Kris Vagner, Sept. 28, 2006
Art project? Impromptu theater? International
Airport Montello is a collaboration between
a New York artists’ collaborative and
a -Nevada town of 67 people
11:45 a.m., I already had one foot over the
threshold of the Cowboy Bar in Montello, when,
by raw coincidence, a white van with Utah plates
pulled into the lot. I’d hoped to glean
from the bartender if there really was such
a thing as International
Airport Montello, but the fortuitously timed
arrival of an airport shuttle van answered my
The “airport” is an art project.
It appeared to involve some sort of performance
based on some hard-to-discern set of pretenses.
The project’s web site lists fictional
amenities (a budget plane-cleaning service employing
trained lizards to lick off dirt), businesses
that are verifiably real (the Cowboy Bar) and
a range of facilities of indeterminate tangibility,
such as the Skyview Dinner Club, documented
with photographs of a picnic table under a Photoshopped,
I bee-lined to the van and introduced myself
to Hajoe (sounds like Hi-yo) Moderegger, the
serious-looking European running the show. Understandably,
he’d been hoping to avoid gawkers. The
cameras and booms surrounding his entourage
belonged to Sundance Channel filmmakers and
an Artforum magazine blogger, all welcome participants.
Hajoe reluctantly agreed to let me follow along.
Follow along to what? I had no idea. But International
Airport Montello was backed by dependable credentials.
The project was commissioned by Art
in General a lower-Manhattan arts organization
that does not fear the challenging, the unusual
or the hard-to-quantify. The resumes of Hajoe
and his artistic partner, Franziska (Franzy)
Lamprecht, were equally reassuring. The Queens-based
German artists, who collaborate under the name
claim a decade of experimental, way-off-the-gallery-walls
art projects and an affinity for the idea of
the rural West as a wide-open canvas. They’ve
purchased small chunks of -Nevada and Utah
on Ebay. They’ve projected their land
via live video-feed into gallery spaces in Brooklyn
and Germany. They’ve tried to stop trains
in the desert by setting up a lemonade stand.
In 2004, they choreographed the performance
piece, “Artificial Traffic Jam,”
also near Montello. They enlisted the help of
locals, who showed up in pickups and cars to
help congest a lonely dirt road.
A small caravan pulled out of the Cowboy Bar,
sped north on Highway 223 like it was the Autobahn,
then turned onto a dusty, gravel road. Views
of the overcast sky and wide, gently rolling
valley were unencumbered by trees, houses or
anything but sagebrush.
The Skyview Dinner Club, it turned out, is for
real. Sort of. It’s a patch of dirt outside
the home of -Nevada Red and Darla, who generate
their own electricity and run a web
design business from a single-wide trailer
a few miles from town.
Flight attendant (and Art in General Programs
Manager) Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy,
looking swank in a smoky-blue, vintage stewardess
uniform and heels, ushered seven paying art
and the media crew out of the van. Coffee percolated
over a campfire. A few passengers exchanged
New-York-gallery air kisses. Darla, who cooks
professionally for cowboys, whipped up an elaborate
brunch buffet on her outdoor stove. As the chilly
morning turned to chilly afternoon, Red kept
the coffee flowing, and weary travelers feasted
on thick, buttery French toast.
Sofia, Red and Darla kept playing the roles
of airport personnel without really acting like
they were acting.
I concocted my own premise, hoping an active
role would help counteract my unceremonious
intrusion: My traveling partner and I were reps
from the Regional Nevada Hospitality Committee.
Which meant we’d share our somewhat-cold
cans of Tecate in exchange for the privilege
of continuing to tag along.
Another gate-crasher, University of Utah art
history professor Monty Paret, had a better
story: he and his wife, who are New Yorkers
at heart, and their two young children had been
trapped in a three-year layover in Salt Lake
City, so they’d diverted their itinerary
and come to Montello.
“They’re playing with discursive
space,” he surmised. Exactly.
“That’s artspeak for, ‘It
exists in your fucking mind,’” said
my traveling companion, Elaine Parks, an artist
who was schooled in Los Angeles and de-schooled
in the tiny Nevada town where she now lives.
Monty’s academic terms and Elaine's anti-academic
terms were both dead-on. International Airport
Montello (Its acronym spells, “I am,”
clearly no coincidence.) is complex and theoretical
enough to hold its own in the international
art world, accessible enough to make sense in
a Nevada town with a neighborhood of single-wides,
a neighborhood of double-wides, a few century-old
houses, a two-block long commercial strip, and
The day-long layover is a little like a play
with no script. It’s a meditation on unfulfilled
expectations that unfolds kind of like a more
fun, less lonely Waiting For Godot. Loosely
organized activities take place in actual or
made-up locations. Characters are real or fictional,
costumed or not, whichever they like. Ongoing
sub-plots continue on IAM’s website, such
as that of the airport shoe shiner, who wasn’t
there that day but accepts shoes by mail order.
It’s a game for whoever wants to play,
an in-joke for whoever comes in.
After brunch, the group headed back to town.
Airport Manager Ron Abbott, an affable hypnotherapist
and minister (for real) in a bomber jacket,
led a tour down Montello’s wooden sidewalk.
Abbott’s confidence was emphasized by
a hairstyle so neat and stiff it would not be
compromised by the relentless wind for the rest
of the day.
A black Volkswagen Golf pulled up. An antenna
made of a vegetable steamer and a fishing net
poked through the sunroof. The driver, Bay Area
artist Kristin Lucas, called out bingo numbers
over a megaphone. She distributed her hand-printed
bingo cards to anyone wanting to join the game.
The group convened on the “runway,”
a few miles away, to enjoy some afternoon coffee
and shoot passport photos of every New Yorker,
Montellan, gate-crasher, dog, or child who showed
up. The sole layover support crew member, Brooklyn
artist Jason Dean, distributed safety-orange
flags and instructed everyone to stand along
the runway in the hope of flagging down a plane,
which never arrived. Friendly Montello ambassadors
Henry and Sarah manned the portable, occasional
business, Juan’s Coffee Shop, a folding
table with snacks, warm beverages and gust-proof
streamers anchored by large rocks.
Evening approached. Passengers, art-directors,
uniformed participants, taggers-on and neighbors
who’d shown up in pickup trucks all drove
back to the Cowboy Bar for a festive, pot-luck
dinner, compete with a gray-frosted, airplane-shaped
cake and pie-judging contest. One Montellan
observed, “The bar hasn’t seen this
much activity since Fourth of July.” A
young cowboy made a spectacular entrance on
horse, ducking to fit through the front door.
Under Hajoe and Franzy’s meticulously
organized but light-handed cruise direction,
the evening proceeded just like an artists’
reception (I exchanged numbers with new acquaintances
from Boston or San Francisco) and just like
any busy night in a remote Nevada bar (hearty
mustaches, home-made chili, talk of moving to
Montello to escape big towns).
Afterward, the out-of-towners would continue
to the motel next door, then to Las Vegas, by
actual airplane, and back home to New York to
process this experiment in art and cultural
Elaine and I drove back home that night, musing
on what a delightful series of surprises the
day had been.
At least one passenger, a woman from Pittsburgh,
agreed. “I missed Paris in the ’90s
and New York in the ’20s,” she’d
said earlier in the day. “I’m glad
I made it to this.”