On the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, on a spur off of Interstate 40 called the National Trails Highway is Cadiz, California. Don’t expect much. Railroad tracks and blowing sand is about all you’ll get.
Cadiz was founded in 1883 as a water stop along the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, named by Lewis Kingman (yes, the Arizona town’s namesake). It's third in a row of towns with alphabetically utilitarian names — Amboy, Bolo, etc. — and just another of the desert’s limitless weird outposts of hazy provenance.
But under Cadiz is the Fenner Basin and its potentially 34 million acre-feet of groundwater. And over it all, Cadiz Inc., the company that acquired the water rights and has plans to extract and sell that water to slake the thirst of Southern California.
The story of Cadiz and the twists in California water law worthy of Chinatown are one small corner of The Mojave Project, a sprawling digital exhibit studying the Mojave geographically, historically, financially, and ecologically.
The project, started late in 2014, is the creation of artist Kim Stringfellow, a San Diego State University School of Art + Design associate professor. Now, the digital exhibit extends out into the real world. Specifically, the Barrick Museum through July 23.
Paige Bockman, collections and exhibitions manager at the museum, wanted to bring the story here because of how well it dovetails with broader issues relating to the city and its natural environment, all told from a human perspective.
“We hope that sharing the project with our community will draw more attention to our local environment — how multifaceted, alive, and delicate the desert is,” she said. “Las Vegas isn't just an entertainment town surrounded by empty desert. There's a lot of life, adventure, history, and beauty in the Mojave.
“Everything about Kim's project is in line with the Barrick's mission and what we look for in potential exhibitions: rooted in our local environment and community, multidisciplinary, research-based, and tells a human story from multiple perspectives.”
The exhibit draws in books, artifacts, photos, recordings, documents, minerals and more to tell stories that tie into the project’s key themes: Desert as Wasteland, Geological Time vs. Human Time, Sacrifice and Exploitation, Danger and Consequence, Space and Perception, Mobility and Movement, Desert as Staging Ground, and Transformation and Reinvention. Each display a connection to some small part of the sprawling desert. A companion webinar series, featuring panels with UNLV experts, offers a forum for discussion of the themes.
“I'm actually a photographer who started writing and started doing all this research because I really wanted people to understand what the photographs were about,” she said. “Oftentimes my photographs are somewhat quiet. The idea is also the focus on the photography and to make that research tangible”
Central to the project are dispatches — like the one about Cadiz, Inc., co-written with Julia Sizek — discursive ruminations on desert life. A seminal UNLV story is included in the two-part examination of the exploration of Devils Hole and the subsequent conservation fight that was aided by the late emeritus professor James Deacon, founder of UNLV’s environmental studies program. That fight ended in the 1976 Supreme Court decision Cappaert v. United States, a landmark case for endangered species.
These discrete stories weave together to give a fuller picture of the Mojave, but the exhibit gives people a chance to experience the realness of the place in a way that isn’t always available to a purely digital audience.
“It occurred to me that I could do an online project, and I wanted to do something that would evolve as I was making it, rather than doing a couple of years of research the way I did previously to put something out into the world,” Stringfellow said.
“All these projects are all disseminated online but ideally I like people to experience things directly. The best way to do that is to drive up (U.S. Highway) 395. I do tours with the Mojave Project where I take small groups of people out to places. Ultimately, that's what I like to do, but the exhibition is kind of a surrogate for that.”
She has plans to tackle huge issues facing the desert in future dispatches. The Colorado River. Solar renewables. Stringfellow recently returned to Nevada to take in the Mint 400, planning a dispatch on the world of off-roading in the desert. Stringfellow is open minded, but hesitant about the environmental impact that off-roading can have.
In some ways, an event like the Mint is at the heart of some of the contradictions inherent to the landscape. It’s a place that appears empty, that promises ultimate freedom. But to experience those exhilarations, the price required is careful stewardship to marshal delicate resources.