This is an edited transcript of the BOMBLive! audio interview: Matthew Coolidge interviewed by Deborah Gans at Pratt Institute on February 22, 2010.
Deborah Gans Hi. Welcome, Matthew.
Matthew Coolidge Yeah, thanks, thanks for inviting me out here. It’s great, it’s a lot of fun.
DG Thanks for coming to your Troy East Coast office.
MC Yeah, though I’m not going to have time to go visit the East Coast office, unfortunately.
DG So just to get started I want to say, I love your logo. It has the kind of gloss of official-dom in this reduced way. It has—it’s a globe, but it’s just longitudinal lines and latitudinal lines and then it says The Center for Land Use Interpretation around it. It’s as good as the UN’s. But it does make me wonder because it’s a global insignia, we’re in a world of globalization, and the global reach of everybody’s economy, and yet you do focus it seems on not just America but on the United states in particular despite your logo. You want to talk about that a little bit?
MC Sure. The logo itself is a kind of stylized globe in a sense, but it’s really about the layering of lineage lines on the landscape so it’s about the kind of encapsulating space through delineation in a more kind of formal, abstract way than to reference a global–ism. There is, you’ll notice too, in the logo a kind of crosshair effect, which is the effect of a line of longitude meeting a line of latitude right at the center. So there is this sort of concentration of the forms to create a central point in the middle of the logo. Because everything that we deal with is about locational space, it’s about being able to point out phenomenon by describing distinct sites, so the locate-ability, this kind of contraction of space to locate-able points is one of the essences of our practice, but also about the logo. So the logo is in a sense referencing some progenitors of such kind of institutional, global, I suppose, organizations, but also just about this sort of way in which a centroid is expressed.
DG That’s really interesting. Isn’t it more a matter of a desiring to locate a landscape? Because you actually deal with some landscapes that are hard to locate in certain ways, that have a more ambiguous perimeter or geography.
MC I mean, if you look at other logos of that sort you might be reminded of a few if you look at ours—I mean, National Geographic has a very similar logo for example. So that’s definitely one of the reference points for us as well, this idea of—you know, National Geographic is an American organization, right? National Geographic —so their logo expresses a kind of globalism that’s centered on the national United States point of view. And in a sense our work is like that as well. We look at the United States pretty exclusively, in fact, totally, in terms of the sort of systematic approach—looking at landscape, it’s all about the U.S.A., and then you could extrapolate that—as Americans we tend to extrapolate beyond the borders quite often in all kinds of ways—so it’s about an American U.S.A., American with a capital A, apologies to Mexicans and people from South America and Canadians. When we say America we mean U.S.A. America in all of its kind of expansive notions of itself. Yeah, the globe is referenced partially, just to get back to that. The globalism is part of the issue we’re looking at.
DG In terms of what you’re looking at though, a lot of them are artifactual, disused, the industrial sublime—obviously not always, because Houston’s ongoing very operative landscape—but is there a way in which the infrastructural wilderness you look at you see as particularly American?
MC I mean, I don’t know—what kind of themes we address come out of the particular projects we engage in, so it depends on the project. But in general, we kind of take that grid—again that’s kind of expressed in the logo—and just apply it across the nation like some kind of archaeological grid and say: Okay, what takes place within this space, you know? How do you characterize it? What are the themes that come up from different regions? And so you can kind of zoom in and out and look at it from different kind of levels of magnitude and find different things emerge, you know, from the local to the sort of macro-regional thing. So it depends, but yeah, you mentioned we have the Houston location and that’s one of several kind of nodes we have, and that is kind of where we’re going—part of sort of our mandate has been to have these kind of nodal points to look at different regional issues. We developed the Houston site with the University of Houston and a few other partners to focus on things related to the Gulf Coast and to look at related issues of oil, especially. So we do have this way of kind of breaking down the country in these different kind of interpretive units, these zones that have predominant themes but aren’t necessarily totally kind of obvious either. They’re not so pat. I mean, yes the Gulf Coast is about oil, and Houston is about oil, but there’s other qualities to oily-ness, you know, that aren’t so clear and so the themes are not necessarily concrete didactic, clear-cut things. They’re sort of zonal, regional essences, rather than applied rules.
DG I noticed you’ve started now, you started in California with your original office, but you now have regional outposts, you have one in Troy, you have one in the Mojave Desert. You have a project—I don’t know what stage it’s at—to have a Museum of Landscape. How do you see these different regions and nodal points? Is it opportunistic, is there a great map in your head that you want to fill out?
MC Yeah, there’s always been a kind of a map and how it actually emerges isn’t, again, this kind of imposed view that we’re trying to prove by looking at the landscape, we’re looking at the landscape and trying to tease out the things that come out of it. There’s some degree of opportunism I suppose just because we are limited with our resources and we go where people provide us with support to some degree. But we do have a general structure for this breaking down of the country into areas and developing projects based out of those areas and collectively each zone becomes in a sense a kind of exhibit in this American Land Museum that we’re slowly putting together.
DG Do you want to speak about—how would you describe that, what zones are you missing?
