Building A Desert

Video Remix [April 2014]

My very first attempt at digital remix takes the desert as its subject matter and was inspired by Casey Walker’s quote from his Believer article on William Vollmann’s book Imperial (which I incorrectly attributed to Vollmann himself in the opening still of my remix):

“We thought the desert was blank and we built it up only to have the desert persist.”

This remix exists in the realm of film essay. I use the word “film,” even though it seems that many digital remixes and digital remixers want to avoid the constraints of cinema and cinematic theory, because my remix still fundamentally retains many filmic qualities. It does not do away with the attributes of cinema that Peter Greenway so desperately wants to abolish, and this is in part because I’m using footage that I’ve pulled from other films. It’s hard to make something that doesn’t retain an aspect or qualities of film when film is the main media I’m borrowing from.

I call it an “essay” because I use archival footage and audio in service of a an argument, and each aspect of the remix—the lyrics, the voiceover, the found footage, and my own footage—functions as evidence in the way Virginia Kuhn means it when she talks about evidence in remix. My project is still fairly linear, much like a written essay, in that the song moves forward, the lyrics are narrative, they’re only interrupted by a coherent linear voiceover narrative, and the visuals aren’t that disrupte(d)/(ive), even though some frames are played in reverse.

I was concerned about creating a remix in which the visuals simply represented/portrayed the song lyrics/audio like a music video, but when I separate the two, the audio and the visual, I feel that each component is making an argument and that each argument bolsters [instead of simply repeats or represents] the other. I hope to transform a song that is about sadness, dissatisfaction with life, and disappearing into a far away desert into a commentary on our unending and problematic pursuit to make the desert habitable for humans. I use footage about this issue from three different documentaries to make the argument that we’re failing to see the ways in which the desert continues to persist in spite of our human intervention.

None of the materials I use in the remix simply represent themselves, but are carefully altered and relocated in different contexts to make statements that extend the materials’ original purpose, that advance the small argument each of these objects was making into a larger, more political and aesthetic argument.

A quick note on aesthetics: after a rough cut feedback session, I got rid of all the Cadillac Desert documentary footage because I wanted to maintain aesthetic consistency and I wanted that aesthetic to be the kind of haunting, crisp aesthetic found in the opening frames. But I realized that such an attempt ran counter to the argument I was making. We’re trying to manage something unmanageable out here in the deserts of California. We’re trying to tame something that is untamable, trying to build something that is aesthetically and fundamentally different that the landscape that exists here naturally. And for me to try and maintain aesthetic consistency, especially when that aesthetic was clean and clear, ran counter to my intended argument. The desert is messy. It does what it wants. It is disrupted by us, our land use, our careless water consumption, and it disrupts back. Over time, we’ve tried to tame it and over time, like Walker and Vollmann explain, it persists. So I wanted footage that was disruptive aesthetically. I wanted images that seemed patched together, desperate, unstable, incohesive. I came to love the glitch in one of the Cadillac Desert sections. I wanted to mix amateur footage with professional footage, old footage with contemporary footage, to further support my claim that this tug of war with the desert spans a large time period, that we’re still fighting a battle with the land that we’ve been fighting since we brought water here and tried to live. That we’re all responsible. Not just the people who make these desert cities, but those of us who contribute to the life and death of those cities simply by occupying them and therefore causing demand for all kinds of resources to increase.

jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (1 of 9). Retrieved from

jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (2 of 9). Retrieved from

jkoomjian. (2010, April 9). Cadillac Desert – 1. Mulholland’s Dream (3 of 9). Retrieved from

JonnyX2. (2012, March 9). Las Vegas and Lake Mead 1972-2010. Retrieved from

Manic Excursions. (2011, June 1). The Salton Sea Desert Shores and Bombay Beach. June 2011. Retrieved

Modest Mouse. (1996). Custom Concern. On This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About [MP3 file]. Olympia, WA: Moon Studios.

ransriggs. (2011, May 12). The Accidental Sea. Retrieved from

Vollmann, W.T. (2009). Imperial. New York, NY: Viking Books.