The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s “Theory of the Present”
Unusual and Exemplary
A sound emitting device placed in a dried-out lake bed plays the sound of running water, alluding to the cause of the site’s current desiccated state: the lake was drained when the L.A. aqueduct was built to supply drinking water to Los Angeles. An online searchable database dedicated to documenting the nation’s land use provides information and driving directions to thousands of remote locations across the United States, including the Angola prison and prison museum in Louisiana, the Nellis Range on Nevada’s nuclear test site and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. A quarterly newsletter entitled The Lay of the Land provides readers with a list of new books on land, unusual real estate listings, and site reports highlighting remote attractions on the outskirts of various US cities. An artist residency program and “land use museum” housed in a former military barrack in Wendover, Utah invites artists to find inspiration in a landscape that, the application cautions, is decidedly “not the romantic west.” And guidebooks and bus tours, some of which cover up to 500 miles a day, encourage tourists to visit the “unusual and exemplary” instances of land use surrounding cities like Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City.
This sampling of projects is representative of the diversity of work carried out by The Center for Land Use Interpretation, an artist-run organization “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.” Founded in 1994 by Matthew Coolidge, the C-L-U-I, or “clooey” as it is affectionately referred to, counts within the purview of its address all instances of human interaction with the earth’s surface, whether the subject is manmade lakes or radioactive waste dumps, roadside museums, or military test sites. Dedicated to documenting each of these sites with equal parts heartfelt enthusiasm and scientific objectivity, CLUI presents itself as an unbiased public resource on land use, an institution that, while informed by the tools of the arts, nonetheless goes to great lengths to avoid being restricted to the confines of the art world. Signaling this extra-art world identity in all aspects of its self fashioning—from its administrative name and institutional voice to its to its circular seal and unassuming office front headquarters—the Center presents itself as a new kind of institution, one that finds in the alternatively banal and esoteric details of American land use a better way of understanding the world—a way, as one CLUI guide book explains, of developing a “theory of the present.”
What exactly this theory of parking lots and power plants, oil pipelines, and observation decks is, however, is something the Center is resolute in its unwillingness to define. Coolidge has often repeated in interviews, press releases, and other published documents that “we are not on any specific political mission” and CLUI’s mission statement makes similar claims, identifying it, via a subtle inter-textual nod to Robert Smithson, as “neither an environmental group nor an industry affiliated organization.” Not surprisingly, the Center’s non-committal, even apolitical stance towards hot-button political topics like nuclear testing ranges and hazardous waste facilities has proven to be challenging for many critics, and much of the critical literature on CLUI consists of efforts to identify an “authentic” political motive behind the project. Such efforts, however, tend to overlook a peculiarity about the project that is far more foundational in nature: namely, the belief that the contemporary world can be effectively understood through an examination of land use.
Indeed, such a position flies in the face of much contemporary theory, which often emphasizes the irrelevance of more “grounded” approaches to today’s increasingly globalized world. As Ursula Biemann explains: “the complex processes that constitute globalization take place on a high level of abstraction…How do you document electronic communication, financial capital flow or deregulation?” While most responses to this question, in art and theory alike, respond by paralleling the increasing abstraction of the world around them—the proliferation of images in today’s biennial exhibitions of airport terminals and global maps overlaid with directional arrows are cases in point—CLUI’s response is surprisingly straight-forward. By focusing less on their causes than on the effects these forces have on everyday life, the Center’s work exposes the question of locating—of identifying where exactly we are at any given point—to be one of the fundamental problems of the present world. As Coolidge explains, though “there is no substitute for being there, especially in these increasingly virtual times,” in the end we have “a lot left to learn about being there and not being there.”
