A Year on the Road with Venue

September 9, 2013

Iker Gil interviews Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, directors of Venue, a portable media rig, interview studio, multi-format event platform, and forward-operating landscape research base.


Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 01

VLF and Stealth Object Tripods in Mono Lake, California. © Venue.

IG: How did Venue start, what is it, and what are the main goals?

GM: Venue is a project that we presented to Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art. They got behind the idea that, rather than sitting in the city and waiting for people or ideas to come to us, we would go out on the road and seek out places that are usually overlooked, or unvisited, or don’t normally have the microphone placed in front of them. The idea was that we would have this kind of traveling thing, almost like an interview rig, and we would create a venue that we could bring out with us on the road. It would be a way of reporting, but also a way to start conversations with a wider spectrum of people, sites, and landscapes.

NT: The mission of the Center for Art + Environment is pretty interesting. It’s to explore all aspects of the human relationship with the built, natural, and virtual environment and we have taken that to heart in shaping what we do with Venue. We also partnered with Studio-X NYC [Geoff and Nicola co-direct Studio-X NYC, which is part of Columbia University’s GSAPP]. The mission of Studio-X is to expand the platform for conversation about the future of cities, so we decided that this was an amazing opportunity to expand the platform geographically and to show that you can’t talk about the future of cities without talking about urban hinterlands, and the landscapes of resource extraction, agriculture, waste disposal, and so on, which are actually shaping the cities themselves. So we combined those two collaborators and set ourselves on the road.

IG: Does the goal of Venue tend more to uncover things that are not evident, is it about establishing relationships between disconnected things, or is it about defining areas were possible interventions could happen afterwards? Or is it a combination of all those?

NT: Definitely more of the first two, although I think our hope is that all of the different threads that we pull together will add up to new connections and new ideas for people. So, it’s not that we are planning on creating big interventions or recommending interventions ourselves, but rather that the larger idea is that by going to particular sites and talking to particular people we are assembling a new core sample of the American landscape, incorporating as many perspectives as possible and tying together all these aspects to identify larger themes.

IG: I guess my comment about intervention relates less to an architectural intervention and more about understanding the system and identifying where the system could be improved or tweaked.

GM: Along those lines, I think one of the things we want to do is put people in conversation across fields than don’t normally overlap. That could be seen as an intervention, in the sense that you are making a military officer who works on the GPS system, for instance, realize that maybe they could have a conversation that they haven’t had yet that would be interesting. One example could be the ranchers in the American West. In one of our stops we visited someone who is looking at GPS technology, how it affects ranching, and how it might even affect the way we allocate private land ownership in the West. Suddenly, you are now getting two people who wouldn’t normally have a conversation—a soldier and an agricultural scientist—and now they´re aware of each other’s work, and something might come out of that in the future. I think that’s the kind of thing we are after. It’s showing someone from this place that someone over here is doing similar work, or at the very least thematically related work, and that they should be getting into a dialogue and that maybe they could even work together.

NT: Or maybe even just offering the people that we are talking to a different perspective on their own work, by seeing it on the context with all the other interviews we’re doing. I think the more people we talk to, the more that kind of thing happens. We keep telling our interviewees about other conversations we have had so they can go to the website and learn more.

IG: Were there any references when you began to think about Venue?

GM: Broadly speaking, the notion of the exploration party is a huge part of it. That goes back to everything from literal survey parties, when they would send people to the West after the Civil War to map the United States and say, “What do we have out there? How do we measure it? How do we understand where it goes?” That’s part of it—USGS surveys literally mapping out the country. But also things like Ant Farm, with their Media Van—that idea of hitting the road in sort of a gonzo documentary way. Originally, we even talked about getting a van and we were going to do the interviews inside the van and we were going to turn it into this type of punk rock thing. There is also an on-going event series called Postopolis that we’ve both been a part of. But, instead of creating Postopolis New York again or Postopolis Chicago or Postopolis Miami, we thought, “What if Postopolis became a sixteen-month experience bringing the venue to other people around the country?” So Venue is like a decentralized Postopolis.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 02

All female survey crew—Minidoka Project, Idaho, 1918. © US Bureau of Reclamation.