MC There are a few that we’re missing for sure and we’re working on them. But to go back to Houston for example; one reason why we developed that project was to address issues of that zone of the country and the themes that are emergent there. We have a similar kind of base in Southern California that looks at the Californian experience. We also have a node in the Pacific Northwest. The site that we’re going to be clustering around there is still unresolved, but there are a few that we’ve been working with for a while. But that will express issues of the Pacific Northwest, which are: lots of water falling from the sky and making everything wet, and also all the trees that grow, and the forest-products industry, and the sort of drainage issue, and the coffee, and the computers, and you know, these things that are all kind of connected in some way and to tease out those connections and to merge an expression of that zone is part of what we do in each of these districts and there’s sort of obvious stereotype issues, but there’s also things that can transcend that as well. So it’s always kind of a balance, to sort of describe the nature of a place in a way that is compelling but also a kind of a generalization.
DG Your organization, you’re great storytellers. Is this geographic vision also a kind of narrative vision, in a certain way, a new kind of American history?
MC I don’t know—others will, I guess, decide that. I mean, we’re not trying to tell a new history, just trying to sort of describe what we see. It’s a kind of—I mean, some of it’s pretty obvious probably and some of it is kind of dumb in some respects—but it’s also about stepping back and creating a new look. So whether it’s a new history, I don’t know, but it’s a glance that starts with now and sort of works our way backwards.
DG Well, I guess another part of the question–are there narrative connections? There are these districts and there are these nodal points and I’m wondering if there’s in your head an idea of ways in which they cross their own boundaries?
MC Yeah, totally, I mean, that’s just it—everything does blend and merge and fuse and when you describe something, you condemn it to a certain condition, so you know, it’s important to always be aware of the sort of paradox of classification and the fact that things exist beyond the limits of your description. We deal with that all the time, but the paradox can be described even through filing process—in order to put a thing in a category, in a file, so you can go retrieve it, you have to have a sort of taxonomy and a language to describe it. Yet when you do that, you know, you take it away from being everything else that it could be. The nature of most matter and ideas are that they’re composed of everything. The notions of ecology are such that everything is connected and related to one another and so you both sort of have to do that, but then you lose a lot when you do that. So you have to keep in mind the sort of balance between the obsessive compulsive need to categorize and develop language so people can talk about it but also realizing that you can’t totally ever really describe something or understand it in its totality when you do so. You’re really just defining kind of a loose perimeter around it or one of its qualities.
DG It seems like you have with your database decided to categorize things according to the Typological and the Exemplary—no, no, what are—exemplary . . .
MC The Unusual and the Exemplary . . . yeah that is our sort of criteria for selecting a place to put in our database, and our database is the sort of bedrock of our organization. It’s this collection of thousands of places across the country that describe how each one represents a physical site so it’s physically it’s a file in a manila folder in a drawer in Los Angeles as well as sort of its electronic iterations and its photo archive connections. We do have these images of these places that we’ve been taking too. So each one of those sites represents some form of land use and is locate-able again, it’s a physical place you can point to, it’s not some broad phenomenon that’s illustrated. Each one of these places though does have illustrative qualities and is singled out using this unusual/exemplary criteria. Unusual being, it’s singular, it’s weird, it’s not typical. Exemplary means it’s perhaps more typical, but it’s selected to represent that type of land use, so it’s to exemplify that thing. And specific examples are instead of having every single parking lot in the country in our database, that would be useless, right? We’ll select certain ones to represent the genre of parking lots or whatever it is. So we’re not trying to collect everything, we’re trying to study everything and then select places to represent the various phenomenon of landscape.
DG This is interesting because the word land use has a very particular meaning for the planner sitting in our room, but as we are speaking it seems that another notion is emerging . . .
MC Yeah, that’s true. Land use—we consider the term very broadly, as we do most terms. So for example land use is basically everything—we’re all using land right now by occupying a few square feet. Every human activity, really, could be described from its land use point of view, everything, because it takes in space on land.
DG In Europe you always get this sense that there’s no piece of land that has ever been untouched—it’s all been used and reused. Part of the American ethos is this notion of a wilderness.
MC Right, yeah, I mean, there’s probably ice that forms—you know, places that haven’t been touched. But for the most part, every molecule on the surface of the planet has been altered by some human agency. So we call it anthropogeomorphology, you know, which is this idea that the shape of the surface of the earth—geomorphology—is now an anthropo-geomorphology, a human construct. Obviously there are natural critical forces that work with us, but we also tend to not make the distinction between nature and humans. We sort of include ourselves and perhaps that sort of makes humans seem like animals. But, frankly, we are, and we do what all animals do, which is to modify and interact with our environment and we just do it in very ingenious, complex ways, and I guess we’re unique in our sentience, you know; we do things even though we know we shouldn’t, which makes us unique. But we are part of this natural, you know, geo-cosm and we behave in a way that is natural in every respect. But we also have become, because of our numbers and our ingenuity, a geomorphological agent that’s on the scale of all the big ones—tectonics, erosion, and whatever. So we’re blended with all those forces, not so much perhaps with tectonics—but we’re working on that one, you know, just to understand plate movements and things and actually take a physical role in manipulating them. But that, maybe, is one of the last frontiers for us.
DG What would be the last frontier? So that’s it?
MC To actually suture plates to stop earthquakes from occurring or harness them for energy production, I don’t know. But anyhow, humans act on the scale of all these basic terrestrial forces, like tectonics.
DG So you are very much involved with this kind of phenomenological project, present-ness, being there, having the unmediated experience. One of the most compelling parts of CLUI, I think, because you develop whatever project is going to be part of your archive out of being in a place and extracting this information. So it’s different all the time, whatever you do, and yet there’s an identifiable kind of CLUI project. Have you, over the years—cause you’ve been doing this now for what, 15 years?
