Friday, July 22, 2011

A Life of Grime and the Space for It

I did not end up taking the telephone wire on my move day. The two dusty contractor bags got inexplicably (or not) left behind along with a few fragile things that I wanted to move myself. The couple times I went back to the building I wondered, most likely with all too much morose profundity, whether this would be the last time I see my place, the last time I hike those too-steep-for-today's-code four flights up. But on those visits I didn't get the wire. As the day drew near that the developer would change the locks I became increasingly plagued and indecisive as to whether or not I should get it.
Until last night. I learned the owners were changing the locks today so I drove down there to just get the stupid telephone wire so at least I would have it and could put an end to the obsession I had developed with it. Two bags worth of dirty old wire I wanted because I had had an idea about it. That is all. An idea that I would now never carry out because of the dirt factor. My building offered what my previous and current homes and even the couple off-site art studios I've had in the past never could: the necessity and the space to get really filthy, be it elective, 'character-building', or not so much.

The Roof
So many of the building jobs and projects we had to perform over the years resulted in us being covered, or dealing with, absolute grime of some sort or other. I've told of wrangling 100 years worth of the filthy telephone wire already, and early on I spent weekends on the roof actually doing roofing. I was on the top floor so leaks were my purview. The guys at ACE hardware over on 1st Ave told me what materials and processes to purchase and follow, but not before grilling me about the condition of my roof. If it felt spongy at all, they advised absolutely not what I was planning to do. Evidently a soft surface means its rotten underneath, and patching only seals in the rot, ensuring forever that it won't ever dry out. Not too spongy I replied. In truth, Very Spongy, so spongy that before I learned otherwise I thought roofs were supposed to be that way, that some kind of waterproof insulation went under the tar paper that resulted in the squishy feeling when walked upon. In spite of the ACE guys' warnings, I'd spend hours slinging a trowel full of sticky black goo patching holes, creases and rifts that appeared with astounding regularity. These hot days right now remind me that this work wrestling sticky black materials up on a merciless black roof could only be done in the heat of summer and I frequently ended up with almost-heatstroke, plus roofing tar up and down my shins and forearms, sometimes even in my hair. Anywhere that wasn't covered up. The cleanup was just as onerous as the job: only acetone or mineral spirits could cut the oily tar off my skin. All that said, it could be an exhilarating feeling getting that dirty and tired, and tremendously fulfilling when, during the next downpour I'd listen and watch my ceiling that no longer leaked. For now. At the time I wouldn't have had it any other way. Eventually the roof repair got way beyond my abilities as a roofer and we had to hire a roofing company to re-cover the entire surface over 2 days one late October about 3 years ago. In spite of the 10K we paid them, they still had to be talked into the giant patch job and then refused to furnish any kind of guarantee for the work.

The Basement
I have described in a prior post the conditions in our basement when I mentioned the squatter / junkie infestation we had that one winter. Nothing drains down there, its never dry and every single thing is rotting. Long unused fluorescent light fixtures have fallen off the ceilings, literally disintegrating into the floor in a surprisingly short timeline. Old boiler pipes are busting their corroded brackets, and have ended up precariously tangled in disconnected electrical wires that couldn't possibly hold them up for very long. Its especially wet in the very front vault section that runs under the sidewalk, and 'rust never sleeps' is a gross understatement. The vault of all places is where the junkies chose to design their main sleeping and lounging quarters. Once we got them out and assessed the damage we were stunned at the volume of living materials and paraphernalia that had accrued, suggesting a much longer habitation than we thought possible in such a filthy dripping wet space with no light whatsoever. Either that or there was a hundred of them.

