The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Extra Terrestrial

Welcome to New Mexico sign
CLUI photo

THE CENTER ENGAGED IN A series of programs about New Mexico in 2009, including exhibitions, tours, and a new exhibit facility. These interconnected programs explored aspects of the landscape of the state, and its relevance and significance within the fabric of America.

From the birth of the manmade sun in Los Alamos to the optimistic bunkers of its doomsday cultures, New Mexico, more than anywhere else, vibrates with the resonance between the starry plasma of the cosmos and the firmness of terrestrial terra firma. High technology, using the invisible spectrum (radar ranges, radio observatories, x-rays, radioactivity), stretches to see, to detect, and to compel. These efforts are fused with the visible and physical surface of the land, and manifest the ancillary actions of attraction, impact, containment, and entombment.

To explore these themes, the Center established the New Mexico Exhibit Unit. The Unit, a customized mobile office structure, was installed at a special location, at the end of a road south of Albuquerque, to be both a destination and a point of embarkation on a journey into this most remarkable state.

The Unit was both the end and the beginning of a treasure hunt, woven through layers of physical and electronic space. One could begin on the web, and find out about the Unit as part of an exhibition at 516 Arts’ storefront gallery in downtown Albuquerque (and later as part of an exhibit at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe). Among the components of the display set up by the CLUI in these “second site” spaces was a map/image showing the location of the CLUI New Mexico Exhibit Unit, and a sheet with directions to it, listing the hours it was open to visitation.

With this information in hand, potential visitors began a journey south of most of Albuquerque, through a gauntlet of scrapyards, and up a long, dead-end road, past waste transfer stations, shooting ranges, OHV mounds, and other curious byproducts of urban space, until reaching the CLUI site, marked with a sign at the end of the road, and manned by an attendant. After passing through a small reception area, with selected brochures and regional information, a door led into the exhibition space, a room with no exit, the dead-end space on a dead-end road. On the far wall was a rectangle of sunlight, filtered by a screen of sunshade material, that filled the room with light.

The main exhibit inside the unit over this period was titled Extra Terrestrial: Aspects of the Sky/Ground Interface in New Mexico, and featured images and text about selected New Mexico places, following the theme of opposing actions of reaching and hunkering, sky and earth, up and down, there and back.

At Trementina Base, in northeastern New Mexico, for example, the Church of Spiritual Technology operates an underground repository for the archived material of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology. Behind 6,000 pound vault doors are copies of his texts in titanium containers, inscribed on stainless steel tablets, and carved into recording discs that can be played on solar-powered turntables. The remote site has a landing strip and is marked with a large graphic symbol of the organization, two interlocked circles with diamonds, hewn into the ground, said to serve as a locator for craft coming from space, or elsewhere, in the future. These latter features are clearly visible from the open skies above the site and in the imagery on GoogleEarth.

Other sites in the CLUI exhibit included research ranges, bunkers, launch sites, proving grounds, and crash sites (such as the Mark 17 crash site, the Trinity Site, the RATSCAT Range, and the Starfire Range), as well as skyward-looking observatories and land art, like Lightning Field and the VLA.

Each image of each place was a print of a file downloaded from GoogleEarth’s web site. The images, unadjusted high-resolution TIFF files, represented croppings of the continuous digital space of the GoogleEarth globe, a publically available, non-physical, electronic rendering of the physical space of the planet.

The images, printed on high-quality paper, matted and framed, suggest a new kind of “landscape photography,” produced without a photographer while being, without a doubt, aesthetically satisfying objects, and depicting places in great detail. Perhaps landscape photography, in the new world of electronic information and automation, has evolved to the point of nearly pure objectivity, where the art is in the selection, the curation, and the presentation, not in the medium.

If this is so, then the dead-end of the CLUI exhibit space thus becomes a pivot point, between the floating eyes of space-based electronospheric assets, and the ground itself; between coming, with expectation, and going, with new ideas and information, out into the world again. The journey to the space, which started on the internet, then passed through physical space up the dead-end road, ending at a dead-end exhibit of immaterial internet imagery, made physical by printing, absorbed by the retina through the reflected light of the sun, and forming images again in the mind’s eye of viewers, viewers who can do no more than turn around, and head back the way they came. But you can never go back the same way you came, as going back is not to reverse, but to see things from the opposite side.