Tom Vanderbilt

  • Lisa Oppenheim, The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else, 2006, 35mm slide projection.

    The Last Newspaper

    “The paper newspaper is still the most viable business model for getting journalists paid to do the reporting essential to a democracy,” proclaimed the editors of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, counterintuitively, in a manifesto prefacing last winter’s special issue, which took the form of a gloriously old-school broadsheet.

    “The paper newspaper is still the most viable business model for getting journalists paid to do the reporting essential to a democracy,” proclaimed the editors of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, counterintuitively, in a manifesto prefacing last winter’s special issue, which took the form of a gloriously old-school broadsheet. With similar optimism but a bit more realism, “The Last Newspaper” will combine artworks, discussions, participatory projects, and simulations of actual newspaper offices to critically assess the medium as a vehicle for collecting


    “THERE’S NO REASON YOU SHOULD TRUST ME,” says Trevor Paglen from his office in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s really terrible evidence.” The “it” in question is a photograph from his series “The Other Night Sky,” 2007–, that shows the trace left by one of nearly two hundred top-secret US satellites currently orbiting the earth. The photograph itself reveals very little; there is only a narrow line etched into star-flecked darkness. It could be a comet, for example, or a communications satellite from the so-called white—or open, public—world. “At the

  • Sarah Morris's Beijing

    WHAT INTERESTS ME ABOUT BEIJING is that it’s not resolved in any way,” says artist Sarah Morris, looking at a monitor in her studio, on which clips from her upcoming film, titled after the city, are playing. “Or, more precisely, that China is a paradoxical state. Is it hypercapitalist? Yes. Is the government a supreme authority? Yes. It’s not yet certain what the country will become, and so today it is not even clear just what we are seeing when, for instance, we look at something like Rem Koolhaas’s tower for China Central Television.” Morris has executed cinematic portraits of urban landscapes

  • The Trans-Alaska Pipeline. All photos: The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 2008.


    TO MARK NEXT YEAR’S SESQUICENTENNIAL of the discovery of oil in the United States, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI)—a thirteen-year-old organization “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived”—is mapping the prime territories of the American oil industry: Alaska, California, and Texas. An exhibition of the project’s Alaskan segment is on view this month at CLUI’s headquarters in Los Angeles; this will be followed by “Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry” in January at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston and a show in fall 2009 (also at CLUI’s Los Angeles space) about oil in California.
    The first part of CLUI’s endeavor focuses specifically on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Although the four-foot-wide pipeline has a relatively minor presence in the actual landscape—Pulitzer Prize–winning author John McPhee once described it as equivalent to a “thread laid across Staten Island”—and despite the fact that its environmental impact is most profound in the invisible emissions generated by its lifeblood, this feat of engineering has an outsize place in the imagination. In the three decades since its construction, the pipeline has become a unique measure of—or cipher for—the geographic and cultural realities surrounding it. It has been bombed and shot at by some, declared obsolete by others, and made an object of tourism by day-trippers from cruise ships. The artist Jason Middlebrook recently depicted it on gallery walls (at a scale of one foot to 2.5 miles) snaking through iconic works of American Land art, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty among them.
    However whimsical Middlebrook’s superimposition might seem, it is hard not to view CLUI’s analysis of the pipeline—which is presented in the following pages by the organization’s founder and director, Matthew Coolidge—through the prism of Smithson, whose approach hovers over much of the group’s work. Coolidge says that the pipeline “can be considered as a collective artwork, in a sense.” He points out that the “notions about emptiness and space and form and void and nature and humanity” broached by the pipeline are of a piece with Smithson’s dialectics. This is all the more salient since the thirst for oil has recently brought extractive interest back to the entropic landscape of Rozel Point, Utah, where Spiral Jetty stands among the subsumed traces of earlier drilling.
    The Trans-Alaska Pipeline seems itself destined eventually to be occluded by an even more ambitious 1,715-mile natural-gas pipeline. But these are only two of many human interventions in the Alaskan landscape, whose wildness is incised with the vestiges of earlier, madly ambitious projects—among them the pipelines that carried water to float dredges for gold extraction, the defunct railways leading to places like the abandoned copper mine in McCarthy, and the irradiated soil (imported from the Nevada Test Site) buried at Ogotoruk Creek—this last the legacy of a federal project that envisaged using nuclear blasts to carve out an artificial harbor next to the North Slope oil fields. These relics recall, as the pipelines may someday, Smithson’s observation upon finding Rozel Point: “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.”
    In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggested that Rome, with all its palimpsestic layering, was a metaphor for the human psyche. Alaska, ever distant but ever on the mind, perhaps represents a specifically American unconscious: It speaks to the desire for an untouched purity, but it is riddled with evidence of rapacious human acts. —TOM VANDERBILT

    LIKE STONE, BRONZE, AND OTHER fundamental materials that defined the ancient ages of human industry, oil defines these times. No other raw material has such a reach into our technologies and the products that we consume. How this came to pass should be the story of our age, told and retold like myth. But the knowledge is largely preserved in a highly specialized and protected corporate college of laborers, engineers, financiers, alchemists, druids, and lords.

