Do urban open spaces, whether comprised of small planting beds and gardens or larger parks and reserves, signal the juxtaposition of two worlds, two forms of life, one human and one natural and nonhuman? Or are those spaces necessarily embedded within the logics of real estate capital that shape cities? And if so, can this be avoided? This article explores the operation of three large-scale site-specific artworks in New York City that suggest other logics by which botanically dominated spaces might operate in the city: a recent work by Mary Mattingly entitled Swale, as well as two more well-known works, Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape and Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation. These works share similar form, scale, and media but most significantly function as social practice artworks that enact multispecies performances. Drawing on notions of urban cosmopolitics, the article considers how these works illustrate and perform alternative worlds and forms of life in an environment that is perceived as hostile to those ways of being. These works resist a totalizing impulse in the production of urban architectures and landscapes that would prematurely foreclose the world to nonhuman agency through a project of human control of all environmental variables. Theories of heterotopias as counter-spaces facilitate exploration of “displacement” as a metaphor that accounts for both the attempted eviction of alternative environmental practices and the works’ ongoing strategies of resistance. Through tactics such as orderly frames, sustained interactions, and cleverly attenuated performative practices, these works resist co-option within capitalist logics, which would prematurely close off the worlds they call into being. My discussion of these art-activist efforts brings authors on multispecies relations into conversation with landscape and urban theorists, raising possibilities for more-than-human modes of understanding urban and environmental design practice, with these activist artworks providing inspiration for and interpretation of alternative urban spatial practices.
I met Brooklyn-based artist Mary Mattingly at Yankee Pier on Governors Island in New York City. She and an assistant were aligning the gangplank of a massive floating barge with a gate in the railing of the pier to which it was moored. Her assistant stood on the midpoint of a thick rope, ten feet above the water, sinking slowly downward, as the barge drifted toward her, simultaneously pushing a volume of water ahead of it and yielding space for water behind. Once aligned, Mattingly retied the rope at the barge’s other end, fixing the vessel in place. The 130-by-40-foot platform hosts Swale (2016), a “floating food forest,” created by Mattingly, that migrates throughout the city by month and season (fig. 1).
These linked movements—moving away and drawing near, taking and yielding space—are made explicit by Swale, which through its nautical presentation raises the questions and possibilities of displacement as a way of understanding our relationship with the environment around us. Displacement is a slippery word, calling forth a broad field of concepts, among them naval architecture, urban gentrification, and psychoanalysis. Thinking with displacement lets us ask how does one thing give way to another, or not, in material or conceptual spaces that are always already full and never empty? And when something yields, where does it go? Displacement attends to the always shifting, flowing, gently rocking relationships between things, ideas, and practices, rather than the things themselves, a measure of how things hold and move one another. It is a concept that invites mindfulness of the negative topological space that frames the relationships we usually emphasize.
Mattingly created this place, where perennial fruits and vegetables are available for the picking, in response to those places where they are not: the parks of New York City. Seeking a territory beyond the restrictive regulations of seemingly public space where interference with plant materials is banned, Mattingly took to the water, making space for an activity that had been displaced from the city. Across the harbor, in Manhattan, two more well-known projects in the environmental/land art canon illustrate a similar approach to that found in Swale, on more conventional land, though some of it only recently constructed. In the sections that follow, I explore Mattingly’s work alongside two other, more well-known interventions in the fabric of New York City: Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965), an enclosed patch of urban wilderness in a Midtown right-of-way, and Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), a season-long performance of wheat production and harvesting on the construction site of Battery Park City. These works are read against architect Rem Koolhaas’s thesis of “Manhattanism” as an impulse toward total control in the urban environment, embodied in the repetitive urban grid.
