Center for Land Use Interpretation

Documenting Extractivism
A research organisation producing writings, exhibitions, and an online repository documenting land use in the US, considering economic, aesthetic, botanic, scientific, agricultural, social, and political aspects, encouraging multiple ways of looking at land and its issues and environmental history


From gigantic factories and prisons to abandoned military bases and steel works, the landscapes of the modern world are complex agglomerations of military, industrial, capitalist, and carceral control. Such landscapes evidence environmentally catastrophic practices of extractivism, and yet often remain invisible—either because they are located in remote and inaccessible regions, or because they are kept from public view on grounds of military or corporate security.


With backgrounds ranging from geomorphology to art history, a group of people interested in land use formalised as an official institution in 1994. The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a largely volunteer run, non-profit organisation that receives funding through government and private arts grants. The Center’s methodology and aims are simple: to collect information on, and stimulate discussion about, contemporary landscapes, with the aim of reading in those landscapes something of the story of contemporary society. The Center presents itself in the manner of a federal agency, and its website both stores and makes accessible a wide range of land use information. This earnest presentation seemingly mocks the idea of an objective set of information, whilst employing the methods of the field researcher to catalogue outlying landscapes. The information is used in public programmes, regional or thematic projects, books, and exhibitions.

The Center runs multiple sub-groups and projects, for example, Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, a 2009 investigation into North America’s petrochemical network as it converges in Texas’ petroleum fields and Gulf coast. The project forms an inventory of infrastructures from our age of oil, examining the passage of oil as it’s extracted from deep inside the Earth and from a distant prehistoric past, for present-day consumption. Consumption, the project illustrates, feeds a seemingly endless demand not just for gasoline but also for myriad petrochemical byproducts and uses such as batteries and paper bleaching. Photographs presented in the project have carefully researched captions that also delineate Texas’ global connections with petrochemical industries across Europe, Japan, and Brazil. More than a portrait of Texas, therefore, the project is a portrait of the global land use, toxicity, and injustice. While maintaining The Center’s so-called “neutral” aesthetic and descriptive approach to land use1Kastner, Jeffrey. ‘A TALK WITH CENTER FOR LAND USE INTERPRETATIONS’S MATTHEW COOLIDGE’. Artforum (blog), 1 June 2005 <> [accessed 21 November 2023]., the project clearly demonstrates the compromised entanglements of states, corporations, and landscapes in the context of climate breakdown.

Like the more recent research institution, Forensic Architecture, The Center takes a holistic, or eco-intersectional approach to land, analysing the topographies and extending beyond physical characteristics to examine how a site is run as a business, the relationships it has to other institutions, and its environmental and social history. 2Interpretation, Center for Land Use. ‘Urban Crude’. Places Journal, 14 November 2009 <>.