By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Back in 1964, when it still seemed possible to have actual subcultures, Ken Kesey and his acid-drenched posse the Merry Pranksters forged a microcosmic utopian community one universe to the side of mainstream society. In a mutant variation of the archetypal American road journey, they took their collective improvisational vision on a cross-country tour in a psychedelically appointed school bus, giving rise to one of the great metaphors of pharmaceutically awakened communalism; in Kesey’s words, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
Flash-forward to 2008 and the uncategorizable Center for Land Use Interpretation is hosting another of its long, strange trips — better known as “luxury bus tours” — presented intermittently by the center’s Site Extrapolation Division, usually in conjunction with more regular exhibition programming. In this case, the exhibition is “Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles,” a sort of sequel to 2005’s “Terminal Island,” which explored the hundreds of thousands of crap-filled shipping containers that are unloaded each year at the man-made island in Long Beach Harbor.
Of course “crap-filled” is my own characterization. CLUI, as always, maintained its poker-faced institutional neutrality in both the “Terminal Island” exhibit and the bus-and-boat tour that accompanied it. Though, as always, CLUI director/tour guide Matt Coolidge’s droll deadpan descriptions manage at least to convey the stupefying scale of our pathological materialism: “Inside a single 40-foot container, you can fit about 20,000 shirts, about 15,000 shoeboxes, or about 130,000 videocassettes, a million pieces of LEGO, 68,000 Barbie dolls, 3,000 tires, 55,000 cartons of cigarettes ... or, if you prefer, 650 kegs of beer. Around 4 million containers come through Port of L.A. every year.”
Which is all well and good at the incoming end of the equation — consumerist guilt doesn’t stand a chance against the gleeful hard-wired lust awakened by the glittering 99-cent-store display. But once the colorful wrapping is crumpled and the polyvinyl knickknack de jour has fallen apart, and everything is stuffed in the Dumpster or curbside bin with the disposable diapers and yesterday’s papers, most of us are not so keen to bear witness to the evidence of our culture’s extravagance. America contributes 5 percent of the planet’s population but produces 40 percent of its waste — not an easy statistic to spin.
Or so one would assume. In fact, the “Post Consumed” exhibit is surprisingly and effortlessly optimistic, simultaneously charting the course of the Los Angeles “waste stream” while recounting the successful achievement of recycling goals and recently locked-in plans for the Mesquite Regional Landfill, a “Waste-by-Rail” megadump just east of the Salton Sea — CLUI’s spiritual home — scheduled to start receiving giant bricks of compressed refuse from the City of Angels next year. Boiled down to a pithy half-dozen audiovisual display kiosks (plus some comically minimalist dioramas — “Wow! An actual trash bin!”), “Post Consumed” is CLUI at its CLUIest: subtly infused with formal beauty and wit (the center’s corps of photographers are under-recognized talents), unobtrusively informed by a patchwork of art historical, contemporary theoretical, sociological and geopolitical concerns and brimming with new information you don’t know is here until the ride home.
Which is probably how the exhibit found its way into the United States’ omnibus contribution to the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, “Into the Open: Positioning Practice.” Opening September 14, this year’s quirky international survey has banned any actual buildings in favor of “site-specific installations, manifestos and utopian, dystopian or heterotopian visions.” Assembled by William Menking (editor of The Architect’s Newspaper) with curators from the Slought Foundation of Philadelphia and the Parc Foundation, the U.S. Pavilion will feature 16 organizations ranging from radical restauratrice Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard program to the sustainable urban design of Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates, whose “Floating Pool Lady” – a retrofitted steel barge turned public swimming pool — is currently moored off the Bronx waterfront.
As much as CLUI’s 13-plus years of interactive documentary environments, extensive publications and consummate Web presence have earned it a deserved place in the pantheon of heterotopian visionary nonprofits, it remains my contention that its most innovative and effective form of representing the man-made American landscape has been the sporadic and exclusive bus tours. Which brings us back to the Merry Pranksters, since this exclusivity isn’t a matter of wealth or status but simply of being in the right place at the right time.
The right place and time, in this case, was CLUI’s Venice Boulevard headquarters at 8:30 a.m. a few Fridays ago. The seats had long been spoken for. Though open to all, CLUI tours are singular events, and seating is limited — this one sold out online in 14 minutes. (It’s like the Pink Floyd of heterotopian visionary nonprofits!) The demographics of these expeditions have always been an odd mash-up of academics, artists and fringe types — libertarians, UFOlogists and like-minded independent researchers — but seem to be gradually skewing to a younger, hipper crowd.