The Wonders of Petroleum Geography

Matthew Coolidge in Conversation with Rachel Hooper

Rachel Hooper: The Center for Land Use Interpretation's (CLUI) strangely beautiful exhibitions are designed primarily to get us thinking about the American landscape, and your organization takes its educational mission very seriously. You have chosen the oil industry in Texas as the subject of your study over the past year. What do you hope visitors will walk away with after seeing your exhibition? What sort of effect do you anticipate it will have?

Matthew Coolidge:We do not set out for a specific effect, at least not one that is describable. In general, I suppose if people are surprised, amazed, confused, astounded, inspired, over­whelmed, flabbergasted, blown away, intrigued, amused, bewildered, shocked, startled, encouraged, excited, or aroused, then we'll be happy.

RH: How do you strike a balance between recording your personal response to the landscape and producing work that can be interpreted in so many ways by your viewers? Does this affect the way you frame your photographs, for example?

MC: Working for the Center, following the process of structuring perception that the Center employs, helps me to see better, wider, and to be more open-minded and inclusive. I find that if I have a knee-jerk reaction to something, based on a personal bias, recalling the Center's larger mission helps me examine this impulsive reaction, and I often find that it is simplistic, and even ego-driven. Operating within the structure of an organization helps to "de-personalize" the work that I or others do. As with any institution, there is an organizational methodology with rules, form and language. That's the whole point of an institution: to provide an institutional, as opposed to personal, point of view. The CLUI's particular rules and methods are what defines its brand. These conventions include a type of documentary photography and a type of presentation of image and text. In order to make images that are useful for this format, there are general guidelines that we use. There is an ideal "CLUI Archive Image," and that image is clear and focused on the subject. It allows the thing depicted to dominate, and not the mechanics of the image-making, or the cleverness of the photographer, or lack thereof. The image needs to be transparent as possible to be most useful in different cases. That's one reason we use video more and more. With a time-based component, it can be more like seeing, and less about imagery.

RH: Where have you travelled in the course of your research for Texas Oil? Is there a place that you found particularly compelling?

MC: We have been all over the state, from El Paso to Brownsville to Amarillo, to Dallas, and everywhere in-between. From West Texas oil towns like Odessa, Kermit, Andrews, Denver City, and Iraan, to the petrochemical processing centers of the Gulf Coast, like Freeport, Corpus Christi, Port Arthur, and Pasadena. We have scoured the state as much as we can. No way to choose favorites, but some of the great oil-related places include the four-mile-wide refinery complex at Texas City, and ExxonMobil's stealth headquarters building in Irving. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Odessa is one of the most interesting museums in America. The outdoor display of twenty or so different oil pump jacks is sublime. And the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Museum in Galveston is fantastic too. As is the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont, where they have things like an immersive display where you are reduced to 4 inches in size to travel through the refining process. And the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum has a recreated gusher that operates on demand. Can't beat that!

RH: But we've been hearing a lot these days about ending our dependence on oil and finding alternative energy sources. Do you feel at all like you are documenting the end of an era - the twilight of the age of oil?

MC:Not the end by any means, but the apogee, perhaps. This may be as big as it gets, but I think the end is a long way off, if ever. I think we will continue to use petrochemicals for a long time, as there is still a lot of oil, and the range of products made from it is pervasive. If we use less in vehicles, which I think most people agree is a good thing, then there is more oil to use in other things. Who knows what sort of uses and materials are left to dream up with this amazing resource. I don't need to tell you the industry is huge, and very profitable. It will adapt. Like most of us do.

Matthew Coolidge is founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation and serves as project director, photographer, and curator for its exhibitions. He lectures widely in the United States and Europe on contemporary landscape matters and is a faculty member in the Curatorial Practice Program at the California College of the Arts, where he teaches the class Nowhere.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation is a research organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface. The CLUI embraces a multidisciplinary approach to fulfilling this mission and organizes a series of exhibitions, lectures, residencies, and public tours at regional centers in California, Utah, and New York. In January 2008, the CLUI established a field office on Buffalo Bayou in Houston and began an intense exploration of southeast Texas as artists-in-residence with the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. The CLUI's research culminated in Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, an exhibition on display at Blaffer Gallery, the art museum of the University of Houston from January 17 to March 29, 2009.