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  The CLUI “photo spots” don’t represent typical tourist landscapes, but provide an opportunity to shoot America's real landscape.

Culture in the Great Basin
Positive Study of Negative Space
by Stephanie Geerlings
What looks like a dilapidated shack is actually a valuable window into modern culture, according to the folks at the Center of Land Use and Interpretation. Andy Warhol sucks!?!  

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 way.

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 exists.

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 of CLUI.

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.

Utah’s desert 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 deductive logic.

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.

Alliant 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 no good.

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 said.
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.”  
Project Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is among the stranger oddities of the desert’s collection.

“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 it in.

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 said.

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.

For more information or to get in on the project, go to or email Paul Stout at

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