An Interview with Matt Coolidge

VN.N:: Thanks for participating in our Radical Cosmologies project.

Let's start the conversation with a brief description of CLUI and your role within the organization.

MC:: I am the director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), which is a nonprofit educational organization established to increase people’s interest and engagement in the land of the USA, and the culture that inhabits it.

VN.N: We are interested in speaking with you because we think that our project shares many of CLUI’s educational and creative concerns.

Cosmology deals with space, time and the phenomena that constitutes our world.

We’re interested in outsider cosmologies that are personal, unorthodox and interdisciplinary. We're also interested in how the interaction of people, the use of the land and the ways in which we envision the stars defines a cosmology. On what levels do you see us engaging with the land in the USA?

MC:: How we engage with the land can be considered at an individual level, an institutional level, a community level, a national level, and everything in-between. Cosmologically I suppose this is like the notion of planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes. Like most things, it’s a matter of scale and context. Microcosmically, each one of us navigates and interacts with the ground as we move through our daily lives, moving grains of sand around. Macrocosmically we collectively move mountains, and alter the globe’s flow systems, chemistry, and even its magnetosphere.

VN.N::In past CLUI exhibits there is a sense of discovery and at the same time, a sense of demise. Your exhibits point to something that is lost regarding our use of the land but also something that is gained. How do we reconcile our belief in technological progress and our longing and nostalgia for a simpler, less disruptive use of the land?

MC:: Very nice and complicated question. Demise in the sense that energy is used up to sustain life, and discovery as a thrust towards the perpetually receding horizon, gobbling up new energies on the way, spurred on by the promise of new technologies, knowing that we have left perfectly good ones behind, on the road not taken.

VN.N:: Let's talk a bit about “roads not taken”... A while back, CLUI did an exhibit on the Grapevine and Interstate 5 in Southern California. When I saw the exhibit, it made me think about the use of the road as metaphor—you call Interstate 5 a “landscape of transition,” William Burroughs coined the term “interzone,” and Norman Klein refers to an in-between space that “doesn’t physically exist but in our minds is infinite.” I can’t help thinking that the word “Interstate” itself is referring to something more than just a road. Maybe a state of mind?

MC:: I could imagine looking at our individual and collective existence that way, as in transit, between the beginning and the end. Energy is motion, is life, stasis is the death on either end. We are riding briefly on this rock from the big bang to the big hole, or wherever spaceship Earth ends up meeting its end. So yes, “interstates” is the definitive condition of life, a momentary suspension, an arc of kinesis. We emerge from organics of the ground into animated beings, then dissolve back into the planetary surface. In between we are on the road from Here to There.

VN.N:: Again we're presented with a paradox—“riding briefly on this rock from the big bang to the big hole.” We appear to be at rest in a stable position in the universe but actually we’re spinning and moving through space at an enormous velocity. This raises the question of how perception and systems (or tools) of seeing influence our world. What we perceive determines how we construct belief—think “flat” earth. Memory is also a dynamic process—and we rely on perception and the environment to act as components to memory and history—both personal and cultural. CLUI has a project called the “Guide Points Program”—does the idea of a perceptual paradox emerge from this program for you?

MC:: Our Guide Points Program is a thematic program area for us, one of a few dozen special subject focuses. It is about the mechanics and phenomena of tourism, travel, and interpretation, about how the act observation effects the thing being observed. The Heisenberg principle is a great metaphor for understanding many “uncertainties” of the human condition, and the fundamental paradoxes of existence. The principle originally comes from physics, and relates to the decreasing accuracy of measurement, as the precision of measurement increases. Most simply, the harder you look the less you see. Since our tools for observation effects the thing observed, objectivity is an unreachable goal. It's like the ever-receding horizon. Despite this, of course, we still entertain ourselves with the building of new tools in the quest for knowledge, truth, and Certainty, and we certainly increase the tools capacity for clarity and increased resolution along the way. Philosophy, religion, and common sense tell us to back out, to try to take in the Whole Picture, in order to understand our place in the universe. The dynamics of this undulation between microcosmic and macrocosmic is another manifestation of the unresolvable, and another element of the fundamental paradox. I like to think of it as being embodied a telescope: a device built for increasing our understanding. Looking through it you see further, and at the same time cutting out more of the surroundings. Look through it the other way and you see more of the surroundings, but less far. On one end is the objective, on the other the subjective, in the form of the observer’s eyeball.

