While out in Wonder Valley for a weekend, breakfast at the Palms—a biker bar off a dirt road literally in the middle of nowhere—yielded a crazy delicious meal for $3.50 and a chance encounter with a blonde girl in pigtail braids and striped pajamas. She was off examining the tops of exhausted, sun-bleached picnic benches, while her cohort aired his dirty toes at the breakfast table, swearing in a German accent as he kicked over a coffee mug and broke it.
Pigtails came over and introduced herself as Ashby, a public-access experimental filmmaker from Portland who was homesteading with the German. Then things got a little weird, the two of them had a miniature argument of dubious seriousness, and Ashby stalked off inside to eat her waffles alone, by the pool table.
When I got home and sorted through photos of the trip, I realized I’d seen Ashby the day before at Amy & Wendy Yao's annual Swap Meet, an innocently arty powwow where a good portion of the nicest, chillest, most creative people in Los Angeles (and a couple from Portland, NYC, UK, and all over Europe) head out to Joshua Tree to tack their booths and wares onto the town’s monthly flea market. Ashby was being interviewed on a temporary outpost of KCHUNG, a radio collective I belong to and the impetus for heading out there that weekend.
Then the internet stalking began. Turns out her full name is Ashby Lee Collinson, and she's a badass and a genius. There seem to be a lot of people crushed out on her.
In video and performance she plays a character of herself named Princess Dies, a sort of ghostly, oddly feminine entity with a bobbing weather balloon tied to her ponytail. She seems to be figuring out what it might be like to have a body, drifting across the land, feeling out the human stuff. Her videos sensually wander through hazy, gorgeous, sometimes violent naturescapes, promoting that kind of bliss when you can shut off your mind and focus entirely on the oscillation of air on the back of your hand as you’re riding shotgun with your arm dangling out the window.
These videos are incorporated in Experimental Half-Hour, a cable-access TV show that is exactly what it claims to be, airing twice a month in Oregon and in NYC. Ashby was also cast as herself in a couple episodes of Portlandia.
A true daughter of Portland—not only born and raised there, also beloved by the townspeople—Ashby was recently sent off with funds raised largely by her local supporters to go live out the explorations of Princess Dies in various dune environments, then come back and share what she found. A couple months ago she took off alone on a road trip from Portland out to Wonder Valley, where we met. Since then she's met with a shaman and had a Sikh guru for a roommate, explored ATV and fishermen cultures, and has plans to visit rural communities deep in the Oregon forest, meet with the head of Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University, and hang out with kids in the Puget Sound who are living off the land. She’s not home yet but she’s on her way back, and she stopped by my dining room for a chat that kicked off with a video of her deflating a seven-foot beach ball with her body.
VICE: What made you want to do this?
Ashby Lee Collinson: It was inspired by this trip I had last year. I was stuck camping in a really violent sand storm—70-mile-per-hour winds, no escape kind of thing. I was sleeping in my tent and the tent was literally squishing my entire body because the wind was so intense. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t even think, “Oh, I should get up, a tornado might come.”
Where would you even go at that point?
Drive another hour? I don’t know.
Did this lead up to your recent homesteading experience?
I was on the way to Joshua Tree, where I ended up. An acquaintance was nearby, in 29 Palms, right after the day where I got stuck. He invited me to dinner, and I ended up at the German’s compound that night, just randomly.
The German has a compound?
Yeah, it’s called the Cat Ranch. It’s the Wonder Valley Land Art Project, which is a memorial to Jason Rhodes. When he died, the German started this memorial. He owns it. And he’s been working on it the last few years.
Let me get this straight: You met him after a sandstorm last year.
Yes, randomly, through an acquaintance. He was like, “Come have dinner,” because I’d had a really rough time. It was totally insane, and some kid who’d walked across the country just showed up out of nowhere. It’s a fascinating community. So I said, “I have to figure out a way to come back here.”
What’s the German doing out here?
He’s fixing it up, doing solar and wind, just trying to live as minimally as possible. He has a Second Life company in Berlin where he mapped out the whole city and he sells avatars and stuff.
He’s deep in the virtual world.
You keep blowing my mind. I don’t even know what’s going on anymore.
Yeah, so he’s on the computer in virtual world most of the year, and then he goes out to the desert to try to get in touch.
You went out there to hang out or help or what?
I turned it into a residency. I’m really inspired by Jason Rhoades, the way he engages art as an ecology. Perfection and finitude are out the door. It all relies on playfulness, fluidity, and the euphoric state of the journey. I wanted that kind of space to be able to do my work. And to live off solar power and wind is super amazing. So just right off the bat the German was like, “Yeah, you should come back anytime you want.” I had to jump at the opportunity.
It was a residency how?
I had a wood stove cabin, and was invited to stay there for the month and utilize the space however I wanted. I thought I’d have all this privacy but I ended up being this intense anomaly, like affecting everybody. People would just come over at all times from the neighborhood.
Because there was someone new.
And a girl. It’s all men in their fifties and sixties.
Yeah! I saw that in the bar.