Building on this, the discussion that follows offers a reading of CLUI’s work that interprets it as a meditation on the problem of site-specificity in an era of global inter-connectedness—an era, in other words, where the deregulation of global markets, the decline of national sovereignty, and the expansion of world communications has lead to a constant framing and reframing of seemingly straight-forward terms like center and periphery, location and place. Whereas most accounts of site specificity’s encounter with globalization focus on the mobility of the service-providing artist, my discussion, instead, considers the problematic of site in an era when the land itself is in a constant state of reorganization and reconfiguration. CLUI, I argue, pursues its famously elusive yet provocative ambition of developing a “theory of the present” by examining globalization not from the position of the artist “dwelling in travel,” to borrow a term from James Clifford, but, rather, from the inverse position of a place that itself “travels in dwelling,” as it shifts position based on the cumulative effects of the various forces that pass through it.
Using, as a case study, the Center’s examination of Wendover, Utah—the home of its artist’s residency program and a site with particular relevance to the organization’s overall philosophy and mission—the discussion that follows triangulates between CLUI’s interest in Robert Smithson, more recent discussions concerning the relationship between art and place, and contemporary scholarship on globalization from the field of geography, to better understand Coolidge’s suggestion that CLUI’s work offers “a truly new way of experiencing place.”
The Politics of Place
In its efforts to create what the Center has described variously as “a selective, macrocosmic portrait of place” and “a narrative of place that can, if successful, shed light on the human experience,” CLUI’s practice intersects with a model of site-specific art that rose to prominence in the 1990s, at or around the same time that the Center was founded. The relationship of site-specific art to place was in fact the subject of much critical address among curators and art historians at this time. As Miwon Kwon has argued in her groundbreaking study of site-specificity’s evolution, this was in part because the site-based practice that emerged in the 1990s differed significantly from the anti-institutional and anti-commoditization motivations of its predecessors. Re-emerging as a largely commission-driven, institutionalized practice, the new model displaced what was once a largely sculptural concern for the uniqueness and authenticity of the viewing experience onto the question of place itself. Exhibitions like the 1991 exhibition Places with a Past at the Charleston Spoleto Festival and the 1993 exhibition Culture in Action in Chicago accordingly spread art that engaged with the respective city’s socio-historical past throughout the city, using its site-specific qualities to give visibility to repressed histories and to attract tourists to overlooked city spaces.
Responding to this, some critics hailed this work for the way it encouraged historical memory and promoted local belongingness. For others, however—namely Kwon, James Meyer, and Hal Foster—its popularity alone was cause for skepticism. Put simply, what troubled these critics most was the awareness that in an era of economic and cultural globalization, the demand for anything that could draw attention to—even outright manufacture—a sense of local uniqueness was high. The class of itinerant site-specific artists that emerged in response to the proliferation of place-based exhibitions could accordingly result as much from market demand as from aesthetic purpose. It was this possibility that lead Kwon to argue that the task of “product differentiation” was the “hidden attractor” behind site specificity’s newfound popularity.
As much a political problem as it was an aesthetic one, the new alliance between concerns of art and place also brought troublesome political implications. By playing into romantic ideas like those promoted by thinkers from Heidegger to Lucy Lippard about the value of a self-enclosed and intimately experienced understanding of the local, such work risked participating in a false politicization of the local. The danger of this, David Harvey has argued, is that, “place comes into its own as a locus of some potentially un-alienated direct sensuous interaction with environs. But it does so by hiding within the fetishism of commodities and ends up fetishizing the human body, the self, and the realms of human sensation as the locus of all being in the world.” By promoting an understanding of the local as a self-contained retreat, his words suggest, artists, critics, and activists alike participate in masking the extent to which the local is not only intimately intertwined with but is itself a dialectical product of the global.
