Interstitial landscapes # 1

I have become increasingly interested in what might be termed “interstitial landscapes”. These include an array of “incidental spaces” or “accidental gardens” that are often ignored or overlooked. These spaces exhibit ecological assemblages or natural formations that have developed independently of “design” as conventionally conceived. Examples of “interstitial landscapes” might include empty lots, the sides of railway lines or even micro-niches such as walls or gutters. Since the late 1960s a number of artists have responded to these types of marginal spaces as a way of exploring the meaning of urban space in new ways. Since the 1950s urban ecologists, and especially botanists, have been studying “ruderal” sites characterized by adventitious plants and new landscape typologies. In a European context these sites were originally associated with catastrophic events such as the creation of “bomb sites” through aerial warfare but by the 1970s the effects of de-industrialization and demographic decline were also leaving their mark on urban landscapes.

Among the artists who have studied these marginal spaces Gordon Matta-Clark is especially interesting. In the early 1970s Matta-Clark became intrigued by New York City’s periodic auctions of so-called “gutterspace” comprising seemingly unusable fragments of land. He acquired 15 small sites as the basis for a project entitled “Fake estates” which involved taking photographs, along with the acquisition of deeds, surveys and other documentation to produce a detailed visual and cartographic compendium of marginality. Though never shown during his lifetime these photographs have occasionally been on public display such as the Queens Museum, New York, in 2005 and more recently as part of an excellent show at London’s Barbican (which also features two other pivotal figures from the 1970s New York cultural scene, Laurie Anderson and Trisha Brown).

Feeling inspired by seeing Matta-Clark’s works at the Barbican I wandered around my own neighbourhood in north London and took some photographs of anomalous spaces or “weeds” that had colonized the streets. I became conscious of the precarious balance between a certain kind of order reflected in maps, title deeds and other records of spatial structure and ownership, and a kind of largely unnoticed and ubiquitous disorder reflected in specks of rust, litter, plants, crumbling walls, peeling paint, broken tiles and other elements of everyday space. In particular I observed a precarious space that extends beyond clearly demarcated lines such as homes or shop fronts where the jumbled and increasingly vague responsibilities of municipal authorities, utility companies and others combine to produce a neglected zone. What does it mean to say that a space is unimportant? Or that a plant growing by the roadside is just a “weed” with no aesthetic or cultural value?