva’s tag, which covered about five square feet of rock surface, and Hyundai’s 59.7-million-square-foot tag on Delamar Dry Lake? If anything, Saraiva’s tag was a more honest act than Hyundai’s, which cynically capitalized on a young girl’s love for her father to get people on the Internet to share a long video showing Hyundai’s products driving across the desert with a waltz soundtrack. Is it that Delamar Dry Lake isn’t part of a national park? Is it the sentiment? Is it the social esteem granted astronauts, which is generally significantly greater than that bestowed on poseur douchebags? I suspect that question could fuel weeks’ worth of late-night beery arguments.

I see more commonalities than differences between Saraiva and Hyundai. Aside from the incomprehensibly larger scale of Hyundai’s act, that is.

Saraiva’s tagging was clearly illegal, and given the apparent lack of NEPA analysis, a good lawyer could make the argument that Hyundai’s was as well.

Saraiva used social media to publicize his tag, adding fuel to the social-media-driven epidemic of vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park. Hyundai is doing the same. That facet of both acts may well turn out to be the most damaging, as they inspire others to vandalize the desert landscape in ways that are far more ecologically destructive.

As if to underscore the potential for copycatism, Hyundai’s campaign site offers visitors the opportunity to scrawl their own messages on the virtual floor of Delamar Dry Lake, like so:

Couldn’t help myself.

But the most central similarity of the two acts of vandalism is in the attitude each act conveys about the value of the desert’s living, non-human landscape.

For the plainest, clearest symbol of that attitude, let us once more consider the Burning Man festival.

Every last Monday in August since 1990, celebrants have gathered on the Black Rock Desert’s playa for what has been described (as for example in Wikipedia) as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.”

There is much to admire about the sentiment behind Burning Man, and much to admire about both the creativity and good cheer of many participants, and the organizers’ commitment to reducing their impact on the Playa. But at its literal core, Burning Man is a manifest symbol of the sickness in our relationship with the desert, the sickness that drove both Saraiva’s and Hyundai’s vandalism.

Every late summer, Black Rock City swells with celebrants. Since 1999, when the crowds had grown too large for random campsites to be either feasible or safe, the city springs up on a arcuate grid, concentric two-thirds circles with radial avenues intersecting the arcs.

When Black Rock City is dormant, the desert is omnipresent. A few miles to the east is Old Razorback Mountain, also called Boiling Butte, with a diverse vegetation of shrubs native to the Great Basin Desert. Westward, the taller Granite Range is even more diverse, with seeps and hot springs supporting perennial wetlands choked with bulrush. I have visited the foothills of the Granite Range, and if there is a prettier small mountain chain in the United States I do not know it.

And between the ranges, opening up to the north and stretching 100 miles from Black Rock City, is The Playa, the Black Rock Desert, so perfectly geometrically flat, in that non-Euclidean sense to which we are confined by our occupying the surface of a sphere, that the mountain ranges at the far end are obscured only by the curvature of the Earth.

Your mind will struggle to make sense of scale on the playa. It will fail. Without a frame of reference other than flat, flat soil, flat, flat sky, and mountain ranges that seem as inaccessible as Jupiter, the question of your place in the universe becomes more than an idle, philosophical rumination. The question becomes visceral. You see an object out on the playa, its details heat-shimmer obscured. Is it a house-sized boulder or a tin can? You don’t know whether you’re much bigger than it, or much smaller. Your proprioception shifts. You start to feel very small, properly insignificant, and then the sun sets and the Milky Way appears and erases any lingering sense you might have had of your importance in the grand and indifferent scheme of things.

And then late August rolls around, and Black Rock City, LLC builds itself with its back to the emptiness, a city of clustered rings with a figure at their center. The figure? Not the sun, which would seem an appropriate object of veneration and respect in the alienating desert. Not a coyote, nor a raven. Not a tree to represent those in the fringing ranges. Not an abstract figure of geometry to symbolize the abstract geometrical perfection of the surround.

The narcissistic city centers on a man, and that man is lit aflame at the city’s climax. The firelight drives that impersonal galaxy back where it can be safely ignored. It makes eyeshine in the animals outside the fence, who regard us in yet another demonstration of the exclusive esteem in which we hold ourselves.