The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

The VORs of Texas

CLUI Exhibit Explores Strangely Familiar Radio Beacons

VOR (Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range) antennas are radio beacons, part of a nationwide network of navigational aids used by civil and military aviation. While their function is consistent, their shapes and coloration can vary, and their enigmatic forms hint to the all-too-unfamiliar parallel universe of communication technologies.

The VORs of Texas exhibit was featured in the CLUI Los Angeles Exhibit Hall from May 15 to June 14, 1998. The exhibit was a typological photographic research project exploring the context and form of all the VOR antennas in the state of Texas, and included a color photograph of each of the more than 70 antennas in the state. It was the product of the field research and photography of CLUI researcher and Texas Projects Coordinator Mark Curtin, over the course of the past three years.

VORs are radio sentinels, guiding airplanes across the crowded skies of the continent. Like a lighthouse, they are often located in remote areas, but rather than emitting light, they perpetually broadcast coded pulses that are received and interpreted by the avionic equipment on board airplanes: machines talking to machines in the  arcane language of electronics.

Because the antennas are sited by the needs of aviation, their context on the ground represents an unintentional visual field, rich with unexpected components. The landscape around each VOR offers clues to its environment - cactus, swamp grass, furrowed crops, and in the background a forest, city skyline, or the distinct silhouette of the Guadeloupe Mountains. In this way, the collection of VOR photographs is an incidental survey of the landscape of Texas.

Each photograph of an antenna represents a journey for the photographer, who at times had to travel under escort on military training ranges, across the service lanes and runways of commercial airports, and onto countless byways and dirt roads into the diverse terrain of the State, over the past three years. Like animal subjects of a photographic safari, the photographs sometimes confront the antennas head on, and at other times as a distant, elusive specimen, poking out of a wooded hilltop, but otherwise obscured in its habitat.

1209 The VORs of Texas installation in the CLUI, Los Angeles exhibition space.