Against this critical backdrop, CLUI’s engagement with place is difficult to situate. Indeed, there are many ways in which the Center’s work resembles the kind of place-based work that so many critics have called into question. CLUI artists, for example, are often imported into “one place after another,” for a limited amount of time to create projects that address the details of the (broadly defined) local environment through a combination of photo and textual documentation, interactive digital views, and extended bus tours. And like the exhibitions that critics have questioned, the resulting works are intended to expose overlooked aspects of that environment in such a way as to enrich their audience’s understanding of place. Furthermore, as the bus tours demonstrate, these goals are accomplished as an extension of the Center’s commitment to the importance of physical presence at a site. Yet, as the discussion that follows will reveal, if the Center’s work in some ways resembles this model of place-based site-specific practice, it also complicates it in important ways. What model of place, after all, can be assumed to be presented in bus tours that cover 500-mile expanses of space in a single day? And what kind of authentic understanding of place is offered by focusing on generic sites like power plants and water reservoirs? Beyond this, how does the Center’s eagerness to contextualize its sites not only as local investigations but also in a nation-wide database fit in with this model of place-based art?
Answering these questions will require a detour through a discussion of CLUI’s indebtedness to the ideas of Robert Smithson, an artist whose relevance to the CLUI project is often discussed, but seldom fleshed out. In doing so, we will find that, in CLUI’s hands Smithson’s ideas about site, particularly as they are mediated by his interest in questions of scale, marry surprisingly well with contemporary discussions on the impact of globalization on place from the field of geography. These discussions will allow us to then consider a specific examination of a CLUI site investigation—the Center’s analysis of the location of its own exhibition hall in Wendover, Utah—as an example of how the Center’s work makes the case for the contemporary critical relevance of land and place. Approaching site in a manner consistent with geographer Doreen Massey’s call for an appreciation of place outside of “parochialism,” CLUI’s work, I argue, reinvigorates the landscape as a crucial term in discussions of the present.
The Land Art Spill-Over Effect
In October 2004 CLUI conducted a bus tour of the Salt Lake Basin. Participants met in Salt Lake City, boarded a video-equipped luxury tour bus and embarked on a lengthy two-day drive around the lake. Standing at the helm of the bus for much of the drive, Coolidge contextualized the destinations, which included the Spiral Jetty, the Bingham Pit and the Bonneville Speedway, among others, with factual information drawn from the Land Use Database. In each case he presented the information in the Center’s trademark institutional voice–a de-familiarizing model of description that drew as much attention to what was not being viewed as what was. Describing the Salt Lake as a “giant puddle at the bottom of the Great Basin” for example, Coolidge went on to characterize it as a space “on the edge of perceptibility” where “water and sky sometimes merge to create a silvery space-less perceptual chasm, a sort of hole in our sight.” Coupled with the tour’s particular fascination with sites of mineral mining and remove—sites, in other words, of more material “absence”—it was language such as this that justified the tour’s Smithson-inspired title: “A Tour of the Monuments of the Great American Void.”
In thus titling the tour, CLUI made reference both to Smithson’s 1967 essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” and, also to Smithson and CLUI’s shared fascination with voids and empty, un-visitable spaces. No doubt, in part, this concern for Smithson was specific to this particular tour, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with the 2005 Robert Smithson retrospective. But there are also ways that Smithson’s influence is present, in less directly thematic ways, throughout the CLUI project. Coolidge acknowledges this in a number of ways, explaining that the Center’s goal is “to create this sort of layer on the landscape that makes people interested in it in the same way that they are in Land art…” and going on to suggest that “Land art is—it’s the point of view—the lens of seeing we are ultimately looking through.” More directly he has suggested that the diverse and somewhat eclectic juxtaposition of sites grouped together on a tour are inspired by the experience of visiting the Spiral Jetty. Referring to the legendary landmarks—including a rusted out trailer and adjacent oil jetty—that have long served as invaluable landmarks for visitors in search of the elusive sculpture, Coolidge’s suggestion is that just about anything can achieve a level of intrigue if it is approached with the proper frame of mind. As he explains:
When you get (to the Spiral Jetty), most people, I’ve found walk the Jetty to the end and then step off it and start looking all around it at all the other stuff there…You see the wrecked trailer, the oil jetty, all this debris ends up getting this kind of beauty and significance¾its no longer just junk, its significant cultural forms. You’ve got this sort of land art spill-over effect where the whole world ends up being a little more interesting.
