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The Center for Land Use Interpretation: A Conversation with Matthew Coolidge

[uds-billboard name=”clui”]The Center for Land Use Interpretation is among the most singular and far-reaching attempts to engage and interpret our manmade marks on the landscape of America. CLUI finds form between a research and creative function, bringing its unique vision to locales as disparate as Los Angeles, Wendover, UT, Troy, NY, and the Lebanon, KS. Recent projects have taken the Centers of the USA exhibition to the various iterations of “center” throughout the country (population center, geographic center, center of the contiguous US), mounted a show on Uranium Disposal Cells, and have extended the incredible residency program at the Wendover location on the Utah salt flats. I spoke via email with founder Matthew Coolidge about the critical function of CLUI, the difference between interpreting an urban and rural landscape and the inherent artistic role the center adopts in its work.


“Text, –” he cries, and more than once, “it is Text, — and we are its readers, and its Pages are the Days turning. Unscrolling, as a Pilgrim’s itinery map in ancient Days…”
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon


James McAnally: Thomas Pynchon talks about the idea that America is a text to be read and we are obliged to read it. I’m interested in the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s vision of how the manmade landscape is a “cultural inscription” that can be read and interpreted. What is the central narrative you see in the inscriptions?

Matthew Coolidge (CLUI): Any central narrative shifts, depending on the angle of view. Our projects and programs may allude to a central narrative, but describe it more from its peripheral incidents, then its core. I guess if you look at all the things we have done up to this point and boiled it down, you would have some kind of distillation, but it would soon change when we add some more. I suppose if you added it all up and had it assayed at any given point, it would “amount” to something, but what I don’t know. I do know though, for sure, that everything around us is an inscription, from the transcontinental infrastructure to the configuration of cereal boxes in cupboards. All of this can be read, and describes systems, or phenomena, in a microcosmic or a macrocosmic way. Everything people do plays out on the land, and leaves a mark, visible or not. Everything humans do can be viewed from a land use perspective, and therefore can be explored for meaning. The stories contained by terrain are infinite, since terrain houses all of human endeavor.

JM: In many ways, the name and mission of CLUI seems to carry a critical function. Could you explain how that interpretation works? Are there specific tools or methodologies that you employ? Is it scientific? Subjective? A creative act or a descriptive one?

CLUI: I would say that description is a creative act, and that it is subjective, because everything is. Only objects are objective. Any view of them is subjective. Just pointing at something is a radically selective and subjective act. And a very interpretive one too, I might add. Interpretation is communication, the conveying of an idea from one place to another, from one mind to another. The “object” might be in front of you, but it does not exist until you see it, until you select it, and separate it out as a distinct thing from the things surrounding it. Seeing it makes it exist to you, but to have it stop there, though an option, is solipsistic, and in a way it does not truly exist until it is shared – its existence is confirmed by someone else. So you pass the idea of the object along, through some sort of medium, a photograph, a note, a book, a plaque, a gesture, whatever. The medium conveying the idea of course has its limitations and structures which has an effect on the form of the idea – it changes it. This is the fundamental principle of the interpretive process. The Center certainly uses the language, tools and techniques of institutional interpretation, museums, visitors centers, informational agencies, libraries and such, because we are those things. We also try and expand the institutional discourse, and communicate in other ways too, drawing from other parts of culture. But we are not really emulating any specific thing, we are just what we are.

JM: I’ve always felt that CLUI has an element of theatricality to it. It does not seem to me to simply exist as an organization, but perhaps is more akin to an artistic project, or at least a personal project, along the lines of some of Gordon Matta-Clark’s efforts or other “land artists.” Do you resonate with that idea?

CLUI: Since we are interpreters of land use, and not of ourselves, we let others interpret what we do, if they choose to. That said, I was interested in Matta-Clark, and many other 1960s and 1970s artists, while I was learning about them in college. And of course, all the world’s a stage.

JM: Through the CLUI’s residency program, dozens of artists have come to the center to create work based on land use, land interventions and explorations. If all acts on the landscape by man is a cultural inscription, what do you view to be the artist’s role in adding to or amending those?

CLUI: Art is the R&D of culture. It is able to explore all things, in all contexts, crossing boundaries, breaking rules, transecting layers, making connections, new categories, radical theories, house conflicting content, etc. It can enrich our awareness in inconceivable ways, and change the meaning of anything. Not saying it does all the time, but it can. That is its license, and its role, and maybe even its duty.

JM: The idea of interpreting the manmade landscape could be an overwhelming task. On a broader scale, how do you choose what projects to focus on? Are there certain criteria that stick out for you as something that the CLUI would pursue?

CLUI: It is an overwhelming task if you think it has an end, but since it can’t be finished, it’s infinitely rich. It’s like an endless river we are flowing down, for a little while, in our little interpretive canoe. Everyone interprets the built landscape that surrounds them on their own all the time, every day, in their own way. Corporations do it. Moms do it. We are just a “center” for it. We pick themes and projects to focus on based on what seems interesting and relevant to these times.

JM: Does the interpretation of the landscape change based on context? For example, is the process different in an urban context versus a very isolated context? Are the records left in isolated or rural areas just sparser or are they categorically different?

CLUI: In some ways we don’t really differentiate between urban and rural, since we see the whole nation as a developed space, and remote areas are filled with the activities of remoteness that are directly related to the urban spaces. The nation is a system, an organism, and it’s all connected. Our work is like an archeological grid laid across the country, and we sift through each square of the grid for artifacts to notice and consider. But, obviously there is a difference between the types of artifacts you find in big cities than in towns or the countryside, and we note differences, and their contexts. Context is very important.

JM: One of Temporary’s guiding missions is to create an alternate view on cultural activity outside of artistic centers as a way to conceptualize a kind of national dialogue. In several places, from past interviews and projects to your recent newsletter, you talk a lot about the centers of the US, whether geographically or conceptually. What interests you about this idea of America’s center point?

CLUI: It is one way of describing the totality, the “central narrative” you asked about earlier. But since there are many ways of determining the center, there are actually many centers, which is a paradox – there both is and is not a center, and by deciding on which of the many possible “centers” to settle on as THE center is a selective, subjective, and collective process. It is a consensus center, a middle ground, where we come together. That’s interesting, and a good thing to understand.

JM: You ended your recent newsletter regarding the Centers of the USA tour determining that Lebanon, KS felt most like the true center of the country. Lebanon is subsequently the newest fixed location for the CLUI. What about Lebanon, KS, felt more like the “center” to you? Could an argument be made for other kinds of centers, such the densest concentration of cultural activity or the most powerful forms of activity?

CLUI: Lebanon is a consensus middle of course, but when the music stopped, we had to put the peripatetic exhibit somewhere, and give in. To take sides and select a middle. Like a ball in a roulette coming to a stop. We did this based on “feelings,” and not any describable rational criteria, really.

JM: The CLUI is a central organization, but is scattered across different locales in both urban and remote locations (LA, Wendover, etc.). What led to the CLUI working in those particular locations? Are there plans for others in the future?

CLUI: Yes we are both centralized and spread out. Stay tuned for future iterations of this. If you want.



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