After various hazmat companies wouldn't even come see the job, a building-mate and I elected to clean up after the junkies ourselves. We bagged 2000 sq feet strewn with clothes, rotten food containers, suitcases, spoons, condoms both used and not, bottles filled with moulded piss (I mentioned in the earlier post that they used a far corner for number 2. We avoided that altogether.), and all manner of drug-doing equipment, the worst of which were used needles and syringes. As if that activity wasn't heinous enough we then had to take turns hoisting the 50 or so contractor bags we had assembled up a ladder into the storefront, as our proper stairs to the basement (which was originally CUANDO's basement), had been destroyed (and not replaced) in the demo. I dressed for this incredibly toxic task like a crazy person, donning 3 pairs of everything from head to toe, most of which got tossed out afterward in a paranoid fit right along with all the junkies' stuff.

Elective Messes, Paint Tests and Chemical Dispersing
The common areas in my building, while far from sterile, offered me space for a myriad of art-related projects over the years that would have seriously taxed the environment of my studio proper, which I also lived in. Up on the roof and in the abandoned apartment across the hall I sprayed awful fixatives and sealants on drawings and varnished oil paintings. I cut and paint-tested five, 13-foot-long oilboard (great material but nasty) stencils for a DOT highway barrier beautification job. Using drop-cloth plastic sheet on a large expanse of dusty floor I was able to liberate a whole can of pressurized expanding foam into various patterns for a fantastical cave model made with foam, wood and strung-up chicken wire left over from the shaftway pigeon-shooing project. I regularly shook out my seven throw rugs up on the roof. I built scale models for projects and on good overcast days I went up there to photograph them. I stored my earth art (landscaping) tools and bikes in the storefront on the ground floor, always grateful not to have to live alongside these objects, let alone hike them and their grimy heft up and down the stairs with me.

Last night after I hauled my 2 bags of wire down the steaming hot stairway, I stopped in the storefront to really assess the situation. I felt like a truly insane lady, there with my wire at the last minute, on the last night ever I'd have access to my building, it was really hot, and outside, the 1-hour-only parking meter running. I dumped one bag out on the floor and surveyed it, resolving to try to sort it out and perhaps not have to take it all. This seemed like the sane thing to do, but after a precious few minutes somewhat frenetically yanking and pulling in a vain attempt to make sense of the miles-long unearthly tangle, I was filthy. Arms and legs, shorts and tank top soaked thru with sweat and now covered in what looked like a million lashes from a black and brown dirt-whip. Ahhh, I thought, suddenly calm and feeling quite sane. I knew exactly what to do. I wrangled all the wire back in the bag and got both loads into my bundle buggy. I made it to the car in time, drove to my storage space filthy but satisfied, whether I use my wire ever, or not, was so not the point. Its getting so dirty once in a while that I'll miss, and all that space in which to make such a big mess.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Over the years during times of strife in my building, a friend would remind me of the price (not financial, although when speaking of anti-eviction litigation, yes financial), of living so 'marginally'. Marginally. Marginal was for the other EV squatts and homesteads with their defiant outspeak, banners hung across fire escapes, protests in the park. Marginal was for others whom I felt were terrifically less fortunate: the homeless, drug addled, oppressed, illegal...although I can't forget that at times in the past, I haven't managed to evade at least a version of certain of these conditions, by association or otherwise.

I have always been interested in public and private space in the urban environment and the intersection of the two. Particularly the idea that marginal spaces and abandoned, overgrown, or 'vacant' (such a misnomer!) areas can function as spatial opportunity for psychological freedom, essential as antidote to the control exerted upon inhabitants of highly developed commercial zones. This is a gross simplification of the concept of the 'Terrain Vague', a renowned thesis by architect Ignacio de Solà-Morales. Looking back, my desire to homestead reflects this long-held interest however unformed or subconscious back then, expressed at times through artwork (and more recently through Legge Lewis Legge, a collaborative public art practice I helped found in 2000), but mostly expressed through attempting to inhabit, for 20 years, the interstitial at 7-and-a-half.

If you get a minute someday, please see 'The Terrain Vague as material--some observations' (, a short essay at by Luc Levesque, an architect and Architectural Practices History and Theory professor in the History Department at the University of Laval Québec. I have also pasted it below with credit and author bio. I hope this is OK blog etiquette. If it's not I'll soon find out.