One reading of Coolidge’s discussion of the “land art spill-over effect,” particularly when considered relative to critical accounts of art and place, might find in this statement confirmation that CLUI’s work risks aestheticizing, even sentimentally embracing, just about anything within a given locale. It is my contention, however, that CLUI’s interest in Smithson—and its interest in the Spiral Jetty in particular—stems from a deeper philosophical connection, one related to their shared interest not only in juxtaposing easily overlooked sites, but also in incorporating into their work an awareness of the complexities of scale. Indeed, like place, scale is an interest that arises with some frequency in CLUI literature. Discussing the use of the Internet in the Center’s work, for example, Coolidge has noted the importance of a “scalable system where you can look for new relationships, juxtapositions, and contexts,” he has also referenced CLUI’s fascination with experiencing “the scale of ultra large human artifacts”  like the L.A. aqueduct in describing the bus tours, and he devotes a full chapter in the recent CLUI book to “terrestrial miniaturizations,” the maps, models and globes that allow you to “get your mind around a place…to get the edges in view.” Scale was also a topic of particular interest to Robert Smithson, particularly in his account of the Spiral Jetty and, as we will see, for both Smithson and CLUI alike, the concept depends heavily on the multiplicity of points of view each artist offers on a given site. A better understanding of the concordance between Smithson and CLUI’s respective approaches to questions of scale will accordingly help to shed light on the “theory of the present” that CLUI sets forth today.
A frequently discussed issue in the 1960s, scale was a topic of particular interest to Robert Smithson, especially as his forays out into the landscape turned from rock-gathering excursions and site investigations to the actual construction of Earthworks. Defining scale as a function of “how your consciousness focuses,” Smithson often used the idea of scale as a way of getting away from common associations of earthworks art with monumentality. To this end, he often used the example of looking at an object through both ends of a telescope to show how a mere shift in perception could throw an understanding of an object’s presumably fixed size radically into question. Picking up on this, his film of the Spiral Jetty does a great deal of work in visualizing the shifting sense of scale, fluctuating between close-up views on salt crystals, aerial views of the Jetty as a whole, and grounded views of Smithson running on the sculpture. Smithson also discussed the topic of scale in his essay on the Spiral Jetty, making explicit the significance of the concept, not only to the film, but also to the meaning of the sculpture more generally, when he wrote:
The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain. For me scale operates by uncertainty. To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it…
I will return to the significance of this last sentence— “to be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it” later on in my discussion. For now, however, it is useful to note that, in defining scale as a function of context, Smithson’s statement resonates with Coolidge’s account of one of the central tenets of CLUI’s methodology. Drawing on the same language of uncertainty and de-familiarization, for example, Coolidge adds something that sounds almost like a political impetus to Smithson when he describes of the Center’s work as follows:
Familiar objects, often unseen because they’re so familiar, become more interesting and become something else if you change the context in which they’re presented. It’s in that state of uncertainty that your mind is most active. That’s the space of change, and anything can happen in that space. And if we can get people un-tethered, even briefly, then things change slightly, individually, and perhaps even collectively down the road.
Read in dialogue with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty text, Coolidge’s interest here in context, uncertainty, and un-tethering reads as a question of scale, of the expanded environment an object is exposed to when, as Smithson writes, scale is released from size. Yet such an observation provokes as many questions as it answers. How, after all, is such a notion of “un-tethering” experienced in CLUI’s visits to actual everyday sites? How does CLUI replicate this experience of space compressing or expanding in their visits to physical locations like, in the case of the Center’s tour of Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Speed way and the Bingham Pit?
To begin to answer these questions it is useful to turn to a different context for thinking about scale, this time not from within art and art history but from the discipline of geography.
