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Looking Down on O.C.

Satellite Images Attempt to Pierce the Post-Suburban Stereotypes


Ever wonder what's beyond your backyard, why it's easy to get lost in Irvine, why there aren't more sidewalk cafes and coffee shops, what's the county's major industry, why there is no central downtown district?

"These are some of the great mysteries of Orange County," said Beall Center director Jeanie Weiffenbach, who posed the queries and commissioned the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), a year ago to present a visual key to unlock the answers. Or, possibly spark an entirely new set of inquiries.

The result is "Curious Orange," an exhibit opening May 5 at the Beall Center for Art and Technology in Irvine.

No paintings will be mounted on walls and no sculptures will be displayed on gallery floors. Instead, satellite images of 20 locations will be projected in digital video on the spacious gallery walls. Visitors will be able to move a cursor and select any site for further exploration.

The interactive effect provides a bird's eye view of the county; people may even be able to see their homes in relation to surrounding sites. The exhibit aims to treat visitors to a personal, intimate understanding of the area.

Orange County "is a forward-looking place, and it's a sample of what's happening in other suburban areas throughout the country," said project manager Matthew Coolidge of CLUI, a nonprofit research group.

"It's time for a reinterpretation of what this area is about. The exhibit is about curiosity and how Orange County is more unusual than people thought," he said.

Coolidge, 33, is a founding director of CLUI. The Los Angeles-based center, supported by grants from public sources and private foundations including the National Endowment for the Arts, has collected data about unusual and exemplary locations across America. They have zeroed in on everything from water treatment plants and theme parks to mining and military sites.


Locations selected for the exhibit include the county's largest dump site, the Prima Deshecha landfill, a 600-acre canyon of waste on 1,500 acres beside tract homes in San Juan Capistrano. Also in this quaint South County town known for its romantic mission and migrant swallows is a remote TRW aerospace research and laser weapons test site.

Another site is an enormous antenna that juts above Loma Ridge, commanding a scenic view. It serves as the eyes and ears of the region's Office of Emergency Management, a remote, windowless disaster command center.

These locations and others will be the focus of the exhibit.

"We think these sites will give a sense of Orange County that compels and engages people to think about the place in a new way," Coolidge said. "Some of the sites will be familiar and some won't. We generally are of the assumption that the landscape is this common ground everyone shares."

The suburban landscape of Orange County, the nation's fifth-largest county, has long inspired authors, urban planners and artists to examine its workings. Described as a "post-suburban landscape" or "edge city," the county is constantly changing and has redefined suburbia. Once largely agrarian, after 1950 the county began quickly developing into planned and gated communities. It is now known for its technology industry.

Orange County and CLUI seemed a perfect match for a show that explored the theme of suburbia. CLUI "is among the most interesting organizations today, working new avenues of territory in the arts," Weiffenbach said. She says CLUI could get to the heart of a county that has long been stereotyped as politically conservative, horribly congested and "Orange Curtain" provincial.

"I think the center is interested in breaking those stereotypes and showing lesser-known aspects of the county," she said.

The center has coordinated adventurous bus tours to locations such as Area 51, the top-secret Air Force base in Nevada; the Salton Sea and natural caves. The tours coincide with exhibits, which are typically photographic. One was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

"Curious Orange" is the organization's first digital video project.

"Digital video is closer to what we experience in real life," Coolidge said. "It provides us with a more transparent medium than photography, because it records everything that happens in real time."

* Vivian LeTran can be reached at (714) 966-5835 or by e-mail at


"Curious Orange," Beall Center for Art and Technology, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UC Irvine. Gallery hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 12-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 12-8 p.m. Reception, May 5, 5-8 p.m., with gallery talk by Matthew Coolidge, 7 p.m. Free. Ends June 17. (949) 824-6206.

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