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The Big Nowhere

Clui PhotosTHE TOURISTS BOARDED THE BUS AT THE BASE OF the Luxor Casino pyramid in Las Vegas. Fifty-odd people, mostly from Los Angeles, had made the trek to the desert to participate in the Center for Land Use Interpretation's guided tour of the perimeter of the Nellis Range Complex, the largest and most secretive restricted space in the United States. Known most commonly as the location of the notorious Area 51, an ultrasecret (and until 1994 officially nonexistent) military base on and around Groom Dry Lake and a locus of speculation by an industry of UFOlogists and popular-culture content providers, the Nellis Range also includes the proving grounds for the U2 and the F-117 and B-2 stealth planes, as well as the Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site, home to 928 official nuclear detonations. While we had been granted permission to tour the test site, ingress to the military-controlled areas was verboten. The resulting "tour" amounted to an elaborate Wittgensteinian definition of negative space, an accumulation of secondhand information and mediated experience defining a blank larger than Belgium on which we were not to set foot. Until the bus went off the road.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a nonprofit cultural enterprise with primary physical headquarters nestled in a corner of the Museum of Jurassic Technology building in Culver City. Renowned for its guided tours and exhibitions in L.A., Houston, Seattle, Cambridge and Wendover, Utah, as well as an ambitious publishing list of 11 books and counting (plus 18 issues of its newsletter, The Lay of the Land, to which I am an occasional contributor), an extensive Web site (www.clui.org) and numerous other multidisciplinary examinations of human/landscape interaction, CLUI has established an art-world reputation that has grown exponentially in the last couple of years.

This is due in no small part to the wave of contemporary critical interest in tourism that began with sociologist Dean MacCannell's 1976 book, The Tourist, and is just cresting with legendary art critic Lucy Lippard's most recent book, On the Beaten Track (which includes a discussion of CLUI). Yet a good number of CLUI's constituency are more conversant with the theories of Art Bell than of Art Criticism, and often the most they have in common is their interest in the Center itself. Thus it was a patchwork of paranoids from the diverse worlds of art, politics, military science, extraterrestrial studies and journalism that set out for two very full days of entertaining educational activities at the perimeter of the Nellis Range.

While stops were fairly frequent, we had a lot of ground to cover, and the tour was given a further step of ideational removal by the onboard video program alternating stills of satellite views, bomb craters and off-road sites with nuclear-transport crash-test footage from the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, and faintly sarcastic Nellis Range PR videos ("The ability to reach out and touch an enemy from the air proved vital to our success in Desert Storm . . . Our air crews think globally but train locally"). Every few minutes, CLUI director Matthew Coolidge would interrupt the video presentation to point out an operative "cyanide leaching" gold mine, legal bordello, or one of the correctional institutions under construction just past every horizon.

The itinerary covered the mysterious unmarked Nellis Range jet-shuttle terminal (code name: JANET) out of Vegas International, the Southern Ranges of Nellis, and the nuclear-protest Peace Camp, where our first "local briefer," Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshones, provided a welcome bubble of skepticism amidst the euphemisms. "Your government lies to you," he said. That established, we proceeded to the Nevada Test Site, recently rechristened an "Environmental Research Park," where we toured Frenchman Lake, the "show" test site from the 1950s. The Department of Energy briefer had a detached, blandly commercial and ironic air that contrasted surreally with the blasted post-apocalyptic debris passing by the bus windows. Craters and other massive dislocations of earth were punctuated by freestanding fragments of full-scale train bridges and denuded bank vaults, caved-in entrances to full-size underground parking structures and a series of concrete domes of various thicknesses, most of them collapsed by the 1957 nuclear device Priscilla. Their monumentality, combined with the complex narrative layers surrounding them and the peculiar circumstances of our encounter, made this perhaps the most successful (albeit mostly unintentional) Earthwork in the neighborhood, not excluding Michael Heizer.

After a box lunch in the picturesque mining ghost town/contemporary Belgian sculpture garden (really) of Rhyolite, we proceeded to the Guard House at the perimeter of the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range, where the bus got stuck for more than an hour before the curiously unconcerned guard summoned a big green tow truck to haul us out, and we moved on. The opening of an abbreviated version of CLUI's "Landscape of Conjecture" show at the Goldfield Community Center had been pushed back, and our fatigued company wandered the darkened mining town in a daze that only intensified after another 45 minutes on the road, watching the disorienting, locally photographed '70s cult car-chase film Vanishing Point. By the time we settled at the Station House hotel-casino in Tonopah after dinner for an evening of lectures by Nellis Range experts, full bellies, a few beers, bus lag and dim lights eased most of the audience into a state of deep relaxation. Nevertheless, both Agent X (a.k.a. Mark Farmer), ex-military and member of Area 51 guerrilla research group the Interceptors, and Phil Patton, author of Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell, acquitted themselves admirably. Afterward, the more intrepid tripsters were inspired to join the line dancing to the live country-rock stylings of generously apportioned female multi-instrumentalists Two Much in the casino lounge.

THE NEXT DAY WE STARTED BACK DOWN THE EAST side of Nellis, with stops at TonSopah Air Base and an abandoned therapeutic bathhouse in Warm Springs, where, against Coolidge's stern admonitions, several in our party took the waters in various stages of undress. After a buffet lunch and shopping (I got two fine bottles of Pahrump Valley burgundy, "the extraterrestrials' favorite") at the world-famous Little A 'Le' Inn in Rachel, and a visit to the rival Area 51 Research Center, we arrived at the unspoken grail of the journey: the Area 51 Perimeter at Groom Lake Road. While not emphasized in CLUI's exhibit or tour literature, the area's volatile history of territorial squabbles and double agency among the military, the UFO true believers and the Interceptors freedom-of-information/military-hardware geeks nuanced every phase of the expedition.

Coolidge himself had first stumbled upon the disputed terrain in 1993, when he was detained by unmarked men in camouflage while trying to access Groom Lake Mine, identified on his map as being well outside the restricted area. When the misunderstanding had been cleared up, Coolidge found his way to the Little A 'Le' Inn, where he fell into conversation with Glenn "not the singer" Campbell, the most high-profile of the Interceptors. Intrigued, Coolidge began visiting the location, closely following the battle over the expansion of Area 51 to include "Freedom Ridge," from which inquiring minds might view the "nonexistent" Groom Lake facility, and in these encounters the seeds were sown for much of what became CLUI.

Rich in content that is itself laced with associative possibilities, the Center's guided tours impose a durational aesthetic structure onto real physical experience at times reminiscent of a medieval pilgrimage, at others like a 48-hour Net-surfing binge. The Nellis Range Complex Tour and the accompanying "The Nellis Range Complex: Landscape of Conjecture" exhibition, in articulating a negative conceptual space with a dense filigree of peripheral data, possess the intricacy and elegance of Islamic calligraphy, reconciling the political contradictions and aesthetic tautologies of cartography and drawing, seeing boundaries as from above, as lines, with an open and nonjudgmental attention to detail. The Department of Defense was, of course, successful in its acquisition of Freedom Ridge, so the CLUI tourists stopped at the warning sign and waved at camouflaged gentlemen in a white Ranger, who responded over a megaphone with "I hope you didn't pay too much for this tour!" As our busload of pilgrims rolled toward Vegas, dozing to Werner Herzog's gut-wrenching Gulf War documentary Lessons of Darkness (just one real-landscape translation of the virtual landscape created at Nellis), I thought of an appropriate snappy comeback, by way of Wendell Phillips: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few." We should be grateful that CLUI is out there, patrolling our borders and keeping the landscape at least open to the possibility of democracy.


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