I.D.E.A.: International Desert Earth Archives

From Mel Alexenberg, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2011)

I initiated a protowiki participatory artwork in the summer of 1980 when I took a break from my work as head a college in a small town in Israel’s Negev desert to be thrust into the center of the high tech world as a research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  In addition to my work developing a biofeedback-generated interactive visual imaging system, I created the International Desert Earth Archives (I.D.E.A.) a pre-digital participatory artwork that invited the collaboration of people from the 44 countries that have deserts.  This artwork was inspired by the commentary on Genesis that Adam was formed from earth collected from countries worldwide so that no one nation could claim to be the sole descendent from Adam.  Perhaps the desert MiDBaR would speak MiDaBer of world peace. (The Hebrew words for desert and speak are written with the same four letters MDBR).  This project became a precursor to my other wikiart projects with local communities and global tribes.

I sent a letter (in the days before e-mails) from the International Desert Earth Archives on the letterhead of Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the each of the embassies in Washington of countries with deserts.   My letter, addressed to the ambassador, invited his country to participate in the International Desert Earth Archives by sending me a sample of desert earth, a photograph of the collection site, and a map marking the site.  I signed the letter “Director of I.D.E.A.” 

My artwork presented the photographs, maps, earth samples, the containers in which the earth was sent, and documentation of the political process that revealed the great difficulty government bureaucracies have in figuring out whose role it is to collect earth.  In response to my request, I generally received a letter back for each country that was signed by the embassy’s scientific or economic attaché indicating interest in participating.   No country asked why I wanted the earth.  Then an amusing paper trail followed.  The embassy forwarded my requested to their foreign ministry that forward it to the ministry of the interior or industry that forwarded it to the ministry of agriculture that then sent a letter back to the foreign ministry stating that they had no manpower to go out into the desert to scoop up some sand.  Sometimes a more scientifically oriented agriculture ministry would send an inquiry about what kind of earth I needed.  After months, some embassies would phone me to tell me that their country cannot participate since they could not find anyone in their government who could collect the earth.  When I responded incredulously, “What? You don’t want your country represented in the International Desert Earth Archives,” they invariably said that they would try again.  I then documented a repeat performance.

Argentina was the first country to send me desert earth six months after my request.  It was delivered by diplomatic courier in two cartons closed with official wax seals along with photographs and a hand-drafted map on velum.  On the average, it took three years until countries could figure out how to collect earth.  Since I had not specified how much earth I wanted, I got different quantities in interesting kinds of containers from the two huge Argentinean cartons to a 35 mm film canister from Botswana to a white cloth sack sewed closed covered with Arabic script from Kuwait.  My photographs of the containers became part of the artwork when I  exhibited I.D.E.A. in the 1988 exhibition “Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art” show at The Jewish Museum in New York.   

Although I had received earth from Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America, I had not received any from Europe because it is a desertless continent and from North America because United States has no embassy in Washington.  In order to get North American desert earth, I sent the same letter that I had sent to embassies in Washington to the ambassador of the United States in Tel Aviv on letterhead from Ramat Hanegev College rather than on MIT letterhead.  I received a response from Samuel Lewis, the ambassador himself, that he had passed my request on to Dennis Jet, the scientific attaché at his embassy.  Handing my request over to the scientific attaché seemed to be the beginning of the usual protracted bureaucratic process.  However, three weeks later, I received a phone call at my office in the Negev from Dennis Jet who informed me that he had earth for me from the desert in New Mexico.  He drove down to my college to hand deliver to me a Hills Brothers coffee tin filled with earth from White Sands, the site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation, along with the collection site marked on a U.S. Geological Survey map and a photograph of the rocky desert.  I asked him how he was able to obtain all I had requested in three weeks when it took years for other countries to comply.  He explained that if he followed the official procedure of sending my request to the US State Department it would have taken years, too.  What he did was phone his college roommate who had become a geologist working at the research center in White Sands, and asked him to send me what I wanted.   His friend wanted to know why I need more desert earth living in the middle of the Negev desert.  Jet took the two-hour drive from Tel Aviv to see me and find out.  Ambassador Lewis came to the dedication of a new arts building at my college where he saw my first exhibition of I.D.E.A. in which I had incorporated his letter into my documentation of this international participatory artwork.  Perhaps America’s great success growing from a small British colony to becoming the leader of the free world is based on it spirit of short-circuiting governmental red tape.

This artwork includes my first public presentation of my Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East.  See my description of the plan at the "aesthetic peace" post in the artworks section of my website.   The "about the artwork" text there is from my paper in Leonardo: Journal of the Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.