Desolation Center

Los Angeles, California | Film Feature

Documentary, Music

Stuart Swezey

1 Campaigns | California, United States

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Desolation Center is the untold story of Reagan-era guerrilla punk/industrial desert happenings in Southern California. Interviews and unseen footage of Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Swans, Redd Kross, Einstürzende Neubauten, SRL, Savage Republic and more. Contact: [email protected].

About The Project

  • The Story
  • Wishlist
  • Updates
  • The Team
  • Community

Mission Statement

These happenings were opposed to the rigid society that young people—white, Latino, black, Asian, LGBTQ—were in rebellion against. We will portray this diversity of the LA underground on screen. Crew features women of color as co-producer and one of the lead cinematographers.

The Story





Desolation Center is the previously untold story of a series of early 80s 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 key elements of popular 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. 



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 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 in the grunge era 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 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 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.”


Links for further info about the Desolation Center story:

Red Bull Music Academy:

KCET Artbound:


Directors Statement 


The story of the guerrilla music and performance events of the Desolation Center is inextricably bound up with my own story as a young adult in the punk and post-punk music scene of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Desolation Center will be more than just the story of a series of wild and unorthodox happenings. The film will be true to the spirit of freedom and possibility that Punk and its clarion call of creative deconstruction embodied. The timeless power of DIY—do-it-yourself culture—which has been a through line throughout all of my creative work will be an ongoing theme in the film. 



As a young underground music promoter, I was inspired by Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. Transporting busloads of music fans to the desert was my version of Fitzcarraldo bringing an opera to the Amazon rainforest—getting directly to that ecstatic experience with the limited means at my disposal. By changing the setting where music was experienced, would it also be possible to alter the listeners' perception of that music in a profound way? 


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 my personal challenge. As organizer of these events, I will also appear in the film, sometimes on-screen and sometimes in voice-over to help propel the narrative and also reflect on the events and personalities. 


The newly discovered archival footage and the interviews with largely unheralded pioneers of underground West Coast culture in this film will hopefully begin to reclaim the anarchic and unfettered roots of these now-institutionalized symbols of hedonism, commercialization, and contemporary youth culture that the desert mega-festivals have become. As a filmmaker, I will create a highly textured cinematic evocation of these events highlighting the visual and auditory explorations that the Desolation Center events represented at the time. 



In the decades since I first organized these quixotic excursions of idealistic young people—bent on expanding the horizons of music, art and experience itself—a pure and compelling time in our cultural history has become somewhat obscured, taken over by mega-festivals such as Burning Man and Coachella. For better or worse, these uber hyped desert festivals trace a direct lineage back to Desolation Center. 



The story of the Desolation Center events will be told collectively by eyewitnesses who were participants, whether as musicians, artists, organizers or attendees. Through the film, I would like to explore an almost lost subcultural story and also be a catalyst to future generations to question assumptions and carve out new possibilities even if for a fleeting moment in time.


Why We Need Your Support



Desolation Center has been a labor of love from the start. We have now made it to what is really the starting gate of getting a documentary film out into the world. The response to our first festival screenings has been overwhelmingly positive. Now we are asking your help to share the Desolation Center story with the rest of the world. Desolation Center is at its heart a music documentary and in order for it to be seen outside of a few film festivals, we need funds to pay for music rights and for professional music supervision to assure that all these rights are cleared properly.


Funds from this campaign will go toward the costs of bringing Desolation Center to more festivals and setting up other event screenings around the world. Other costs that still need to be paid for include clip fees, unforeseen post production costs and legal fees.


Your contribution will also help Desolation Center to be able to exist online and share the wealth of interviews and archival material that we were not able to include in the current cut, creating a worldwide community around the ideas that are explored in the film. 



DESOLATION CENTER is fiscally sponsored by The Film Collaborative, a 501(c)3 organization. ALL donations are tax deductible.


In accordance with IRS regulations, The Film Collaborative (TFC) issues tax receipts for all donations of $250 and over. SEED&SPARK and credit card processing fees are deducted before TFC receives the funds. TFC issues tax receipts on the amount they receive.


Use the WishList to Pledge cash and Loan items - or - Make a pledge by selecting an Incentive directly.


Costs $10,000

Publicity and advertising to spread the word about upcoming screenings.

Music Rights

Costs $25,000

Having the best possible tracks and being able to compensate the musicians is essential to the film.

Music Supervision

Costs $5,000

Professional music clearance is necessary to distribute the film online and on screen.

