The CLUI: Still off the Grid

By Peggy Roalf   Friday May 12, 2023

I stumbled upon the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in 2010 when I was looking for images of the West. Not the romantic West that was invented by Carleton Tompkins or Ansel Adams; more like what Robert Adams calls home, but worse. I discovered the CLUI’s residence program at Wendover, Utah, located on the Great Salt Flats, which is home of the Bonneville Speed Week, the former US Army Air Force Manhattan Project, and not far from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.  

As described on its website, the CLUI is s a research organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth's surface. It published some of its findings in Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America, which offers clues as to how to approach a subject as enormous as the North American continent. "Since the United States is just too big to get your mind around the whole thing," reads the Introduction, "you have to look at it in pieces. One way of doing that is to take a basic, representative state like Ohio, and see what's there. That is chapter one."

The CLUI publishes the results of its studies as exhibitions (Above: Up River), which more often take the form of on-site interpretive panels and guided bus tours of those areas. It offered a residency programs at its installation at Wendover between 1996 and 2016, hosting artists and scholars including Mark Klett, Joni Sternbech, David Maisel and Lucy Raven, to name a few. This is where the Center’s programs and methods became incredibly engaging, in a serious and thoroughly off-the-grid way; many of these were published in the CLUI newsletter [info]. While the Wendover site has closed, the program’s intentions will be pursued “by focusing attention on specific sites to work with and specific themes to explore, starting this year with the desiccating saltscape of Gunnison Bay, one of the most compelling and repelling places on earth.”

The largely volunteer run, non-profit organization is funded through government and private arts grants with the aim of examining the relationships between the physical landscape and its human occupation. The CLUI raise awareness and stimulate debate about the physical landscape in the US, from vast working factories to abandoned military facilities or sewage treatment works and waste incinerators. Their research uncovers the variety of unusual and often environmentally catastrophic uses that support the lifestyle that we are used to in developed countries. The work is distributed through a variety of means that you almost have to stumble upon. For example, in addition to physical exhibitions of images, maps and texts, the CLUI also offers bus tours of its sites, through which the participants become actively part of the program through their interest/participation.


The Center’s ongoing work includes the Land Use Database, a collection of material including a photographic archive on what they have termed 'exemplary' sites in the US, parts of which are available online. The Center takes on the role of the impartial expert relating an 'objective' view, a wry stance that allows them to highlight the problematic relationships between the economy and land-use in the US.

In a recent interview, founding director Matthew Coolidge, a social geographer and educator, shared some of his thoughts on nature and industry:

“The entire surface of the earth is now a product and byproduct of human activity, altered by anthropogenic chemistry, meteorology, and mechanics. All land is thus “used.” Nature, as it has been understood classically, as things outside of the artificial, human realm, no longer exists in physical form. All physical objects are now artifacts. But all this matter is still governed by the immaterial laws of nature. Though we use these laws to our advantage, we have not yet found a way to change them. Until we can do that, we ignore them at our peril.”


And on how they choose projects for the CLUI:

“We start with the belief that probably every molecule on the surface of the Earth has been affected by human activity, either intentionally or otherwise, so everything on the surface of the planet can be considered “land use,” and as an artifact that harbors cultural meaning that can be extracted through interpretation….It’s all about selection and its fancier cousin, curation. We developed a land-use classification system that divides all forms of land use into one of fourteen categories. This may seem absurd and arbitrary, but all institutions have to have some kind of order and a filing system. We draw from these categories selectively, so over time we do not focus too much on one subject over another, unless we do so intentionally. That is one factor in choosing projects: variety.”


One of the Center’s sites will be open to the public on Memorial Day weekend: Swansea, a former port and smelter town on the edge of Owens Lake, in California’s Eastern Sierras. The location includes a few remains of the town of Swansea, which was mostly destroyed and abandoned by 1872, and interpretive research facilities in the Swansea Dunes. Programming explores the visual characteristics and phenomenology of the region, especially Owens Lake itself, which is a new landscape, engineered to control the effects of desiccation. Info Above: The fountains of Owens Lake

Editor’s note: for artists seeking unusual photo reference of the built [and destroyed] environment, there is nothing quite like the CLUI’s photo archive And don't miss A Journey Up the Hudson River