The Centre for Land Use Interpretation is “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived”. The name and mission statement have an official air to them—almost scientific. Despite this they’re actually a non-profit research organisation, exploring how we use land through conceptual art, exhibitions and archiving.
Overlook is an attempt to give a panoramic overview of the Centre’s interests and findings. The book sweeps across the United States, paying equal attention to the colourfully mundane (open cast mines and steel foundries) and the extraordinary (large scale models of water systems built to simulate various hydrodynamic phenomena and toxic waste dumps).
Although the Centre’s methods and intentions are artistic, their presentation in Overlook is oddly empirical. Hundreds of examples of the ways land is being used are offered with beautiful documentary photography accompanied only by short descriptive texts.
The journey starts slow and steady, looking at a range of land uses in Ohio—a state which embodies and exemplifies all others.
It’s got big cities, small towns; it’s got agriculture, mining, suburban sprawl, and heavy industry. It’s white, black, brown and yellow; cosmopolitan in some places, less so in others.
Then we’re taken to less familiar territory–terrestrial miniaturisations, show caves, intentionally drowned towns and places playing places—before arriving in Federaland, America’s internal fringe. Here, in the Great Basin, the Centre walk us through munitions manufacturing facilities, dried up lakes and the communities, living and dead, who try to subsist in America’s “desiccated hothouse of America’s [physiogeographical] extremes”.
In spite of their sterile reportage and press association-style photography, there’s still something oddly provocative about the Centre’s work. The very idea that land use is something we should not take as a given—that it is something we should study and interrogate—is itself inherently radical.