In the Brooklyn neighborhood, nestled between a Jewish day school and a kosher restaurant, lies a tract of land seventy-five feet long and six inches wide. The lot was purchased at a municipal auction in 1954 by a project developer. Not much has happened since then. The only development was the placement of a wooden plank in the ground, creating a fence as narrow as the property and as overwhelming as the range of property rights in New York City.
The fence was recently removed by the artist Niloufar Emamifar, opening the plot to rodents and other small animals. This humble act of defiance, commemorated by the shelf presentation at MoMA PS1, is a fitting entry point to a stimulating new group exhibition called Living between buildings†
Artists have recognized the vitality of interstitial spaces in New York City for at least half a century. Gordon Matta-Clark, one of the first to explore this realm in conceptual terms, began designing hit-and-run gardens in 1971. The idea was as simple as the plan worked out: Matta-Clark used drawings for beautiful topiary frames that can be installed on vacant lots in the middle of the night, illegally beautifying neglected private property for public enjoyment.
Matta-Clark also participated in municipal auctions similar to those in Brooklyn, buying more than a dozen odd lots in the early 1970s, all left over from imperfect property subdivisions and surveying errors. He called them Fake Estates, and presented them as a conceptual counterpoint to the grandiose land art of the 1960s. “Buying it was my own take on the strangeness of existing real estate demarcation lines,” he told an interviewer in Avalanche Magazine in 1974. “Property is so ubiquitous. Everyone’s idea of ownership is determined by the use factor.”
As radical as Matta-Clark was in his day, revealing how the urban landscape was ravaged by property laws and the profit motive of real estate, his perspective was clearly anthropocentric. Other artists exhibited in Living between buildings revealing that the plague he despised has integrity in itself.
One of the first to question prevailing views was Becky Howland, who moved her studio to Tribeca in 1977. According to most stories, the neighborhood was a wasteland. Buildings were empty. Vegetation grew on traffic islands. One day, Howland tied up a patch of wild grass and created an impromptu topiary. With this impromptu gardening — which only later became associated with Matta-Clark’s hit-and-run landscaping — the grass was made awkward to conform to human standards of beauty, playfully suggesting that even weeds are worthy of admiration.
Several years later, Cecilia Vicuña delved deeper into the interstitial wilderness of Tribeca with a series of site-specific performance installations, the documentation of which can be seen on PS1. Using chalk or thread, Vicuña drew attention to weeds she saw breaking through the sidewalk. She called these microhabitats sidewalk forestsand described them as “vents for the earth”.
This was not a reference to ecosystem services for the letter† Vicuña did not suggest that the weed is valued solely for its ability to absorb toxic emissions. Instead, she proposed that they were nothing less than the connective tissue between the natural and built environment. These plants made the earth breathe under the weight of the city – breathing life into the people above.
The symbiotic reciprocity between humans and other species was understood by ecologists in the 1980s, but hardly common knowledge as it has become later. Vicuña’s artworks poetically evoked this relationship, while also foreshadowing insights that ecologists are only now articulating: cities are bursting with biodiversity. Urban biomes often harbor many more species than surrounding areas, including suburbs and farmlands. Infrastructure layers form a kind of artificial geodiversity. The sheer complexity of the built environment creates countless accidental habitats. Every sidewalk is a forest.
Ecologists also attribute urban biodiversity to a second phenomenon, which will resonate with anyone who has ever encountered a pollinator trail. Cities are strongly connected. Many of the corridors are relatively unencumbered as they are unintentional.
Useless by the standards of real estate magnates, the Fake Estates bought by Matta-Clark and the seventy-one yards of Brooklyn liberated by Emamifar turn out to be of value that cannot be monetized. Living between buildings is a tribute to the acres of difference between price and value.