Can public parks, art, and other gestures instead promote other ways of being in the city, rather than displacing them through human control? To situate this conversation, it is worth first considering a few more well-known concepts that draw on ideas of shifting movements for inspiration. Michel de Certeau develops an account of spatial practices in part through reflections on walking in New York City, another form of urban movement with its own give and take.1 This essay draws on his theory of insurgent practices to consider the relationship between strategic and tactical dynamics of space making in the city that these site-specific artworks reveal. Likewise, the position of these projects both within the dynamics of large-scale public art and its associated permitting and financing mechanisms provides an opportunity to reflect on the manifestation of Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of “lines of flight” in the city.2 If urban environments can tend to territorialize and homogenize space, at the same time, lines of flight point to latent possibilities for deterritorializing the city and making other things possible.3
These projects perch on the edge between suggesting another world and relying on this one to make that possible. Alongside these concepts—tactics, lines of flight, and displacement—I especially draw on notions of urban cosmopolitics to explore how these projects point especially toward politics and ways of being that operate differently than our usual attitudes, which hold nature and culture separate, especially in the city.4 Here, I take cosmopolitics as an attention to concerns that don’t fit in conventional strategic paradigms, a space-making gesture that doesn’t run away or shrink, but holds open and resists. Cosmopolitics originates in the work of Isabelle Stengers and suggests slowing down and holding open space for the distinctive worldviews and concerns of various parties in a given situation, human and nonhuman, rather than a rush toward resolution, integration.5 In those hurried processes, many important but unappreciated concerns can be lost.
I argue that these artworks operate against the strategic dynamic of Manhattanism through a series of clever tactics that prevent their being subsumed into the logics of urban capital and point toward other heterotopic landscapes and associated forms of life latent within the city. They function as reminders that total control and an artificial environment are impossible goals and hold conceptual space for other possibilities. Further, they suggest tactics for resisting the mechanisms by which so many place-making interventions—from arts-based efforts to community gardens and parks—can sometimes contribute to the neoliberal “political ecology of gentrification.”6
Relationships are increasingly becoming a medium mobilized in artwork, as evidenced by the rise of social practice and biological art, and more explicitly within landscape design, most recently via ideas of projective ecologies and adaptations of ideas of “open works” and indeterminacy into design.7Swale and the other works this essay discusses expand our consideration of what relationships such a practice could conceivably encompass and what forms of resistance they draw on. In these practices, a more substantial form of “tactical biopolitics” can be seen, which blends the insurgent aspects of tactical urbanism with the biopolitical entanglements of environment-art-activist projects.8 In their scaling-up and release into the urban fabric, these works engage directly with entire landscapes and urban infrastructures, in ways that suggest what a more-than-pedagogic tactical biopolitics could become. These kinds of artworks don’t simply reflect the world as we ordinarily describe and see it, but imagine alternative worlds that might emerge were other concerns considered. And more important, thinking with cosmopolitics, these artworks stage radically different points of view on the environments we take for granted, shifting judgments on what matters most.
Is the always-retreating Swale Edenesque, a briefly experienced garden of plenty, floating in the inhospitable water? Or do the policies governing parks and public spaces that Mattingly is reacting to,9 with their literally forbidden fruit, better represent Paradise? Which is the garden and which is the wilderness? Either way—whether the garden is retreating, or tempted humans are expelled—there is an act of displacement involved, a removal of something from its position.
How might displacement guide us in understanding the radical possibilities these works present? Displacement is a common nautical measurement, representing the weight of a ship through estimations of the weight of the volume of water displaced by that ship’s hull. It suggests a bulky material strength, the sound of steel straining and subtly shifting against the pressure of the surrounding sea, that is resonant with notions of performativity. Displacement also appears in psychoanalysis, suggesting a mental defense mechanism by which unacceptable ideas, especially in dreams, are masked through substitution with more innocuous ones.10
Displacement can also be seen as a means to cosmopolitically resist the pressures of premature closure, to keep worlds buoyant. Cosmopolitics suggests a slowing down, keeping issues unresolved in order to better appreciate them, rather than swallowing them up into tidy solutions. A number of scholars have made connections between ideas of cosmopolitics and environmental design. Ignacio Farías and Anders Blok propose an urban approach to cosmopolitics in a recent edited volume, writing that “Cosmopolitics involves a form of conflict between different ways of arranging and articulating entities and relationships, of composing the common world . . . it is a process through which an always transitory urban cosmos, open to disruptions and redefinitions, is constituted.”11 Another recent book, What Is Cosmopolitical Design?, argues for following “the threads used by architects to build the structures needed to bring the whole Earth on stage, along with the political body that is able to claim its part of responsibility for the Earth’s changing state.”12 And Farías applies the related term, cosmogram, to urban park master plans, saying they “are neither shared nor complete representations but rather partial images inscribed in material objects that circulate in public spaces, which leaves them exposed to criticism, additions and replacement by other cosmograms.”13 Cosmopolitics is one of the threads that Donna J. Haraway weaves together in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, where “art-design-activist practices” figure prominently in her investigation of how we might respond to the Anthropocene, an era when humans have purportedly become a dominant influence on the Earth’s systems.14 The worlds that these works—Swale, Wheatfield, and Time Landscape—illustrate the possibility of other more-than-human “forms of life,” a frame Thom van Dooren and others have borrowed from Wittgenstein to describe the more-than-genetic ways of being associated with species.15