IG: How do you set the itineraries and select the people that you are going to interview? Do you set it from the beginning or does it evolve as you travel?

NT: Part of our methodology is actually focused on using the routes that we plan as the methodology—we find people that fit within our curatorial themes on our routes. If we say we visited a landfill, for example, some people then say, “Oh, you should visit this other landfill.” But it’s less that we want to visit all the landfills in America and more that we are tracing a particular route in the landscape. One of our themes is landscapes of extraction and disposal so, if there is a particularly interesting landfill on our route, then we should stop. That’s sort of how it comes together. The themes are very much our own interests. One of our subthemes is simulation and landscape analogs. We have visited places were NASA has trained astronauts going the Moon but also the factory where they make Astroturf, the idea being that we could learn a lot about how we perceive the real thing by how we make fake things. There is a whole cross-species theme running throughout, which I think very much ties to my own Edible Geography interest in how plants, humans and animals coevolve and shape each other. On this latest trip, for example, we were looking at bird’s perceptions of different panes of glass in a specially created pivoting sun tunnel in rural Pennsylvania.

GM: Just to go back to the earlier point, we are definitely using the route as the methodology. We are not deciding, “Hey, let’s do something on simulation,” and it turns out there is someone out in Idaho who would be great for that, so we book a ticket to Idaho and interview them. It is more that we decide to do, say, the Pacific Northwest as a route, or the southern Great Lakes as a route, or the Shenandoah Valley or the Appalachian Mountains. That’s the type of territory that we are trying to cover. Then the notion is, “What is in this territory? What should we see? Who should we meet?”

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 03

Puente Hills landfill, the nation’s largest active municipal dump. © Venue.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 04

Puente Hills terraces. © Venue.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 05

Outdoor Mars yard. © Venue.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 06

Knitter NO.-1, AstroTurf headquarters. © Venue.

NT: And then there is serendipity to it that way.

GM: There are people that we wished we could have interviewed but they were not around so we had to interview someone else. But then, the plan B person ended up being better than the original one. You never know.

NT: Also, there are parts of the country that we couldn’t cover. We have one part of the trip we have to make shorter, because we couldn’t leave town due to Hurricane Sandy. We will never get to do as much as we want to do, basically.

IG: Another thing that I find really interesting is how you are looking at above-ground/below-ground, and the natural and the man-made conditions. From the caves with crazy instruments, to all the mechanism for the cable cars in San Francisco. It’s interesting that in the end nothing is natural or artificial.

GM: I think that is definitely a running theme. In the same way that some of the things we are doing relate to Edible Geography, a lot of the underground exploration is definitely connected to my work on BLDGBLOG, exploring caverns, mines, and extreme waste disposal sites, like the radioactive waste disposal site in New Mexico that we got a tour of. For an above ground or aerial theme, next week we’ll be in North Dakota visiting the first undergraduate degree program in unmanned aviation systems—basically, drones. If you want to fly a drone airplane, the first place in the country to offer a B.A. in flying drones is in North Dakota.

NT: It’s the headquarters for all things drone because that’s also where the US army does all of its Predator training.

GM: They have a Predator simulator, which is pretty interesting.

NT: We may never leave North Dakota. [Laughs]

IG: I guess it’s good that we are doing the interview now! You are looking at physical elements but you are also looking at other conditions, like the singing city, and aspects that are more technology-related. Again, an interesting balance between mapping the landscape and overlaying that with other cultural and event aspects.

NT: To go with that, I also think that it’s important that we’re not just speaking to people who are, I guess, practitioners: farmers, scientists… We are also speaking to novelists and artists as they add an additional filter over some aspects of the landscape. It’s an extra layer of reflection added to it.

