he Great Basin’s
landscape is deceivingly empty, seemingly devoid
of culture. But the desert houses a surplus of
secrets and mythologies. We typically measure culture
by its positive attributes, but overlook the pedagogy
offered by the wasteland.
The man-made landscape is not normally seen as art
or landscape, but the pejorative use of the term
landscape is being expanded to include prisons, protruding
fences, cattle ranches and smog-saturated sunsets.
This inclusive concept is the main focus of a grant-run
organization built on the sweat of four staffers
and multiple artistic volunteers who study land in
a geographical, geological, geopolitical and art-historical
The Center for Land Use and Interpretation (CLUI)
recently appeared at the University of Utah’s
Visiting Artist Program. Matthew Coolidge, one of
the national organization’s four staffers,
lectured on April 1 about cultural perception of
landscape. “We look at how the built landscape
of the United States is perceived,” he said.
This examination includes how people react to the
interpretive layer, signage, monuments and industrial
complexes, he said. Bonneville’s lake bed has
an aesthetic that does not exist anywhere else. “Take
a boring thing and study it. It will become the most
interesting thing, especially since most people would
have overlooked it,” Coolidge said.
Coolidge calls the man-built landscape “chewed
up topography” and finds all of the information
that can be uncovered thoroughly fascinating. “I
like the aesthetic,” he said, referring to
the Great Basin’s sprawl punctuated by industry.
One of CLUI’s past projects is the “Suggested
Photo Spot,” mocking Kodak’s ad campaign
that posts the film company’s insignia on touristy
photo spot signs. CLUI posted its version of the
sign in front of a view of the back of Kodak headquarters
in Rochester, N.Y. “They aren’t normal
tourist spots,” Coolidge said. He hopes it
will get people to see the landscape as it actually
CLUI started in 1994 in Oakland, Calif., and moved
to Culver City, Calif., in 1996. Its services are
accessible to researchers of any status. The staffers
upkeep a land use database, do research programs
and projects and exhibit the Land Art Museum. They
publish in-house books and pamphlets full of information
for questions you may have never asked yourself.
They also give bus tours with compiled video clips. “We
use footage from documentaries and even Hollywood
films if they are appropriate,” Coolidge said.
The strange informative site markers you may have
seen in the middle of nowhere so you know more about
the events of the land you are visiting are the work
But most of CLUI’s focus goes into exhibits.
One of the most recent exhibits was on dirt. Seemingly
mundane, the story of the foundation you get to work
on is complex and interesting. CLUI is devoted to
the research of unseen everyday surroundings.
“Classification is difficult but necessary,” Coolidge
said. The attempt at categorization includes mining
sites, nuclear/radioactive sites, industrial sites,
military sites, R&D sites, waste sites, cultural
sites, water sites and transportation sites. The cultural
category includes locations from prisons to the Bonneville
Salt Flats Raceway.
Turn over your The Clash mini pin—the one
you wear on your faded black hoodie—and find
a series of merchandizing numbers and a $1.50 price
tag indicative of market and markup. These types
of transitions are where meaning and irony is born.
Borders act as segues of contextual consequences.
A large majority of sparsely occupied land of Utah
is fenced off. Barbed wire was an American invention.
Most of the fences are not to keep people out but
rather to keep livestock in and mark boundaries.
Even though fences can stop the natural flow of wildlife,
roads cause a much more intrusive border because
they block drainage patterns.
Some of the piles of dirt on the side of the road
exist because roads had to be elevated to keep them
from flooding. The piles are called borrows, as though
someone intended to give it back. “When you
have negative space, you have positive space somewhere
else,” Coolidge said.
“No trespassing” signs are a way of tempering
the flow of literate animals.
is full of shot-up road signs and industrial complexes
that treat your presence like vandalism. Tooele Army
Depot’s version of the “no trespassing” sign
reads, “Authority to use deadly force.” It
isn’t a welcoming banner. Some of the “no
trespassing” signs are harmless, only intended
to hush liability lawsuits, but you should probably
seek permission. Trespassing may get you into some
trouble after the third offense, but you may not
get to the third offense if someone shoots you first.
CLUI hopes to be able to lend information about
what the land is being used for and how safe it
is. Like a mystery novel, they are often left to
For instance, high-powered commercial radio towers
decorate low hills and seem useless in uninhabited
valleys—CLUI does not know why they are there.
Air Force land hosts a survival testing facility, though it is not disclosed
what they test.
Many of the industrial facilities in the Great Basin
are dangerous chemical containment facilities.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
requires all buildings with hazardous chemicals to fly a windsock in case
of a leak. Windsocks also designate whether buildings have a helicopter-landing
pad. So you can at least make a guess if it’s hazardous chemicals or landing
pads or both.
Techsystems (ATK) Thiokol is located in Promonotory,
Utah. They make rockets—well, intercontinental
ballistic missiles—and spacecraft. Their billboard-size
sign reads, “Safety Priority 1” in garish
red and green. The buildings come equipped with slides
for emergency evacuation. If the emergency were dire
enough, even the fast multi-story slides might do
Some of the most robust cattle live on Thiokol Ranch.