MC ’94,’95, yeah…
DG Have you developed a kind of methodology or series of methodologies? I mean, you have your database, but in terms of the projects themselves?
MC Sure, yeah, I mean, the kind of methodologies that we established at the inception of the organization are the ones we still employ, which are to produce exhibits and to do tours and publications using our database as the primary reference point and then drawing on that material to do things about regions or about phenomena that occur across the country in some form. We have basic kind of thematic program areas that we revisit through different kinds of exhibits periodically. For example, we’ve got an underground series that looks at land use beneath the surface. We’ve done a few exhibits about that. We’re working on one now about underground storage, the spaces where people put things underground, and we did other exhibits along those lines of underground space like the subterranean renovations exhibit, which looked at tourist caves that have been sort of created inside natural caverns. So there are certain themes that we address periodically, but we also have other things that we approach through regional projects, like certain areas we’ll do an exhibit again using our database to describe what we call a kind of characterization of a place. It can be a county, it can be a city, it can be an island, it can be some geographically bounded area where you basically lay that archeological grid across it and say what goes on there, who lives there, what’s the economy, what kind of things emerge to create a sort of portrait, a characterization of a place?
DG So there are certain questions that you’ll consistently ask, certain kinds of measurements you’ll consistently take–what’s the tour about?
MC The tour is another methodology we developed early on and that is about physically taking people to places. Usually it’s connected to an exhibit, so if we’re doing a program about a certain region or a certain theme, and if it’s practically possible to get there, because if it’s some nationwide thing it might be too much space to cover with a bus tour, but if it’s a regional thing or somehow localized we can do that and the bus tours are meant to first off to just take people there, physically, so you’re not just looking at photos and text at an exhibit, that you’re handling the material culture, as it were. It’s important to go there in the way the way that people who work in museums feel it’s really important for people to get as close to the objects as is possible, and if possible to handle them in order to make a physical connection with it, with people–you remember things, you feel much more connected to things with proximity. But we can’t do that because our material culture is places and you can’t pull them out of the ground and ship them to a museum so we invert that and take people to those places. You might say that the bus is like the vitrine, that we take out into space rather than put space into a vitrine. And also we try to sort of think about how connected everything is to everything else if you were to extract a place. Say you could physically take a building or a series of things in the ground and pluck them out and put them somewhere to be examined in a city or in an exhibit, then you would be changing them dramatically by doing that because context is crucial. So we don’t really like to do that unless we’re doing it very consciously and describing the mechanics of what happens when you make these displacements. So the bus tour is a way for us to take people there, allowing for these things to exist in their natural habitat.
DG So it’s not unmediated, because you said the bus is a vitrine, but there’s a way in which going there, the getting there makes it much more open-ended—being able to engage makes it more open-ended and less determined than an exhibit with photographs where you’re only seeing the point-of-view from that photograph.
MC We do take full advantage of the equipment on the bus and the pre-conditions of the bus tour situation are something we think about. But they’re not statements about the ironic sort of detachment of tourism. I mean, that would be too obsessive about the medium. That’s not our point. The point is to transcend that, to actually say, Let’s do something, let’s make lemonade out of this system and have the tour actually be compelling, and so in a way they’re kind of experiments. We rarely repeat the tours. If we do them over and over they become rote, and that’s not really so interesting. So they’re one-offs. We do tremendous amounts of work to prepare for them, usually more work than it takes to do an exhibit, to plan them out very specifically, but also to push the envelope in terms of what could happen on the tour. We also have video and other things that are timed to correspond to the places we’re going to and through, and local briefers. It’s kind of theatrical. It’s like a stage production with all these multi-media elements that are scattered all over the place and you’ve got one shot to make it all come together.
DG It’s interesting because one of the themes in your projects are simulated sites. The simulated town where police get trained. The simulated fire department training ground. And so there seems to be this really interesting tension between the desire for the direct experience and the acknowledgement, if not the construction of these barriers to that experience. Do you want to talk a little bit about this interest in simulation? Is it an American thing or is it part of this larger post-modern critique of simulation versus direct experience?
MC Well, it’s another kind of category in our sort of thematic categories, this representational space in places that are meant to kind of stand in for a broader kind of concept and it occurs through things like training grounds and police preparedness zones. One of the reasons we do focus on that as one our themes is because there’s a lot of it out there and it is a condition of our times. Preparedness has become a global, really an American kind of quality, largely because of 09/11, and also some other things. So preparedness, When you look at the landscape, it’s one of the things you see emerging—these sort of simulation scapes, these kinds of training grounds, the whole notion of preparing for a disaster. But that’s also something that predates 09/11 for sure, it’s been part of the American psyche since the Cold War and everything.
DG I was going to say there are in fact two categories. Beside the simulated landscapes you actually have an attraction to the disaster landscape. Not that you are a disaster-follower. You’re not one of those ambulance chasers at all. In fact I’ve noticed that you avoided New Orleans and certain respects. But is there a way in which disaster scenarios function? You kind of did just tell us that, but to me it sounds like this is a narrative you’re telling. This is a story of the American psyche and our history vis a vis that American psyche. I mean, even though you were a little reticent about saying it, you’re constructing or allowing us to have alternative American history. This does seem to be going on.