VN.N:: This reminds me of the Anasazi and the roads they built centuries ago in the American southwest. They've been called “roads through time.” Some archeologists think that the roads may not have been utilitarian roads but were actually used for spiritual and cultural rituals. Maybe the roads led them in a direction to contemplate the “ever receding horizon” of their cosmology?

There's a place in Tibet called Pemako. According to Buddhist tradition Pemako is more than a place composed of rocks, trees, rivers and mountains. It is an earthly representation of a deity named Dorje Pagmo.

The nature of the demise that we spoke about earlier could be, in a sense, spiritual. We don’t look at the land from a unitary cosmological system in the way the Anasazi and Tibetan cultures do. We have lost our way in some respects—we’ve become unhinged from the land, seeing its use through observational tools that only permits its exploitation—to be mined, traversed or built upon. “The Guide Points Program” beckons us to stop for a moment and reflect on the land in another way or as George Inness put it, to see the “reality of the unseen.”

Is it CLUI's goal not only to question how we observe the land’s use but also to revive its inclusion within broader cultural narratives?

MC:: Yes, to tell new myths and stories that encapsulate and explore the “truths and realities” that surround us. A land-based mythology and cosmology, if you will, based not just on rocks and animals and sky, but on fire hydrants, telco hubs, plastic factories, transportation infrastructures, graveyards, radio astronomy observatories—the totality of our built landscape, as a reflection of ourselves and the way we see, order, and understand our world.

VN.N:: Relative observation, ways of seeing and perception—we’ve really been talking about systems for articulating a visual knowledge of the land. The “Guide Points Program” attempts to give us “direct experience of places” while “Through the Grapevine” and the “Air/Land Program” take us beyond a direct experience and into aerial views of the land that are virtual.

Aerial photography has only been possible since the mid-nineteenth century. The ultimate aerial view is the photograph we have of the earth that was beamed back to us from the Apollo astronauts. This image was taken from the moon a little over a hundred years after Félix Nadar’s first aerial photograph, shot from his hot air balloon. Now we have Google Earth and the Hubble Space Telescope. You say that the land and sky are linked in many ways. Since we now have multi-spatial and multi-temporal visualization tools—how should we think about those linkages in a highly networked and virtual world?

MC::Steve Jobs and others have suggested that the digital globe presented by Google is the information age version of the Whole Earth Catalog, the “toolkit for planet earth” published by Stuart Brand in the late 1960s. Brand lobbied NASA to get a photo of the whole planet from space, which they eventually did, and he put it on the cover of the catalog. This is interesting as it elegantly describes the new conditions of our times. Level one is the physical planet that we evolved on, and to which we are symbiotically embedded. Level two is the representation of the planet in the form of a photograph of it. You could consider this in (Robert) Smithsonian terms as the dialectic of site/nonsite: the physical place in its place (site), and the representation of that place elsewhere, using samples, images, and other references (non-site). Now, in the information age, the digital globe of infinite (or at least a really high number, like a quadrillion or a “google”) connections creates a third kind of space, a network of a google of nodes that links representations of a google of places, simultaneously, elsewhere, everywhere, and nowhere. The dialectic of the analog age, site/nonsite, becomes a trialectic of the digital age, site/nonsite/website. This is a quantum condition, where all things are considered to exist in all places in all times at once. Quantum theory might be the ultimate form of science stepping back to view the universe as a whole, objectively. Of course it too is fraught with uncertainty, but at least since it allows for all things to coexist, it allows for every error and inaccuracy too. Quantum is nearly synonymous with paradox, and therefore has to be right, even if it is wrong. The fact that we are developing quantum computers now boggles my mind. Maybe in the future we’ll have laptop black holes.