CLUI's Bus Tour of New Mexico's superlative ground-sky resonances

"...Instant annihilation. Once we've done that, gotten it out of our system, what else can we do? We can go forward."--Matt Coolidge, Director, The Center for Land Use Interpretation

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On June 27, smudge and 55 others boarded a bus to--we didn't know exactly where. Neither did our tour guide, Matt Coolidge, Director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. That's the way Matt ensures that each trip is responsive to its own unfolding. His work as CLUI's director includes curating and performing periodic bus excursions-as-collective research for the Center's land use interpretation projects.

This one, entitled "Reflections on the Land of Enchantment," was offered as part of the recent LAND/ART symposium weekend. Now, it's part of the lives of 55 people who were drawn to CLUI's tour description:
"The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) will take passengers on a guided bus tour through some of the more compelling and dramatic built landscapes of New Mexico, places at the core of this landscape-centered state. The tour will examine the cultural stratigraphy of the contemporary technological sublime; the veneer of test space; the reach upwards; the security of entombment; and the flare of the nuclear furnace."
The nine hour odyssey took us from Albuquerque "up the mesa" to Los Alamos, through security gates into the highly restricted Los Alamos National Lab. Here, the Manhattan Project mobilized what Matt called "a landscape machine" as it integrated sites and landscapes nationwide to extract, collect, concentrate, refine, and form rare elements into a few pounds of fissible material: "a global concentration of power." Our unprecedented crossing by bus into the Lab served as the trip's fulcrum. From there, we then turned "downstream" of the nuclear flow generated at the top of the mesa, and headed back and down that stream through Santa Fe to the mines, ranches, and changing communities of Cerrillos, Madrid, and Galisteo.

On the way up the mesa, Matt set up the thematic "lens." He then invited us to use that lens to see and make sense of the immediate New Mexican landscape, its human-built veneer as well as its human-altered sub-surface, and their histories. The tour would take the branding of New Mexico as "The Land of Enchantment" literally. Matt invited us to consider the reality of the celebrated resonances and tensions between the ground and the sky that exist here. And to follow the resulting "vibration" between sky and ground--to the nuclear: the spell of the man-made sun, the blinding white light of the truth that is also the death unleashed by the bomb.

The format of CLUI bus tours requires passengers to literally "go there" themselves. As Matt pointed out about the saying "been there, done that:" you haven't done it 'till you've been there. So, rather than attempt a descriptive narrative of the journey in a linear fashion, smudge offers the following creative responses conjured in us by the process of moving with the CLUI through this particular landscape, on a journey from the cradle to the grave of the bomb.


Matt spun a series of images and metaphors as we headed for Los Alamos--playing off New Mexico's reputation (and "branding") as the Land of Enchantment. He suggested that the sense of enchantment here might be very real--not an illusion or commercial ploy.
"This sense of the technological sublime in New Mexico runs from the earthships of Taos to the test tracks of Holloman; from the Virgin Gallactic tourist spaceports of Upham, to the alien crash sites of Roswell;. . . from the Very Large Array to the very large pointy spikes of Lightning Field; ... from the hollow nuclear chambers of the Manzano Mountains to the electromagnetic pulse test trestles of Kirtland. This land was made by you and me."--Matt Coolidge, on the way up the mesa
Nothing less than a "synthetic sun" was created in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. It was engineered by people whose imaginations and efforts stretched between terra firma and the stars, between the (under)ground and the sun. Its conception and fabrication took place on a mesa formed by giant fingers of an ancient volcanic flow. The "little town" built at the top of the mesa was inhabited by scientists seeking both the dawn of a new age and the end of a war.

Trying to be human and beyond human at the same time, they levitated momentarily between ground (a solid sense of what we know) and sky (what will always exceed us). Matt asked us to consider how these two poles became superlative here, and to sense them here, above all other places, as real.