MC I mean, we sort of just say what we see and whether it ends up being a concise history, I don’t know. But we are trying to describe American culture as it is today by looking at the physical artifacts in the ground and of course that’s a selective and subjective process and there’s no way to be totally objective, nor do we want to be. It’s a relative scale–you know, you have objectivity and you have subjectivity, and things can be anywhere on that scale, but you can never really be totally one or the other. Maybe you can be totally subjective. But anyhow, the idea that we are more objective than a lot of people who deal with landscape stuff because landscape is so politicized, so we appear more objective but obviously we curate, what we choose to point out is a totally subjective process. But we don’t tell people what to think. We tell them what to look at.
DG But you do tend to choose these flash points. A lot of your landscapes are very loaded, whether it’s an old bomb testing site or—
MC There are things that are either, you know, unusual or exemplary. I mean, they stand out because they are so sort of spectacular and evocative of a certain kind of land use or they stand out because they’re so boring and invisible. We’ve done exhibits about gravel pits, which personally, I find fascinating. But most people think that gravel is really boring, as they would parking lots–I mean, we did a whole exhibit about parking. Nobody wants to think about parking, but it’s what we’re all trying to do with our cars. I mean, that’s why we have cars, to park them. So it’s as important to look at the “banal scape”–quote unquote–but we tend to find that the things that appear boring are actually more interesting because most people think they’re boring so they haven’t thought about them as much. But then also, on the other hand, there’s these sort of high-impact sites that you’re describing, some of these testing grounds and things–one of our first books was about the Nevada test site and that, certainly, is a high-impact site, and it was all about that landscape as the most bombed place on earth, and as the percussive incredulities of the place. I mean, you study that place and your mind is so blown away by what went on there, because it’s just so surprising and dramatic and adventurous that that space is really compelling because of its drama rather than its sort of apparent lack of drama.
DG In terms of objectivity, interpretation, the tools one uses can be said to tend towards a certain kind of interpretation, and you rely heavily on the photograph, which is interesting. Maybe you want to talk about that? And following that up, there are these new tools out there, the GIS, the infrared—are you interested in them, what do you think’s going to change by using them?
MC Yeah, photographs and text are the two basic units of the way we convey things, both obviously limited. Usually, they’re coupled, so you have an image that, again, all the images we use, unless they’re meant to be historic, are taken from our database, so they’re taken by people working for the organization, they represent a primary layer of photography. Each site depicted has been ground-truthed in a way, so they represent a kind of a first layer in way even though it’s secondary information from people who go to the exhibit or see the photograph, it’s primary in that it comes directly from us. So the images are just graphic depictions of a place, you know, recognizing the limits of photography, but also recognizing the history of landscape photography and how it can be a very formative and informative method for showing a place. But it still has its limitations and the caption, the text, usually helps to even some of those things out and describe what it is about the thing depicted. And then if we use video, which we often do now, then you’ve got the time component, so there’s a little less of the kind of artifice or the kind of un-like actually seeing-ness, which is kind of what we’re striving for I suppose. In an ideal world we’d have webcams everywhere, looking at everything, and they’d be three-dimensional, with nice audio. Ideally, we’d take everybody to these places physically, but obviously you can’t do that, though we do encourage that through our guidebooks and things like that. Since you do have to represent a place we represent it using imagery that is both real time and photographic, and then text, and looking at other ways of looking to enhance that. I mean, yes, things like Google earth have totally transformed the way we see landscape, we being people at the Center, but we as also everybody else who’s interested in the ground. I feel like Google earth and Google maps is just this sort of continuous high-resolution view of the earth is almost on the level of the invention of latitude. I mean, it’s really changed the way we look at the world, and the ways in which we can look at the world. It’s kind of like that Apollo program view of the globe in the ’60s. For the first time they got out into space and saw the whole earth and that kind of started a whole earth and that started a McLuhan kind of revolution of perspective and in a way this digital globe of Google earth is totally and very intentionally making a connection to that, but is almost, you know, on that level of this sort of holistic view that’s mechanistic and is all about objectivity in a sense, even though Google earth is somewhat selective through its mechanisms and increasingly as things get blurred out and people begin to worry about security issues, but it’s still as objective and mechanistic a view of the ground as can be. We’ve done a few exhibits about the Google earth view, some of which I’ll talk about tonight. But the GIS—we used that in house for awhile, it got really complicated. We’ve invented the wheel several times only to have things come along and be way better. I mean, we did our own version of Google earth using GIS, using scalable map stuff on the internet, and then Google maps came around and we threw it all out the window and just climbed on to that system. So I mean we’ve been interested in mapping technologies and scalability and sites on maps since the inception. And we’ve been spending a lot—too much—energy working on that, because Google came along and invented a better system.
DG So the populist interface is the thing you’re really looking for, in a certain way. So something that’s infrared and really hard to interpret even though it might change the way we see things is harder, is that what you’re saying?
MC Yeah, the kind of simulating—providing the view that is the view that is like the experience of looking—we wouldn’t not use infrared, but I’m trying to think of a condition where we might.
DG Yeah, actually I have one in my head, which is why I keep bringing it up. I have a friend who has done an infrared map of the eastern seaboard because they’re dealing with coastal property, redefining what the coast is, meaning half of it’s under water. And how do you understand that topography, how do you sell it, how do you partition it? And yet it’s not accessible in a kind of populist mechanistic way, although it might be eventually. And that’s what I’m thinking of in particular.
