This picture says a lot about the American character.
Or does it?
The question, rather than the answer, may be the point. That, at least, seems to be the premise of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which allowed me to use this and the other pictures in this post.
The Center is one of the strangest entities I know of. You might ask, what is it?
Let’s start with what it is not, despite the general sound of its name. It is
- not a government agency,
- not a think tank, and
- not a lobby.
Well, then, what? After struggling to answer this question (which is what this post is about), I will venture these two options:
- a deliberate mystery designed to make Americans aware of their peripheral vision, and possibly
- an inside job, which is to say an incredibly cunning and subversive satire of America.
But that’s for you to judge. Let’s start with the facts:
The Center is located at 9331 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outwardly, this is a nondescript block on a slightly depressing thoroughfare of the sort that the city is infamous for. Inside, however, it may be the strangest block in America. For the Center shares a building with the Museum of Jurassic Technology (of which, more in a moment) which is at 9341 Venice Boulevard, just one door down.
The contents of the Center include a vast database of pictures, descriptions, videos, maps and other information about American places. Furthermore, the Center occasionally organizes bus tours to some of those places. This can look as follows:
But that still tells you nothing. Why should this be interesting?
Well, trustworthy sources had brought it to my attention, so I went there for a visit.
I chatted with Matthew Coolidge, the Center’s founder, while gazing at a multimedia exhibit (ie, a video) of a stretch of California highway that I’ve driven on many times. It was slightly surreal and yet hypnotic.
“You seem to be drawn to drab, banal or ugly places,” I said to Matthew.
“What is ugly?,” he probed. Calling something ugly is judging, and judging distracts from observation.
My source had prepared me to expect subtle irony, so this was perhaps it. If so, Matthew played his role perfectly. He spoke dispassionately, like a scientist — “anthropogeomorphologist”, is the delightful word he used.
He said, more or less, that the Center’s mission is to make people aware of surroundings they usually try to ignore because they seem un-noteworthy. Office parks. Garbage dumps. Deserts. Highways.
“It’s like negative tourism,” as a friend of mine had put it. In other words, the places of interest are not the obvious ones (Disneyland, The Golden Gate Bridge, et cetera) but all the others. That leaves a lot of places.
For example, America’s vast empty places.
Americans do strange things in them.
Sometimes, for example, (as at the Nevis Range in Nevada) they bomb or nuke them for practice:
Strangely beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like art.
Other times, the places are eerie. Towns like St. Thomas, Nevada, for example. It is usually invisible, having been submerged under Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, when the Hoover Dam was built. But St. Thomas re-appears during droughts, emerging like a ghost town or haunted museum from the waters:
As my source put it, most people who go on the Center’s tours or sojourn in its database soon find that the “juxtapositions accumulate force.” Whatever they might have thought about America before, they are tempted to re-examine it.
But what might the conclusion be? This is what kept bothering me.
Both Matthew and his Center are militant about not having an explicit point of view.
As Ralph Rugoff, an art curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, puts it, this “flagrant nonpartisanship” is “slightly suspicious”.
If you are at all like me, it is also unsatisfying.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology
Matthew must have sensed my dissatisfaction when we stood together, for he suddenly asked me: “Have you been next door yet?”
Next door is of course the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
“Not yet,” I answered. “What is it about?”
“The less you know the better,” Matthew answered.
“Are they connected to you?”, I asked.
Matthew seemed to suppress a smirk: “No.”
Suddenly, a female voice wafted to my ears from behind us. “Connected only in spirit,” she said.
I turned, and beheld Matthew’s partner. I had never noticed her entering the room, but there she sat. She was patting a black cat.
Patting a black cat.
I went next door.
A few meters and seconds later, I entered the Museum. I was about to make my voluntary contribution into the money jar when somebody said: “Are you the journalist?”
“I am a journalist,” I answered.
“They said you should go in free,” came the reply.
How did “they” beat me, I wondered. Clearly, there had to be an internal door. I entered.
The museum is — how to put it — disconcerting.
It was dark and clammy. There were — or seemed to be, I can no longer tell — disquieting noises. One exhibit is a model of American trailer parks. Another, about “mouse cures”, consists of two dead mice on toast, with the explanation that this sort of thing was once said to have cured bed wetting and stammering in children. Another exhibit featured “salted teeth.” So it went.
The Museum baffled me even more than the Center next door.
Finally, I pieced together a narrative for myself:
The Museum seemed to be a meta-museum: a museum that mocks museums. It communicates bemusement at the human tendency to put things behind glass and stare at them, and at our underlying ignorance combined with confident superstition.
How, then, was it “connected in spirit” to the Center, as the lady with the black cat had said?
It had to be that the Center comments on America as the Museum comments on humanity, and that both, realizing that they are inside jokes, know that they must never explain the punch line.
Somewhat disconcerted, I left and began contemplating whether and how I might turn this into a story for The Economist, as I had intended. What that led to will be the subject of the next post.