New Mexico is the cradle of the nuclear. It is also its grave, the site of burial for nuclear waste generated by weapons research and production. Cradle: The Trinity "Test" (Jornada del Muerto). Grave: WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, NM).
"I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds." -Physicist Freeman Dyson, as spoken in the film The Day After Trinity
Ex cursion

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"Excursion" is an apt name for a CLUI bus tour. Maybe more so for this particular tour than any other.

Excursion is defined as a "deviation in argument," a "departure or deviation from a direct or normal course." People familiar with the CLUI's work would likely recognize both of these definitions as appropriate for a CLUI trip.

But "excursion" is also a term used in the nuclear industry. There, it means:
"A criticality accident, sometimes referred to as an excursion or a power excursion, occurs when a nuclear chain reaction accidentally occurs in fissile material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium. This releases neutron radiation which is highly dangerous to surrounding personnel and causes induced radioactivity in the surroundings."--wikipedia
Our CLUI excursion did indeed reach a state of criticality as it unleashed a chain reaction of meanings and implications among sites both unusual and the exemplary (CLUI'S criteria for the sites that it includes in its land use database and bus tours). As we turned to come back down the mesa, Matt launched into a miles-long, seemingly never-ending litany that compounded: names of multitudes of weaponized "Technical Areas" that occupy the mesa and make up the Lab; names of sci-fi sounding projects and operations that take place within those areas; billions of dollars being spent there today; endless restricted areas; sites of unexploded ordinances; "danger" signs along our route. All of these bounced off of juxtapositions that strained credulity. On our left: the site of 49 small nuclear tests that took place in tunnels, while across the canyon on our right: Bandelier's ancient cliff dwellings. On our left at the tip of a lobe of the mesa that points our way back toward Santa Fe and Albuquerque: Tech Area 54's radioactive nuclear waste site holding enough waste to fill an estimated 1.5 million 55 gallon drums; while on our right and just below TA 54: the suburban community of White Rock and its 6000 inhabitants. And all of this uphill from everything living below. Connected to it, resonating with it, via gravity, and a matter of time. Matt comments:
"It will take awhile for it to migrate, but it definitely will."
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Atomic Ed

Or, as Ed Grothus, former Los Alamos machinist and founder of Los Alamos' Black Hole put it:
"What goes into the Laboratory comes out of the Laboratory."
As we headed down the mesa, Matt popped a video into the bus's player and we watched Atomic Ed and the Black Hole, a documentary by Ellen Spiro. It chronicles Ed Grothus' campaign to raise and change consciousness about what takes place on the mesa.

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"Over 30 years ago, Ed quit his job making "better" atomic bombs and he began collecting what he calls "nuclear waste", non-radioactive high-tech discards from the Los Alamos National Laboratory which are auctioned off dirt cheap every month in a gigantic government yard sale.

As the self-appointed curator of an unofficial museum of the nuclear age called "The Black Hole", Ed reveals a history of government waste that was literally thrown in a trash heap. By transforming his ironic junkyard into a genuine museum, Ed hopes to preserve the artifacts of Los Alamos' hidden history."--Mobilus Media /atomic.html

Ed passed away in February, 2009, but his surplus-store-as-museum continues to offer an excursive view of the Los Alamos Lab and its history. Our stop at the Black Hole and Spiro's video were pivotal. They turned us from the glitter of stars and synthetic suns to the deeply material infrastructures of nuclear industries.


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“We shape our tools and afterward our tools shape us.” --Marshall McLuhan

