Black Propaganda at Melancholy Ranch
by Roman Vasseur

Shown on Channel 6 television in the Morongo Basin area, to the Hi-Desert communities of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms and Yucca Valley:


Poster image by Paul Mumby Bristol School of Art Media & Design, University of the West of England.

" Lasting 1 minute 19 seconds, a science fiction B movie of unspectacular dimensions is beamed into the homes of the Morongo Basin down the wires of Adelphi Cable, lapping the faces of the families and residents of the shacks, track homes, adobe villas and air-conditioned motel rooms of this parched mix of urban respite and Los Angeles outfall.

Every day at 7am on Channel 6 the exercise is broadcast. A light airplane circles over the scrub of a seemingly uninhabited desert landscape and then drops, scatters, spills and releases a swarm of leaflets that pause in the hot air before gently descending towards the cracked ground. Thousands of air delivered leaflets lie amongst the rocks, bushes and storm scarred sands twitching sporadically in the hot drafts while a feint jostling and ticking of paper joins the chorusing soft howl of wind. The plane slowly circles droning and bobbing along the desert thermals preparing for another assault. A black leaflet caught in a bush tremors on screen filling almost the entire frame before the scene fades briefly to black and Channel 6 returns to its regular schedule.

An intermission, an advert, a public warning, an epically disappointing action movie echoes along the cables of the Morongo Basin and flickers into the rooms of its residents staining the TV illuminated habitat."

Project completed with the kind support and cooperation of Andrea Zittel, CLUI, Jeremy Deller and the University of the West of England, Bristol


Interview with Roman:

1. Roman,  you have sent us this lovely photo of yourself - can you describe what you really look like and tell us something about yourself personally that people might find interesting?Hi Andrea - I'm not sure which of the pictures you mean. As you know I'm pretty camera wary and have a problem with images of myself as they seem so very final. Which I suspect says something about the at times clandestine way I operate and the non-object based work that gets produced out of a 'deep throat' (excuse me) approach to making art. I feel less uncomfortable about pictures of myself where my eyes are shut. I'm beginning to sound a bit vampiric. No mirrors! No mirrors!

I like the written word for non-figurative possibilities so let's give it a go... I'm half French with a Russian first name and I sound very English. I look dark/Mediterranean (I've been told) and on occasion English people having heard my name but not my voice will talk very slowly at me. When traveling through Romania my girlfriend suggested to our hosts that I looked Romanian. She was told that without a doubt I looked very English. On one occasion I was written about in the UK arts press as if I was Romanian and therefore a refugee (?). French, Romanian, English, Mediterranean - take your pick it all seems to be interchangeable.

My real introduction to California was bringing a meter cubed crate of earth from Transylvania to a gallery in LA and then to High Desert storage facility owned by the Centre for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in a town called Boron in the Mojave Desert. The import is now permanently in residence at the CLUI Desert Research Station near Barstow. So I feel like a Californian resident; albeit a symbolic one. 

2. "Black Propaganda at Melancholy Ranch" was a project that originally happened on desert land owned by Jeremy Deller.  Can you tell us how you met Jeremy and how you ended up doing a project on his land in Trona?

Originally the project was meant to happen over Vienna, Austria and the leaflets were printed ready to go but then 9/11 happened and all airspace over major cities got locked down. I'd been inspired to do the project after seeing a leaflet drop in a film called Under Fire and was amazed at how loaded this simple act was. I began to think of going from a very public event to a remote event, possibly un-witnessed and onto an unpopulated site. At this same time we were being bombarded with images of the war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Seeing heavily mediated images come from such a distance with much of the 'on the ground' complexity removed the actions of the allied forces seemed increasingly ritualized; as if they could be happening anywhere and at anytime. From where we were watching the whole scenario was taking on a sci-fi quality. 'Real events' from the 'Reality studio' Plc.. I was also vaguely aware of the volume of leaflet drops being made on Iraq.

One of my favourite films is The Last Movie - a disaster of a production made by Dennis Hopper following the success of Easy Rider. The film is set in Peru where as part of the story a cowboy film is shot and then wraps up leaving production hand Hopper behind. The local Indian population decides to re-enact the making of the film using bamboo cameras and lights; replacing blanks for real bullets as part of a new cult that requires human sacrifice. Their ultimate sacrifice has to be an American and you can guess who the choice candidate was. A symbolic and actual ending of Hoppers career at that time. So the movie is this incredible collapse of reality and film and ultimately violence that somehow linked in with the development of Black Propaganda at Melancholy Ranch.

When I'd come out to deliver the earth to the CLUI storage site in Boron I'd been amazed at the clash of military, scientific and filmic events out in the deserts and this informed my thinking that I would carry out the leaflet drop at a remote site on this easily abstracted landscape. By this time I'd ditched the printed leaflets realising that the act of the leaflet drop itself carried more metaphorical weight than any message I could have delivered and instead produced 30,000 standard NATO recommended size leaflets cut from black paper.