As a discipline, geography has undergone substantial changes since the 1970s as questions about the ideological content of spatial knowledge have risen to the forefront of its discussions. The development of the practice of human geography in the 1970s resulted in a significant shift away from thinking of geographic space as fixed and measurable in absolute terms to thinking of it as flexible according to how it actually experienced. This new emphasis made it possible to understand concepts like “distance” and “scale” much like Smithson did: as relative terms that shift radically according to who is experiencing them, and the position from which they are being experienced. Such discussions have been particularly important for geographers thinking about the effects of globalization on geographical experience.
Writing of this geographer Neil Brenner draws on Henri Lefebvre’s interest in the way capitalism creates an explosion of spaces and argues that this fracturing of space has only intensified and become more complicated in recent years. Challenging arguments that suggest that the de-territorializing effects of capital will ultimately result in the “end of geography,” Brenner argues, instead, that globalization is an intrinsically geographical concept, one that shows space itself to constantly be in the process of reconfiguration by various forces.  Explaining that this reconfiguration is one that largely takes place at the level of scale, a term that, in geography, denotes the presumed hierarchy governing relationships between terms like “local” “urban” and “regional,” he explains: “The power to reorganize geographic scales—in their role both as containers and hierarchies—has become an essential basis for the power to command and control social space as a whole.” Power, in other words, proceeds by redefining notions of proximity and distance in ways that do not necessarily correspond to traditional (Cartesian) forms of measurement. Attention to the effects of globalization on the fracturing and reconfiguring of geographic scale is therefore crucial to any contemporary study of spatial order.
Building on the scalar analysis of Brenner and others, geographer Eric Sheppard discusses the importance of scale for understanding the impact of globalization on the more intimate level of place, a term which is central to understanding CLUI’s practice today. To make his argument, Sheppard adds the term “positionality” to scale theory, bringing it down to a more micro-level to show the way scale is experienced individually, not only as a function of the economic ties between places but also of the way these ties are experienced by people with different relationships to them. Sheppard’s analysis therefore makes it possible to understand how an Internet-wired house exists on a different scale than the non-networked house next door, despite their physical proximity to one another. As he writes “The positionality of two places should be measured…not by the physical distance separating them, but by the intensity and nature of their interconnectedness.” For Sheppard, as for Brenner, this process of spatial fracturing has intensified with the impact of globalization on spatial experience.
Such arguments suggest that a reading of place in terms of geographic scale means that even the most remote of locations cannot necessarily be thought of as isolated spaces. By the same turn, the remote and the central can coincide, even shift places, depending on what scale they are operating within. If we were to graft an understanding of geographical scale back onto Smithson’s account of sculptural scale, then, we might say that geographic “certainty” to use Smithson’s term, depends on an assumption that terms like local, urban, regional, can be experienced separately in a clearly defined and fixed order. “Uncertainty,” by contrast, lies in the repressed, or “masked” realization that these seemingly separate scales are in fact completely intertwined, shifting, and co-existent—their seeming clarity a product less of fact than, as Smithson might say, of “how your consciousness focuses.”
To return to the question of how CLUI makes space compress and expand in its visits to everyday sites, then, it is useful to note one further point of correspondence between CLUI and Smithson. Indeed, just as Smithson’s depiction of the Spiral Jetty consisted not only of different viewing angles on the sculpture but also of different mediated approaches to it—whether these approaches were textual, cinematic, or photographic—CLUI, too, spreads its documentation of sites out across multiple mediums, including the in-person views of a site enabled by the bus tours, photographic documentation in their exhibitions, and interactive re-scalable Google map views offered in the Land Use Database. Often drawing on the juxtapositions and descriptions enabled by the Internet technology in the tours’ narrations, they ensure that these various approaches are each called upon to inform, enliven, and enrich the other. One of but many examples is the earlier quoted narration, in which Coolidge describes the Great Salt Lake as a “giant puddle at the bottom of the Great Basin.” Though earlier presented as a demonstration of the Center’s characteristically wry tone, we can now also see it as a statement that destabilizes our perspective and sense of scale. It suggests a zooming outward, as in an aerial view, or re-scaleable Internet map, until the giant lake is, indeed, reduced to the size of a “puddle.” By introducing this distant point of view into the minds of viewers literally on the ground, the Center betrays its indebtedness to Smithson and sheds light on the way ideas borrowed from land art function as a central part of its methodology.
