November 12th, 2010 | Interviews

Illustration by Alice Rutherford

The Center For Land Use Interpretation, founded and directed by Matthew Coolidge, wants to keep you on your toes! It is clothing optional, and there are no security guards outside CLUI’s exhibits, nor are there locks. A simple code will get you in because CLUI trusts you. They will not, however, make anything too easy for you to find. Heightened awareness, inspired by this search connects a human to her surroundings—a good thing if you ask Matt Coolidge, who spends his days documenting and interpreting human ity’s constructed landscape, scribing stories and drawing bits of meaning but making no conclusions, mind you, because doomsday has come and gone and the Garden of Eden was only a previous version of whatever nature means to you. This interview by Drew Denny.

What is the mission of CLUI? And how did you start?
Matthew Coolidge (founder and director): I was one of the founders of the organization in 1994 when we filed our papers with the government and became an official organization. We’ve been doing what we set out to do initially all along—with increasing efficacy as we get better at it. The first thing that we did was to collect information and images of places across America. That was our kind of bedrock—this land-use database which we still operate and maintain and add to and a portion of which is available online. But really the foundation of this organization is this collection of places that already exist that we’ve just put into kind of a collection that we then draw from to do exhibits and tours and other programs. We started to make extractions to put together exhibits and other projects that are related thematically or regionally. We do these programs several times a year, but they all relate to looking at the built landscape. All of our projects and our database are about the built landscape—meaning the ones constructed by humans. Which is, you know, pretty much everywhere—anyhow, certainly in the United States. So we look at these places—these sites—within the constructed landscape as intentional or incidental constructions that are reflections of our culture. These sites are artifacts, like an archaeological specimen in a sense. They can be studied to tell stories—to extract meaning about the individuals or groups that made them. It can range in scale from a small thing like a curb stone or fire hydrant to a large thing like a bombing range. The scale can go up and down. From something that an individual might make—like a piece of land art—to something that the government makes like a reservoir. These are all artifacts and we’ve constructed narratives based on the selection and order and contextualization of these pre-existing artifacts in the landscape.
And you have exhibits that are open to the public with a code and people just call in and get the code from you?
Yeah, we do. They’re open periodically, but all the time at a few locations. For example, in Wendover, Utah, we have three separate exhibit facilities there that are accessible that way. There are others that require prior arrangement. The location in Los Angeles has regular scheduled hours to visit—there’s no push button code there. It’s on Venice Boulevard. At the Wendover location, we’ve got six or eight buildings with different functions, including the exhibit building. Then in Houston, Texas, where I am right now, we’ve got a field office on kind of an industrialized part of town overlooking a giant scrap yard on the Buffalo Bayou—the primary drainage corridor in Houston. And then in Troy, New York, we’ve got a field office. We’re opening up for the summer there starting in mid-June. There’s an exhibit in that space about the Hudson River. In New Mexico, we have a small facility, but it’s there and it’s open—it’s in a kind of an odd corner of the edge of town, south of Albuquerque. It focuses on issues about the region there—a lot of high-tech research and development and atomic history. That’s open periodically. Sometimes with a code or sometimes we have an attendant there, letting people in on very scheduled hours. These things are announced or described on our website when they are available for visitation by the public.
When you give out a code, you just trust people, then?
It is a trust thing. We’ve opened up exhibits that don’t even have doors! They’re just a trailer out in the landscape or you just walk in and look at stuff. Sometimes things get vandalized and destroyed. But our facility in Utah has never had any issues and it’s had a push button system to look at exhibits there for fifteen years almost—since 1996. There’s a guest book, so there’s a sense of people going through and visiting. Often there’s a new pen for the guestbook. Or a swept place—we leave a broom in the corner because it’s pretty dusty out there, and sometimes people sweep it out. I think something happens when you trust people. They give back in a sense. We’ve expanded it to other places. You know—it’s just one layer to keep kids out who just wanted to vandalize things because they’re bored. Frankly, I think most vandalism is bored kids and when they come up on a lock—even though it says you can call a number for getting inside—they’re not interested in doing that. It keeps just the people who are interested to get through that little filter and it works. It only works in places that have the right conditions of the environment around it, too. We have set up things that have failed in other places— that’s in terms of access. But that’s part of the research we do—to try and find where the edges are and what kinds of parameters and perimeters can be established in public space in order to provide our services to the public. And to provide an experience, too. Some things, too, are really hard to find. There aren’t signs everywhere. There’s a kind of a process of discovery that we try and have in place, as well. So people are sort of searching for it—entering into a searching mode. Which is a very productive state to be in—when you begin to search for something, you’re very engaged with where you are and looking for clues and ideas and hints as you travel and it’s a very positive mindset to be in, too. It’s part of what we try to engender often with our remote exhibits and things like that. Sometimes it’s work to find new places—sometimes the different things are harder to find than others but the reward is greater, potentially, with the more you work to find something. There are things that we leave out there that we don’t warn people about, so that there are surprises. When you actually go through to the trouble to find something, it grounds you there… Wherever you travel, you want people to feel like they’re connected and engaged with the place they’re at. Active viewing, I call it. And that’s what we try to promote and approach.
That’s quite refreshing in this age of museums full of security cameras. I just watched a friend of mine get attacked by 7 security guards and quite aggressively removed from MoMA in New York just for getting naked! Just a few stories below an exhibition that featured nude performers, the institution punished and removed a nude audience member because she was deemed a threat by MoMA security. So it’s nice to hear of people sweeping out your exhibit after searching for it in the desert.
Yeah—and they can do it in the nude if they like!
I saw the oil fields project, the L.A. Basin, the helipads downtown—now you have a project about the Grapevine in your L.A. space.