The ‘terrain vague’ as material – some observations*

Luc Lévesque

At the crossroads of many, often contradictory trains of thought, jostled by the accelerated pace of change in modern society, the urban environment evolves along lines that are increasingly difficult to read. In this volatile context, a renewed interest in the ‘terrain vague’ has become apparent in the last fifteen years or so. Post-industrial urbanization creates more and more spaces whose murky status raises many questions.

Two opposing visions generally polarize discussion of these spaces. The first decries the disorder they represent in the city. The second, by contrast, highlights their potential interest as spaces of freedom in an urban environment that is increasingly standardized and regulated.

In the first view, the vacant, indeterminate zones that punctuate the urban landscape represent unacceptable socio-economic deterioration and abandonment. In the absence of the will or ability to overcome the root causes, the issue is often limited to one of ‘image’. The ‘terrain vague’ runs contrary to the desired image of a prosperous city. Because it punctures the ideal of plenty and order, generally associated with urban prosperity, it presents a problem. While waiting for future development to solve the problem, people try to ignore the ‘terrain vague’, abandoning it to lucrative parking lots or trying a quick cosmetic fix to minimize the possibilities for use.

For those who hold the second view, the ‘terrain vague’ offers a counterpoint to the way order and consumption hold sway over the city. Offering room for spontaneous, creative appropriation and informal uses that would otherwise have trouble finding a place in public spaces subjected increasingly to the demands of commerce, the ‘terrain vague’ is the ideal place for a certain resistance to emerge, a place potentially open to alternative ways of experiencing the city.

These two antagonistic views – briefly summarized here – are limited, each in its own way, by a degree of idealism. The ‘terrain vague’ may well symbolize economic stagnation, and, it is often associated with careless investors and permissive municipal authorities, but consigning it to urban decay, simply because it does not correspond to the ideal of a functional city, is reductionist at best. At the same time, to make the ‘terrain vague’, a priori, a territory of emancipation is to risk wallowing in a romantic vision with some disconnection with reality. The ‘terrain vague’ cannot be dissociated from the forces that produced it, forces linked in most cases to purely speculative motives unrelated to the public good; moreover, the forms of marginality it is likely to attract are of course not limited to the emancipated, creative and open-minded.

How can we move beyond these sterile arguments, which appear to limit the issues raised by the ‘terrain vague’ to an all-out struggle between order and disorder? To establish a hypothesis – ‘the ‘terrain vague’ as material’ – is to try to approach the issue by another path. It is to place in parentheses the qualities usually connoted by the ‘terrain vague’– whether debasement or emancipation – in an attempt to capture the conceptual and experiential dimensions, like so many substrates that might feed the eye and the intervention.

In this way, shifting from factual observation of the vacant lot to the more abstract concept of interstitial space expands our perspective to include a range of notions apt to stimulate discussion, whether linked directly to the ‘terrain vague’ or not. Etymologically, interstitial denotes something found ‘in between’ things. Referring to the notion of interval, it also means ‘a space of time’. Thus the interstitial embraces not only such notions as openness, porosity, breach and relationship, but also those of process, transformation and location.

More specifically, it is also possible to approach the interstitial condition of the ‘terrain vague’ as an urban resurgence of the wild. At the confluence of modern brutality (industrial infrastructure, dominance of roads and highways, real estate tabula rasa, etc.), ruderal colonization (flora and fauna), and urbanity (collective appropriations, user-friendly, local practices, etc.), urban wilderness confronts us with raw environments that embody the troubling contradictions that societies tend to repress or mask elsewhere. They are remnants that speak, in many cases, of the violence and irresponsibility of a world devoted to breakneck production, but also of the adventurous, tenacious forms of life that emerge, strengthened, by these hostile environments.