    The places of oil production, conveyance, storage, and processing are the physical landmarks of the petroleum age. Understanding how this

  • “1973: Sorry, Out of Gas”

    IN “1973: SORRY, OUT OF GAS,” a show currently on view at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the image that first arrests is of President Richard Nixon addressing the United States on November 7, 1973. A thin trickle of what is evidently sweat runs down his lip. He reads not from a teleprompter but from a sheaf of handwritten notes. The lighting is clinically unflattering. The scene is astonishing, especially if you can’t remember the last time you saw any departure from a fully scripted, stage-managed presidency, but the words are even more so: Calm and stern, Nixon comes across

  • Tom Vanderbilt


    1 “Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–32. Photographs by Richard Pare” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Organized by Barry Bergdoll and Jean-Louis Cohen, Pare’s monumental photographic survey of vanguard architecture from postrevolutionary Russia had the power to make you nostalgic for something of which you had never been fully aware. Architects, from Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier to homegrown talents like Konstantin Melnikov and Grigory Simonov, aimed for a state-sponsored “reconstruction of daily life,” affecting everything from collective housing and power

  • Christian Nold

    IN 1862, in a letter to the editor of the Parisian newspaper La Presse describing the series of prose poems that would become the classic Spleen de Paris (1869), Charles Baudelaire asked, “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reveries, the jolts of consciousness?”

    What Baudelaire was describing, and what he hoped to accomplish in Le Spleen de Paris, was a new way of understanding and representing the city in an age of

  • Doug Aitken

    THE IMPLICATIONS of the glass-curtain wall for both cinema and architecture were delightfully suggested in Jacques Tati’s monumental Playtime (1967), a film shot in wildly expansive, stunningly deep-focused 70 mm—critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that this was Tati’s vision of the shape of contemporary life—and which took as one of its central characters modernism itself. No doubt inspired by Paris’s edge-city La Défense development begun a few years earlier, the film’s exorbitant set (dubbed “Tativille”) features buildings comprising a wilderness of mirrors and windows through which Tati’s human

  • Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Our Daily Bread, 2005, still from a color video, 92 minutes.

    Our Daily Bread

    IN ONE EARLY SCENE of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, the Lithuanian-born protagonist reflects on his new job in Chicago’s Packingtown. “Jurgis had,” Sinclair writes, “stood with the rest up in the gallery and watched the men on the killing beds, marveling at their speed and power as if they had been wonderful machines; it somehow never occurred to one to think of the flesh-and-blood side of it—that is, not until he actually got down into the pit and took off his coat.”

    A century later, in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary Our Daily Bread (which was screened in October at the New

  • Art Center Nabi, Seoul, 2005. Background: Haemin Kim, Lyrics, 2004. Photo: Dong-Hoon Shin.

    Tom Vanderbilt on urban screens

    Viva the façade as computer screen! Viva façades not reflecting light but emanating light—the building as a digital sparkling source of information, not as an abstract glowing source of light! . . . Viva iconography—not carved in stone for eternity but digitally changing for now, so that the inherently dangerous fascist propaganda, for instance, can be temporarily, not eternally, proclaimed!

    —Robert Venturi, Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time (2004)

    SEOUL DOES NOT possess much of what urban planners refer to as “legibility.” Instead of a compact center with recognizable landmarks

  • art and competitive consumption

    MOCKING TITTERS AND condescending volleys erupted from the culturati in January when the big-box, membership-only retailer Costco offered an authenticated Picasso drawing for the strategically irresistible price of $39,999.99. The source of dismay was obvious. Costco is home to everything from institutional-size cans of tomato sauce to billboard-size plasma screens—not fine art. In highbrow discussions one heard an incipient, disdainful qualification: This was a late Picasso drawing, one of those “doodles” jotted off in Saint Tropez when the Master was feeling the need to raise some quick capital.

  • Andy Bichlbaum being interviewed on BBC World as “Jude Finisterra, DOW Chemical spokesman,” 2004.

    Tom Vanderbilt on the Yes Men

    JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD famously described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” But lately I have thought a more apt characterization would be “incredulity toward MetaFilter,” using the popular blog ( as a metaphor for all Internet information, which arrives in such volume and with so many hallmarks of legitimacy as to strain the usual measures of veracity. For example, I was recently alerted by MetaFilter to the existence of a gated community near São Paulo called AlphaVille. This seemed an elaborate joke—a cluster of guarded villas named for Jean-Luc Godard’s