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Site/Sound 

Remapping the land- and soundscapes of L.A. (and beyond)

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006

The world will have to wait to know the whole truth about the Center for Land Use Interpretation until the publication of my as yet unoptioned Mr. Coolidge’s Filing Cabinet of Wonder, but in the meantime we have Overlook — a splendid institutional autobiography compiling many of the highlights of the dummy corporation’s first decade of geosociological interrogation, edited by director (Mr.) Matthew Coolidge and associate director Sarah Simons, with an essay by former L.A. Weekly columnist Ralph Rugoff. CLUI, headquartered immediately adjacent to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City (and embodying a fearfully symmetrical extrovert doppelgänger to the Jurassic’s trance-inducing interiority complex — one of the earliest and most inspired of CLUI’s site-specific interventions), is a cultural project that mimics the structure and aesthetics of large — essentially governmental — bureaucracies. But instead of delivering some pat critique of those unwieldy psychic parasites (or, worse yet, arbitrarily bestowing institutional authority on more Art), the center pursues a mission that seems like something the government should have been doing all along, if it had balls and a sense of humor.

Basically, CLUI is a relentless curiosity machine focused on the intersection of humans and the Earth’s surface, particularly in America since the Industrial Revolution. It compiles and cross-references enormous amounts of information in its public digital and paper databases, then explores aspects of the landscape normally hidden from view — ranging from the Nevada nuclear-test site and bullet-ridden police-training mockups of suburban strip malls to the subterranean world of “show cave” architecture and the decaying art-ruins of ’70s earthworks. These slices of de-tourism are then presented as exhibitions in one of CLUI’s handful of nationwide facilities (or venues like last year’s Whitney Biennial), as one of its exemplary small publications, or as a public program — most notably in the form of a guided bus tour of the region in question.

Beginning with a test case illustrating how CLUI goes about questioning a given region (in this case, Ohio), Overlook provides — appropriately enough — a comprehensive overview of these various curatorial probes, in a lavish 250-plus pages of full-color photographs interlaced with the center’s exquisitely pitched deadpan institutional newsletter reportage. Five further sections profile, respectively, digitally obsolescent, impossibly detailed miniature hydraulic modeling landscapes (of, say, Chesapeake Bay) built by the Army Corps of Engineers; the aforementioned show caves; an array of towns intentionally submerged in the course of re-engineering America’s waterways; simulated urban environments for training police, firefighters and other emergency-response professionals; and the center’s spiritual homeland — the parched, BLM-managed Great Basin region, encompassing Edwards Air Force Base, Area 51, the Nevada nuclear-test site, the Great Salt Lake, the 2-mile-wide Bingham open-pit copper mine, Leonard Knight’s hand-painted Salvation Mountain, and the Bonneville Salt Flats. For starters.

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Outsourcing the book’s design results in a lively, though conceptually incongruous, layout that functions supportively — except in the training-simulacrum chapter, whose images are anomalously overlaid to annoying obscurity. All of CLUI’s photographic contributors (primarily Coolidge himself, Steve Rowell and Erik Knutzen) are gifted image-makers, even when they’re trying to avoid the fact. And the stranger-than-fiction locales they illustrate are dreamlike in their surrealism and emotional impact, political in the deepest sense, and conveyed with wry, pokerfaced authority and a great eye for detail. It’s a fascinating read, though no substitute for getting out and finding your own frontiers. As Coolidge states in his introduction, “It’s my hope that, after reading it, you forget about us . . . [and] come away with a widened sense of the physical world that surrounds you.” Put down the paper, get off the Web and head for the hills!

Still here? You know, on second thought, you might want to first pick up a copy of No Holiday, the Disinformation Company’s travel guide to “80 Places You DON’T Want to Visit.” With much the same attraction to the hidden and overlooked as drives CLUI (though more overtly political in emphasis), philosopher/travel guide Martin Cohen profiles the “great sores” of the world — from such CLUI-esque destinations as Los Alamos National Laboratory and NSA headquarters to more amorphous, chaotic spots like — well, most of the war-pulverized Third World. Entertaining and informative in entry-size servings (complete with directions, a three-level “risk factor,” and pictographic symbols indicating such features as “Area of Outstanding Natural Destruction” and “Massacre Memorial Walk”), No Holiday as a whole constitutes a concise geo-political primer that needs to be added to the nation’s middle-school curriculum, fast.