Indeed, it was such a methodology of piling up various fragments and points of view that famously lead Craig Owens to argue for an “allegorical impulse” at play in Smithson’s work, one, he argued, that was motivated by Smithson’s belief that the Spiral Jetty was an object “unintelligible at close range.” It was this incomprehensibility from the ground, Owens argued, that necessitated the presence of an intervening document, or series of documents, that collectively came together to grant the viewer a more all-encompassing view. Though such an argument might be easier to take when applied to a complex sculptural object like the Spiral Jetty, for CLUI, too, I want to argue, the multi-media nature of the project is motivated by the sense that the objects, places, and sites the Center studies are also in some ways “unintelligible at close range”—incapable, as it were, of being fully comprehended from a single point of view. By lacing their on-the-ground narration of sites with allusions to perspectives accessible only from more distant vantage points, CLUI borrows Smithson’s interest in “releas(ing) scale from size” to destabilize the authority of either the local or the global. In the process it makes a powerful claim for the importance of a land-based “theory of the present.”
It is with this context in mind, then, that we can now return to the topic of CLUI’s Salt Lake tour, dwelling, in particular on how CLUI’s methodology of multiple perspectives offers a particularly suitable way of engaging the spatial complexities of the present.
Take, for example, the site the Center chose for the first branch of its American Land Museum, a seemingly isolated spot on a former military base in the small roadside town of Wendover, Utah. On one hand, Wendover, which sits directly on the Utah/Nevada border, is described in CLUI’s promotional information as a place that is “out of the way, a place where people wouldn’t want to live,” but in other contexts, Coolidge has described the town as “main street USA.” The two different, and somewhat contradictory, descriptions thus find parallels with two different ways of viewing: one from the ground—where the surrounding expanses of desert and the harsh weather conditions do indeed create a sense of isolation and remove—and the other from above, the aerial or map view, that reveals Wendover’s central location off of Interstate 80, a road which, in connecting San Francisco to New York City, might, quite appropriately, be described as “main street USA.” Such contradictory understandings of Wendover’s location are dramatized even further in CLUI’s textual analyses of its many surrounding attractions. CLUI’s land use museum, for example is housed in a former barrack of the historic Wendover airbase. Once the largest military reserve in the world, as CLUI’s research reveals, the base is now largely abandoned, but is historically significant as the site where the crew of the Enola Gay trained before flying to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. More recently, the military base is also the site where Disney filmed Conair, a historical fact evidenced by the presence of a tower that was originally constructed for the film.
Also of interest to CLUI is Wendover’s proximity to the Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels—two sites built by artists from New York—and the reverse example of the Bingham pit, a site which, as the source of much of the Guggenheim family’s wealth, contributed to the building of the New York Guggenheim. CLUI’s Wendover facility is also close to the Thiokol Rocket Plant, which builds rockets for NASA, as well as a radioactive waste disposal facility and the Bonneville Salt Flat Raceway, a site where numerous speed records have been set. Indeed, Coolidge notes that it is but one of Wendover’s many ironies that a site of such unprecedented speed should be so proximate to the area where the Donner-Reed party once “bogged down” before its journey took its famously macabre turn. Finally, beyond these examples of Wendover’s spatial compressions and expansions, the landscape itself introduces the possibility of another moment of geographic confusion since, as CLUI literature notes, “In appearance, it resembles the Arctic: a remote place of barren rock and snow-white alkali.”
Put together, these various investigations come together to demonstrate that, far from a meaningless roadside town in the middle of nowhere, Wendover can be made to seem like a global center with connections to Japan, New York, Hollywood, outer space, even the arctic, depending on the scale in which it is presented and the point of view one takes on it.
