OpenWalls Arles 2020: Joe Pettet-Smith’s Anarchy Tamed

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As part of OpenWalls Arles 2020, we are highlighting photographers whose work is connected to this year’s theme: Growth. Find out how your work could be exhibited alongside Les Rencontres d’Arles 2020 at

Each summer, since 2010, a section of the Mojave Desert in Edwards, California, is transformed. The arid plains of North America’s driest desert play host to a post-apocalyptic fantasy inspired by the 1979 Australian dystopian action film Mad Max. Attendees spend five days in post-apocalyptic costume, inhabiting an alternative reality in which contemporary civilization has collapsed. The world, as we know it, is replaced by a simplified universe, in which survival is the primary concern. 

“I was interested in how a low budget Australian B-Movie from 1979 went on to touch a cultural nerve to such an extent that it inspired a yearly gathering of thousands of people on the other side of the planet,” explains photographer Joe Pettet-Smith, whose series Anarchy Tamed captures the 2019 iteration of Wasteland Weekend, as the event is aptly named. Ironically, for a festival simulating a post-digital world, Pettet-Smith found out about it via Facebook during research for a wider, on-going series called Preparations for the Worst-Case Scenario – an investigation into immersive experiences that provide a space for participants to confront a doomsday scenario. “I found out about this whole festival dedicated to a global community of people dissatisfied with modern societal pressures, who wanted an outlet, an escape,” he says.

Thunder Cat (left) and Possum (right) outside the city gates. © Joe Pettet-Smith

The photographer requested access and, in 2018, travelled to California to partake in the festival. At Wasteland Weekend, costumes are mandatory; staff members and journalists are not exempt. “As much as I was there as an observer trying to engage critically with what I was photographing and what I was trying to say, I definitely had to blend into the crowd,” reflects Pettet-Smith, who attempted to emulate a character from Mad Max the best he could. The photographer recounts approaching the 20-foot steel entrance gates alongside a few clean-clothed media people attempting to enter. “I passed through but they were all turned away by the guards at the gate,” says Pettet-Smith. “It was all pretty surreal but the disguise worked.”

Wasteland Weekend endeavours to totally immerse its attendees in a post-apocalyptic reality. Costumes are key for this, but so too is the primitive landscape of the camp – scorching expanses of desolate sand littered with make-shift tents and shelters; themed vehicles ranging from customised dune buggies to armoured tanks. “Wandering around the festival feels like you are on a film set,” says Pettet-Smith. “The organisers go to great lengths to create immersion in this shared fantasy of the future.” Festival-goers even temporarily adopt “Wasteland names”, a nickname reflecting their personality traits, which further contributes to the fantasy. “Immersion was only really broken when people would get out their immaculate smartphones to take pictures,” says Pettet-Smith.

© Joe Pettet-Smith
© Joe Pettet-Smith

The original event comprised a small community of Mad Max devotees, but the festival has grown rapidly. The most recent Wasteland Weekend drew 4,000 attendees. “Mad Max was set in a near-future where society was beginning to collapse after fossil fuels had run out, a situation that does not seem so distant anymore,” says Pettet-Smith, who attributes the festival’s sustained expansion to its ever-increasingly relevant themes. The photographer cites the growing environmental crisis and global political tensions as just a few of the factors contributing to the growing uncertainty and unease taking hold of contemporary Western society. “I think people need an outlet that is not just escapism but offers psychological respite; literally playing through scenarios to help them deal with this constant state of uncertainty and confusion we find ourselves in,” he says.

Much of Pettet-Smith’s work interrogates subjects tied to both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic realities. “I am interested in these themes in that they offer a way of understanding the present,” he explains. “The work is a reaction to the contemporary condition; a time of media-induced paranoia, anxieties for the future, information warfare, and a growing environmental crisis.” However, despite its serious undertones, the series also emanates an air of light-heartedness: a collection of individuals coming together to partake in a temporary, fantastical world before returning to the comfort of their everyday realities.

This is your last chance to apply to OpenWalls Arles 2020! Submit your work responding to the theme ‘growth’, and you could be part of a group show at Galerie Huit Arles alongside Les Rencontres d’Arles 2020. Deadline: 25 July 2019 23:59 (UK time)

Axel preparing for a Jugger match, a Wasteland contact sport best described as a mix between American football (but the ball is replaced with a dog skull) and the 1990s TV show, Gladiators. © Joe Pettet-Smith
© Joe Pettet-Smith
© Joe Pettet-Smith