Body and solar

Joe DeLappe

Artist Joe DeLappe draws a 400 mile line through the Nevada desert.

Artist Joe DeLappe draws a 400 mile line through the Nevada desert.

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“If a concentrated solar power system was built that was a 100 mile by 100 mile square in size out in the Southwest [United States], which has some of the best solar resources in the entire world, or you covered 1 percent of the country’s land with photovoltaics, either strategy would be more than enough to meet the country’s entire energy demand.”

—Cliff Chen, Union of Concerned Scientists

Artist and University of Nevada, Reno professor Joe DeLappe isn’t sure where he first stumbled on that quote from energy scientist Cliff Chen, but the idea resonated with him—the idea that a renewable energy source could be tapped to power the entire country. And even more, it could be done in Nevada—a state with a lot of space, and ample annual sunshine.

For his recent project, “Project 929: Mapping the Solar,” he drew the area that could contain the solar system—drawing it not on the map, but on the territory. He mapped a route of over 400 miles in southern Nevada, includes the Nevada Test Site, “Area 51,” Yucca Mountain and Nellis Air Force Range and rode the entire route by bicycle—nine days in the blazing Southern Nevada sun—with a pieces of chalk attached to the back of his bike, literally drawing a line around the area of land that could potentially hold enough solar collectors to power the entire country.

DeLappe’s a digital media artist, but his work has been gravitating toward performance and endurance based pieces. A few years ago, he reenacted, in the virtual community Second Life, Mahatma Gandhi’s famous 1930 240-mile walk made in protest of the British salt tax.

“That was a 26-day long physical performance, but I was standing in the same spot on a treadmill, but moving in Second Life,” he says. “After I finished that piece, I had this notion that I really wanted to somehow take this kind of work out into real space. … I was changed by that. It made me embrace performance in a way that I never had.”

For DeLappe, there’s also a political component to the project.

“I’ve been politicized in the last 10 years in a way that’s really fundamental to who I am now as an artist,” he says. “I’ve embraced that. I was very tentative about that at first. But at this point, I identify myself as a media artist-slash-activist. … A lot of the work that I’ve been doing has been a critique of the military-industrial complex. It’s implicit in this.”

He says that the costs of building the kind of solar farm he proposes are dwarfed by the vasts sums spent on the military research, including nuclear detonations, that have taken place in that area over the years.

“It’s undoubtedly a fraction of what we’ve spent for military means there,” he says. “For me, the project was a way, as an artist, as a political action, to put myself down in that space and to physically map out, literally draw that line in chalk.”

He says an important factor for him was just getting “that nugget of information into people’s heads”: A 100 mile by 100 mile area in Nevada could, with solar panels, be enough to power the entire nation. It would also create jobs and massive income for a state that’s still troubled financially, and unsure of what industry to next embrace.

The project was partly sponsored by College Cyclery, Reno Bike Project, UNR and the Nevada Museum of Art, among others. His trip was extensively documented in a variety of digital media—including a digital avatar projected into a Google Street View and “augmented reality” images featuring digital representations of the potential solar farm.

DeLappe has made art in this state for 20 years, but after he completed the 460-mile journey through the desert, his wife, artist Laurie Macfee, said to him, “Well, now you’re a Nevada artist.”