To what extent they are connected is unclear and
oddly humorous. The threat of cows and missiles
may be more closely related than previously believed.
The industry in the Great Basin typically has a history
of many hazardous side effects. Envirocare, a hazardous
and nuclear waste facility, operates in the area
along with the magnesium-processing plant, MagCorp,
indicated by the large smokestack on the edge of
the Oquirrh Mountains. This facility omits almost
90 percent of the nation’s chlorine gases. In the last four years the
Environmental Protection Agency has been working to reduce that number.
The Great Basin area is usually regarded as an empty
landscape. Agoraphobia makes sense here. Away from
the city, there is almost enough flat distance
to see the curvature of the earth.
“The void is full of things that require a lot of space,” Coolidge
Coolidge does not take political sides. He primarily hopes to divulge the
existing information. “There is so much information…not that the environmental
concern doesn’t affect me,” he said when questioned about whether
or not some of the harmful waste upsets him.
CLUI members are mainly researchers, interested in
challenging our interpretation of U.S. land use.
If people see the wasteland, they can better understand
the cost-benefit analysis of their culture. “Instead of seeing the production
side, you can see the lesser-known other side of the equation. It’s one
of the great things about this region,” Coolidge said.
|CLUI and U art
faculty and students look at the Great Salt Lake’s
famed earthwork, “The Spiral Jetty.”
Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is
among the stranger oddities of the desert’s
“Spiral Jetty” is Land Art made in the ’70s
with boulders of basalt rock spiraling out into the
Great Salt Lake off of Promontory Point. “It
looks like a pencil drawing on the ground,” Coolidge
said. Smithson, a Land artist, made the jetty fully
aware of the strange environment he was building
The U’s art department, with the help of
CLUI, is putting an exhibition together that analyzes
the “Spiral Jetty” as non-site art
which intends to understand the transition of the
environment, not just the artwork itself.
“Land Art and art in general is a point of
view. We want to look at Land Art and expand it to
the larger landscape,” Coolidge said.
We took a comfortable Ford Excursion to the spiraling
artifact—another irony, driving in a vehicle
of which the marketing intent seems to imply the
driver can conquer nature in an easy rollover SUV
that handles like a Cadillac.
The land is striped into segments. Sagebrush
and cedar trees slope down toward the sand, which
merges into a distinct layer of basalt rocks
the size of toddlers. The beach is segregated
into areas of rocks covered with different things—one
with salt, one with driftwood and drift tires,
the other with tar-like oil seeping from a nearby
oil rig. The water itself is layered in bright
white to chintzy fuchsia to cobalt blue. The salty
shore looks like ice and snow. Walking across the
lake bed, it feels like the ground could give way
to icy water beneath.
“It’s amazing when things shoot up out
of nothing,” said Kim Martinez, a U art professor.
Everything on the reflective lake bed is accentuated.
There are a lot of out-of-place oddities on the
way to the jetty, including a rusted military
Duck, a vehicle used on land and water, without
much history to how or why it’s there. There is
an abandoned trailer next to it. Inside it reads, “Andy
Warhol sucks.” There is also a building foundation,
but the plans for the building remain a mystery.
“It’s a great place for derelict furniture,” said
Karen Hodgin Jones, U art student.
The “Spiral Jetty” went underground
and reemerged with salt crystal growing from it.
It is continually debated whether or not Smithson
was making Land Art for the purpose of proving
entropy. If he was, the irony is that Smithson’s
sculptures change dramatically but do not just
go away. Hodgin Jones said, “Entropy is a
one-sided explanation of a two-sided event. Once
something disappears, something else takes its
place. A breakdown is a breakup.”
For Smithson a Coke can is a natural artifact,
his logic being that if humans are natural, then
so are man-made things. So the categorical separation
of man and nature is superfluous.
“Part of his [Smithson’s] research was
to find land that had been affected by man,” said
Mandy Moore, a U art student.
Smithson may have chose a place full waste
of so the Spiral Jetty wouldn’t be vilified as
a disposal of nature, Coolidge suggested.
“[The derelict artifacts aren’t] garbage.
Garbage are things that have no value,” Coolidge
Even so, it’s nice not to see ticket counters
and fences around the artwork, something that we
have grown to expect from anything deemed valuable.
The Dia Foundation in New York City recently took
over the Spiral Jetty and promised to maintain
it. What exactly they plan to do with it has not
yet been decided. It is a grand debate whether
the Spiral Jetty should be preserved or allowed
to form its own course.
The jetty is located on Rozel Point SW
(southwest of Promontory Point). One should
obtain directions and possibly a map before
attempting to find it. There are not many
people along the way to ask directions.
The Golden Spike Monument, the connecting
point of the first transcontinental railroad,
is on the way and has photocopied directions
for your convenience.
Go see the desert in its glorifying, awkward
transitions. Land research is a matter
of perception. It is a matter of art.
more information or to get in on the project, go
to www.CLUI.org or
email Paul Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org.