the anthropocene index



Center for Land Use Interpretation. Interview with Matthew Coolidge.


Aleksandra Jach: Can you tell me what were the very beginnings of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI)? What was the first spark which led to the idea of starting an institution devoted to American landscape?


Matthew Coolidge: The Center was established after a long process of experimentation and research conducted independently and in different ways by the founders of the institution. These included exploring modes of “institutionality,” archives, collection, publishing, incorporation, art, and environment. Things mounted, built up, and amassed, then, as you say, some spark occurred to set it off. For me, personally, that spark came in the form of a kind of epiphany. I was spending a lot of time in Southern Nevada, amid ghost towns, open pit mines, casino resorts, bombing ranges, secret test sites, and piles of atomic waste. I felt like I was in an anode of American civilization, and I experienced a kind of flip in internal polarity. It seemed, all of a sudden,  that the culture of the nation could be expressed through the contemporary archeology of the ground.

Aleksandra Jach: The Anthropocene has already gained a lot of interest from different disciplines and drawn an equal amount of criticism, but in my opinion the most important aspect of this term is that it can highlight different ecological questions. If we take a look at this concept in a historical perspective, in one line with Vernadsky's noosphere and Gaia, environmental movements, countercultures, globalisation, we could say that actually the Anthropocene is not a beginning of the discussion about planetary problems but the point when the next critical dimension has been achieved. What do you think about this consistency of environmental reflection in the context of American experiences? 


Matthew Coolidge: I think that everything is about environment, because environment is what surrounds us, indoors and out. And I think that everything is ecological, because everything is connected and part of a complex and integrated system. And I think that everything is anthropocenic-ish, since the entirety of the surface of the planet is affected by human activity. These were the givens that our organization started with, not political notions, but basic truths. The Anthropocene was not a term we used, since we are not geologists, concerned about the inner structures of the earth, or time structures stretching over millions of years. We are more like geographers or archeologists, concerned about the surface of the earth, and in understanding recent history, and the present. So we use the term “anthropogeomorphology” to describe the landscape shaped by humans, a term we have used from the beginning.

Old-school environmentalism crowns nature as something sacred and non-human. It ignores the fact that we are animals, and as such our constructions and byproducts are part of nature, like bat guano or braided streams. If we are in the anthropocene, as they say, then the landscape and its constituents- cities, landfills, highways, fields, forests, creatures- are all linked, and part of the continuum of the stream of natural laws, processes, and evolution. The quality and form of nature has changed, but nature itself has not.


Aleksandra Jach: Land art, which is a part of your interest in CLUI, on a very basic level can be seen as a “device” of organizing landscape to animate, catalyze or amplify sensual perception of the environment. You are doing documentation of the artworks, educating about this specific part of art history by organizing sight-seeing or organizing meetings with the people who were taking part in the process of creating all those spatial situations. Is land art perceived by your audience as something “current” and ‘up-to-date’ or perceived as a closed chapter in art history/history? 


Matthew Coolidge: Land art is as obvious to us as “museum art” was to people a century ago. When art began to crawl out from behind the ionic colonnades of cultural palaces, and into the world where people lived, aided by Marcel Duchamp, Douglas Huebler, and countless others, it became real, as well as dematerialized. Land art, as it is generally understood, was a brief step in the evolutionary process of leaving the white box. Sometimes the term land art refers to the monuments left from this period by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and others. Sometimes the term land art refers to the wide range of art that deals with out of doors things, like space, architecture, habitat. We are interested in both. Artists can bring creative and unusual interpretive processes to the field of place, and such inquisitive, non-economically motivated examinations can reveal new ideas and structures.


Aleksandra Jach: How to understand land art in the context of cultural events as for example the Burning Man festival or travelling to ghost cities? Can we understand it as something specific to US, this kind of being in the environment or “dwelling” and temporary spatial arrangements? Maybe my question is a result of thinking about America as a reservoir of vast and empty spaces waiting for “colonization”. I have a head full of depopulated landscapes that remind me of Allan Sekula's remark about the “neutron-bomb of photography” - very specific aesthetics which is “killing the people but leaving real estate standing”... What do you think about it?  


Matthew Coolidge: There is no such thing as empty space, except in outer space. The ground is always somewhere. Wilderness is just a relative concept, no longer a physical place. That is why when a nuclear bomb goes off, no matter where, it’s a problem. One of the early projects of the CLUI was a guidebook of the nation’s atomic proving ground in Nevada, perhaps the ultimate “non-place” in the nation. Since then, the government has built an Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas. Their gift shop is the only place which still sells our guidebook. Everything is becoming a museum, as someone once said.


Aleksandra Jach: In CLUI you are researching and analyzing different kinds of landscape. You are involved in developing various research programs related with Agriculture, Cartography, Excavations, Industry, Information, to name only a few. I'm specifically interested in how new technologies are shaping the landscape. Donna Haraway wrote once that we should re-think or even stop using the word “immaterial” in the context of the Internet and take a close look at all the hard-wire behind new technologies. We should pay attention to the hard-wire of the new technologies. So we have server farms, data centers, cable stations which you are also documenting on your website. On the other hand, you are collecting photos from military areas and other places strategic for the state. When I was digging on your online archive, I began to think about “Headmap Manifesto” by Ben Russell and his call to “publish your morning walk somewhere”. I feel that now this statement has a very different meaning than in 1999. How would you see state and corporate ways of surveillance as part of landscape organization? Can you tell me how you approach such special places which collect huge amounts of data about citizens? How to “balance” it by “making something visible” from below? 


Matthew Coolidge: As we all know, the “cloud” of information is composed of data centers, connected by communication lines, and electrical lines. It is physical. All of human activity can be described by looking at the physical space it consumes. Technologies may change and become “virtual,” but we still need to eat, use energy, and dispose of wastes. Someday maybe we will all be replaced by artificial intelligence systems, housed in some kind of self-replicating and expanding rhizomic energy plasma floating in space, powered by the sun. Then, maybe, the age of physical material will end, and the earth itself will be a relic. A land museum.




The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.


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