The Grapevine is a place almost everybody in Southern California has some direct experience with and has thought about. It’s the main road connecting Southern California and Northern California. We began looking at it as this place of passage between here and there and what is it like as a place. People pass through it and it’s supposed to be surmounted and not really contemplated. We wanted to stop and look at it and provide that view to focus on a place which is usually about getting through. We encountered some other people who had written about it and talked about it—including a fantastic book about the Old Bridge Route that a person wrote. He’s quoted in our exhibit, I think. He did some fantastic research into the original road that went along the tops of the mountains through the path. We started looking at that as one layer and then the subsequent highway as another layer and the new highway as the third layer and the pipelines and the electric lines and the things that are about transit—about passage. And looking at those things themselves rather than using those things as they are intended—which is to move you through without stopping! The intersection of those things got really interesting when we actually have an old piece of a loop road from the original ridge route of the early 1900s cut off by the next layer of road that sliced right through it and those kind of intersections of conveyance—those collisions. They never really collided—there was more like an incision through and cutting away—but they look in a way like collisions. Different road services meet and break apart but they’re surmounted as some contemporary version of conveyance. That got to be kind of a thematic—implicit or explicit—component of the exhibit: to look at the intersection of these through-lines. It’s about passage, but it’s about looking at the intersections and the combinations of things within passage.
It reminded me of all those diagrams we saw in elementary earth science—of a river making then breaking through its own curves. That’s exactly what it is. It’s humans forcing— through economics and government work projects and road building and being this kind of river of change forcing its way through the existing landscape. They’re kind of like braided streams. They’re kind of superimposed over one another, finding increasingly permissive paths of least resistance for the great flow of the economy and people.
With so much of the work that you do and the places that you document, it seems that one could draw a very negative conclusion about our culture. Yet you draw one that allows you to trust total strangers with your work. With all this research, what kind of theses are you drawing about our culture?
Well, all kinds. We don’t end up with a particular kind of conclusion, though. Other than the fact that we’re remarkably creative organisms and full of conflict, and often our nature is different than our artifacts. We’re always trying collectively to find the best course for our collective lives. I’m not sure that conclusions really can be drawn because it’s so complex. But it’s just get a sense of the scale—the magnitude and the character of what we are doing interacting with this planetary surface that we live on. Just getting a better understanding of ourselves and it and our relationship … I think that’s productive and it helps us make better decisions individually and collectively down the road. We just know the effects of our actions better and understand the connections between things rather than feel alienated by what we encounter in our space in our daily life. Hopefully rather than have a conclusion I hope that we have an introduction. When you have conclusions then it’s over—literally. I don’t think that we’re quite ready to call it ‘game over’ yet. I think in a way it’s really just beginning, and we need to begin from a different point of beginning and look at things anew as if for the first time in order to initiate a reformed dialogue with the way we live. I don’t think anybody is debating that there are a lot of things are out of whack in terms of our interaction with each other and the environment. We’re trying to provide a new point of origin—a new first look, almost. Like a day of creation just happened in 1978 or whatever and then we back engineer in order to understand what we’ve done. We’ve just been on this rollercoaster of creation as a species in the past 200 years, but especially in the past 50 years. World War II—things took off in such a big way and in such an unusual unprecedented direction where we invented new forms of life and energy. This is the modern era that we’re trying to sort of figure out and help pilot ourselves through it in a way that makes sense and is reasonable. And there are many ways of doing that—of getting a sense of this place and country, and ours is just one sort of channel for looking at it. But I think we did sort of create a programming channel for looking at our culture and our problem.
I find that really exciting because so much environmental discourse is doomsday rhetoric. ‘We’ve ruined it—it’s over!’ It’s exciting to hear someone say, ‘Well, this could be a beginning—this doesn’t have to be the end.’
In school I studied Environmental Science as well as Art History and a bunch of creative things. And we learned basically all the reasons why the world was doomed. By that time it was all gonna end by 1998 or something. The limits of growth would be reached! Or the world would blow itself up in a nuclear catastrophe. Part of you ends up distancing you from your future if you believe that. When it didn’t happen—when the world didn’t collapse since the millennium or whenever you thought it might—you start thinking, ‘Wow, really, this is not predestined—we created these landscapes and we can manipulate them back into different ways.’ Sure, the genie’s out of the bottle. ‘Nature’ is gone in a sense, and we have now this kind of human nature—or whatever you wanna call it. Things can be ‘restored’ to some version of what they used to be. But you have to understand, that that’s always just a version of things. There is no ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’—there’s just kind of a merging around a slow evolution. And it’s probably better to think of it as directionless rather than forwards and backwards. It’s a collective, integrated evolution that we are little digits in—collectively as nations, institutions and cities, clubs and classes or whatever these things are forced within this transformation. We’re environmentalists in the sense that the environment is everything that surrounds us and understanding that and the use of connectedness of all things is an ecological concept. Ecology literally means the inner connectiveness of things and the inner dependency. We’re just … ‘Whole Earth Ecologists’ or something. But in a Google Earth sense of the whole earth. There’s an information space as well as the physical space.