It is here, then, where we can now fully understand the significance of the “multiple perspectives” CLUI offers. By bringing viewers to different remote sites surrounding a particular, clearly defined location, CLUI’s tours ask participants to experience the dizzying effect of spatial uncertainty as they re-contextualize their relationship to notions of region, nation, and globe from one site to the next. Though this experience is replicated, perhaps even more literally for viewers who “visit” CLUI sites in the Land Use Database, by re-creating this experience in real space—for viewers actually “on the ground”—CLUI’s tours expose these shifts in scale to not only be a function of mediation but an actual condition of the spatial organization of the contemporary world. And just as Smithson’s multiple views on the Spiral Jetty came together to complicate the authority of any single viewing angle, CLUI’s investigations of place also come together to suggest that, to paraphrase Smithson, in at least some of these registries, to be in the scale of Wendover is to be out of it.
Conclusion: The Place of Politics
Coolidge has argued that CLUI’s multiple views on a site are designed to offer a “truly new way of experiencing place.” By overlaying the Internet’s logic of interconnectedness with the bus tours’ inherent concern for matters of physical distance, CLUI, I have suggested, shows the seemingly straight-forward notion of “being there” to be a highly contested term today, one consistent with Coolidge’s claim that “we have a lot left to learn about being there and not being there.” What CLUI tours in some ways point to, then, is the unknowability of a contemporary world that, as many theorists of globalization’s paradoxes remind us, is as much the product of spatial expansion as it is spatial compression, as much about new forms of isolation as it is about unprecedented modes of proximity. Far from a retrograde or nostalgic approach to locality, CLUI’s site investigations approach the concept of place as itself a contested terrain, one whose relevance to the present is all the greater as a result.
Though CLUI’s methodology is undeniably indebted to Smithson, then, the motivations for the project are decidedly specific to the contemporary world. Indeed, as many recent theorists have observed—whether understood at the local or national registers—the highly contested nature of place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has had a profound impact on the organization of daily existence. This is in no small part due to the intertwined presence of extra-local factors—multi-national corporations, borderless forms of virtual communication, international treaties—that influence day-to-day life not only in the dense urban areas of New York, London, and Tokyo—cities that Saskia Sassen has declared “global cities,”—but in smaller, more seemingly isolated places as well. The consequences of this at the level of everyday experience are substantial. As Frederic Jameson writes, “postmodern hyperspace—has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mapable external world.”  When understood as a form of cognitive mapping, CLUI’s engagements with place make a powerful case not only for the possibility for, but also the urgency of, a land-based “theory of the present.”
By way of conclusion, then, it is useful to think briefly about the way the problematic of locating underscores any number of politically urgent issues today. Writing about the future of the environmental movement, for example, Ursula Heise has argued that American environmentalist thinking has long been limited by its restricted commitment to place-bound models of political engagement. Rather than exchange local for global, however, Heise advocates for the value of a third position, one that re-conceives place in more complex, interconnected terms. Similarly, in an essay titled “The Sweatshop Sublime” Bruce Robbins has argued that the challenges faced by a politically conscious consumer of today’s globally produced goods—a consumer having to choose between complicity in a global system he or she disagrees with and an equally politically suspect turn to withdraw and isolationism—requires a more thorough examination of today’s complex networks of social and spatial intertwining. Interesting of these arguments is that, in both cases, the critics stop short of calls to activism to argue instead for the urgency of a more thoroughly descriptive understanding of the present.
It is with a similar mission in mind, I believe, that CLUI carries out its project today. Inspired in part by the words of Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle Coolidge admits having had a particular influence on him, CLUI’s approach to the present might be summed up using Heisenberg’s own words. He writes: “In the formulation of the causal law, namely, ‘If we know the present exactly, we can predict the future,’ it is not the conclusion, but rather the premise which is false. We cannot, as a matter of principle, know the present in all its details.” By destabilizing place-based knowledge in the present, CLUI stakes its politics on the belief that a disruption of certainty in the present is also, by extension, a disruption of the future. The result is a politics of awareness that, though thematically neutral, is far from apolitical.