GM: Another theme that we keep referring to is navigation. It’s the question of how human beings have surveyed the landscape, as we’ve talked about, but also how they’ve navigated the land, how they understand how to get from point A to point B. That also includes all kind of cultural impositions that involve measurement, that involve mapping traditions, that involve tools like compasses to get around, that involve celestial navigation, that involve GPS. The notion of navigation is like an equation, where landscape plus humans plus directionality equals navigation. It’s an extreme cultural addition to understanding the landscape.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 07

The keyboard of the organ inside the Luray Caverns in Virginia. © Venue.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 08

Simulated battlefield at Fort Irwin located in the Mojave Desert. © Venue.

IG: What type of surveys are you taking throughout the landscape and what type of instruments are you using?

GM: We are doing a bunch of different things. The basic idea of the instruments was to do something that was between actual functioning instrumentation that we could take on the road and art objects or props. Those tripods that you have seen were designed by Chris Woebken, who worked with us for about six months to fabricate them. Those are actually functioning devices, like an ultralow frequency radio that picks up the magnetosphere so you can hear what’s referred to as space weather. But, then, there are other instruments that are more like art objects or props. For example, there is a perspective grid, which plays with the notion of the European tradition of learning how to see a landscape through perspective and looking through a grid as you sketch it.

NT: It is really a self-conscious gesture to the fact that the devices that you choose to bring along with you already are embedding assumptions onto the landscape. So we decided to just bring along a ton of instruments, almost to self-consciously admit there is not such a thing as an objective survey. We know that. This is very much a metaphoric, poetic, and sometimes whimsical survey, and by no means objective.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 09

Nicola Twilley with nasal ranger. © Venue.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 10

Geoff Manaugh listening to VLF in Mono Lake, California. © Venue.

GM: Once you have the instruments to measure the landscape, you start paying attention to that thing that you maybe would have not otherwise thought about or noticed. Suddenly, you are thinking about ultralow frequency radio signals when you are in Chicago or when you are driving in the middle of New Mexico and you realize, “Hey, we can turn on the radio and see if we hear anything.”

NT: We also have a logbook sheet for each interview. We just document a whole bunch of things. In addition to the wind direction on the ground and wind speed, we also have a solar wind direction and speed. We do sun spots, barometric pressure… We do a lot of different things and part of the reason is that we then put those as tags on our posts. We have the normal thematic tags too, but you can actually explore the landscape of the sites we visited by looking at all the ones we visited when the moon was a waxing crescent, or when there were 73 sunspots.

GM: It’s funny that, for example, you can see every interview we have done at 600 feet above sea level. Ironically, we have noticed that a lot of our best interviews are happening when there is a waning gibbous moon, for example. Obviously, that is a total coincidence but, nonetheless, it is interesting to see certain patterns emerge.

NT: Another interesting thing is amassing big amounts of data about the landscape and not even knowing how to make sense of it. That’s part of what we are doing by collecting all this data.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 11

Edward Burtynsky taking a photo with the descriptive camera. Nicola and Geoff gave him 24 hours to select a subject in the Nevada Museum of Art, and this was the spot that caught his eye. © Geoff Manaugh.

Mas issue trace a year on the road with venue 12

“A network of pipes, having valves and joints with meters between them.” Edward Burtynsky, in someone else’s words. © Venue.

IG: Let’s talk about the descriptive camera, which I also find quite fascinating. Do people sign up to review the pictures? How does it work?

NT: The descriptive camera is designed by Matt Richardson. We bring a different guest device on each one of our trips, and that was the one we took on our first trip. Matt’s camera sends the picture to something called Amazon Mechanical Turk. It’s a workforce, run by Amazon, of totally anonymous workers. You post jobs there for a price and they will do the job. A lot of companies use it for sorting through vast piles of data or tagging images. It’s totally anonymous, you never know who is doing the work. What happens is that the photo, which you never see (that was really devastating when we had Edward Burtynsky take the photo), goes away into the cloud. You give the anonymous worker instructions: describe this picture using no more than 100 words or something like that. They type their description, hit submit, and it prints from the front of the camera. Like a Polaroid. And that quickly.