Swale can be measured in terms of its displacement on several of these levels. The barge displaces seawater, of course. But it also takes something else that has been displaced from the city and its inhabitants—the act of foraging—and brings it close, like the woman standing on the rope, whose downward motion caused the barge to be brought nearer. Displacement isn’t just a pushing out, it is the other side of replacement, really just a side effect of a taking of place. Displacement is an active process of resistance. The water is not simply parted, like the Red Sea, leaving a void behind, stacked at a comfortable angle of repose: Swale simultaneously claims and occupies this space. That which displaces needs a strong hull to resist the pressure of the surrounding water. Too light, and it will float on the surface, never making a space for itself; too heavy, it will sink; too weak, and it will leak or be crushed, penetrated and overtaken by the surrounding medium. Mattingly’s selection of the barge as a site raises the question of displacement as a way of describing the work very literally. But whether on land or water, Swale and the other site-based works discussed below suggest that displacement is an essential concept for understanding their role in the city. Swale and the two other works I describe illustrate tactics of resistance that allow them to float, so to speak, in our cultural milieu; but their deeper function can be uncovered by reflecting on how these tactics collectively enact alternative forms of life and trouble the urban environments they travel within. Are there places where cosmopolitics are most likely to be found unfolding, where alternative ways of life and the entities interested in them are at work? Displacement can be a trope that reminds us to trace where these populations go, and to be attentive to the new relationships, good or bad, that form as these spatial dynamics are stretched and contorted.
Displacement in the City
European inhabitation of Manhattan is fundamentally a story of displacement, beginning with the Dutch settlers who first “purchased” the island from the Lenape in the 1620s to their eventually being largely pushed off of the island by the 1680s.16 The Dutch paid in goods approximately equal to $24 at the time, but this transaction was likely misunderstood by the Lenape.17 And of course the eventual displacement of the Dutch colonial governance is made clear by New Amsterdam becoming New York.
Other entanglements of capital and displacement color the island’s history in surprising ways. In the 1850s the production of New York’s premier urban nature required the displacement of free African American communities known as Seneca Village and Yorkville, along with smaller immigrant settlements. These thriving communities, which occupied land that would eventually become Central Park, were condemned by the city, and residents, many of whom were property owners, were displaced. As the rural portions of Manhattan were being developed land speculators generally favored the creation of the park and the increased value it would create for nearby owners while some reformers argued instead for distributing public land for homesteads that might enable more independent livelihoods.18 The late nineteenth and early twentieth century would bring additional stories of displacement and movement as waves of immigrants rapidly reordered the city’s demographic fabric.
In recent decades, gentrification has become a substantial issue, as urban depopulation has reversed itself, and properties assessed at lower values, such as those found in industrial areas and minority communities, have been taken over by whites returning to the city, inaugurating an affordable housing crisis, with nearly ten thousand low-income families departing New York City each year in the 1990s.19 However, statements by gentrification advocates, like New Urbanist Andrés Duany, reveal that this is about changing cultural norms through “rub-off” effects.20 It isn’t simply people that are being displaced, but specific ways of being, by design. Duany’s comment is startlingly explicit, and in response it demands an attention to the subtle ways that spatial coding emphasizes some lifestyles and the racial categories they are problematically associated with. Through various practices, space comes to be racialized and race is spatialized, to the benefit of some more than others.21
These moments of displacement also reveal emergent cosmopolitical potential. The complex history of community gardens in New York is illustrative of both the promises and the fragility of this kind of politics. In the 1970s, many low-income and minority communities, with historically less access to preferred locations and resources in the city, began creating their own public space in the form of community gardens by reclaiming vacant lots. These gardens represented new forms of public space and constituted an invocation of the right to the city. But as the city’s fortunes changed and property values began to increase again, the city under the Giuliani administration began attempts to displace these gardens, prompting resistance in turn.22 The creation of the gardens, the resistance to their destruction, and their eventual formalization are compelling political moments that have produced an interesting new component to the urban fabric, as well as its underlying bureaucratic mechanisms.
