The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Houston

Posted by on Sep 1, 2013
The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Houston

Two years after the exhibition and tour that wrapped up the project, the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s work in Houston from 2008-2011 still deserves attention. The online material from the project remains an amazing resource for anyone interested in the oil industry or the geography of Texas. With this post, we also hope to build interest for CLUI’s future projects in the region. 

Photos courtesy of

“Modernity is at least slightly toxic” –Matthew Coolidge of CLUI

CLUI started in the 90s with projects like their “Suggested Photo Spots.” Based on the Kodak “Picture Spots” found in National Parks, this land art piece has the three basic features shared by most of their works: landscape archiving, photography, and a focus on how we observe geography. CLUI eschewed Kodak’s focus on monumental nature, setting up their suggested photo points near, for example, the tailings pile of a copper mine and the wastewater treatment facility of Kodak Company headquarters. This early project already shows their long term interest in massively altered landscapes, places where the geography of the U.S. mixes with human activity at gigantic scales to produce sites like the (abandoned) Wendover military base in Utah or the American “coldscape” of underground refrigeration complexes. CLUI’s first exhibition was called Denaturalized Sites, and their work in Houston from 2008-2011 is an example of the same theme.


In On the Banks of Bayou City, and book of interviews and commentary about the Houston project, Matthew Coolidge reluctantly mentions some on CLUI’s influences. Robert Smithson’s land art comes up, as does the work of other 70s artists who worked with place, like Nancy Hold, Alice Aycock, and James Turrell. The American New Topographics photographers (like Lewis Baltz and Richard Mirsach) are another influence, along with Joseph Beuys, Jeff Wall, and Bill Viola. Coolidge also mentions Werner Herzog, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, and the Smithsonian alongside novelists like J.G. Ballard and William Gibson.  On the Banks is an excellent read. Rachel Hooper (Blaffer Gallery) and Nancy Zastudil did great work as editors to provide an overview of CLUI’s Houston project.

Coolidge’s reluctance says something about the character of CLUI: if the interviews in On the Banks of Bayou City are any indication, the group tries to avoid discussing artistic traditions. CLUI stands out from a contemporary art world that is often very self-conscious and aware of its own influences, cleverly using citation and performing reflexivity about its own status as (curated) art. By contrast, CLUI’s projects are realist and representationalist without exception. Their primary media are photography, mapping, and the tour, and they manipulate these media without the common reflexive tricks of the trade. This means that CLUI’s work, for most, doesn’t immediately code as art at all. Visiting their website is slightly uncanny for this reason. It almost seems like it could be the site of the USDA, a geography department somewhere, a natural history museum or a national park. At the same time, it doesn’t fit into any of these categories.

This uncannyness is the result of the fact that CLUI has managed to avoid the usual markers of work that falls on either the art or science side of the equation. This means a lot, because the split between the arts and the sciences remains quite entrenched in most insitituions, despite the many efforts to find a way around it. When they frusturate our expectations about what’s art and what’s science, CLUI shares something in common with a BioArt collective like Symbiotica at the University of Western Australia, or the biotech performance group Critical Art Ensemble.  They’re doing a kind of work that needs desperately to be done if we want to avoid reproducing the “two cultures” problem for another generation.

CLUI’s central method is similar to that of a museum, or to the work done by empirical geographers. Apart from the artistic influences mentioned above, they draw on curatorial forms of organization that originate with natural history museums and national parks.  The visual and written content of their work is usually straightforward and descriptive: unaltered photos, written descriptions of the structure, use, and history of the sites they study. But the medium to which CLUI brings the most creativity is curation and organization itself. They make the Anthropocene landscapes they study visible and intelligible in a totally different from conventional maps, industrial histories, or courses in human geography. As Steve Rowell puts it in a conversation with Scott Barnes in On the Banks, “we create a framework from which we can construct a sort of meta-view of the landscape. We’re not just using the facts or history. We do a lot more than that, and that’s the creative part, getting into the interpretive layers.”


Many of the images from the Houston project have been entered into CLUI’s Land Use Database. Started in 1994, the database consists of a zoomable map powered by Google Earth. The map is densely populated with arrows. Zoom in on most arrows, and they split into more arrows, until you get to each concrete place that the database archives. Each ultimate entry then consists of an image of the site and a written description.  As literary form, the descriptions are topographia: vivid representation of a place. The entry could be anything from the headquarters of an oil company to an industrial site or a carefully managed tourist cave. Sometimes the descriptions entered in the museum are just that: they simply point out the visible features of the site, with a few points of land use history. But at times they also describe absences, the economic networks, not pictured, within which the site is only a node. Along with their American Land Museum, the Land Use database is the web-based arm of CLUI’s triple approach to archiving U.S. landscapes. In gallery exhibits, field sites and tours, and online, they curate human-shaped landscapes to huge to fit in any museum. In a moment when we are inundated with information and the possibility of information, the curatorial artform that organizes it in compelling ways is one of the most interesting artforms to practice or study. It’s worth noting that CLUI’s timeline as an institution overlaps with the history of the internet as a public medium.


CLUI builds one particular form of reflexivity into its projects. Three separate sections of its Morgan Cowles photo archive are dedicated to Overlooks, Viewing Devices, and Points of Interest—whence the photos above.  These three categories are part of a thread that goes through many of the center’s projects: the observation of observation points, places that have been established, like freeway viewpoints in the Rockies, as specialized sites from which people can view the landscape. The photos in these sections make the viewer reflect on the construction of a site that is meant to be invisible, simply facilitating our gazing at mountain ranges or inlets. We think about the policies and aesthetic ideas behind the choice to frame a landscape one way instead of another. What qualifies for a viewpoint, at what moment in history, and for what reasons?

