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The Desolation Center film - A Reagan-era guerrilla punk and industrial desert happening in SoCal



DESOLATION CENTER is the previously untold story of a series of Reagan-era guerrilla music and art performance happenings in Southern California that are recognized to have paved the way for Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella, collective experiences that have become crucial parts of alternative culture in the 21st century. The feature documentary splices interviews and rare performance footage of Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Swans, Redd Kross, Einstürzende Neubauten, Survival Research Laboratories, Savage Republic and more, documenting a time when pushing the boundaries of music, art, and performance felt almost like an unspoken obligation.

Directed by Stuart Swezey, the creator and principal organizer of these unique events, DESOLATION CENTER demonstrates how the risky, and at times even reckless, actions of a few outsiders can unintentionally lead to seismic cultural shifts. Combining Swezey’s exclusive access to never-before-seen archival video, live audio recordings, and stills woven together with new cinematically shot interviews, verité footage and animated sequences, DESOLATION CENTER captures the spirit of the turbulent times from which these events emerged. The timeless power of DIY—do-it-yourself culture—is a recurrent theme throughout the film, spotlighting the true diversity of LA's early punk scene, where alienated young people—white, Latino, black, Asian, LGBTQ—joined together against the militarized police repression of the Reagan-era LAPD that was the backdrop of the film’s events. More than just the story of a series of wild and unorthodox happenings, DESOLATION CENTER holds true the spirit of freedom and possibility that Punk and its clarion call of creative deconstruction embodied.

Inspired by Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo in which the protagonist goes to Herculean lengths to build an Opera House in the Amazonian jungle, Swezey saw the series of pilgrimages to the desert as his way of getting to that ecstatic experience with the limited means at his disposal. The first of these events, Mojave Exodus, transported adventurous punk and industrial music fans in rented school buses into the far, remote reaches of the Mojave Desert for surreal performances remembered as “earth-shattering” and "life-changing" by those who were there. The LA Weekly described one of the events as being “like some bizarre ritual at the end of the world.” Subsequent Desolation Center shows further explored unconventional locations: Joy at Sea transformed a ferry boat into a performance space floating in the San Pedro harbor, while the Mojave Auszug and the Gila Monster Jamboree events returned to the desert's expanse, pushing the limits of what a live music experience could be. Breaking down the perennial barrier between performer and audience, the Desolation Center shows became “temporary autonomous zones” outside the rigid Reagan-era society that these young people were rebelling against. On the stark, alien landscapes of the California desert, the anarchic aggression of LA hardcore punk cross-pollinated with the uncompromising sounds of New York's No Wave and Berlin’s industrial musique concrète to form the catalyst for a powerful new culture that would come to command the attention of the entire world.

Some of the characters involved in the Desolation Center shows and appearing in the film are among the most compelling and fascinating of their generation including Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds), Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose), Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Suzy Gardner (L7), Burning Man co-founder John Law, and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Laboratories). Beyond the tale of these unparalleled events, DESOLATION CENTER also serves as a panoramic look at the 80s underground while it was still under the radar of the mass media. As a recent Vice.com article explains, “the magic of the shows is that they never had a chance to become diluted by money or time: they were raw, they were real, and, most importantly, they were completely original.”

Director Stuart Swezey says, "Taking the music that I found so inspiring and placing it into the wide-open spaces of the California desert or on a boat in the industrial wasteland of LA Harbor became a personal challenge for me. The story of the Desolation Center events is told in the film by eyewitnesses who were participants whether as musicians, artists, organizers or concert-goers."

The Desolation Center project has been a labor of love from the start. The film's producers have now made it to the starting gate of getting the documentary out into the world. They chose to work with the independent film crowdfunding platform Seed & Spark to raise money to bring the Desolation Center film to the next phase of release.

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