CLUI tour bus at Giant Rock, near Landers, California

The Center for Land Use Interpretation: Hinterland
at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions
Art issues. Sept 1997

Combining several streams of current curatorial investigation (such as the mechanisms of the public nonprofit institution; the post-whatever reconfiguration of the relationship between man and landscape — particularly in light of the information superhighway thing; the nebulous gray area where we're not sure if we're being "put-on"; and a fin-de-siecle interest in grotesqueness, visionary outsider art, and utopianism, director Matthew Coolidge's Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has been quietly making its presence felt on a plethora of fronts for a couple of years.

Operating from its main office in Culver City, The Center (as its members refer to it) has published a widely praised guidebook to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site; gone on-line with a huge and vastly informative Website; established an artist-in-residence program at their inhospitable Wendover, Utah facility (adjacent to the hangar in which the Enola Gay was outfitted); sponsored a series of pranksterish landscape interventions; and, most recently, organized a documentary photo installation and series of bus tours exploring the "hinterland" that lies outside L.A. proper.

Ostensibly, The Center for Land Use Interpretation is just that, a clearinghouse devoted to the minute interrogation of the ways in which humanity lays claim to and alters the planet, specifically in these United States. In truth, its purview leaks over into realms of social and psychic cartography. Its organizational structure, its pamphlets and publications rendered in subtly nuanced grant-speak, and its poker-faced public outreach all closely mimic the intricate procedural artifice of nonprofits everywhere.

Yet the sheer idiosyncratic oddness of The Center's subject matter and activities throws its conceptual conceits into sharp relief, examining this sanctioned communal endeavor in the same harsh and even light it it casts outward, over the "superlative, mysterious and compelling Hinterland sites" that are the stuff of CLUI's transmissions.

The one-hundred such sites presented in eight-by-ten color photographs with text panels at LACE (startlingly transformed into high institutional drag with white walls, orientation stations, and inspiring wall-mounted quotations) give equal weight to diverse land-use approaches, ranging from mega-landfill areas, prisons, alternative energy facilities, Navy ordnance test grounds, and giant open-pit borate mines to religious folk earthworks, UFO landing pads, burlesque museums, and decaying resort developments on the inland Salton Sea.

They are uniquely fascinating testaments, their compilation evincing an unfashionable reverence for the grandiose human gestures that emerge when and where room is not an issue.

As with any monumental experience, though, pictures don't really cut it. While the photo installation is, in part, a handsome meditation on the limits of institutional representation, CLUI wisely offsets its spare classicism with a series of three bus tours into the desert north, east, and south of Los Angeles.

The sometimes grueling, ten-hour-plus tours were elegantly, even poetically orchestrated, with chatty and informative P.A. guides, promotional film videos, colorful local briefers, beverage service, and infrequent rest stops. The first (and most coherent) of the tours charted the trajectory of the Antelope Valley aerospace industry "from cradle to grave," with stops at Edwards Air Force Base (where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier), McDonnell Douglas Stealth Radar Test Range (access denied), the Mojave Airport (an airline graveyard), and Aviation Parts Warehouse Inc. (a film-industry chop shop), among others. Long stretches of desert highway were alleviated with a hypnotic and nostalgia-tinged video of the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center, a strange cloistered enclave of Ivy League rocket scientists whose decades of blithely apolitical munitions R&D was punctuated only by Presidential visitations and formal balls. Their absorption in their mission and politically flat reading of usually charged material curiously echoed CLUI 'S own tone.

While the bulk of CLUI's cataloguing activities suggests a coterie of survivalist paranoids, its inroads into the cultural landscape hint that it is playing to the bureaucracy-pickled multitudes that embody the art world, offering an immaculate and deadpan parody of institutional benevolence. But by imposing a durational framework on each experience, CLUI subverts such easy categorization, obliging participants to contemplate specific details of the sites visited and the bus tour itself — a strategy that mimics The Center's own approach to its diverse topics. This shift in magnification, more than anything, denotes the artistic and political import of what CLUI has to offer: By simply directing our attention to the point at which figure and ground touch, The Center for Land Use Interpretation asks us to bring our fullest resources to bear on the mechanisms of surveying, sorting, and mapping, and of finding a place to stand.

Doug Harvey is available for teaching positions