Photo by Steve Rowell/CLUI

“I reckon you can trace it all back to the Treaty of Versailles,” drawls the grizzled public servant, “and the great cellulose drought of 1902 . . .” He is “local briefer” Dave Gumaer, an operations manager for the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Sanitation at the Terminal Island wastewater-treatment facility — our first stop this Saturday morning. There are 50 of us in the captive audience, raptly attentive to the complex and richly detailed preamble that encompasses the etymology of the term “baby boomer,” the burning of Pittsburgh’s Cuyahoga River, the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, and elaborate analogies comparing wastewater-treatment plants to tour buses, before getting to the real meat and potatoes: egg-shaped anaerobic digesters, award-winning biosolid reuse programs and reverse-osmosis microfiltration.

Finally, Matt Coolidge, the director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) and our host, leans forward and says, “I’m sorry, Dave, but to stay on schedule we should start moving around the facility.” Effluence unabated, Gumaer directs the bus driver through the enormous system of pipes, centrifuges and settling tanks before coming to a halt by the aeration basins, where we disembark for a closer look at the bubbling microbial soup, with its eddies of gold disposable tampon applicators and hovering cloud of septic microbe farts. I overhear one of the other tourists laugh, “Only Matt could get people to pay to get up at 7 a.m. to stand and stare at tubs of shit!”

Yes, it’s the latest version of the CLUI bus tour, a regular feature of the L.A.
cultural landscape since 1997, when the Center organized a trio of exhaustive
explorations of the city’s periphery in conjunction with a show at LACE. CLUI
is one of the great underappreciated jewels of the L.A. cultural scene, mainly
because its activities are so difficult to pigeonhole. Dedicated to “the increase
and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized
and perceived,” CLUI is equal parts art project, geopolitical think tank and public
archive. In addition to its vast online database (,
newsletter and library, CLUI maintains exhibit halls at its Culver City headquarters
as well as in Hinkley, California, and Wendover, Utah, where it also administers
a wide-ranging artist-and-scholar residency program. Another facility is planned
for Troy, New York.

In the past 10 years CLUI has also published books ranging from the now-classic The Nevada Test Site: A Guide to America’s Nuclear Proving Ground (recently expanded into a densely packed CD-ROM) to Subterranean Renovations: The Unique Architectural Spaces of Show Caves, bringing the center to the attention of the academic and curatorial communities and resulting in projects with Columbia University, London’s Royal College of Art, the Netherlands’ Fort Asperen Foundation and L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which got CLUI to organize an overnight trip around the Great Salt Lake in conjunction with last year’s Robert Smithson exhibit.

The bus tours are CLUI at its purest: Looking at a photo of a gravel pit online is all well and good, but after 10 hours of information bombardment and trudging through acres of military-industrial infrastructure, you learn something fundamental about your place in the landscape. The tours’ importance as an innovative and cutting-edge creative medium is less widely recognized due only to the limitations of logistics — 50 passengers is the capacity, and in spite of the enormous preparation that goes into them, they are one-shot deals. The Terminal Island tour sold out online in just over 20 minutes.

Terminal Island is the hub of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports — combined, they constitute the third largest port in the world, and the bottleneck where more than $100 billion in ugly furniture, T-shirts, home theater systems, American Idol Barbies and all the other crap made in China and sold at Wal-Mart pour into the American stream of consumption. Seventy-five percent of the 8-by-8-by-40-foot freight containers that arrive here are shipped back empty. Most of the other 25 percent contain scrap paper and metal to be reconfigured and sold back to us. In other words, Freedom incarnate.

That’s about all I knew about Terminal Island before the tour, but — as with any CLUI encounter — I came away with a much more complex and detailed impression. Coming off the southbound 110 and across the Vincent Thomas Bridge (L.A.’s only suspension bridge) does little to dispel my preconceptions, with an eagle’s-eye view of hundreds upon hundreds of boxcar containers stacked like so many Lego blocks across the Evergreen Corp.’s 162-acre container-transfer facility. But after our breathtaking inspection of the T.I. wastewater-treatment plant, and a tour through the crumbling, mostly abandoned cannery row (Starkist, at the corner of Sardine and Barracuda, is the last going concern), the picture becomes more variegated.

Terminal Island is owned by the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which compete vigorously for corporate patronage. The one exception is a small rectangular parcel jutting from the southwest corner, which the federal government divvies up between the U.S. Coast Guard, whatever the INS is calling itself these days, and the Department of Justice’s Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, onetime home of Al Capone and Charlie Manson. We pass an incongruous public sculpture commemorating the thriving community of Japanese fisherman who were relocated (and their land re-allocated) after Pearl Harbor, and go through the original site of the only surviving ship-repair business in the port — though the actual work takes place on enormous floating drydocks, and the original facility is maintained only to be blown up repeatedly for movies like Eraser, a common fate for the various industrial ruins dotting the port — location scouts eat that stuff up.

Following an amazing platter of grilled shrimp at the Crusty Crab in San Pedro’s Ports o’ Call Village, we board the good ship Scorpio for the second leg of the expedition. Partly because we’ve already seen much of the stuff from shoreside, partly because Coolidge’s voice is half drowned out by the wind and boat engines, and partly because I had three beers at the Crusty Crab, I slip into a more right-brain mode of appreciation as we head to sea. Many of the sites don’t need much explication — the mountains of carefully sorted scrap metal waiting to ship out, the incomprehensibly scaled hammerhead cranes unloading the “Super-Post-Panamax” (as in way-way-too-big-to-fit-through-the-Panama-Canal) ships, the floating shallow-water markers covered in sunbathing sea lions. An unexpected fog settles over us, and for a few minutes we’re in a featureless, horizonless bubble of white. Enormous ghost structures loom through the void, and eventually we emerge into the presence of Sea Launch’s 31,000-ton mobile seagoing launch pad, the only commercial space port in America. It is literally awesome, and even my right brain shuts down.

After docking, we continue on the bus for a while longer, inspecting Sea Launch from the shore and cruising the desolate site of the former Long Beach Naval Shipyard, closed in 1995 and demolished shortly thereafter. Another compelling story, but people are already beginning to doze. The CLUI bus tour is a demanding art form, and one can take only so much consciousness expansion before tripping the breaker. For those who couldn’t book a berth, it should be pointed out that most of the CLUI tour took place on public roads and is easily replicated. The Culver City exhibit space also has on display a series of beautifully mounted video sequences (one shot by a CLUI member dangling from the top of the Vincent Thomas Bridge!) that allow you to take the virtual tour without getting dirty. But get on their mailing list and stay tuned for the next tour — it’s the real shit.

TERMINAL ISLAND: The Center for Land Use Interpretation | 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Exhibition through June 9

LA Weekly