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Wading in the Waste Stream With the Center for Land Use Interpretation

MRF: Puente Hills' Materials Recovery Facility

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.

Titled A Trip to the Dump, this was perhaps the shortest excursion ever organized by CLUI – 20 miles east on the freeway to Puente Hills in Whittier, site of the largest active landfill in America. Passengers who had braced themselves for an olfactory-challenging immersion were not disappointed by a brief side visit to the Central L.A. Recycling and Transfer Facility — a somewhat decrepit way station just southeast of downtown, where a constant almond-scented misting did little to inhibit the reek of garbage as it was dumped and plowed and dumped again.

Puente Hills itself is another story. “People say, ‘Solid waste management is a dirty business,’” proclaims the County Sanitation District Disposal Site’s glossy brochure. “We say, ‘Rubbish!’” Carefully designed to be invisible and unsmellable to the neighboring communities, Puente Hills carefully choreographs the constant stream of trucks to sort your asphalt from your appliances, then crushes each day’s worth of bona fide trash (13,200 tons to be precise) into football-field-sized “cells” using the 120,000-pound steel-wheeled Bomag compactor. Seven regulatory agencies engage in elaborate monitoring for radiation, ground water safety and habitat protection. The facility uses methane gas leached from the fermenting trash to fuel its fleet of vehicles, and processes recovered wastewater for dust control and maintaining the landfill’s indigenous flora camouflage and oak tree nursery. Though we saw numerous breathtaking industrial vistas, we garbage-tourists probably saw more actual trash at the downtown Transfer Facility than in Puente Hills’ 400 acres. Until we got inside the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Immaculate and efficient as it is, the landfill will be chock-full by 2013, which is when the trash train to Mesquite kicks in. Central to this vision of the future of solid-waste management is the MRF (pronounced “Murph”), a hangar-sized building where small mountains of refuse are gradually broken down into smaller mountains of desert-bound landfill and recyclable materials. The mixed recyclables are loaded onto conveyor belts to be picked over and sorted by mostly female, nonunion, minimum-wage laborers. This was the hypnotic money shot of CLUI’s Trip to the Dump: the layered, ethically queasy view from the elevated spectator’s gallery as thousands of white plastic bags or brown cardboard boxes were continuously plucked from their industrial routing mechanism, cascading to the floor into improbably gorgeous sculptural forms. I kept half-expecting Matthew Barney to pop out and do a tap routine; the DIA Foundation definitely needs to get in on this action. If Earthworks has a future, this is it.

Perhaps as an antidote to the can-do outlook of the waste management industry (and certainly as an observation about the disposal of our most personal detritus), we made a quick stop at the conveniently next-door Rose Hill Memorial Park and Mortuary (the largest cemetery in the world — they grow ’em big in Whittier!), then headed home, the bus’ video screens replaying the climactic scene from Soylent Green as the passengers dozed. It occurred to me that even this was one step removed from the purest form of CLUI’s creative endeavor — Coolidge and company are constantly making exploratory research trips, and only a handful of “lucky” observers ever get to tag along. So even if you’re on the bus, you’re not really on the bus. But then I thought of all the little projects and interventions in the last decade that have sprung up in CLUI’s wake. Like the Merry Pranksters (and any other creative entity successfully sculpting the socially mediated environment), CLUI’s most important artwork (or whatever you want to call it) is the example it has set. That’s the only way to get on the bus: to get off your ass and do it yourself.

 
POST CONSUMED: THE LANDSCAPE OF WASTE IN LOS ANGELES | The Center for Land Use Interpretation | 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City | (310) 839-5722 | Ongoing