MC Well, yeah, that could be a good thing to explore. Keep us posted. But I was reminded about aerial photography, which is something we use a lot of, and that isn’t the man on the street view. That’s a man in the air view, or woman in the air view. But that represents a way of seeing—I don’t know, we’re all kind of familiar with aerial perspectives, but the world from the air has been fairly limited and it’s just, the tools of viewing are such now the Google earth can do the vertical aerial pretty well, down to a certain sort of scale. But there is this whole…the ground-based photography provides often an expression of what you can’t see often. So the aerial view, whether it’s from 30 feet to 3000 feet, you can provide this oblique view, which is going to be missing for a long time from other sources and that’s a place where landscape photographers are going. I mean, think about Edward [Burtynsky]
The guy’s renting cranes all the time, as well as doing gyro-stabilized helicopter stuff. I mean, he goes off into the scale of movie production to do a still photo of a place in order to provide that view that is slightly raised, and provides a broader perspective than the ground-based view, which is often limited by the haphazard fences and poles that get in the way.
DG It’s really wonderful hearing you talk about these points of view, because on the one hand, I’m kind of channeling Biershtat and all the historical painterly ways through land art to these new scenarios, instead of just foreground, far-ground. What did you call it? The oblique . . . is there a particular distance—the 30-mile high versus the 10-mile high versus . . .
MC I’ve heard of computerized photography systems where they’re flying planes systematically over the country in order to basically do what the Google van does on the ground to do street-view, only they’re doing it at a certain elevations of altitude. But that’s going to be a long time before that stuff is—
DG So what’s your favorite altitude?
MC Well, you know, really it depends on the situation. But I think one of the views that—we’ve had a few grants out for them, we haven’t gotten one yet—but for a cherry-picker, so we could provide the photography in that 15 to 40 foot range. We’ve looked at systems of doing that sort of robotically, with arms that go up, and we’ve looked at kites and balloons and things. But those things tend to take a long, long time to deploy. So it seems like the cherry picker is the most expeditious way to get a composed image that’s, you know, usable and gets you above that ubiquitous fence line that runs across the whole country. We have a van too, that people stand on top of and that ends up being a good height, but it’s not always enough. In fact, it’s often not enough to be able to create some foreground.
DG So these really are constructed images in a lot of ways.
MC I mean, yeah, our database and our photo archive are images that are useful because they provide a little bit of clarity. They’re definitely coming from—I mean, they’re documentary-esque for sure, as much as they can be. We don’t want them to be too good because then they’re about photography, which is usually not the point for us. It’s the thing depicted, not the mechanism that we’re really striving for, unless we’re dealing with a specific project about that mechanism, that media, which we do in some cases, though not that often. So in terms of a usable database image that we can draw from to do exhibits about regions or places or themes, it has to be a certain type of image that isn’t too good, so you don’t get bogged down by the sort of beauty of it in a way, but also not so bad that you get distracted by the amateur quality or by blurry things or by things that don’t seem intentional. So yeah, there’s a middle ground, and it has to do with just finding the balance of the right composition, the right kind of content—foreground, background—things that sort of just make it solid as an image and therefore convey people through it.
DG You know, I was noticing last night, they’re not a lot of people in your photographs.
MC Well, yeah, there’s a reason for that, because we’re not dealing with individuals, unless we’re doing some project about an individual’s point of view, which we do periodically. But mostly it’s about landscape, and everybody knows that people are people-oriented and when you see somebody in a photograph, especially if their face has discernable features—and you can actually measure how big a head has to be in order to be a sort of empathetic head. Somebody can be in a photograph as a figure to provide scale, or how a place is used, you know, a crowd of people, or somebody walking up some stairs or whatever. But when they become an empathetic head—that’s the first thing you see when you look at the photograph and all your attention goes to that and you see the photograph through your projected eyes of the person in the photograph, that’s what the photograph becomes about, that person. And while certainly most photography is kind of like that in a way, and is about people in that way, there’s a whole realm of landscape photography, especially, that isn’t. And people like Ansel Adams, I mean, he was very well aware of that and I think he even said, you know, there’s two people in every photograph already, which is one reason why he doesn’t include a lot of people in his photographs. And those two people are the photographer and the viewer, and anything else is a distraction if you’re trying to tell a story about a place rather than a person, to have empathetic heads in there.
DG So actually we’ve been talking for quite a long time…but we’ve been talking a lot about the present-ness, you know, whether it’s a documentary that it’s people in the landscape, you’re associated with this kind of—you associate your mission with this kind of present-ness, and I found it amusing at the New Museum that you were put in the role of the speaker about the present. There was somebody to speak about the past, there was somebody to speak about the future, and you were supposed to speak about he present, and I can tell you’re very disciplined, I bet you stuck with your role. But do you ever want to not do that? Do you have any speculations about this landscape that you’re so committed to in the next 50 years? Do you ever project? Like what it’s going to be like, what kinds of projects you’ll do because they’re going to be these kinds of changes? If you close your eyes and think about where you work, your sites, what are they going to be like in 50 years? Do you ever allow yourself that kind of speculation?
DG I had to ask. Really? You don’t?
MC I mean, we have a ten-year plan, like all institutions, but that’s very pragmatic.
DG But the landscape itself—ok, let’s hear about your ten year—what happens in ten years?
MC More of the same.
DG More of the same, right, that’s what I figured. But do you think when you go out there in ten years, do you ever think about, If I went back to that site in 50 years, or 40 years, what would be there?f
MC Everything becomes old and because we’re a relatively recently created organization we never really set out to establish our projects as a historic project, but they will become, if they are not already, obsolete, and representations of the way things were, rather than the way things are. And that’s something that we’re going to be dealing with over the next decade or two, the sort of legacy of the information that we’ve been providing slowly becoming sort of historic as well as hopefully we’ll still be generating lots of new things.
