“So I hear you’re gonna be working here?” asks Bro 1 of the girl typing on her tablet.
She finishes a sentence and looks up, irritated. “I am working here.”
I’m in a coffee place in the backstreets of Marfa, Texas, and I’d love to tell you its name, but I can’t figure out whether it’s called Do Your Thing (that’s what’s printed on the paper cups), or The Lumberyard (that’s what’s on the sign outside), or perhaps Coffee + Toast + Magic (that’s what’s on the A-frames pointing you towards the place from what passes for the main road). You’ll know it because it’s the only place in town that opens on a Monday afternoon.
“No, like, working behind the counter?” says Bro 2, adjusting his cap.
She sighs deeply. “You know, I can’t actually talk about this just now? I can talk to you in…” – she glances at her screen – “13… no, 12 minutes? But I’m doing, like, a timed length of writing right now?”
“Oh,” say the Bros, chastised. “Cool. Right, well… catch you later.”
It’s at this point that I grow glad that the book from behind which I’m eavesdropping comes from a small press, Two Dollar Radio. Being seen with a Random House hardcover or an ebook would probably get you chased out of town.
Marfa is a place of limns and limits. It’s part artists’ colony, part tiny (population 2121) ranch town. North of the Presidio County Courthouse, an ornately domed building at the head of the high street, beside which stands a tripedal water tower like one of the Martians from War of the Worlds, the streets are those of residential Anytown, USA: neat gardens, white picket fences. Southwards, the town thins out, the main road bisected by a rail line through which thunder, several times a day, goods trains bellowing their warning klaxons to absolutely nobody. The pristine white-painted buildings lining the great broad straight of Highland Street look transplanted from a much bigger town’s high street, or perhaps a film set. And almost none of them is what it seems to be.
North of the Presidio County Courthouse, an ornately domed building at the head of the high street, beside which stands a tripedal water tower like one of the Martians from War of the Worlds
You could wander for hours without seeing anybody, bar perhaps one or two tourists taking the same photographs you have: of the white buildings that seem to glow in that limpid desert light, or of the occasional piece of public art, notably Gonzalo Lebrija’s History of Suspended Time, a car balanced vertically on its front bumper in a reflecting pool outside an empty building that looks like a gas station but whose signage marks it Marfa Contemporary – not an art gallery, it transpires, but a former pizza parlour.
Yet, off these silent streets, in the deserted-seeming houses and converted industrial buildings, things are afoot. In summer 2014, for instance, the defunct Marfa Ice Plant was transformed by artist Zoe Leonard into a giant camera obscura. Here are printmakers, textile and furniture designers and writers (prior to visiting, pretty much all I knew about Marfa came from Ben Lerner’s meta-autobiographical novel 10:04, which describes the narrator’s experience of a five-week writing retreat here after he wins a grant from the real-life Lannan Foundation) – all of them working away in the supportive silence of a town turned over to art.
When the artist Donald Judd arrived here in the 1970s, drawn to the attractively vast and empty landscape in which this scrap of a town sits, he wasted no time buying up local buildings (as well as out-of-town ranches) to convert into studios, workshops and display spaces where works by himself and others could be placed permanently and seen to their best advantage. Every other building you pass as you walk through Marfa has JUDD Letrasetted on its windows; today, the Judd Foundation administers the spaces where Judd lived and worked, including Judd’s old home – known as The Block, a title whose thumping name threatens to oversell its charms, resembling as it does the compound where an especially paranoid and soft furnishings-averse oil magnate might hide out.
