Tiny Atlas Quarterly: How did it happen that you came to live in Joshua Tree?
Ali Beletic: I went to Joshua Tree for three months less than a year ago to do an art residency and as a break from living in Los Angeles. I had lived out in Arizona for a while working on some larger desert installations and was excited to get back out into vast country, slow down a bit, and work on a larger scale again. So, I decided to make a studio out here for a year and work on a few large-scale works for the Mojave.
TAQ: Can you describe a typical day in your life in the desert?
AB: I try to keep an eye out on the landscape. Usually I’m watching the birds when I first wake up and scoping the sky. We’ve got a few owls, coyotes, lizards, doves, many quail families, a bobcat, a kit fox, a pair of hawks, and ton of birds. This time of year we also have new blooms every day. I’m watching the bees, hearing new bird calls, looking them up.
I spend about thirty minutes first thing in the morning from an extremely zoomed out perspective—thinking about what I am working on from different angles and about how to produce it in the world. This is really my process, to come up with something I want to put in the world and then go create it. I find this keeps my work more powerful and insightful, rather than just taking opportunities that come up.
The bulk of my day usually involves working on projects—a sculpture build at my shop, a build at some one else’s shop, sometimes I go into production mode for some larger installation, or I am writing for a record. When Lou Mora stopped by we were pre-mixing my upcoming record Legends of These Lands Left to Live, and I hadn’t even set up my studio yet, it is still very bare bones.
I try to find time at some point in the day to play guitar. Guitar is a very deep instrument. You could dedicate your whole life and still never find the end of it’s potential, so I practice every day. I stop working by five these days as an attempt to combat the very busy modern life. I try to get a workout in and then I usually head out to a wilderness spot behind my house around sunset. I spend about an hour out there observing the wildlife, changing weather, ecological patterns, and landscape.
A lot of inspiration for my work comes from my time spent in the wilderness. In the evening, I hang out with friends, read field guides, or work on one of my million hobbies. I am a very active person. I literally don’t stop until I sleep.
TAQ: How does living in the desert influence your artwork?
AB: Many of the earth artists have sought the desert to work in because of its vastness and it’s historic go-West rugged individualism, I think with the intention to erect modern monuments. My personal history is connected to this collective history.
It’s interesting to identify myself as a desert artist. I would consider myself more tropical. I love really lush landscapes and the ocean. I hope one day to actually live the water life. I guess that’s sort of the desert mythology isn’t it?
I spend a lot of time out in the wilderness observing the ecological relationships and the changing landscape, the stories and past that is contained in the land. A good deal of my artwork has to do with the history that humanity has in its past and our latent instincts. I am constantly trying to create a space or experience where people can be reminded of their ancestral history on a visceral level.
About an eighth of my life is naturalist training, both observational and a more widespread ancient anthropological type research. This is literally the basis of my artwork.
I started a series, Reflections on Artifacts, out in the Mojave. It is a broad sculptural project based on primitive methods, psychologies, technologies, and artifacts. There are so many ways of knowing and we are left only remnants. This is not limited to our past in the Mojave. But I am limited somewhat by harvesting and creating based on local materials. So that project is very desert-based. I also recently finished, Under the Same Sun, in dialogue with Michael Heizer’s famous land drawings, where I dug circular shapes into the dry lakebed out in Joshua Tree with my motorbike. The work was informed by Heizer’s art and also my studies in tracking animals combined with a Jungian look at the symbolism of circles.
TAQ: How often do you leave the desert to travel?
AB: I travel quite a bit, mostly for projects. I was just in New York mixing my record. I take surf trips for vacation as often as I can—the California coast, Hawaii, or Mexico. I’ve been taking our Enduros backcountry recently. I also occasionally take commercial work, both as a session singer and as an art director, so I split time between the desert and LA.
TAQ: How was your new album, Legends of These Lands Left to Live, influenced by your environment?
AB: I’d have to say the biggest impact on my music was my time spent in New York. I lived in Brooklyn during this time when there were shows in busted warehouse spaces, promoters throwing parties in local parking lots, and every night there would be some obscure music down at Zebulon.
Everyone was playing music in their painting studios. I lived in a two-loft warehouse building without heat. I’d go upstairs and we’d all sit around in the dark and play guitar. We’d sneak into this old community center squat that was as big as a castle and had an empty pool that we would record in. There were millions of abandoned LP’s in one of the rooms, an organ, and tons of old broken pianos. This was just before the internet took hold and we were all trading albums—Malian music, Moroccan music, rock records, minimalist records, Jazz albums, Egyptian music, obscure punk and proto-punk, NY–folk music, the list goes on.
I worked at Carnegie Hall and would get to watch the orchestras. I’d play piano and guitar in my studio for hours. I studied voice twice a week and piano and guitar. I was obsessed. It was all I did. I spent hundreds of hours at the Lincoln Center library listening to old blues records and jazz singers, developing my musical sensibility and style.
TAQ: Which artists inspire you?
AB: I get really easily inspired.
This is a potentially endless list… Alice Coltrane’s groove; Gordon Matta-Clark’s punk out of the box spirit; Jimi Hendrix’s unparalleled energetic guitar playing; Robert Smithson’s cross-lingual sense; Richard Long’s poetic profound simplicity; The Rolling Stones’ liveliness and ubiquity; Roberta Flack’s sense of epic melody and rhythm; Lightnin’ Hopkins’ shuffle; Sonny Sharrock’s harmony; the Stooges’ ability to make one note guitar solos sound phenomenal; James Turrell’s conceptual intermingling with the sensual; the Beatles’ brilliant song-form; Amina Alouai’s vocal timbre; Mary Travers’ soulful voice; Rokia Traore’s soft desert voice, Otis Redding’s power; Gal Costa’s sense of happiness and celebration; Michael Heizer’s sense of scale; Donald Judd’s self direction; Richard Serra’s sense of equillibrioception; Joseph Bueys’ relationship with the past.