PRINT November 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 system works, on a national level, creates a picture of who we are as a nation.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is a four-foot-wide, eight-hundred-mile-long pipe built by seventy thousand individuals in a little more than two years, between 1975 and 1977, for $8 billion in private money. It is operated by

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