I got in contact with CLUI and asked them for suggestions and advice about where in the desert to do the drop and after jointly considering Dugway Proving Ground ,a military installation for testing leaflet drops which it turned out had become off limits after 9/11, CLUI suggested the plot of land near Trona that Jeremy Deller had bought. I think CLUI had helped Jeremy find the land. I'm beginning to picture CLUI as a drop-in centre for British artists enraptured with the desert. 

I'd known Jeremy from a while back (1997) when I'd curated a project asking artists to provide the news for one day via a nationally distributed newspaper and bumped into him on and off since then. I asked him if he was happy with having his land assaulted with leaflets and he agreed. Jeremy had bought the land as part of his project for After the Gold Rush - a kind of alternative guide to the sunshine state. It is a barren piece of the Mojave Desert north of the industry/poverty-ravaged town of Trona and south of Death Valley. China Lake Naval Air Warfare Centre Weapons Division is also nearby. Jeremy had named the 5 acre plot of land Melancholy Ranch and it seemed logical to use (with his permission) the name of the 'real' place in the film.

I searched the internet for a light airplane and pilot for hire that was willing to do the drop and finally managed to secure a German ex-film director that had moved to the desert to full fill his ambition to fly. He'd made cowboy and western series for German television and documentaries including one on artist Jeff Koons which I only found out about when I arrived at his airport office to find a picture of him and Koons on the wall. Incredible!

So this man really knows how to make a film and I find myself in the back of his airplane throwing leaflets out of the door with him shouting "direct me" "direct me" in a thick Eric von Stroheim accent. A fantastic moment. A small camera crew filmed the series of drops and then we edited the footage down to one minute twenty seconds with animated titles. Which reminds me I must send Jeremy a copy. There is also a beautiful and epic poster designed with an artist and graphic designer Paul Mumby.

3. What gave you the idea to broadcast the film on local television in the Morongo Basin?

I was interested in re-disseminating the leaflet drop and in having it repeated again and again; similar to a military exercise. I'd toyed with the idea of showing the film on an open-air screen out in the desert on a loop for the High Desert Test Sites event. Which was a beautifully romantic idea but a logistical nightmare that was overblown. A lot of my projects have this aspiration to be epic but then hit reality with a dull thud, which can be the revelatory point in their development.
I was interested in the way that television and now the internet has and is sometimes viewed as a technological artery where foreign bodies enter the otherwise stable home. Films like Halloween 3 revel in this kind of idea. Plus it seemed as though this film was for private viewing not for watching in groups. I thought about buying TV air-time and then came across public access TV. What is so fantastic about the film going out within a limited geographic area is that it mimics the spread or delivery area of a leaflet drop but by technological means. It may be seen by very few people over the course of the year but there is always the knowledge that it is being broadcast - it is always happening at the appointed hour. The knowledge of this is almost enough. I'd love it to play for longer than a year. Forever, or for as long as cable TV broadcasts to the Morongo Basin. A  kind of Jurrasic TV broadcast, its origins forgotten.

Roman in front of the Adelphia offices in Yucca Valley

4. Ultimately who is the audience for your work?  Will the film eventually be exhibited in a gallery or museum someday or is this televised viewing it's final manifestation.
This airing on local TV is the culmination of the project and the real kick I get is delivering situations to an audience who's reactions and demographic you can't predict. That mass of people has an intelligence and complexity that I can't anticipate. With a museum or gallery there is a greater degree of self choreographed behaviour and obviously you can work with that. For example, when the Transylvania project was shown in galleries in London and Dublin you'd witness the vampire related fraternity mixing with the art fraternity. Each group with its own rules, codes and family hierarchies found their nature polarised by the presence of the other group. I don't see this kind of clash of groups happening with this project but a record of the films insertion on to TV could easily be shown in a gallery and another reading made of the work.  

5. Traveling from London to do these projects in the California desert must feel sort of surreal at times.  What was the strangest moment when you were working in Joshua Tree last week?

Without a doubt it was sitting in your place late one night alone, feeling like the wind was about to break through the windows heralded by a pack of coyotes. I slept with the light on that night. I haven't done that for about twenty-five years.
My cherished moment was coming across a man called Bob Stephenson who helped with the tape transfer and who'd made a couple of films in Joshua Tree in the 80's with a Clint Eastwood look a like. One was called Magnum Farce and used local places for locations and local people as actors. It was in the style of National Lampoon or MAD magazine. The British think they have a monopoly on satire so seeing things like this film and spending time talking to people while out at Joshua reminds me that that's not the case.

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