In the borough of Brooklyn, nestled between a Jewish day school and a kosher restaurant, is a parcel of land measuring seventy-one feet long and six inches wide. The lot was purchased in a municipal auction by a real estate developer in 1954. Not much has happened since. The only development has been the placement of a wooden plank in the ground, creating a fence that is as narrow as the property and as overweening as the reach of property rights in New York City.
The fence was recently removed by the artist Niloufar Emamifar, opening the parcel to rodents and other small animals. This modest act of resistance, which is commemorated by the display of the plank at MoMA PS1, is a fitting point of entry into a stimulating new group exhibition called Life Between Buildings.
Artists have recognized the vitality of interstitial spaces in New York City for at least half a century. One of the first to explore this realm in conceptual terms, Gordon Matta-Clark began designing “hit-and-run gardens” in 1971. The idea was as simple as the scheme was elaborate: Using his training in architecture, Matta-Clark made drawings for fancy topiary frames that could be installed in vacant lots in the middle of the night, illicitly beautifying neglected private property for public enjoyment.
Matta-Clark also participated in municipal auctions akin to the sale in Brooklyn, purchasing more than a dozen odd lots in the early 1970s, all of them 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 ‘60s. “Buying them was my own take on the strangeness of existing property demarcation lines,” he told an interviewer in Avalanche Magazine in 1974. “Property is so all-pervasive. Everyone’s notion of ownership is determined by the use factor.”
As radical as Matta-Clark was in his time, revealing how the urban landscape was blighted by property laws and the profit motive of real estate, his perspective was manifestly anthropocentric. Other artists exhibited in Life Between Buildings reveal that the blight that he disparaged has integrity in its own right.
One of the first to question prevailing views was Becky Howland, who moved her studio to Tribeca in 1977. By most accounts, the neighborhood was a wasteland. Buildings were unoccupied. Vegetation grew on traffic islands. One day Howland tied up a patch of wild grass, creating a makeshift topiary. With this act of improvised gardening – only subsequently associated with Matta-Clark’s hit-and-run landscaping – the grass was awkwardly made to conform to human standards of beauty, playfully suggesting that even weeds are worthy of admiration.
Several years later, Cecilia Vicuña engaged the interstitial wilds of Tribeca more profoundly with a series of site-specific performance installations, the documentation of which can be seen at PS1. With chalk or thread, Vicuña drew attention to weeds she saw breaking through pavement. She dubbed these microhabitats Sidewalk Forests, and described them as “air vents for the earth”.
This was not a reference to ecosystem services avant la lettre. Vicuña was not suggesting that the weeds be valued merely for their ability to absorb toxic emissions. Instead she proposed that they were nothing less than the connective tissue between the natural and built environment. Through these plants, Earth breathed beneath the weight of the city – and breathed life into the people above.
The symbiotic reciprocity between humans and other species was understood by ecologists in the 1980s, but hardly general knowledge as it has subsequently become. Vicuña’s artwork evoked this relationship poetically, while also foreshadowing insights that ecologists are only now articulating: Cities are rife with biodiversity. Urban biomes often host far more species than surrounding areas including suburbs and agricultural lands. Layers of infrastructure amount to a kind of artificial geodiversity. The sheer complexity of the built environment provides 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 pathway. Cities are highly connected. Many of the corridors are relatively untrafficked because they’re inadvertent.
Useless by the standards of real estate tycoons, the Fake Estates purchased by Matta-Clark and the seventy-one feet of Brooklyn liberated by Emamifar turn out to have a value that cannot be monetized. Life Between Buildings is a tribute to the acres of difference between price and worth.