As On the Banks of Bayou City makes clear, this focus on observation points was also a big part of CLUI’s work in Houston. They spent much of their time here finding places from which to observe the closely guarded Houston ship channel. Some of these were official, like the observation deck at the top of the San Jacinto monument, or the free boat tour run by the Port of Houston (recommended for anyone interested in the petrochemical corridor). Others had different purposes, but allowed views of the industrial landscape, like the Glendale cemetery or Hartman park in Manchester, which is a Houston neighborhood surrounded by the Valero refinery on three sides.

The opening paragraph from CLUI’s project “Texas Oil: Landscape of An Industry” sums up the their motivation: “From the petroleum fields of West Texas, to the refineries and plastics plants clustered around the Gulf Coast, the petrochemical network of the nation converges on Texas, the home state of the Oil Industry. In ways the industry is like the space program, but it is larger in magnitude. It focuses on inner space: extracting the deepest essence of the Earth, unlocking the carbon from a distant prehistorical past, to use for consumption today, now. From the oil exploration, drilling, and services companies in the “upstream” realm, to the conveyance, storing, refining and processing activities “midstream” and “downstream,” these Texas-based corporations, through their innovations, and the products they collectively bring into being, have shaped the earth, sea, sky, and humanity, forever. Taken together, an inventory of the major petrochemical sites in Texas is a portrait of the reigning territory at the pinnacle of our Age of Oil.”

With this energy-historical epic in mind, it seems, CLUI set up a field station in Houston in 2008, on a former junkyard across the Bayou from the Proler and Sons scrap metal yard. From there they worked like empirical geographers, mapping the Houston region according to the flow of three materials: water, oil, and aggregate (i.e. gravel, concrete). Over the course of three years, they visited dozens of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and other industrial sites, photographing them from land and air. They also visited the many other Houston-area sites now archived in the Land Use Database: corporate offices, concrete plants, port infrastructure and other places of interest. During this time, CLUI also conducted education programs through the University of Houston. Architecture and creative writing students from UH toured the Bayou and ship channel area by land and water, learning  about the integration of oil assemblage with the region’s geography.


Following water, oil, and aggregate makes the organizing principles of Houston’s large-scale landscape clear. This is a difficult thing to do in a city that is flat, sprawls over a larger area than any other major US city, and has no official zoning. The ship channel area itself is highly secured since 9/11, and closed to public access. Many of the refineries can only be seen from a distance. Unless you work in a tower in live in one of the few high-rise condo buildings, you spend most of your time in Houston down amidst the buildings and trees, with your view restricted to your immediate surroundings. There are few memorable postcard style images of the city, and the ones that exist—usually shots of the central business district—don’t do much to capture the chaotic geography of the city. The occlusion of Houston makes it an especially interesting setting for CLUI’s work. It asks how we can observe Houston’s relation to the oil industry in new ways.

Not everything about the project related to visual observation. CLUI also takes an interest in material narratives, as the Land Use Database descriptions show. The transformation of materials from natural resource to commodity states is far too complex to be capture by photo or video. But at certain points in On the Banks of Bayou City, CLUI’s interest in the transformation pathways of materials as they move through industrial assemblages stands out. It’s as though, in some cases, narrative logic has to take over from visual representation if we are to imagine these pathways and how they shape the landscape. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the partnership with UH involved creative writing as well as visual art and architecture students. In one example from the book, CLUI’s tour of the Southern Crush Concrete facility reveals just such a narrative. Jim Miller, who works for the company, has a prodigious memory of where their concrete has gone. Jim “was proud that the company had sold the same materials three times in a row” through the practice of concrete recycling. “They demolished a building, crushed it up, used it, demolished it again, and crushed it up again, four times.” CLUI likes to show people “where these common, ubiquitous, boring materials come from and how they’re used.” Given the huge scale of concrete construction in a place like Houston, following concrete is a sort of mobile geography. If geography usually examines structures that are relatively stable at our human time scale, this geography of concrete is about how the landscape itself moves through the city.


CLUI’s Houston project culminated in a show at the Blaffer gallery and a guided boat tour of Buffalo Bayou and the Ship Channel. The tour itself, which was open the public, was the first ever to travel the full length of the industrial bayou and ship channel. It took CLUI months to negotiate this trip with the coast guard and the Port of Houston, since the area is under high security and normally closed to the public. The written account of the tour gives incredible detail about the stratified history and geography of the Bayou and Ship Channel. The Blaffer exhibit housed CLUI’s interpretation of industrial Houston from the perspective of oil, water, and aggregate. It included, for example, a wall-sized “landscan” of the ship channel shown in a continuous loop. The landscan was filmed from a helicopter with a gyro-stabilized camera hung beneath it. At the exhibition observers could also learn from maps of the national oil infrastructure, which showed “how much of the national system is concentrated in Texas, and on the Gulf Coast in particular.” One can always visit a refinery, zoom in Google Earth, or look at an oil company’s website, but CLUI’s interpretation gave a sense the scale and complexity of the oil assemblage that would be difficult to get elsewhere. It would be very hard to see the landscape in the same way again after studying CLUI’s work on the Texas oil.