Interview with CLUI’s Matt Coolidge

The UMFA is pleased to welcome Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) Founder and Director Matt Coolidge on September 19 for a presentation about CLUI’s work in Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine. CLUI–the organization responsible for the Great Salt Lake Landscan on view earlier this year–takes a unique approach to our shared landscape; we caught up with Coolidge this past spring to ask him about land use, the mine, and the role of art museums in public discourse.

UMFA:  Can you speak a bit about CLUI’s multidisciplinary approach, and how viewers should approach your work?

Matt Coolidge: The Center engages the tools of the arts, as well as other disciplines, to do its work, telling stories about the American landscape. The organization was founded by people with education and experience in different arenas, including environmental science, media studies, studio art, music theory, film studies, and architecture. One of the reasons the Center was created was to span disciplines such as these. But ultimately it was not about simply borrowing from, or hybridizing, as a “multidisciplinary” enterprise might, favoring a few methodologies, but to melt them down, with many other things thrown in, and recast the lot, with a transformed molecular structure, to form a new kind of organization, one that is solid and unique, and what we refer to as “non-disciplinary” in type. Our approach is very simple, and universal, and can be absorbed by anyone with an interest in the world around them, which I think is just about everybody. We ask simple questions like What is that thing over there? How did it get there? Who owns it? What does it do? What do we think about it? Why do with see it that way? Land use is the common language of the landscape, the common ground we all occupy, modify, and inhabit. Its relevance is eternal, and its implications profound, yet it’s something we—all of us—barely have our minds around.

UMFA: CLUI’s work aims to be objective in the way of documentary journalism or academic research—yet your work is often displayed in a “fine art” environment?

MC: As to the kinds of venues that show our work: we aren’t fussy about it, if someone wants to show our programs in their space, we are happy to consider it. But we do understand that context is critical to how things are perceived and understood, and not everyplace ends up being able to keep the clean, objective-ish view we are trying to convey. Many institutions exist to push a particular, singular point of view, in which case there is not much room for us. This is one reason why we end up working a lot with museums, universities, and art organizations. Art is often a catchall category for things that don’t fit in other boxes. That, I would argue, is part of the function and purpose of art – to allow new ways of communicating and looking at the world to manifest, outside of the often limiting boundaries of commerce, industry, and academe. Just like we need to maintain bio-diversity, we also need to maintain perspectival and institutional diversity.

CLUI, Recent landslide at Bingham Canyon Mine, 2013.

Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Recent landslide at Bingham Canyon Mine, 2013. Digital Print. Purchased with funds from the Paul L. and Phyllis C. Wattis Endowment for Works on Paper, UMFA. Currently on view as part of “Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine.”

UMFA: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of capturing the images of the Bingham Canyone Mine?

MC: We generally document and portray the landscape as viewed from public space, whether from public streets, sidewalks, and viewing areas, or public airspace, maps, or space. In some cases we request access inside spaces that might be privately owned or controlled. In the case of the Bingham Mine, the company historically has provided access to the public by operating a visitor center and an overlook on the edge of the pit, which gives a wonderful view of the place.

The Bingham Mine is one of the greatest landmarks in the nation, and has been of great interest to us for many years – even if its claim to being “the biggest hole on Earth” is debatable, as there are so many ways of measuring bigness. But even as “one of the biggest holes on Earth,” it warrants special attention, as a stupendously large structure, almost unbelievably built by humans. It shows that we operate on a geologic scale, that we can and do literally move mountains. We have been taking groups to its overlooks, on the east and west sides of the mine, periodically for two decades, and have talked about it and shown images of it in public displays and in print. Like thousands of people, we have taken images of it from their grounds, from the perimeter, and from commercial airliners flying over it. Its wonderful that the company allows the public onto their grounds to do this, as it is truly a national resource for wonderment and inspiration, like Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon. I hope they open up their visitor center and in-pit overlook again soon, as in the meantime the view from the west side takes a while to get to, and has rough roads unsuitable for tour buses.

We have flown helicopters into the pit to photograph it, as we did a few weeks after the landslide occurred last year. It is public airspace, but we let them know we are coming, and what we are doing and not doing, so they don’t get upset thinking someone might be landing on their private property. Even though it is public airspace, we respect and appreciate the fact that they created it by removing the mountain that used to be there.

UMFA: Can you tell us a little about your CLUI “branch” in Wendover, Utah?

MC: We operate a regional exhibit space in Wendover, which talks about the land uses – the human landscape – of this most remarkable region. It has been open and accessible to the public on a self-serve basis every day since 1996: visitors get the access code for the pushbutton door lock by calling a phone number posted on the door. Over the years our operations have expanded, and now include several display buildings and other structures around the old airbase there. Since 1997, we have operated a residence program that creative people from all over the world can apply to.

UMFA: Okay, so… why Utah?

MC: We look for innovative projects that interpret the unique characteristics of the built regional landscape, things like the state line running through the middle of town; the Bonneville Flats extreme flatness and whiteness; the layers of national migration through the area (from wagon trains to railroads to Lincoln Highways to fiber optic lines); the evaporative extractive industries; the bombing ranges and proving grounds; the terminal waste sites; the land art; and the unparalleled phenomenological smorgasbord of the Great Salt Lake and its salt flats surrounds. Though we operate interpretive facilities in other parts of the nation, Wendover houses our only official residence program, and is there because of the singular qualities of Utah’s landscape on a national scale.

CLUI, Great Salt Lake Landscan (still), 2013.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Great Salt Lake Landscan (still), 2013, HD video, commissioned by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, with funds from the Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment for Modern and Contemporary Art. Previously on view at the UMFA (January 24, 2014–May 4, 2014).

UMFA: The CLUI website is a rich resource of information: can you tell us how you hope visitors will use it?

MC: We realize that our largest audience is online, and so we make as much as we can available there, including our newsletters, site reports, our Land Use Database and our image resources. There is no intended audience, it’s there for everyone to use, for free, for as much of forever as we can muster. It is meant to be a continuously refined portrait of America, in these times, from our point of view—for whatever that’s worth. We hope it explains, astounds, confirms, confounds, motivates, frustrates, compels, and inspires…just like the American landscape itself. Help yourself.

To hear more from Coolidge and see more awe-inspiring images and video of the Bingham Pit, attend his free presentation this Friday, September 19 at 5pm in the Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr. Auditorium.

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