A different, but equally adventurous, kind of geographical survey is evident in two recent audio documents of the regional Noise renaissance. Noise music, as a “popular” form, is older than hip-hop and — in spite of a slightly smaller number of units shifted — equally resilient. Dating back at least to English proto-punk “industrial” pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle (or, as some historians insist, to local ’70s racketeers LAFMS), Noise is a uniquely global underground phenomenon that in its broadest definition encompasses such diverse creative endeavors as LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela’s decadelong Dream House standing-wave installation in a Manhattan warehouse and Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson’s sugarcoated bite-size nuggets of discord.

By a stricter definition — largely electronic, vocal-free, unmelodic, undanceable improvisations containing elements of feedback, drone, extreme reverb and other effects, static, and abrupt collagelike editing — Noise has experienced surprisingly regular resurgences, such as the one currently happening in and around L.A., with venues like Il Corral and The Smell drawing crowds and events like Long Beach’s Soundwalk (October 6-7, www.soundwalk.org) drawing international attention. Two newly issued recordings provide complementary templates for aurally exploring the local contemporary Noise scene. L.A. Noisescape, a single CD from Sandor Finta’s Bastardised microlabel, offers 36 tracks by 36 recording artists (and an eloquent liner rant by Weekly contributor David Cotner that jumps right into the deep end).

The disc kicks off with a blast of old-school Noise — grinding, unrelenting, overdriven electronic howls reminiscent of the cartoonishly aggro late-’80s Japanese scene. Over the course of the following masterfully programmed 75 minutes, there are plenty of unexpected moments of serenity, beginning with the primitive overtones of Albert Ortega’s “Owls” and cropping up repeatedly when you least expect it. Once you get used to the genre’s surprisingly rich vocabulary of difficult listening tropes, you begin perceiving a much more variegated spectrum of structural and compositional strategies at play, and it becomes apparent that there is much more going on than some endgame escalation of parental-annoyance music.

Noise, in fact, is one of the last vestiges of noncommercial bohemian avant-gardism, and, I would argue, the torchbearer of the musical traditions of free jazz (Ornette, Ayler, late Coltrane) and experimental “classical” music (Stockhausen, Cage, Kagel), which, by the mid-’70s dawn of Noise, had been swallowed by commercialism and academic/orchestral prissiness, respectively. Grandiose, perhaps — but consider California, the recent 10-LP (as in vinyl) box set co-issued by L.A. labels Groundfault and Troniks along with veteran Lowell, MA, clearing-house RRR: works by 20 essential Golden State Noise artists, one per side, packaged in a monolithic black box with only the title word stenciled across its cover. Containing several of the same artists (the insanely prolific John Wiese; GX Jupitter-Larsen, formerly AKA Haters; the lovely and talented Amps for Christ) as the Bastardised set, California makes even less claim to being comprehensive, or even representative (I’d have liked to have heard something from Michael Gendreau of Crawling With Tarts fame, or some of Steve Roden’s always remarkable material).

But with no liner notes and barely any identifying information, California isn’t making any claims whatsoever, apart from the declaration of substantiality that the package itself embodies. And with such complex, rewarding works as the Skaters’ murkily filtered exotica, Open City’s elegant chamber noise, Joe Colley’s prankish structuralism, and a vintage Solid Eye KXLU radio session full of warbly tape loops and layered samples, it’s a declaration that walks the walk. And even if it doesn’t propel anyone into the limelight (Spastic Colon at Disney Hall!), it doesn’t matter. Noise has nothing to prove, and — like all authentic human expressions — will keep feeding back on itself and evolving — whether or not anyone is listening.?

OVERLOOK: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation | Edited by MATTHEW COOLIDGE and SARAH SIMONS | Metropolis Books/D.A.P. | 272 pages | $35 paperback

NO HOLIDAY: 80 Places You Don’t Want to Visit | By MARTIN COHEN | The Disinformation Company | 208 pages | $17 paperback

L.A. NOISESCAPE | Various artists | Bastardised | www.bastardised.com

CALIFORNIA | Various artists | Groundfault/Troniks/RRR | www.californianoise.com

  • Remapping the land- and soundscapes of L.A. (and beyond)

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