DG So you’re writing a history even if you don’t want to.
MC Yeah, I mean, we’re beginning to reconcile this archive as a historic thing, and dealing with that. So in way, we’re looking backwards as well as forwards now, as well as at the present. So that’s one way in which we’re sort of having to deal with the time issue, but projecting into the future—I don’t know, I think if you’re addressing kind of current issues and current events on the landscape, you know, the things that are compelling are the things that seem to be emerging. Those are the trends, perhaps. So maybe that’s the way we are looking forward, is by looking at the things that are kind of new and compelling.
DG And do you want to mention—is there any that springs to mind?
MC Well, I mean, I’m surprised that words like “sustainability” aren’t dirty words anymore for a lot of people, so I mean, things have changed. And it seems like they’ve changed more than just in response to expensive oil like in the ‘70s. They’ve changed a little more dramatically maybe than in terms of an interest in those sort of sustainable systems and sort of what most people just kind of consider sensible-ness. But we did a public tour to the dump in Los Angeles, and I think it sold out in just a few minutes. And it’s like, why are people so eager to go to the dump, you can just go there on your own, you know, you can take some trash…I mean, you gotta take trash. If you don’t they’ll wonder why your at the dump and call the cops on you. But if you take some trash, go to the dump….But anyways, so the bus tour we did to the dump was the fact that it was a popular thing says to me that people are interested in looking at the things that we used to want to pretend didn’t exist. So we are interested in the other side of the coin, and that’s been part of our work all along, has been to say, Here’s the things in front of you—where does it come from, what’s its connection to the ground? You know, if you could double-click on any object to find out what it’s composed of and where it came from, that would be a great resource and would be something that people are now beginning to do. So when you look at the other side of consumerism, which is excretionism or whatever the other side would be, to look at the kind of waste stream as the byproduct of our products and then that things really are composed of the full spectrum of their existence on the planet, from creation, to the disintegration, if that occurs. And those two things together really define what an object is and then you evaluate the object based on that more complete view and your behavior changes, you know, presumably so. Those general things are emergent and I think it is a good general trend.
DG Yeah, which might send you outside the United States. So you better get your passport.
MC Oh well, yeah . . .
DG You’re sure there’s nowhere you want to go with your camera?
MC Oh no, I mean, the rest of the world is of course very interesting. But in terms of a systematic analysis, we don’t have the resources, and nor should we. I mean, we are—we, the people who work at the Center—we’re based in the United States, most of us are American, and so to do this to somebody else’s culture would not be proper.
DG That’s interesting—“to not do this to somebody else’s culture.” So you do understand it as somehow, if not critical—critical in the larger sense—and also somewhat invasive?
MC I mean, well, we don’t like to kind of point at people and say, You know, what you’re doing is wrong. We are a we. And there is a sort of nationalistic we that is this community of the United States, and yes, our culture expands and overflows, and melts all over the place, over the rest of the globe. We are the only ones who are really responsible for what we do, we being Americans who can vote and do whatever we do—buy things and have communities and send our kids to school. These are the things, this is the territory where we have some control over that, so that’s I guess is why it’s limited to that, and why it’s . . . But one interesting exception is Indian reservations—never done a project about that, nor, in a way, could we, because that’s sovereign terrain within the United States, so we could look at it maybe from its periphery, but I don’t think we, as an institution, would be comfortable to work within that landscape either.
DG One more? Okay . . . So your motto and ambition is to leave every place better than you found it, which has to do with your ability to interact with the landscapes that you are speaking of. What does that entail?
MC That we leave it better than we found it?
MC I mean, I’m not sure where we say that but . . .
DG Yeah, it’s got quotes around it. I loved it.
MC It’s got quotes around it? Well, I mean, generally that’s a rule about sort of physically going somewhere, you know, you take only pictures and leave only footprints or whatever they say. But to leave it actually better—I guess one example where that sort of comes up with what we do is through our Wendover Residence Program, which is a program where people apply to do projects out in the desert near our place in Wendover, Utah, and that’s a place where people really are encouraged to leave it better than they found it and that has enabled that program to exist. So everybody who goes through it actually, you know, adds to it, and makes it better and more interesting as well as physically improved. And that kind of sense of progress by slow accretion of minor betterments ends up being a positive way that things can really almost run themselves with that kind of energy. So it’s slightly additive, so you have this kind of net gain. But I don’t know other ways to describe it because we don’t do a whole lot of things that are directly related to physical alteration of places.
DG Right, but I think that’s a very clear statement, that it’s the inner workings of your own organization that creates a kind of model of interaction and behavior, a kind of—and I know this is a dirty word when it comes to describing what you do—but it’s politics.
MC Yeah, well everything is political, there’s no way around that. But because we don’t do a lot of projects where we’re physically altering places we’re less in a role to sort of literally mean “leave a place better than you found it”. You know, we do put up signs and plaques and things and whether those are actually improvements is something that’s debatable.
DG I think you said it well. The kind of behavior of the people who are there and the way they interact with each other…
Betsy Sussler Ok, so what we’ll do now is open this up to the room for questions for Matthew or Deborah if you’d like. Would anyone like . . . does anyone have a pressing question they’d like to start with?
DG Oh, look, lots of questions.
