20 February 2011

Archeologies of the Present

An interesting piece from the archives of Afterall about the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Located on the perimeter of Los Angeles with satellite outposts scattered across the Western U.S., The CLUI is an organization that is, according to its website, "dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived." As the Afterall article explains:

Over the years the Center has established outposts for the purposes of research and exhibition in Wendover, Utah and Troy, New York, with a Desert Research Station (DRS) located in California's Mojave Desert. Most ambitiously, the Center has established the Land Use Database, which occupies the aforementioned file cabinets but finds its truest incarnation on the Center's labyrinthine website. The Land Use Database is an ever-growing index of sites organised by region (limited to the United States) and according to nine land-use categories: transportation; water; culture; industry; mining; waste; military; nuclear/radioactive; and the somewhat ambiguous 'research and development'.

Past exhibits at the organization's Los Angeles space have included such topics as "The Trans-Alaska Pipeline: A CLUI Photoscape Presentation," "Immersed Remains: Towns Submerged in America," "Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin," and "The Best Dead Mall in America: A Photographic Documentation and Indefinite Installation."

The Center also has a nationwide network of affiliates and "independent interpreters and researchers" who offer tours of various locations throughout the country. Its Land Use Database is in the form of an interactive map; a state-by-state guide to sites of interest -- from Bombay Beach of California's Salton Sea, to the Bonneville Salt Flats Raceway, to the Georgia Guidestones. Broken down by category (e.g. industrial, abandoned site, military, etc.), many of the listings in the Western half of the country include the vast expanses that Mike Davis wrote about extensively in Dead Cities, the parts of the American landspace that have been cordoned off, scarred, and in many cases poisoned by nation's petroleum industry or by military testing during the Cold War arms race. Or, as the blurb for the Center's thematic "Isolates Program" has it:

Some places are intentionally cut-off from the continuum of the landscape, becoming discrete, inward looking worlds in themselves. Radioactive sites, for example, have to be disconnected from their surroundings for obvious reasons, and must remain that way for millennia. Military training areas too can function as self-contained cities or stylized enemy nations. This thematic program area examines the sites, landforms, and architectures of such isolate zones.

For instance, there's a listing for the Utah desert film location for the 1956 movie The Conquerer. Dramatizing the life of Ghengis Khan and shot downwind from a Nevada nuclear test site, much of the film's cast and crew would develop and die from cancer in the decades that followed -- including the film's leading star, the Cold War Hollywood icon John Wayne.

The Center's associates in various locations conduct research and offer tours of sites of interest in their own native regions; such as bus tours of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, complete with visits to the abandoned military proving grounds, oil fields, and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. As the Afterall piece has it, the Center's work is in some ways conceptually indebted to the some of Smithson's ideas:

In exploring overlooked peripheries such as the 'alien' landscape of Utah or Area 51 in Nevada - often at the guarded border of the military-industrial complex that calls such remote elsewheres home - the Center is dedicated to exploring the circumference. Despite pluralistic claims of 'objectivity', the organisation is hardly ambivalent in the sites it chooses for studies and public tours. The Center's tours provide a frame, however ephemeral, for the experience of these sites, putting humans in contact with the inhuman scale of ambition and the folly of progress.

Back in 2000, the Center inaugurated its new exhibition space with "Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy," a show that chronicled the then-current status of famous land art pieces across the United States...

Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed
at Kent State University, c. 1970 and 2000.

As with any database, there's room for growth. For instance, I'm surprised to see no one's added a tour or entry for Stiltsville in the Biscayne Bay in Miami.

In the way that urb-exers climbing down through drains or tunnels to probe the underlying (and often obsolete) physical substrata of cities, the Center's exploration and cataloguing of structural periphera engages a complex unter-narrative of expansiontist, modern America. At the same time, it also parallels the sort of ideas that ecologically-minded photographers like Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky, in the way that it bears witness to the processes and side-effects of industrial and military development, the way in which technology of human needs and fears transform the landscape. At the same time, I'm reminded of this item via BLDG BLOG, in which the organization Atlas Obscura hosted a tour of the "Geoglyphs of Nowhere." Which translates, it seems, into a psychogeographic exploration of the stillborn subdivisions in the desert outside of Los Angeles; where the plotted roadways were laid many years ago, while the houses were never built.


Michael- said...

just dropping in to say, 'wow'. Fantastic blog and content. I learned more reading your stuff tonight than i did in the whole architecture course i took back in the day...


Greyhoos said...

Hey, Michael. Many thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated. Sort of makes me wonder about the instructor you had for that course, though. :/

Michael- said...

it was a Canadian University, what can i say...

Greyhoos said...

I'm not sure that that adequately excuses it. In fact, now I'm even more confused.

Now had you said it was at an agricultural college, that'd explain it.

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