The Center for Land Use Interpretation – Interview with Matt Coolidge

The Center for Land Use Interpretation or CLUI is “Dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived”.  CLUI employs different methodologies to achieve their mission which include: engaging in research, classification, extrapolation, conducting tours and educational field trips, exhibition and publication. CLUI is situated in the Palms district of Los Angeles and also includes a Desert Research Station in the Mojave Desert and artist residency program’s in Wendover Utah (near the Bonneville Salt Flats) and one in Troy New York along the Hudson River.

CLUI website:

CLUI has a Land Use Database which is coupled with the CLUI Photographic Archive, a collection of thousands of images taken by CLUI representatives, covering all types of land use sites. A Limited version of the Land Use Database is available online. CLUI produces a newsletter called The Lay of the Land (available online and in print) as well as other publications like Up River: Man-made sites of interest on the Hudson from the Battery to Troy by Matthew Coolidge.

I recently conducted a short Q&A (one MC to another MC) with Matthew Coolidge the founder of CLUI.

Q: How big is the CLUI library and what is the collection policy?

A: Just a couple of thousand titles. Our policy is about selecting titles that are appropriate and useful to researchers, not collecting for collecting sake, though I would also say that the library is a sort of curated collection (though who wouldn’t say that about their own library?)

Q: What is CLUI?

A: It’s a shorter way of writing the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which is an educational organization interested in expanding awareness of and interest in the landscapes of the USA. There are centers for so many things, but ultimately everyone is at the center of their own world. Each center lays claim their particular slice of the perspectival pie, as do we. Our piece of pie is land use interpretation, meaning the way people look at and derive meaning from the built landscape.

Q: You have been around for a fairly long time (1994) and yet you still seem rather mysterious as an organization.

A: If we appear mysterious to others then that’s probably ok. Mysteries are intriguing and engaging. Once you think you’ve figured something out, then you stop looking. But we are trying to suggest that nothing is simple, that truth is a bit more elusive, that most things are composed of many things, are fluid, and are based on context, and the point of view of the beholder. So “mysteriousness” might be a characteristic of a deeper understanding, a more accurate reflection of reality, than clarity or obviousness.

Q: What is CLUI meant to encompass, who does it involve?

A: The Center encompasses the USA, and involves anyone who encounters our programming, or references to it. We exist to read, and to help others to read, the material landscape of the nation in order to further understand the culture that inhabits it.

Q:  CLUI was formed in 1994 correct? You are the founder of the organization?
Were there co-founders?

A:  We filed paperwork in 1994 to officially become an organization, and a nonprofit. “We” was myself with some help. The others have long since gone on to other things, though there are a number of people associated with the organization from close to its origins that are still involved.

Q:  When did the idea of CLUI come about? Was it long before that 1994 date?

A:  There were all kinds of ideas and experiments that preceded the formation of the organization, some things that were integrated, other things that were disposed of like toxic waste.

Q:  Has the organization changed over that time?

A:  Sure, but the structure of it, the mission, and the methodology – the things established at the beginning, are still as they were.

Q:  How many people currently work for CLUI?

A:  Hard to say, since people who we may have never physically encountered contribute in instrumental ways: people who send us ideas and information through the internet, people who help with projects, people who do things behind the scenes on our behalf – things we may not even know about. But I can tell you our staff is very small.

Q:  I am curious about how much of CLUI is conceptualized as an organization as it seems to have an ironic take on the scope of institutions, or it creates a critical space of institutions & institutional knowledge, all the while being an “institution” itself.

A:  It’s as important to be self-aware as it is to be aware of others. On an individual basis, as well as for institutions. Institutions are generally much more powerful than individuals. We need to understand the anatomy and methodology of the institutions that govern our society, and inform our opinions. So our methods, though institutional, are also “institutional,” foregrounding the structure and process, not just the product. And though we want people to understand the dynamics in play, we don’t want it stop there. If we were just an institution about institutions, then we would be stuck in the medium. Institutionality is a means to an end, and for us that end is a better understanding of people’s role in shaping the planet. On one hand we want people to know that the institutional voice of authority is a construct, and a trope. But then, knowing that does not necessarily undermine the things that that voice is saying– in fact it can be the opposite: you might be more interested in listening to a voice that is trying to be straight about its methods, and its alleged authority.

Q:  What are the politics of CLUI? Can CLUI really be politically ‘neutral’?

A:  We make no claims of being neutral. Neutrality is a platonic state, achievable only in theory. I would consent that we are more neutral-appearing than most others involved in “land use” issues, where most organizations exist to push politics and policy in one direction. Since much of the world works through political dynamics, that makes sense. But advocacy and activism can take many forms. Change also comes about through our “hearts and minds” as they say.

Q:  Is there really a “common ground” in land use debates?

A:  Yes indeed there is, it’s the ground we share, that we have to share, as terrestrial space is finite, and there is only one ground beneath all of us. And, at the risk of sounding naïve or nostalgic, I think that there is “common sense” and “common decency” too. We have to get along more than not, or life will be horrible, and we will implode ignobly. To a degree we are already doing that, but its not over yet. As a species we are capable of almost everything we can imagine, good and bad, so anything is possible. Even, and especially, optimism, which encourages, rather than discourages, positive change.

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Q: Tell us more about CLUI’s collaborative aspects. Is it collaborative?

A:  We certainly collaborate with lots of people, places, and things, in all we do, so I guess we are a collaborative, if I understand correctly what that is. But we are not a “collective,” as some people have suggested, though we are sympathetic to such things.

Q:  What is the relationship between CLUI and the American Land Museum?

A:  We are the lead agency involved in its establishment. It’s one of the main activities we are engaged in. There will be more about that in the future.