Audience Member I have a short comment—another reading of that phrase would be that you leave the place better than you found it—which speaks to education and education through experience of place, but one question I have regarding that is your methodology relies a little it on the experience of an outsider or a purported objectivity—what is your approach of the local experience or the kind of only subjective experience of human landscape in a way?
MC Well, I think all the projects we do are about that, just not in the usual way perhaps. So yeah if we do something about a place it’s usually displayed in that place, you know, if we do an exhibit for example. So . . . it has to sort of . . .“play in Peoria” or however you want to say it. So the things we do are both on a national scale—and they’re available on the web, so they’re international as well—but they also are about those places and are available and are done to be able to play in the places that they were created. So all the projects have their local and loci that are built into it . . . but I don’t know if that’s the kind of question you’re asking.
Audience Member I mean, do you think your projects change the locals’ experience of that place? And also I think there’s a certain politics surrounding that, where the local experience of that place is radically different from the outsiders’ experience and there’s certainly a continuum in between as well.
MC Yeah, well, we want something to able to when it shows within the community that it’s about, we want it to be interesting and compelling and curious and really fundamentally interesting to the people there. It’s gotta reorient them to their own space in a way. We are all kind of local, I guess, in a sense in that all these sort of iterations or bubbles of locality are within the bigger matrix of the United States so in that context we are all locals and we all have a role in every place in America and it’s like a continuous fabric. It’s a collective kind of commons of the continent. So these things are both national issues if they’re very small locality but they’re also local issues and to be able to work on both levels is something we always think about. But in terms of the specific goal—I’m trying to imagine really what you’re getting at too is like in Wendover, Utah, we’ve got a physical location and we have exhibit spaces that are about the region as we do in other paces and there’re some people locally that have lived there for decades and who wonder about our exhibits. Some people think they’re interesting, other people don’t know—we’re not trying to sell anybody locally on a certain kind of view. We’re just creating a kind of portrait of their place, and everybody will have their own opinion ultimately about what it is. But we’re not trying to elicit a particular reaction from a local community. And some people seem to expect that that’s how the local works—you’re an activist, in the ground, you’re trying to make things better for the people. We don’t do that, you’re right, we don’t. I think there are other people that do do that, but we don’t.
BS You’re not labor organizers . . .
MC But we do employ locally sometimes . . .
BS I have a question—in the beginning you were describing when you gather this data and you put it together that it times it creates a new look for a particular site. And I’m wondering—I know you don’t necessarily have any expectations—but was there ever a time when you put together this new look from all the data you collected and had it just surprise you?
MC Oh regularly, yeah, yeah…
BS Could you give me some examples?
MC Well I mean, the constant surprise at places is kind of what it’s all about. When you turn an object in your hand to consider it and you find some facet that is especially compelling or surprising, that you found a quality of it that creates a new perspective on that thing, and so it happens—I mean that’s kind of in a way what our work is all about, creating a kind of surprise in the everyday experience of places. So, yeah, surprise to find that a place like Birdfoot of Louisiana where the Mississippi River spills out, that that whole place is just amazingly surprising. The gravel pits of Irwindale are surprising because when you start looking into them you realize, well, that’s where all the gravel that paves the landscape of Los Angeles comes from. Looking at the Hudson River for our project about the Hudson River we did a kind of analysis of all the land use along the shoreline of the river and there were so many sort of surprising things there that resonated in all kind of ways and that we didn’t anticipate. Places like view sheds have been maintained so that when you looked at the mountain from one side of the river to the other you didn’t realize there was a giant rock quarry on the other side, you know, and how that play out with the notions of landscape pastoralism that originated in the Hudson River School. I mean, there’re surprising things all over the place.
BS What was surprising in the site in Louisiana?
MC Oh, yeah, we did a project all about the end of the Mississippi River, you know, there’s another hundred miles of the Mississippi after New Orleans that people forget about. Not even Mark Twain went down there so far as I know. It was all about the rest of the river, but what goes on south of New Orleans, where truly America’s river, the Mississippi, two thirds of the continental United States, draining out, the landscape begins to break down in ways that are evocative of general trends in our culture, the failure of engineering, and sort of grand designs, but also the tenacity of people living in that environment and the industries that have emerged there, the sort of poetic qualities of some of the characters and their lives down there, like Mr. Dela Deniers, who’s probably the last person on the Mississippi, and his name is Dela Deneer, which means “the last” you know. There’s all kinds of amazing tales of the river pilots that live in these bunkers out there and watch Alien on TV and sort of…these extremes of isolation as well as this sort of whole dissolution, the dissolving of the continental land mass there; the disintegration of the country that’s occurring around its fringes. When we took a whole class of graduate curatorial students down there for almost a week, and the stories that they unearthed were just mind-blowing. We couldn’t believe that this occurred in the United States that we thought we lived in, and it was all about post-Katrina stuff, I mean, we did address Katrina, but not by looking at New Orleans, we did it by looking at that fringe and there’s so many amazing characters and stories down there it was kind of like landing on the moon or some alien environment, it was so de-familiar, it was so unfamiliar to us all.
BS Yeah, I remember going down there to go to an animal sanctuary—a bird sanctuary—and we stopped on the way. We were on the river, literally, and we stopped on the way to have lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant because the landscape was so similar to the Vietnamese so a lot of people when they left Vietnam after the war, escaped and became refugees, settled in southern Louisiana, so it was like almost like being in a different country, the rice fields, the cattle farms, and then you had the Vietnamese restaurants.