While the environmental artworks this essay considers don’t make much contribution to addressing the systemic inequities that generate urban displacement, they do provide compelling diagrams or tactics for opening space in the city, albeit tuned toward botanical rather than social dynamics. Integral to understanding these works is their engagement with their context, the relationship between forms of life, spatial and temporal form, and siting that each employ. The form that these site-based works share, the rectangular frame, and the way they create and occupy space where previously there was none of value suggests a common spatial operation, which is essential to understanding their function.
The water, the highway right-of-way, the construction site: these are unlikely places for artworks, but they are the places in which Mattingly, Sonfist, and Denes respectively chose to stage their worlds. These are not spaces that are typically considered as part of the city—they collectively suggest negative space, the ground to the city’s figure, similar to Michel Foucault’s conception of heterotopias, “which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.23 Foucault identifies a number of “principles” that define heterotopias, among them that they can change in their function and operation in response to changes in the broader culture that produced them and that they juxtapose in a single space seemingly incompatible spaces. “The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel . . . The ship is the heterotopia par excellence.”24
Like Swale, heterotopias create dynamic, shifting relationships as they are displaced from positive cultural space. Henri Lefebvre also takes up the idea of heterotopia, positioning it as “the place of the other, simultaneously excluded and interwoven,” in active relationship with other spaces, sometimes formed by those operating outside societal norms, but eventually reconsumed.25 David Harvey contrasts these two attitudes toward heterotopia, emphasizing that people, through the practices of their daily lives “create heterotopic spaces all over the place,” seeing them as revolutionary “irruptions” that have the potential to coalesce into larger collective action.26 Public spaces themselves can be seen as confrontations between many heterotopias, as themselves “heterotopias of difference,”27 where various forms of life come together.
The artworks discussed below suggest many of these ideas of heterotopias, from the remnant spaces outside of the typical environment of the city to their “irruptive” character as they activate particular conventional landscapes through their performance of alternative practices, operating as what Harvey and Lefebvre might call “spaces of representation.” They also suggest a broadening sense of possible relations in the public realm of the city, whether through the nurturing cultivation of wheat that demonstrates an alternative form of value, a sharing of permaculture food that is more potlatch than transaction, or an expanded sense of the public itself that holds space for nonhumans.
And while later refinements to the concept of heterotopia offer a sense of the more plural world these works imagine, Foucault’s original sense of the heterotopia—evoking a network of counter-spaces for displaced forms of life that inverts and mirrors the positive space of the city—is most useful for understanding what they are and how they operate cosmopolitically. He writes that one trait of heterotopias is that “they have a function in relation to all the space that remains,” either as illusions that “[expose] every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory” or by creating “another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”28 These, as we will see, are precisely the cosmopolitical roles that these environmental artworks play in response to the city, two moves by which they function as heterotopias that resist closure.
Mattingly’s Floating Worlds
Swale “asks us to reconsider our food systems, to confirm our belief in food as a human right and to pave pathways to create public food in public space.”29 It specifically responds to ordinances forbidding foraging (and other removal of plant material) in New York’s public spaces by extending the public sphere away from the law’s jurisdiction and onto the water.30 The hull of the barge contains intimate walkways and planting beds; garden tools spill from a shed that also serves as a focal point for workshops and gatherings; gardeners and visitors work and rest—in short, all the things one would expect of a vibrant community permaculture garden. But Swale is migratory, not permanently rooted on a particular piece of ground or situated in a particular neighborhood, as the gentle rocking of waves from passing ferries or freighters constantly reminds. Trees, shrubs, and perennials—such as apple trees, raspberries, and native herbs—are tucked into bulging geotextile bags of soil, all of which have been brought onto the barge, relocated from elsewhere. Below the bags of soil and the delicate gravel of the walkways there is no bedrock, just the steel bulkheads and hull of the barge. This totally artificial but nonetheless lush landscape is dedicated to “rethinking and challenging New York City’s connection to our environment.”31Swale suggests an ironic reversal: an artificial island hosts a living and productive, if humble, garden alongside a once-forested island, Manhattan, now occupied by an almost totally constructed and incredibly resource-intensive urban cityscape.