The ‘open’ city can become the laboratory for an intensified experience that offers new opportunities for urbanity, as long as we do not keep insisting on standardizing it at all costs. The idea here is not to favour the temporary or the natural systematically over the permanent and the planned, but indeed to aim for an active amalgam of heterogeneous components that broaden the terms of the experience. This approach is still underused in landscaping, where the tendency too often is to create a decor that is complete in itself, that represses or forgets the crucial role of bodies, the plurality of material tonalities and the richness of the unexpected. By contrast, what we see as important in an urban intervention is its capacity to start from what exists and generate new connections to reality, new ways of experiencing and imagining the city. Beyond the notion of re-landscaping, the issue of the ‘terrain vague’ summons up ways of approaching urban intervention today. At a time when the immediacy of electronic networking constantly reshuffles our perceptions of the world, looking at the ‘terrain vague’ as material means working at building with the indeterminate to generate a hybrid dynamic, one that is ‘in sync’ with the issues of our time.

Luc Lévesque, 2002.


*This article has been published in HOUSE BOAT / OCCUPATIONS SYMBIOTIQUES , Hull/ Gatineau, AXENÉO7, pp.6-7. An earlier version of this article appeared in Paysages, (newsletter of the Association des architectes paysagistes du Québec), Montréal, June 2001, pp. 16–18, under the title “Le terrain vague comme matériau”.

Luc Lévesque is an Architectural Practices History and Theory professor in the History Department at the University of Laval (Québec). He is an architect and a founding member of the urban exploration workshop SYN-. His recent research was about the possibilities of a side approach to the urban landscape. He is a member of the editing committee of Inter art actuel magazine and he supervised several reports about architecture, urban landscape and practices. As an architect, he collaborated with various American and European offices.

Friday, July 8, 2011

no going back for some

Since I moved the third week in June, I returned several times to my empty apartment before the end of the month. Among other things, I photographed in High Rez the walls which I couldn't take with me, and defrosted the fridge, then returned to empty the smelly dirty, melted fridge-freezer water and clean up a bit more. Took down about 10 bags of paper recycling and garbage, more stuff I didn't want. For what? They are going to tear down the building. I guess I didn't want to leave a total mess for the demolishers. Sort of like washing a dead body before you cover it in dirt. A bit macabre that reference, but apropos for the romantic ruin my home is to become. More on living within the Terrain Vague later.

I am reminded of interesting pigeon behavior after one of the many times we evicted them from roosting in our shaftway. I enjoyed their cooings as they nestled on my windowsills, but not the shit that accumulated there. Really seriously dirty and disgusting it was, just to think of whatever was wafted in on a not-so-fresh breeze right thru all that bird guano. And I assume downright hazardous to health.

All that said, I have to admit that it was the guys next door in 7 2nd Ave that got it together the last time we had to get the pigeons out. We had had to remove the chicken wire covering the shaftway again for the last FDNY inspection some long time before, so the pigeons had enjoyed a hassle free couple years probably at that point. (There were most likely other building issues more pressing, we couldn't address them all and it became kind of a losing battle. Resigned to Live and Let Live, I simply kept my shaftway windows closed. Besides, it was nice to have a version of wildlife so close-by in the city). So the birds had quite accumulated, and had a real robust society going all up and down the negative space between 7 and 7 and a half. It was early in the year and they hadn't laid eggs yet, a good time to evict. First shooing, screaming and waving, then broom waving, then a wild water hose didnt budge them. Eventually one of the guys went out, procured an airhorn and that did it. The birds scattered as nearly did I up to the Ear hospital on 14th street. (Or is that the Eye hospital?) Once bird-free, we quickly covered the top of the shaftway. No easy task, wrangling 200 square feet of chicken wire over a 5-storey hole and trying to secure it to nothing but the crumbling parapet wall.

An hour later the pigeons were back, pacing back and forth their pigeon wire, actively and obviously searching for a hole somewhere, hoping they could get back in to their homes.