Social Pool, in the beginning (Photo via Alfredo Barsuglia)
BY JULIET BENNETT RYLAH
Social Pool, the little pool hidden in the middle of the desert, has completed its extended experiment, meeting its end at the hands of some jerks.
In the summer of 2014, artist Alfredo Barsuglia announced that he had hidden a small pool—eleven by five feet wide—in the middle of the desert. If you wanted to get there by his suggested means, you had to first stop by the MAK Center for Art in West Hollywood and pick up a key. You were then provided with coordinates that led you east of Los Angeles, to San Bernardino County. It required a small amount of hiking to get to the pool, unless you had a car that didn't easily get stuck in sand.
We were, as far as I could tell, the second group of people to find it. I went with two friends on a Sunday in June of that year, and the pool was in pristine condition. We didn't see any other humans—only a few hares, a couple lizards and a trio of broken down RVs that reminded everyone of Breaking Bad. The pool had a solar-powered filter, and guests were asked to bring a gallon of water to pour into the small pool to replace any water that evaporated or splashed out while they used it. You were also asked to return the key within 24 hours. We followed Barsuglia's rules, and so did many others that came after us. The pool officially closed on September 30, 2014.
Barsuglia's artist statement discussed what lengths people would go to for a luxury. That could mean picking up the key and driving all the way out to the desert, enjoying the pool and then caring for it so that it could remain clean for others.
On the other hand, there was nothing stopping you from copying the key before you returned it, tossing in a bucket of sand and leaving it open and unlocked. There was also nothing preventing you from accessing the pool via other means.
"I don't think that someone takes the effort to visit the pool to destroy it. Yes, I trust the participants, but as I mentioned before, if someone comes to destroy the work, it's sad but part of the project—of letting the project develop by itself, without my or anybody's influence. To sit in the pool and watch the scenery is outstanding. I think it's so nice that nobody would conceive the idea to damage it, but to prevent it for the next visitor. But you never know… we will see," Barsuglia told us the day after we visited the pool.
While we never shared the coordinates and I removed geotags from our photos, we did post a photo of the key. Numerous commenters tried to assert that someone would actually take the time to copy the key using a photo, and then use the key to somehow find and destroy the pool. Why this hypothetical vandal wouldn't just break the lid for their nefarious purposes was unclear, but at any rate, I did not take the photo of the key down. Several other people ended up making it to the pool via the set rules without incident—until this past month.
Tony Bruno, who owns property out by the pool, sent me a Facebook message over the weekend to let me know that someone, sometime in the last month, stole the solar panel and the pump. He sent the following photo as well, taken prior to the theft.
(Photo by Tony Bruno)
"The pool is in poor shape and the lid is not working well," he wrote. "Just thought I would tell you. It's a shame that people do this to things."
Though the pool had at some point been left unlocked, Bruno said the pool was still usable up until the last month or so.
I decided to get in touch with Barsuglia again, as we'd just been talking about his upcoming book Rosa. I sent him one of Bruno's photos.
He wrote back, telling me that Wikipedia had posted the coordinates to the pool on a page about the piece, which enabled anyone who so desired to find it for themselves—with or without a key. Many were inspired to visit, he said, simply out of curiosity.
You won't believe, but I still receive frequent emails and phone calls concerning the Social Pool. People send me photos of the pool's current condition and ask for its reopening. Others ask to use the site for a music video or a (horror) movie, or for a dinner party or whatever.
There was at least one short film shot at the pool. BUTTERFLY depicts "two futuristic motorcycle-riding nymphs [who] find an aquatic portal and pass through it to another universe," according to the video's Vimeo page.
In order for the pool to be a permanent installation, Barsuglia said an individual or institution would need to be able to care for the visitors and the maintenance of the pool. Barsuglia lives in Austria and cannot care for it himself. The MAK Center has a small, three-person team, and Barsuglia said they would likely need a fourth person who could maintain the pool.
"The project was meant to be permanent, but its huge success and the many people who wanted to see the site brought it to an end after the first season," he said.
Barsuglia, in the meantime, has other projects in the works, which we'll be excited to see come to fruition.
It's interesting to see how the experiment played out for different personalities. For instance, after us, another group visited the pool via conventional means, and poured in the requisite gallon.
Another woman who found the pool with two friends wrote about her time there for Huffington Post. When they arrived, a group of people was standing around the pool, but left when she and her friends walked up. She and her pals decided to camp there, and were interrupted by two men after the sun set who said a friend had "leaked" the key. The HuffPo writer and her friends were creeped out by them, though the men eventually left them alone. The group stayed overnight and in the morning, got their car's wheels stuck in the sand. They ended up having to pay $375 to get towed back to the main road.
Those two guys from the night before were probably not weird at all. It turned out to be blogger/adventurer Rich Mayfield and his friend, according to Mayfield's own blog post. They were the only people, to our knowledge, who were successfully able to cut their own key using our photo. Mayfield also found geotags from other visitors' photos and used tax records to verify that Barsuglia bought a 10-acre parcel in the desert (it cost $2,500, apparently). As for the other group, Mayfield wrote that he was prepared to share his snacks and beer with them, and would have even helped them out of the sand, but feeling his presence was unwanted, the two men camped out elsewhere until the trio left the pool. Mayfield did not destroy the pool, but rather cared for it and cleaned up trash from the area around the pool.
In terms of a social experiment, the pool was a success. People found it, by conventional means and via detective work. People cared for it for many months, and ultimately people chose to ruin it.