Q:  What is the relationship between CLUI and the center of the contiguous continental United States?

A:  As an entity formed as a “center” ourselves, we are very interested in notions of centrality, middle-ness, consensus, balance, convergence, and such. The “center of the USA” is an idea to embody, to physicalize, the heart of the entire nation, so it is especially interesting to us. Of course there are all kinds of centers of the USA: the geographic center, the geodetic center, the population center, etc. And there are an infinite number of ways to calculate these things, since it depends on how you establish the criteria, how minutely you measure the perimeter, and how you do the math. So there are in effect, an infinite number of centers, even though we know that there can only be one, by definition. It’s one of the great paradoxes, geographically and otherwise. That’s why we created an exhibit all about it, and are showing this exhibit in a trailer that is currently at the center of the contiguous states, and may soon move to other centers. A roving middle.

Q: How are CLUI projects decided upon?

A:  We have many things growing at once, some ripen and are plucked, others die on the vine, still others mutate into curious fruit. That sounds like something Chauncey Gardner would say, but so be it.

Q:  How is CLUI archived? Or how is it meant to exist in a hypothetical future?

A:  We keep lots of paper and have many file cabinets, in some kind of order, but we want to get everything out there on the web so it can exist for as long as the web does. Of course, though what we put out there is of a contemporary nature – about the landscape of America, in this era – it will become a relic someday. But images of the past are often even more revealing than images of the present, so we can hope to be effective even if we someday stop. Our physical archives will be preserved in some manner too. The Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art has acquired the archives of our Wendover Residence Program, for example.

Q:  What is the relationship between CLUI and the Morgan Cowles Archive?

A:  The Morgan Cowles Archive is a CLUI project to preserve and distribute our image resources, supported by the family of Morgan Cowles, and established in his memory. It’s part of what will enable us to have a presence in the future.

Q:  Where does CLUI go from here?

A:  Onward, to the future; outward, to a better understanding of the world; inward, to a better understanding of ourselves; and upwards, if only to better look downwards.

Q:  Are there any plans for CLUI Europe? CLUI Middle East? CLUI Chernobyl?
Or are there already organizations in other regions that we should perhaps be aware of?

A:  No plans to expand into other countries, at least not in a systematic way, applying the same level of research to another national landscape. What we do is about the USA, about “Americans” and “America”.  Not that “America” doesn’t have a global impact, but because of it, perhaps. We don’t feel like it’s within our mission, or permission, to expand into other countries. But we certainly would encourage others to get to know their home turf in a similar way, if they desire, and to get in touch with us, and the rest of the world, when they feel they have done so.

Q:  CLUI make lovely and remarkable books. What is the story of CLUI publishing?
How important is publishing to the CLUI organization?

A:  We almost would not exist to the world if we didn’t publish, especially through the web. We like books too, though we self-published more books in the past than we do now. Mostly it’s a labor and economy thing- we spent a lot of time making physical things that only a few people received, at the expense of time where we could be putting more new material out on the web, where most of our audience lies. But we still have a few books still available out there, printing and binding them ourselves, or through other publishers. We also have PDFs of out of print publications that people can print out themselves, as often, especially with guidebooks and such, having hard copy is useful.

Q: I think of CLUI publications as being informational artists’ books is that something that you would agree with? Partly? Totally?

A:  I guess I would just call them books. They are informational too, I suppose.

Q: How many publications do you have now?

A:  That we or others distribute in physical, bound form? Five, I think.

Q:  What is your latest publication?

A:  A self-guided tour booklet of Culver City, where our LA office is located.

Q:  What do you have in the pipeline?

A:  Bookwize? A few things in conceptual form, nothing in production. But lots of things we’d LIKE to do.

Q:  Which publishing houses have you partnered with and worked with?

A:  DAP, Metropolis Books, and Blast! Books. We liked them all, and would work with any of them again.

Q: How successful have your books been in the market?

A:  We are interested most in quality, more than quantity…

[the quality and attention to detail is definitely there to see]

Q:  What is the best way for you to get your information out into the world?

A:  We love good books, and hope to add some more to the world. The web is the primary medium however, at least for now, until we all get the cognitive heuristic neural implant, or whatever comes next.

Q:  Who is the audience of the CLUI?

A:  We have no target audience, so its anybody who is interested, and hopefully very few that are not.

Q:  What do you think will books look like in 10 years time and will you still be making them?

A:  I think that “books” will look like books do today. That’s what makes them books. Other things, like blogs, web sites, e-books, videos, etc, will look like those things.

Q:   What is the future for the CLUI informational book?

Digital or physical object? Open source or proprietary?

A:  We like open source, since it’s our mission to “increase and diffuse,” and the web’s publishing expenses are minimal, so it’s easier for us to distribute it for free. That is what we are here to do. But books, being material objects, cost money to make, and distribute, so it’s understandable if they cost money to buy. And they have inherent value since they are distinct physical objects, in a (presumably) limited supply. So it’s OK to have them cost money. We also still send out a paper copy of our newsletter to over a thousand people who support us, and who have indicated that they want to get the physical copy. We expect that to continue.

Q:  What will be – what is – the impact of new technologies on CLUI and CLUI’s publishing?

A:  We will keep up as we can, and embrace where it seems appropriate. Our DNA is in the web (and in filing cabinets, if you must know), so we are wedded to electronic media, as well as paper.

Q:  What does the immediate future for CLUI look like? What events/exhibitions/tours/publications are on the horizon?

A:  More of the same but different!

Q:  In your wildest dream what would be the greatest thing that could happen for CLUI?

A:  To dematerialize, leaving a helpful, expansive trace.

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