One of the first political issues I engaged with as a teenager was the debate over nuclear power: I decided against and have stuck to my position ever since. In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 there was an extended interregnum in which no new plants were commissioned in Europe or North America: ostensibly on the grounds of cost — there was no profit to be made in nuclear power — but also because of continuing public unease and political opposition. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 simply reinforced this sense of nuclear power as an anomalous and dangerous source of energy with cost, geo-political and environmental implications at every stage from uranium mining and enrichment to eventual de-commissioning and waste storage. Some of the engineering companies engaged in the building and operation of nuclear power plants began to concentrate on less contentious yet still controversial technologies such as waste incineration plants and other capital-intensive projects. It seemed that the nuclear option was in irrevocable decline.
With evidence of accelerated global warming, however, the nuclear industry have seized their chance over the last ten years, with intensive lobbying of governments to underwrite a new phase of expansion. Even high-profile environmental journalists such as George Monbiot appear to have swung behind nuclear power as the only feasible alternative to our continuing dependence on coal, oil and gas. I don’t accept the inevitability of the nuclear path for four reasons: firstly, the unfolding Fukushima disaster in Japan shows that nuclear power remains highly risky even in countries with sophisticated access to technological and regulatory expertise; secondly, as a source of electricity nuclear power only meets one aspect of our energy needs through an apparent “technological fix” that does not address the necessity for far greater emphasis on energy conservation and efficiency; thirdly, the potential contribution of renewable energy sources has been widely stymied; and fourthly, a renewed “blind impetus” towards a nuclear future marks a pathway towards increasingly centralized, undemocratic and unaccountable societies, based ever more around paranoid discourses of “security” rather than environmental protection and social justice. It will be interesting to see whether the regional elections taking place today in the German state of Baden-Württemberg usher in a red-green coalition ready to pursue a different kind of technological future.
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?
How do we know we have reached the edge of the city? Is it an aluminium sign? Is it a thinning out of buildings until there is little but woods and fields? Or is it an abrupt shift to small towns and villages dotted across the landscape? Perhaps it is really none of these things since the city, or at least “urbanization”, is now practically everywhere. In his book The urban revolution, first published in 1970, the French urbanist Henri Lefebvre makes a distinction between “city” and “urbanization”. “Society has become completely urbanized,” writes Lefebvre, “This urbanization is virtual today, but will become real in the future”. In the forty years since Lefebvre wrote these words the pace and scale of urban growth has accelerated along with the more ubiquitous dynamic of “urbanization”. The impetus towards “complete urbanization” can be conceived as a multi-faceted development that ranges from infrastructure networks to the spread of new ideas. The urban and the rural have become increasingly difficult to differentiate despite the powerful cultural resonance of this distinction. We can never really understand cities as simply “things in themselves” since they are manifestations of broader processes of change, connection and re-combination. Cities are just a particular form of urbanization.
John Fahey’s instrumental Untitled with Rain, timing in at just under 24 minutes, is a mesmerizing piece. It is included on his final album Red Cross recorded shortly his death in 2001. The sparse instrumentation consists of guitar, bass and organ, accompanied by the sound of rain. Fahey’s plaintive guitar playing builds an introspective mood, at 2’30” the organ sound begins to shimmer and becomes louder, heightening a sense of emotional tension, at 4’36” a voice calls out “Hi there John” and the atmosphere of a small club is invoked on a dark rainy evening. At 6’32” some gentle chimes denote the minimal use of percussion and by 6’52” the music has faded to nothing – we are left with complete silence for nearly 17 minutes. Yet symbolically we are still within Fahey’s musical space just as John Cage brilliantly recast the meaning of silence with his 4’33” in 1952. Fahey’s Untitled with Rain is a meditation on presence and absence. It is an ambient soundscape that draws everything in and then vanishes to leave only our imagination.