Cash Pledge

Costs $0

About This Team



Stuart Swezey began his creative career organizing the Desolation Center events in the desert and at sea that featured music groups such as the Minutemen, Einstürzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth, and Meat Puppets among others. He is a founder of Amok Books—the influential extreme information sourcebook, cult L.A. bookstore, and publishing house. His book Amok Fifth Dispatch: Sourcebook of Extremes of Information in Print was nominated for the Best Nonfiction Book Title in the FIrecracker Alternative Book awards. Swezey produced the acclaimed feature documentary Better Living Through Circuitry about rave and DJ culture that was released in theaters nationwide and aired on Showtime, the Sundance Channel and BBC Channel 4. Swezey has been a VP, Development for Original Productions (Ice Road Truckers, Black Gold), Alternative Programming exec for Syfy Channel, documentary film producer, and reality television producer and show runner.




Tyler Hubby has edited over 30 documentary films. Most notable among them are The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a picaresque biography of mentally ill artist/musician Daniel Johnston; Double Take , Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s metaphysical essay on the cold war, the rise of television and the murder of Alfred Hitchcock by his own double; the HBO documentary A Small Act; and Participant Media's The Great Invisible, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2014. He also edited and co-produced Lost Angels about the denizens of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and the new punk rock documentary Bad Brains: A Band in DC. He served as an additional editor on the Oscar

nominated The Garden and HBO’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired . Hubby’s acclaimed 2016 directing debut “Tony Conrad: Completely In the Present” was an official selection of the Rotterdam Internation Film Festival.



Director of Photography

Jeremy Royce graduated with an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2013. His work has screened at festivals across the country, has been nominated for a student academy award and Emmy and has earned him multiple awards for directing and cinematography. Jeremy’s debut feature film 20 Years of Madness premiered at the 20015 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah where it won the Jury Honorable Mention. Jeremy currently works as an LA-based freelance director/cinematographer and teaches part time at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.



Director of Photography

One of the 2014 “Generation Next” cinematographers in ICG magazine, Sandra Valde-Hansen holds an MFA from the American Film Institute. Besides lensing political and socially conscious documentaries for Al Jazeera America (Daisy and Max), PBS (Tales of Masked Men) and MTV (House of Style), Filipina-American Valde-Hansen has over fifteen independent feature credits, including F*cking People directed by Theresa Bennett and Shotgun directed by Hannah Marks and Joey Power. Valde-Hansen lensed indie darling director Gregg Araki’s last two features Kaboom, which was an official selection at Cannes and Sundance and White Bird in a Blizzard, starring Shailene Woodley and Eva Green that also premiered at Sundance. Valde-Hansen worked her way up through the camera

department and was mentored by luminaries such as Stephen Lighthill ASC and Nancy Schreiber ASC.When she is not shooting, she teaches in the cinematography department at AFI.




Mariska Leyssius began her creative career as a photographer, musician and pioneering zine publisher (Contagion) in the LA punk and industrial scene. She was involved in the original Desolation Center desert shows and was a co-founder of Amok Books. While working at Island Records, she had the honor of picking Malcolm McLaren up at the airport and chauffeuring Marianne Faithfull around Hollywood. Mariska was at ground zero of music video production and has worked with directors like Julien Temple (Neil Young, Tom Petty) and Kevin Kerslake (Nirvana). She can still be found at low-profile desert parties dancing as the sun comes up.



Archival Producer

Lisa Janssen is an archival producer and researcher living in Los Angeles CA. Her most recent work includes Hal, a 2018 official Sundance selection documentary on director Hal Ashby, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, and the award winning web series We've Been Around. 



Sound Editor

Monkeyland Audio is well known for the quality of its mixes and post-sound services, but an equally compelling reason that keeps clients returning is the smooth and friendly experience during the entire process. Not only are our staff experts in their fields and have a passion for their craft and art, they operate in a smooth and relaxed environment which nurtures the creativity and collaboration that ultimately translates to superior results. Our technical staff keep the facility on the cutting edge of technology, utilizing the latest gear and software to keep the facility at the forefront of mix stages on par with the major studios. Lastly, the experienced management team ensures a superior, smooth, and personal client experience from beginning to end. Centered around a comfortable, well-stocked kitchen and lounge, Monkeyland’s editorial and mix stages create a comfortable environment for both staff and clients to bring out the best for everyone and every project.


Current Team