Taking upon itself the immense task of seeking out, exploring, documenting and cataloguing these and hundreds of other sites, the Center for Land Use Interpretation has, over the past seven years, established itself as an authority on the post-Mike Davis ex-urbania. Operating as a 'non-profit research organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface', the CLUI is a model of efficiency. Ensconced in its newly refurbished Culver City headquarters, director Matthew Coolidge, one of four original founders, oversees an annual budget of $100,000, proposals, programming, a board of governors, a core group of approximately ten geomorphologists and an evolving network of 'independent interpreters', including photographers, scientists, environmentalists and industrial professionals across America. Combining curatorial, historical and educational practices, its own publication and exhibition divisions and a line of gift mugs and T-shirts, the CLUI functions like a museum. In fact, the CLUI's ultimate plans for global expansion - an entire 'Land Use Museum Complex' - are rivalled only by the Guggenheim. Already a second CLUI office has opened in Wendover, Utah, and a third is scheduled for New York later this year.
Gamely resisting categorizing itself, the CLUI is neither an environmental group nor an art collective. If anything, its palpable innocence and eager-beaver attitude brings it closer to the Boy Scouts than, say, the Burning Man. Its cheery monthly newsletter, Lay of the Land, features blow-by-blow accounts of field trips with local college kids and photos of members doing good deeds, like righting an overturned portable toilet in the Mojave Desert.Yet, in the same way that there was something vaguely suspect about the science geek who stayed after school doing extra-curricular chemistry projects, there are hints of a dark underbelly to the CLUI. Certainly, its bright-eyed fascination with secret military bases, heavy-metal polluted lakes, abandoned mines, UFO landing sites and high-desert detention facilities is more than a little macabre. In fact, there's something distinctly Gothic about its love of ruins and the themes of power, corruption, cruelty and human failure that underlie the haunted places that fill its database. Through the CLUI filter the California desert becomes a hellishly sublime Salvator Rosa landscape - its failed health spas stand-ins for crumbling Neapolitan castles. A parado-xical dystopianism manifests itself in the post-apocalyptic scenario that runs through the whole fantastic CLUI enterprise. Whereas environmental groups are uniformly characterized by a liberal humanist idealism and a devotion to making the world we live in a better place, the CLUI good-humouredly eschews any overt political stance. (In this sense it is distinct from artists such as Richard Misrach or Allan Sekula, whose interest in the Southern California landscape exhibits definite Leftist sensibilities.)
While a lack of ideological boundaries and sense of ethical duty may make for shoddy science, it frequently provides fertile ground for good art. Perhaps this is the reason why the CLUI has found its most receptive hosts in museums, galleries and magazines. Included in the recent show 'Flight Patterns' at LA's MOCA, the CLUI installed a trailer/information booth in the car park outside the museum. A surrogate for the organization's new research centre north of Los Angeles, the trailer had its own hours and visitors did not have to pay to enter. Thus, functioning independently of, if somewhat parasitic on, the art world, the CLUI cultivates its outsider status. It's a position that allows it the freedom both to contextualize other people's work curatorially and to embark on its own interventionist projects.
Playful and provocative, its series of 'Suggested Photo Spots' (on-going since 1997) and sound-emitting Water Ghost (1997) owe much to John Baldessari's brand of conceptual shenanigans. Placed at the top of a three-metre pole in the middle of Owens dry lake bed, Water Ghost plays an audio loop of lapping waves and gurgles. Like a lot of conceptual art, the piece does not necessarily need to be seen (or heard) to be appreciated. In fact, no one at CLUI knows if Water Ghost is still functioning. Yet, just imagining that it's 'out there' is enough to transport you to the desolate spot. Functioning indexically, the work is a psychogeographic time warp, a sci-fi leap back to an earlier era when the lake was full, or perhaps a foreshadowing of the site's future: since the appearance of the piece, there's been a sudden interest in refilling the lake.
Other planned works directly challenge our perception of the environment via more aggressive interventions. A proposed series of 'Monoliths' calls for the installation of gigantic 9 by 45 metre black plates at various desert sites. A homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the monoliths, if realized, would be a dramatic alien presence in the desert's limitless expanse; an overbearing act of hubris worthy of Richard Serra. Which is exactly the point: challenging Nature's wrath, the Monoliths, unlike most earthworks, would stand for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
Questioning everything and courageously risking the ire of both environmentalists and the government, the CLUI belongs to what Deleuze and Guattari called the 'ambulant sciences'. Unlike the traditional, 'royal' sciences, which operate within fixed systems and postulate a fundamental reality, the ambulatory sciences free-float in 'an objective zone of fluctuation that is coextensive with reality itself' and 'confine themselves to inventing problems the solution of which is linked to an entire set of collective, non-scientific activities'. 1
An instrument of deterritorialization, the CLUI's outward gaze ultimately addresses the self. The hallucinatory landscapes and disorientating spatialities explored and created by the CLUI take on psychological dimensions, disrupting our desire for centredness and control. Acting at the very interface between the subject and the world, its work initiates a movement towards a possible, if somewhat disturbing, liberation.
1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 'Nomadology: The War Machine', Semiotext(e), 1986, p. 38, 40.