September 1, 2006
This Land Is Your Land
The Center for Land Use Interpretation surveys the American terrain.
Landfills and prisons and dams, oh my! Visitors to the Land Use Database (ludb.clui.org) will find these and a lot more—bombing ranges, nuclear test sites, UFO sighting spots, the World’s Largest Thermometer—all cataloged with location information, links, and brief, often pithy descriptions. The database is a creation of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), a Los Angeles–based research and education organization that since 1994 has been documenting the reshaping of the natural landscape in the United States, from the mundane (tunnels, bridges) to the notorious (Alcatraz, Three Mile Island) to the comically bizarre (the Amazing Maize Maze, the Big Muskie Coal Scoop Bucket). Part sober documentation of the man-made environment, part slyly humorous conceptual-art project, it’s an enterprise that can take a while to wrap one’s head around.
A new monograph—Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, published this fall by Metropolis Books—should help. Illustrated with more than 300 photos taken largely from the Land Use Database (only a portion of which is available online), the book is organized into thematic chapters with subjects ranging from terrestrial features in the state of Ohio to the subterranean world of cave tourism. “In a sense it’s a sample of the different approaches we have to presenting materials,” says Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the center, who edited the book with CLUI curator Sarah Simons.
Indeed the center is involved in an overwhelming array of activities: it mounts regular exhibitions, publishes books and a newsletter, conducts lectures and public tours, and is developing the American Land Museum, a network of landscape exhibition sites across the country. In addition to its L.A. office, the center has a research station in the Mojave Desert; a recently opened exhibition space in Troy, New York; and a complex in Wendover, Utah, where it sponsors a residency program for artists, researchers, and theorists.
But the core of the CLUI’s enterprise remains the Land Use Database, which grows out of research for the center’s many other activities, as well as suggestions from participants. (A standardized “site characterization” form asks for name, location, and “any information that might be important to visitors, such as accessibility, toxic hazards, admission charge, etc.”) Ultimately the emphasis—despite CLUI’s name—is on documentation, not interpretation. As Coolidge says of an exhibition of land-use sites along the Hudson River, opening next month in Troy, “We aren’t advocating for one thing or another. We’re saying, ‘This is what’s happening; here is how the landscape is changing.’” It’s a project that can seem by turns inscrutable, comic, and profound—a fitting reflection of the evolution of America’s built landscape.