MC Yeah, the shrimp industry is mostly Vietnamese there. And they live in this kind of isolated way. There’s not a whole lot of integration of the Vietnamese community into the other communities. I mean, there are so many curious qualities to this country. We tend to sort of drive down familiar roads in general in life and get familiar with places—you think you’re getting familiar with places, but what you’re really doing is developing habits of viewing, and if you can just displace that road a little bit or go across it or something—change direction—then you realize how sort of stuck in habitual viewing we are in general. And our role is to just try to shift that a bit.
Audience Member Something I find, I guess we all find, very American is the car and the highway. Have you ever looked at the highway and specifically the interchanges have displaced a lot of land, and within those interchanges there is a lot of leftover land, and when we’re in the car it’s a totally different speed that we don’t pay attention to it. But the locals are kind of affected by that. Do you ever look at these and see another use or some kind of new frontier within these lands?
MC Yeah, we’ve talked with a few people over the years who are interested in that kind of leftover space of highways, but it just never materialized as any specific program, but hopefully it will some day because I think it’s a really interesting phenomenon, this idea of the unintended space of waste in the limited access freeway system, I guess, is the things we were looking at as possibly talking about. But the rate of seeing a thing from the car scale is really a way, I think, that is the level we use more than anything else at the Center, and we also as Americans—though New Yorkers are a little weird because you guys don’t drive, but anyway…but the nation is stitched together at 65 miles per hour and that’s the scale at which our towns, communities are sort of created at, and so when we do in our projects, that’s how we travel and that’s how we look at the world and you can…it’s amazing what happens when you bicycle through an interstate or do something to take the scale—the time scale, to travel scale—and shift it to a different environment and you can—that’s a fantastic way to kind of de-familiarize a space, just by changing the rate at which you travel through it. But in terms of how the effect overall generally about the car-scape of America I’d say we deal with that in all kinds of ways in different projects so yeah I think that’s a big part of what we do is to look at that, to look at the landscape at the scale of the car, as well as physically the sites created by and for the car, but also what that does to space. I think it’s all sort of implicit in a lot of projects and well, potentially explicit in some, like exhibits we’ve done about test tracks and other kinds of highway related things . . . I guess we haven’t done too many other highway system things, if that’s what you’re kind of getting at. Tour books about certain highways, where we address that . . . the Blue Ridge Parkway, we did a project about that. That’s kind of a curious example of a space created for the car speed, you know, you’re supposed to go 40 miles per hour there. It’s a slow highway, if you’re familiar with that. It’s like the longest national park, it’s like 300, 400 miles long, and it was built to be a drive-through park, and it was built as a WPA project, and along the top of the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the landscapes are all sort of formed, literally, to be viewed while you’re driving by. I think the speed limit is 45. And the road itself is engineered to maintain that speed, the way it’s curved, and it has no shoulder generally. It has turnouts periodically so you can get out and look at an interpretive plaque, but for the most part it’s meant to be this sort of—it’s almost like a video game in a way, you just steer your way through this landscape. So in that way we’ve dealt most directly with some of the ideas you were talking about. Does that answer your question?
Audience Member Um, hi. You mentioned your personal appreciation for gravel pits, and that made me curious about what your favorite places might be in the database, and I’m sure that’s a pretty tough question, so I’ll ask it instead as what would be your dream tour, even if it’s something completely unfeasible.
MC Oh gosh, I mean, all of our tours are dream tours in a way. We just did a tour about oil in LA. We’ve always wanted to do that one. A dream tour would maybe be in a blimp and would be continental, or in some other aircraft with a lot of viewing, good viewing, rather than out some little port hole if you’re actually maybe just dangling from a blimp? And then, yeah…and we could project on to the ground as we’re traveling, show slides on the salt flats or something, I don’t know . . . We have talked about doing some blimp tours. They never really materialized. In Europe, actually. So we do do some things in Europe. They got some good blimps over there. The blimps here tend to be really expensive and don’t hold a lot of people. I don’t know…we’re not so much interested in outer space . . . only where it hits the ground in America. So probably getting further aloft wouldn’t be so interesting to us, but certainly to be able to do something on a continental scale would be great and I don’t know how we would do that other than through some kind of aircraft. That would be an ideal tour.
Audience Member Any particular blimp spots?
MC Well, yeah, if you’re talking about sort of in a fantasy world where this blimp could go 1000 miles per hour when you needed it to, then we could really scale and exhibit a tour program about the true landmarks of the country in way. So what would that be? That would be fascinating, and in a way our future American Land Museum is a composite of these kinds of national scale views so maybe our blimp would be our tour bus to see the national American Land Museum. (applause)
DG That was a great last question actually. You teased it out of him, and I bet you discover things on that—from what I’m hearing you say, it would be an itinerary, but I bet you’d add something after having done it.
MC Well, yeah…
Audience Member I’d still like to know what those national landmarks are . . .
MC Well, we’re working on that—our American Land Museum is kind of our uber-meta-project and it’s in the works and it’ll be developed in a few years when we’ll finally come out with it but, yeah, that’s a great question . . . I always thought it’d be great to have a tour bus where you black out the windows and don’t tell people where you’re going, and just kind of let them off at certain places, and then everybody gets back on…
Audience Member I thought you were going to say driving cross-country with a cherry-picker . . .
DG What I wanted to say about the weird urbanites that we are, I was thinking, oh yeah, cherry-picker, that’s just the seventh floor . . . you want a cherry picker view I can get you one on every street . . .
MC Yeah . . . blimps . . .
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