Out in the grounds, hollow concrete structures stand like motionless grazing beasts among hardy grasses
Judd also established the Chinati Foundation, which today looks after other spaces in the area designed to house permanent displays of works by Judd and others. Chief among these is its HQ, a former military camp that now displays sculpture by Judd, neons by Dan Flavin, and typographical nonsense by Carl Andre. Two large Quonset huts, which once contained German POWs, today contain one hundred “Judd boxes”, milled metaluminum cuboids of identical dimensions, each finished in a different way: this face or that left open, or the interior bisected by one or two additional panels, or finished with a sloping plate. Each box differently reflects or transmits the desert light that shines through the floor to ceiling windows; in pictures, more than in life, the boxes seem captured mid-dematerialisation, to be arriving from or fading into some other plane entirely. Out in the grounds, hollow concrete structures stand like motionless grazing beasts among hardy grasses and, following the unprecedentedly rainy spring of 2015, refulgent flowering desert plants.
Twice a year, some – not all! – of these two Foundations’ various buildings are opened to the public in a Marfa meet n’ mingle at which art arrivistes, tourists, and the actual proper cowboys who reside here are encouraged to mix, whether it be at a high school students’ poetry reading or a barbecue whose proceeds benefit local charities. From what I saw, there might be less commingling than organisers hope, but the effort, at least, reflects the somewhat fraught juncture Marfa is at. Tourism is hugely on the increase – its remoteness (even El Paso, the nearest airport, is three hours’ drive away) may actually encourage visitors – and this tiny town will have to decide how to accommodate ever-growing numbers of visitors without sacrificing what brought them to town in the first place.
When I visited the Lookout, so too were a gaggle of schoolgirls trying to take flash photos on their flip-phones of the distant lights
Part of the appeal must be the place’s remoteness. I came in from Austin, a seven-hour drive even before you pause to take pretty sunset photographs at gas refineries thronged with unbelievably fragrant desert blooms. As far as (lack of) distractions go, this is a good place to get some work done – unless, like me, you enjoy working in cafés, in which case your options would be limited. When you look through the statements made by Ben Lerner’s fellow Lannan beneficiaries – the Foundation gives eight writers a year the chance to come here – the common threads are about how much work they did, and how many long bike rides they went on. You could risk life and limb by cycling out, for instance, to the Marfa Lights Viewing Platform, a surprisingly snazzy purposebuilt structure from which to observe the barely paranormal phenomenon of distant globes of yellowish light that travel across the horizon, wink in and out of view, and suddenly seem to spring some feet into the air. Gas pockets, refracted headlights off the interstate, or peculiarly low-key extraterrestrial flimflam? No one knows; the certain and the prosaic are anathema here. When I visited the Lookout, so too were a gaggle of schoolgirls trying to take flash photos on their flip-phones of the distant lights while their teacher doggedly pointed out to them the constellations in a night sky voluminous with stars – his charges’ response demonstrating that, among other peculiar phenomena here, it is entirely possible to hear jaded teens roll their eyes.
My sense is that artists and their ilk drawn here by Judd’s legacy may soon be overtaken by those who first hear of Marfa through events like the annual music festival at El Cosmico, a trailerpark-campsite thronged in pretty lights and offering various accommodation options including tipis, Airstream caravans and tents that get so cold at night I almost needed to chip the frost off my eyelids come morning. Hundreds of people descend on Marfa for the festival, and there are smaller, still more offbeat music fests here, too, as well as gigs by the more savvy bands touring Texas, who make special detours to play at the Marfa Ballroom. (I now intend to listen to any band that thinks Marfa is worth a gig.) And many people are visiting and deciding to stay, meaning there’s been a concomitant vault in house prices.
Did the Marfa Contemporary pizza parlour ever exist, or is it just a story spun to credulous visitors?