I ended up being really tight with them, but it was a little scary, honestly. Totally distracting. It was hard to get a shower, to charge any of my stuff. I was not prepared for gnarly desert rat interaction. But they’re really super smart dudes who live off the land and deal with nature on a daily basis. I met this guy Slim, who’s a retired rodeo clown, a really amazing man.
How did you meet him?
He came over to do a quick fix. Jan wanted to move a table out of the cabin, but it was too big.
So Slim came in and chainsawed the legs off.
Yeah. It’s shit like this: weird problems, weird fixes. I ended up bonding really hard with this Hell’s Angels type of dude who has a worm farm out there. I was constantly getting advice. He’s a stellar roofer, amazing painter, I mean an artist. And I met Ronnie, who took me on this insane buggy ride through the Marine base.
Oh! You got to go!
I did it and I don’t have the footage.
Fuck. But it’s also like, it’s sort of right.
Yes. Because I don’t want to exploit these guys, they’re my friends. The whole buggy ride he was talking about what’s right and wrong, and how he and his wife are partners, and what love is. Super beautiful. They’re really tapped in. When you look at them, they look you deep in the eye and they can tell you’re a good person. It’s all on their rules too.
What were their rules?
I mean, it’s an exchange. I can’t just go over there and film something. It took two weeks before everyone chilled out, where they could just talk to me. I did get into some performance, where I camo netted my car. The German went away for a few days and I was really freaked out because there are no real locks on anything. There are some rough people in that neighborhood.
Where did this performative stuff come from, for you?
Experimental Half Hour started in 2010; I did the first episode with Bruno Coviello of Light Asylum. I did a performance based on a tarot reading that I interpreted as Princess Diana, and trying to understand how she passed through the physicality and into being absorbed into the spectacle. I was involved in an art show Storm Tharp did about me. I was being painted and entering and interacting with virtual space pretty much for the first time. Everything I’ve done since is a diary processing things I’ve been doing, like with Portlandia and stuff like that.
Because you were playing you.
I’m super comfortable in those situations. I’m from Portland, it was a place that was a haven for outsiders. It was really safe. I grew up in the Unitarian church in the 80s and it was very much all about diversity and people on the outskirts. I’m trying to create that space again for myself through my art.
It’s interesting because life experimentation for the sake of learning about life has to be somewhat constructed. You have to set up these rules to live inside. And sometimes for me I’m like, this is total stunt journalism. Do you ever feel like that?
Totally. I’m basically creating psychedelic experiences for myself. I saw that movie Paper Lion where Alan Alda is a writer and he joins a football team. I just started to realize that’s what this is looking like. But I’m really just like this, I’m really more comfortable right now in rural areas in small towns. I really want to have intimate, deep connections with people who’re totally different from me. I want to have meaningful experiences and learn as much as I can. If that’s through art, then that’s what I’m going to do. There’s a difference in getting into aesthetics of, say, crafts versus saying I’m actually going to live sustainably.
What about authenticity?
You’re useless to anybody if you’re just blowing through aesthetic after aesthetic. I’m not a disaster tourist.
Is there anyone from Wonder Valley who you’re staying in touch with?
Definitely. Richard the roofer is total family. He gave me contacts for people he knew in Oregon when he had a compound back in the day. He experimented with a lot of different lifestyles and he had communities with people. He broke it down for me.
Wait, how did he break it down? I couldn’t really understand him.
He lost all of his teeth gold panning and breathing in Mercury.
But yeah, he was saying, “Watch out for the wolves. Don’t trust anybody. You’re a single woman on your own.” He was obviously really worried, because I was in the middle of this super harsh environment. He was like, what’re you doing? Be careful, because you’re a young woman. I wasn’t even preparing myself for the consequences of being a young woman in a severely poverty-stricken neighborhood in California.
Ha, and I was out there for radio and romance.
It’s a wild place. It’s hard to even articulate. It’s like a force. It’s very electric, too. There’s a current running of positive ions, which is the opposite of what the body really needs.
Good for you for going out and doing this.
I had to. There aren’t many opportunities to know your body in that context, in an intense hostile physical situation where you’re stripped down to your basic needs, living at the mercy of the sun and the moon and the wind.
That’s what I love about the desert: It doesn’t fuck around.
That shit gets to you. And the sun is really intense, and you see the moon setting, and your body just kicks in. You don’t feel it in the city, you just don’t have that relationship with your body and the landscape. It meant that I’m dreaming about babies, that I need to have a baby. You can hear the bombs are going off on the base all day long, your cabin’s shaking, it’s another virtual reality. Totally not real. You’re not going to die, it’s not the apocalypse, but it feels like it. And everyone’s reacting to you like you’re the last woman on earth.
That’s what you should call this! Princess Dies Is the Last Woman on Earth.
The performance part of this trip, for me, is not about making art, it’s about blowing my own mind and expanding my consciousness and trying to communicate on a basic level. It’s hard for me to find my people, and that’s a lot of what this trip is about. When you can take the risk and go with the flow of your life and follow the threads and go as far out as you can handle, that’s when it’s real. That’s when you’re living.