Center for Land Use Interpretation
The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a nonprofit organization that catalogs “unusual and exemplary” instances of land use across the United States. CLUI presents information to the public about the contemporary landscape through a series of programs, exhibits, artist residencies, and its massive land use database.
Since its inception in 1994, art critics and environmental activists have attempted to unpack the organization’s intentions and political motives only to find that the center’s straightforward message also reads word-for-word as its mission statement: “Dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.”
Taken at face value, this mission makes CLUI sound a lot like any other building-based, possibly stodgy, probably government-funded land institution in the country. But unlike federal agencies whose primary activities are driven by policy or environmental organizations whose missions center around changing human behavior, the center treats its viewers like rational beings who—upon observing evidence of land transformation—can simply take a step back and adjust for the view.
This “step back” perspective also applies to Pit Stops: Open Pit Mine Overlooks of the West, the center’s latest exhibit currently on display at Sierra Nevada College through June 5. Curated by CLUI program manager Aurora Tang, this collection from the organization’s photo archives depicts iconic vistas of open pit mines and the infrastructures and overlooks that make up their public face.
Tang’s original attraction to pit mines crept up on the periphery of her work. “Over the years, I have found myself visiting and documenting these very exciting open pit mine overlook sites, often on the way to work on other projects or jobs,” she said. “These overlooks provide curious onlookers a glimpse into a complex industry that is often very much a mystery to the general public.”
In this series of 60 photographs, images of gaping voids are framed by interpretive plaques, designated photo spots, and giant mining truck tires. From the Yerington and Ruth mines of rural Nevada to mining towns like Bisbee and Butte in Arizona and Montana, these overlook sites mimic those of the Grand Canyon or other national park vistas.
It’s all a little absurd but not entirely surprising. Experiencing one’s surroundings from another person’s vantage point practically comes with the territory—any territory—as everyone from mining companies and city planners to museums and universities puts careful thought into curating viewers’ daily interactions with the environment.
But CLUI is no naked eyeball. For every layer of interpretation it peels back, the center adds its own. Field research documents, bus tours, photographs, and the trappings of art exhibits all bring with them the context of their particular formats and the authority that comes with being an institution dedicated to the public good.
On May 5, gallery visitors were invited to watch an interpretive panel discuss CLUI’s perspective on the excavation companies’ contextualization of the mining sites. Of course, if it all got to be too much, visitors were free to walk out into the desert until their minds went blank—or they reached an open pit mine, whichever came first.