Things are going to have to change in Marfa. Already a new hotel, a towering four blocks high, is being built on North Highland Street, complementing or competing with the endearingly Old West schtick (or is it schtick?) of the long-established Hotel Paisano over the road. There are some small restaurants, including Cochineal and fun breakfast spot Squeeze Marfa, but, to be brutally frank, service is not always quite up to speed yet. (“I’m sorry, but you’ve topped up my San Pellegrino with tapwater by mistake,” I pointed out to the server at Cochineal; pernickerty, yes, but I don’t feel that a cheery “That’s okay!” is quite the response warranted either.) Just up the road is – or perhaps was – Comida Futura, which looks like a lovely café, with kerbside seating, lightboxed artwork and a series of ancient television sets lining the windows. It also, despite the opening times posted online and in its window, remains resolutely closed the entire time I’m there, to the point that I start to wonder: is it a café, or “a café”? Did the Marfa Contemporary pizza parlour ever exist, or is it just a story spun to credulous visitors: “Ah, bad luck, you just missed it”? A clue may be found in the fact that local gift shop Mirth is run by the same lady who operates a café (closed) and a restaurant (also closed); the Lumberyard with the nameless café also houses a bookshop, gallery, radio station and, er, an actual lumberyard. Many Marfans seem to work more than one job. The difference is they don’t necessarily turn up to all of them.
At night, by contrast, there’s plenty going on. In 10:04, Ben Lerner describes how he immediately turned nocturnal on arrival here; it seems he might not be the only one. On a Saturday night at converted funeral parlour Padre’s, a literally barnstorming country and western set is enjoyed by cowboys and wedding attendees who’ve spent the day at the Thunderbird Motel, a beautifully renovated space with furniture from local designers Garza Marfa. Waiting at a bar three-deep with jolly drinkers, you wonder where everyone’s come from. It’s less thumping at the Lost Horse Saloon, all firepits and outdoor barbecues, strung lights and Margaritas, where a guitarist in a Stetson intersperses C&W classics (in the sense of “songs that should never be played again”) with off-colour jokes; his audience comprises a man in an eyepatch, three cooler-than-thou types who’ve found their way from Dalston or Bushwick, and the world’s tubbiest dog – and even he wanders off when the jokes turn anti-Semitic.
More than once here, I ponder Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the “simulacrum” – a copy without an original – and whether the book in which he developed the idea, Simulacra and Simulation, was the bible of Marfa’s architects and planners then and now. A case in point: forty miles out of town is Elmgreen & Dragset’s controversial artwork Prada Marfa, a fake boutique that stands beside Route 90 amid, well, nothing, really, but sand and dust. Discussed as much as derided (is it art or ad?), and occasionally vandalised, it is, when I see it, newly refurbished: an offwhite cuboid with windows full of handbags and high heels, glowing in the early-evening sun, a mirage made bricks and mortar. Snapping selfies in front of it, I felt myself starting to disappear like one of those phantom lights on the desert.
Afterwards, driving back to Marfa, I pulled in at a side-road leading to a vast, closed Dollar General store floodlit beneath an acid-yellow sign – an utterly irresistible photographic subject. Immediately I’d stopped, a police cruiser pulled up beside me out of nowhere: “Sir! Are you aware you’re blocking the road?” In America you don’t argue with the police, even when they make a patently absurd suggestion (his was the first moving car I’d seen in hours), so I capitulated to what must have been, I figured, the most bored cop in the whole state. And yet, not an hour later, after I’d taken my pictures and retired to the Paisano, there was hullabaloo outside: red flashing lights blazing, the roar of a high-speed chase up North Highland St, multiple sirens dopplering past. It was an odd reminder that while to me Marfa was a destination in and of itself, to someone else, it was just another empty town to joyride or abscond through. And since everything here feels performative, the car chase – as I could see nothing of it from my window – might just have been sound effects and flashing lights laid on for my entertainment.
In the café with no name, the writer closes her laptop with a sigh. As I start to eavesdrop once again, she’s explaining to the barista that she’s still getting used to not having plaster casts on her arms. “It was this complete freak accident. I went for a run to de-stress, and just when I was getting near home, I caught me toe on a paving stone, and fell backwards, and… what’s that bone called in the front of your arm? Well, I shattered both those anyway.”
“Oh my god, that’s awful,” says the barista. Then, reflectively: “Cool scars, though.”
Up the road in Austin they give out bumper stickers marked KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD. They don’t know the half of it. C
The Glasgow Coma Scale by Neil D.A. Stewart is published in paperback in July 2015 by Corsair