LIKE A VOID IN THE otherwise open range of Nevada, the Nellis Range, a Connecticut-sized chunk of desert, harbors five thousand square miles of military-controlled land, containing landforms and infrastructures that are only vaguely understood by outsiders.
The CLUI recently featured the exhibit The Nellis Range Complex: Landscape of Conjecture at its main office in Los Angeles. The exhibit was open to the public from October 1 to December 1, 1999, and was installed inside a customized mobile exhibition unit at the Venice Boulevard site. The culmination of more than three years of research and photography, the exhibit contained images, text, maps, and supporting documents that describe this mysterious landscape in southern Nevada, the nation's largest restricted area, and a veritable nation unto itself.
Two thousand miles of roads and an extensive fiber-optic and microwave communication network connect target areas, maintenance facilities, tracking stations, testing grounds, and a few full scale bases and R&D centers. An interactive and evolving simulated enemy landscape, with command and control bunkers, radar and missile sites, convoys, railways, industrial areas, and hundreds more individual targets, trains pilots for confrontations in Middle Eastern, Asian, Soviet and other potential theaters of war. And on the undisturbed mountains within the Range there is a landscape frozen in 1940, when it was first closed to public access, where bighorn sheep and wild horses roam among petroglyphs of the Paiute and Shoshone Indians, and where miners cabins remain unvandalized, with glass jars still resting on their shelves.
Access to the range is highly limited, and no one without official business is permitted on site, nor are civilian aircraft permitted to fly over it. Information about it is controlled by those whose livelihood is dependent on its existence, therefore facts about the range are unresolved. It is thus an ambiguous, uncertain landscape, engendering speculation, fear, and even confrontation. It is a virtual terrain, inhabited with the projections of whoever chooses to gaze upon it, a modern terra incognita.
Known and speculative aspects of the range were addressed in the CLUI exhibit. The use of the range as an Air Force training ground and a weapons testing area were described in detail. Numerous meetings between CLUI representatives and Air Force personnel led to the release of some new information, including imagery of the interior of the range, taken by range managers and released to the CLUI. Though generally supportive for some time, the Air Force ultimately withdrew its support of the project, citing security concerns, though this change in posture coincided with a change in management of the range.
As a result of this loss of support, the CLUI also focussed on the more speculative aspects of the range in the exhibit, the "conjectural" perspectives of the place, using unofficial sources. "We had to use the word 'allegedly' a lot," says CLUI Nellis project manager Matthew Coolidge. "But we got a lot of support from extremely thorough and meticulous independent researchers and published experts on the range including Peter Merlin, Tom Mahood, Mark Farmer, Phil Patton, David Darlington, and of course Glenn Campbell of the Area 51 Research Center. And the public affairs department at Nellis was very courteous and helpful, and grateful that we were able to supply them with the imagery of the range that we obtained from the normally independent and secretive range managers."