"We created, in the bomb, the means to end not just a war, but existence, all life, the world itself, at the press of a button. Technology evolved to the absolute limit in one direction."--Matt Coolidge on the way up the mesa
We signed up for CLUI's bus tour in the midst of a 32 day research trip to archives and various land use sites across the West and Southwest. We are focusing on how human uses of the nuclear alter the geologic--especially in terms of deep time (past and future).
Blowback: Unintended negative effects suffered from one's own weapons or actions.
Our repeated encounters with historical and contemporary human attempts to use the nuclear as a form of power have left us thinking that the term "nuclear technology" may be a misnomer. Given the blowback (environmental, strategic, economic, moral, psychological) that results from any use of so-called nuclear technology as weapon or as source of power ... we might be forgiven for thinking that this "technology" is, finally, useless. Any use of it produces, ultimately, more work than it accomplishes. It has, after all, not only generated untold amounts of human suffering and cost ... it now seems to have enslaved contemporary humans and countless unborn generations with the task of working for it, rather than the other way around. Humans are now obligated for thousands of years to come to dispose of, shield, and keep track of what the nuclear does best: render vast quantities of the earth's materials and human-made objects both lethal and obsolete.

Perhaps nuclear technology is the ultimate generator of obsolescence--uselessness. If so, it breaches the limit of what constitutes a technology by becoming a "tool" that can't be used. Except to make or assist the accelerated decay of what has been made, of materiality itself.

The Geologic

smudge photos of aerial and topological views of Los Alamos

Traveling with the CLUI is to travel in direct and intimate proximity to the processes and degrees to which humans have altered the landscape. It is from such exposure (also by way of CLUI newsletters, database research, residencies, exhibitions) that land use has taken on real and material form for us. Over the years, our work and individual capacities for sensing such forces have expanded in turn.

On the way down the mesa we began to imagine potential responses to our day with the CLUI. Our focus came to rest on the geological forces upon which we were traveling.
"Geologically speaking, the history of Los Alamos is vastly more explosive and cataclysmic than its better known, recent atomic past. Compacted pumice and ash fallout "drape our cliffs like a snowfall" (Heiken) - the result of 17 million years of volcanic activity. A crack in the crust of New Mexico's earth, known as the Rio Grande Rift, has been widening for the past 20 to 30 million years..."
- exhibit caption on the "Natural landscape" of Los Alamos at the Los Alamos Historical Society
Los Alamos: volcanic fingers. The land we had just transversed might have been terra firma for LANL infrastructure since 1945, but it was once pure moment and flow. As hard as it is to imagine, even this distant reality is only a short chapter in an immensely longer and varied geological tale.

Though human nuclear intervention into the landscape of New Mexico is deep, wide, and total, at this point it is actually quite shallow in terms of geologic time. The sixty years of land alteration that took place at LANL can easily be swallowed by the tectonic furnace.

It appears (to us) that there is at least one force continuously able to meet and exceed the nuclear, and that is the geologic. The nuclear waste that humans continue to generate will last much longer than what future humans might remember as the nuclear era. The planet will far outlive the waste we are burying in it. The chance that humans will outlive that waste is less likely.

When situated within the context of the geologic, the topic of nuclear land use becomes something else. It becomes something less about "destruction" of the earth and more about a distinct and dramatic alteration of what it means to be human on the planet from this point forward. How will all life have to bend and reshape in response- far into an unknown future? Our potential to imagine our species moving forward in geologic time becomes compromised by the depth of our present nuclear realities. The fundamental geologic forces of the Earth (plate tectonics, the Earth's continuous recycling of land itself) are, however, unmoved by human uses of the nuclear.

It is through direct, embodied experience of land use that our (smudge's) capacity to sense geologic time has developed. Grasping geologic time is about being "there" and "feeling it for ourselves." It is through land use interpretation that the immense degree to which humans have altered the landscape of the earth begins to take on significant and three dimensional meaning. The nuclear totality is humbled when land use is contextualized within the geologic. Human intervention in the geologic is relatively short. What this means for humans today, at this contemporary moment, is something that is wide open to creative response.

broken arrow

Matt Coolidge will take the results of the CLUI's collective research excursion in New Mexico and make them a part of an interpetive facility that the CLUI will open on August 1. Part of LAND/ART, it will be housed in a mobile office structure on the edge of ABQ--in the vicinity of the site of "Broken Arrow."

Broken Arrow nuclear accident site,
just south of the Albuquerque airport
(smudge photo)

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