PRINT Summer 2005

A Talk with Center for Land Use Interpretations’s Matthew Coolidge

SEWER SYSTEMS AND TRAFFIC PATTERNS; abandoned air-force bases and simulated Main Streets built to train law-enforcement officers; dead shopping malls and towns swallowed by the rising waters of technologically diverted rivers. This is the American landscape as seen through the eyes of Los Angeles’s Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI): a complex national topography that’s emphatically physical yet also has a certain uncanny lyricism, one rich in the cadences of what CLUI’s director, Matthew Coolidge, calls “anthropogeomorphology”—the landscape as altered by humans.

Founded in 1994 by Coolidge with a small group of colleagues and run today out of a modest Venice Boulevard storefront in Culver City, CLUI has emerged as the most astute of many creative groups around the United States currently engaging contemporary issues related to land and its uses, both functional and aesthetic. Though increasingly known for its exhibitions—including this spring’s “Terminal Island,” a show focusing the organization’s celebrated research on that man-made landform in the Long Beach area of Los Angeles, the largest container port in the United States—CLUI actually presents a wide range of programming, from books and lectures to multimedia bus tours. These tours put people in direct experiential contact not only with the various sites they visit but also with local experts and spokespeople who bring firsthand, sometimes divergent perspectives to the discussion. Perhaps CLUI’s biggest enterprise is its least public, the Land Use Database, a collection of photographic and analytical information on thousands of “unusual and exemplary” locations around the country—“from industrial sites to military sites to Land art to prisons to housing developments to tennis courts,” says Coolidge—that the organization has spent years processing for use as source material in its various projects.

In addition to its West Coast headquarters, CLUI has an office in upstate New York and is currently branching out around the country through its American Land Museum project, a network of far-flung “landscape exhibition sites” designed to serve as bases for an ongoing interpretive project on the distinctiveness of regional land-use patterns, from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains breadbasket. For now, CLUI administers the museum’s first outpost, with its own residency program, in Wendover, Utah. One could hardly imagine a more CLUI-esque location. Just off Interstate 80 in the shadow of the Silver Island Mountains, the Wendover complex occupies a series of buildings on the site of an abandoned airfield where the crew of the Enola Gay was trained. Within a few hours’ drive of both one of the world’s largest open-pit mines and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, the complex lies adjacent to two tantalizing and telling artifacts of our recent sociocultural past—like its own mission, somewhere between art and science, between myth and matter.

Jeffrey Kastner

JEFFREY KASTNER: How was the Center for Land Use Interpretation created?

MATTHEW COOLIDGE: A few other people and I were already doing individually what we now do together as an organization. Most of us had some background in the arts. I studied geomorphology in school, as well as art history and film. In 1994, we filed papers to become an official institution and established a methodology that we’ve been following ever since: We collect information on places across the United States, storing and then using that raw material to organize regional or thematic exhibits.

JK: What was your practice as an independent artist at the time?

MC: I took pictures, I did videos, I made things. I was interested in point of view, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—what happens when you look at things, how medium and mediation change the view of the object.

JK: So what were your first CLUI projects like?

MC: We began to establish the database, as we call it: a systematic analysis of land use across America. It’s really about figuring out how the nation’s lands are used, who owns them, how things are connected. We’re interested in manifesting the things that exemplify interconnectedness—the gas line coming into your building is connected to another line, which goes to a trunk line under Venice Boulevard, and that goes out to the 405 Freeway and underground a thirty-six-inch main that goes under the interstate up to the gas fields of Alberta, and so on. To accomplish this, we select subjects based on what we call the “unusual and exemplary criteria,” which means that a place can be selected from the continuum of space because it either stands out as singular, unique, or extraordinary, or is “exemplary”—meaning that it exemplifies a more typical or common type of space.

JK: Tell me how a CLUI-style analysis of a site might begin.

MC: It depends on the site. Let’s say it’s a gravel pit. There are gravel pits all over the place. Someone sends us an e-mail saying, “Have you seen this big gravel pit outside of Chicago?” Using the “unusual and exemplary” criteria, we would then look at what information we have about the relative size of gravel pits in the area, trying to determine if there’s something about that particular gravel pit that makes it stand out. We prefer ground truth whenever possible—to have somebody from the organization go to the site and do a site analysis, describing it from firsthand experience.

JK: But your exhibitions also extend beyond physical characteristics to how the site is run as a business, the relationships it has to other institutions, or its history. Do you want the presentations that you make to contend with conventionally accepted portraits of the places they depict?

