The A - Z of Andrea Zittel

By Siri Valdez.

In the Californian high desert you will find Joshua Tree National Park. The desert climate is renowned for its plant diversity - creating the natural habitat of nearly 750 different species of vascular plants, around half of them returning each year, such as the wildflowers that bloom every spring. You will also find numerous species of cacti and rare plants thriving in this dry climate. The wild animals of Joshua Tree have adaptations that makes them tolerate the extreme temperatures and scare water resources. Though some of them are diurnal - or active in daytime, such as birds, lizards and ground squirrels, the desert truly comes alive at night - when snakes, bighorn sheeps, kangaroo rats, coyotes and black-tailed jackrabbits crawl out of their hiding place. Adapting to the extreme climates means being active at night when the sun has gone down. So is seeking shelter; walking around Joshua Tree you will soon notice many holes in the ground, underground hideouts where reptiles and small mammals seek refuge from the intense summer sun or huddle together for warmth in the winter [1].

But these are not the only wildlife creatures you will find in Joshua Tree - coming alive at night, seeking shelter and community and survival; artists, architects and environmentalist have also gathered together to create a thriving community in the desert. With roots back to the 60’s-70`s Counterculture in America, they are collectively exploring alternative ways to build and seek shelter from the blistering sun and the cold nights, connecting to the land through art, literature and soundscapes. The desert being the ideal place to explore these questions, as it can function as a sort of Ground Zero moon landscape, free from the constraints of societal norms and its architecture.

Andrea Zittel is one of these creatures. Born in the 60's, her work can be seen as an ongoing investigation that explores the questions: "How to live" and "What gives life meaning?" in order to better understand human nature and the social constructions of needs [2]. Her project "A-Z" is described on her website as an "Institute of investigative living", an enterprise encompassing all aspects of day to day living, from home furniture to clothing and food. The project started in the early nineties in a tiny storefront in Brooklyn where the artist lived, functioning as a test site that explored these questions through various objects and garment designs - evolving into Zittel creating living units, highly personal and customized for individual needs. Since its inception, the A-Z Enterprise has been relocated from the east to the west, and has now expanded into including 70 acres of land in Joshua Tree, with various shelters for work and leisure, such as her private residence and a more public area with tiny sleeping pods that artists can visit while working on their own projects, functioning like something in between a camp site and an artist residency.

"A-Z" by Andrea Zittel

The two books Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James and Carol Grant Gould and The Extended Organism by J.Scott Turner focus on animals’ relationship and adaptations with the land. Some animals, like the snail or the turtle, carries its home on its back as an extended part of themselves, while others, like the ants and the bees, seem to share a collective consciousness when they construct their homes. In all cases, the shelter and its relationship between the animal and the land is not an arbitrary one, one cannot separate the animal from its shelter nor its environment without causing various degrees of disruption. On the same note, our everyday design objects are not arbitrary to how we perceive, identify and live our lives, and can therefore not be treated as merely "dead objects," they have a power of their own. Jane Bennet speaks of a related perspective in her work Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of things, where she is shifting the focus from the human experience of things to things themselves. She uses the term vital materiality [3], a force that runs across bodies, both human and non-humans, and has an agency of its own. Zittel is using the environment at Joshua Tree as a platform to investigate and discuss how we live and relate to the surroundings (and how the surroundings relate to us) through our architecture and everyday objects. And by doing so, she is acknowledging the intrinsic power the non-human entities, such as organic and inorganic materials, have over our lives and proposing ways in which we can better this relationship in order to survive, both in the high desert of California - but in a larger sense, as human beings on this planet. For Zittel and her fellow desert creatures, that is a vibrant matter.

"A-Z" by Andrea Zittel


[1] National Park Service, "Nature".

[2] Zittel, "A-Z".

[3] Springer. "Vital Materiality and Non-Human Agency: An Interview with Jane Bennet".


National Park Service. "Nature". October 12, 2018.

Zittel. "A-Z". October 12, 2018.

Springer. "Vital Materiality and Non-Human Agency: An Interview with Jane Bennet". Springer Link. October 12.