IG: I saw the video on your website and it’s surprising how quickly everything happens, it’s really instant.

NT: It comes back from a person who has never seen the thing that you are seeing, but who has written a description of a photo that you have never seen.

IG: I love how it changes formats, how it get translated from image to words, and its immediacy. In terms of the end product of the 16-week road trip, is the idea to create some sort of publication, or an exhibition given the relationship to the Nevada Museum of Art? Or is it intended to be a recording that lives primarily online?

GM: It will definitely stay online. The website is the number one product that we are making. But we are entertaining the idea of doing a book or a small exhibition to document the whole thing as well. We are still trying to figure out with the Nevada Museum of Art exactly what we’ll do, including some sort of recap event that would tie into their next major conference. Every three years, they organize a big conference on art and the environment. The next one is in the fall of 2014, so that would give us an entire year at the end of our project to put together some sort of exhibition, publication or event. Either way, we definitely want to do something that can do justice to the amount of material we have accumulated, because, at the end of the project, we are going to have 55-60 interviews, 50-60 site visits, thousands of photographs, video, audio, artifacts, souvenirs…

NT: There is a lot of potential with remixing it. How you put it together will shape new narratives. I am personally really excited to figure out if we can do something interesting with data visualization.

GM: Which reminds me that, in the July-August issue of Popular Science, we have a 6-page feature that is a road map, almost like a “go do Venue yourself” kind of thing.

NT: A lot of the places we visit are readily accessible to the public, but a lot of them aren’t very well known.

GM: For that feature, we chose the most interesting ones that are publicly accessible and don’t require you to get permission or to meet a particular scientist. Anybody can get this map, hit the road and visit these places. I like the idea of turning it not just into a book you buy, but an experience that you can have. So next summer, you could visit lunar simulation landscapes outside Flagstaff, Arizona, or you could visit the Mercer Museum, an amazing archive of pre-industrial tools displayed in a poured concrete castle outside Philadelphia. It’s that idea of giving you an experience, not just a product.

IG: I think that each format, whether it’s a road map, a book or an exhibition, can address a specific audience and each one becomes an opportunity to show the work in different ways.

NT: I completely agree. And, I think, for the NMA’s Center for Art + Environment conference, there’s also an interesting possibility to bring some of the people that we spoke to together. It is sort of reversing the whole Venue travel idea, by bringing everybody together into one place and keeping those conversations going.

IG: You have touched on this earlier but, how does Venue tie into your respective research work in BLDGBLOG, Edible Geography, and Studio-X?

GM: In one way, it continues the work we are doing in those platforms but, at the same time, I think it’s a good challenge to try something different. I don’t want to just treat this as BLDGBLOG on the road. It’s fun to keep some of the interests, like the underground or some of the military stuff, but I want to find a different way to approach them. For instance, we’re interviewing a lot of people who it would be strange to include on BLDGBLOG, so I enjoy doing that with Venue. Every once in a while, we’ll do something food-based or on agriculture and I think I am stepping into Edible Geography-world—but then we’ll do things that would be really strange to see on Edible Geography. I think it’s nice to have this third space where we can do things that we would typically not do on our own websites.

NT: I also think Venue is much more grounded in a physical way. I think it’s really rare these days for a blogger to actually go places. Instead, you are writing about it from your apartment in New York or San Francisco and saying it’s amazing—but you are just pulling photos from the web and things like that. There is something really fun about the very tangible places we visit and the people we meet personally.

GM: It’s very human. You have to meet them, you have to see the thing, you have take a photograph of it yourself.

NT: Having worked with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, I have come to realize that the idea of “ground truthing” is so central to what they do. I really only appreciated the value of that by doing Venue—how important it is to actually go to the place rather than just writing about it or making a phone interview. When you asked if it added anything to our own work, in some ways it makes me appreciate other people’s work more too.

IG: Thanks so much for a wonderful conversation!