MC: At times. Let me give you an example. Recently, we did a tour to parts of the Great Salt Lake and looked at the Bingham Pit, an open-pit copper mine they call “the biggest hole on earth.” Two people can stand next to each other in front of this massive creation, and one will say, “This is a horror! Look what we’ve done, we’re doomed!” And then the other person will say, “If you’re engaged in society, you’re using copper; you depend on it for your communications, your electricity. This site symbolizes the industriousness and ingenuity that built this country.” Those are two ends of one conventional political polarity. But we try to introduce the rest of the spectrum, where you can understand the site as both of these things. It’s stirring, it’s moving, it’s horrible and beautiful—in a kind of Keatsian sense where beauty becomes truth. A sense of connection with a place is a form of truth; a visual truth, a ground truth. It can embody conflicting judgments all at once. Through us trying not to tell people what to think about the site—by getting in touch with this truth of the ground—maybe you come away with more of an emotive or a psychological truth, a more complex and complete sense of the place.

JK: And what is the role of the research you present in this context?

MC: Maybe one that allows you to become less sure, to realize that things aren’t quite as certain as you thought. We try to suggest with the database and exhibits that the landscape is fairly rich as it is, and in a way, you don’t need to do too much to it other than change your perspective. Familiar objects, often unseen because they’re so familiar, become more interesting and become something else if you change the context in which they’re presented. It’s in that state of uncertainty that your mind is most active. That’s the space of change, and anything can happen in that space. And if we can get people untethered, even briefly, then things change slightly, individually, and perhaps even collectively down the road.

JK: Do you view your process of information gathering and sorting as an activity that produces a “factual” account of things? You’ve spoken previously about the questions of mediation, of fact and fiction. How does this dialectic operate in CLUI’s work?

MC: Well, we feel like fact is often just a more widely believed form of fiction—or can be, at least. And that’s where we want to operate. What is a fact? Is it just consensus? It’s a collective conviction, I suppose, but we often wonder where the truth really lies and whether it can even be found. The X-Files people say, “The truth is out there.” I don’t know. Perhaps it’s in our heads more than anywhere else.

JK: Presumably these questions around information and presentation are important in deciding how to put together your exhibition formats—their mixing of visual documentation, textual description, related cultural materials, and tours.

MC: Absolutely. We very much want it to appear that we’re dealing with “truths,” but also we want to indicate that those truths are often tenuous.

JK: I’m interested in CLUI’s modes of representing place. It seems like this is the kind of conceptual terrain—the representation of large-scale, land-based phenomenological activities through visual and textual artifacts in exhibition or publication contexts—where your project dovetails with the legacy of Land art.

MC: Land art is an odd category. People put Smithson and Michael Heizer next to each other, but they’re very, very different. Heizer’s a post-Minimalist sculptor who has to work outdoors: He works on a large scale and deals with monumentality and therefore needs access to the inexpensive bulk materials of the ground. Smithson is much more of a Conceptualist. Spiral Jetty, even though it’s made of rocks bulldozed out into the water, is more the illustration of an idea, one that’s coupled—or tripled, I guess you could say—with the essay and film about the Jetty. And all those things together form the work.

Our relationship to that art has to do with our surroundings. We all live in a combination of indoors and outdoors; in most of the country, a lot of our time is spent negotiating the landscape. In a place like the Mojave Desert, to cite one extreme, experience is nearly entirely exterior; and that’s probably where most Land art has been produced. The other extreme is Manhattan, where most experience is indoors—even the streets feel like hallways. This kind of environment encourages the production of interior-based art and structures to contain it, like museums. So when Land art appears in New York, it is usually in the form of images and other secondary representations. As a result, Gianfranco Gorgoni’s imagery of Spiral Jetty is what people have in their heads—but that doesn’t exist anymore.

JK: I’ve always thought this was the most interesting conceptual question related to Land art, and it’s one that really seems to be at the heart of what CLUI does. Negotiating those dialectics—indoor/outdoor, process/artifact, site/non-site—is central to your whole approach.

MC: Yes. And there’s also something that Smithson could not have perhaps anticipated. It’s not a dialectic, it’s more a trialectic—site, non-site, website—where you have this fluid electronic version of space that is a form of a nonsite but is also something else. And increasingly, a lot of our efforts are being directed in mapping these sites into cartographic networks on the Web so that all this information—this multilayered portrait of America through its different land uses—can be explored in a scalable system where you can look for new relationships, juxtapositions, and contexts based on where and how you’re looking. And that truly is a new way of experiencing “place” that is perhaps different enough from mere representation of a place, what Smithson called the non-site, and is in fact a new version of space—“infospace,” or whatever you want to call it. It’s like a triangle where each element affects the experience of place and there’s a fluid back-and-forth between these three nodes of experience we work with and people work with in their own lives, as well. There’s definitely a lot left to learn about being there and not being there.

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based critic.