But which community does this migrating permaculture forest serve? Floating structures and aspirations of self-sufficiency recur in Mattingly’s work, which responds to often-apocalyptic concerns with utopian proposals.32 The earlier Waterpod (2006–10), a domed structure on a smaller barge, also served as an aquatic habitat for one, the smallest unit of larger ad-hoc nomadic networks and water-based communities (fig. 2).33 Her installation Triple Island (2013) at Pier 42 on the Lower East Side was a tripartite structure capable of floatation perched along the shoulder of the East River after Hurricane Sandy, illustrating self-sufficiency through the provision of shelter and food production, while anticipating future flooding, a commentary on the disadvantaged neighborhood’s resiliency that treads somewhere between idealism and cynicism. Over the course of its installation, Triple Island was inhabited by a sequence of short-term resident artists, who lived on-site and attempted to utilize the artwork’s environmental systems while also helping to host visitors to the installation.34
Like Waterpod, Swale’s community is ad hoc, but rather than forming at sea, it forms in relationship to its landing site, with people arriving for events and workshops—some artistic and others educational—from the dock to which it is tethered (fig. 3). When I boarded it, Swale had just been towed by tugboat from a park in the Bronx to Governors Island, where it would rest for a month before being relocated again, to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Like Mattingly’s work, Time Landscape is also the product of a manifesto of sorts (fig. 4). In his essay “Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments,” Sonfist calls for the creation of monuments to the nonhuman world, saying:
Now, as we perceive our dependence on nature, the concept of community should honor and celebrate the life and acts of another part of the community: natural phenomena. Within the city, public monuments should recapture and revitalize the history of the environment natural to that location. As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcropping should be remembered.35
To accomplish this, Sonfist proposes a network of fifty monuments around New York City representing ecosystems and topographic features, the purpose of which is to develop greater awareness and connection to the natural world and its rhythms. The proposal is later expanded to include nearly one hundred potential Time Landscape sites around Manhattan, all situated in rights-of-way, medians, or adjacent to public parks, and each referencing a lost natural feature—”small pockets within the dense urban fabric that could be returned to a moment in time prior to European settlement.”36 The Native Forest Landscape installation in Lower Manhattan, circa 1978—the first and so far only of these monuments to be implemented—occupies a 45–by-200-foot rectangle of land fenced off from the surrounding city, a remnant owned by the New York City Department of Transportation and now managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Sonfist aims for a collective change in our attitude toward the environment that sustains us and as such engages a range of people in myriad ways toward a better understanding of environmental relationships. In his essay, Sonfist describes these time landscapes as “monuments of observation,” and suggests the application of technology to illustrate phenomena outside our perceptual range, such as celestial events, and public announcement and celebration of seasonal changes like bird migrations and solstices—patterns displaced from the city’s dominant rhythms.
Sonfist utilized experts in various fields such as botanists, geologists, and historians to develop his initial concepts for Time Landscape and robustly document the previous environmental conditions he seeks to recover. He also mobilized the community directly in his public works.37 Documentation of the 1965 exhibition where Sonfist initially proposed his monuments was intended as a manual describing a “step-by-step program for creating other Time Landscapes on diverse sites,”38 suggesting the indirect engagement of a broader public in the creation of these works. At the Native Forest Landscape, he worked directly with local community members to plant native species in three zones on the site, which initially illustrated distinct moments of a forest undergoing succession but over time have matured into a single heterogeneous plant community.
The Time Landscapes proposal invites us to expand our “perception of what constitutes the community,” which Sonfist extends to include animals, plants, and natural processes.39 In an interview he describes the idea of a “Nature Theater” where the activities of animals and plants become a performance, emphasizing that nonhumans have souls, just like us. “They definitely do communicate with each other and they also communicate with humans if they are willing to listen,” Sonfist says.40Time Landscapes as envisioned broadly and prototyped at the Native Forest Landscape is useful for thinking about cosmopolitical operations in the city. By employing what landscape architecture theorist Joan Iverson Nassauer might call an orderly frame,41 Sonfist’s landscapes allow for a compatible re-placement of displaced nonhuman forms of life within the urban environment around it, maintaining a presence and the hint of a larger world and the broader agencies that ultimately sustain urban life. This move suggests one of the urban cosmopolitical figures that Farías and Blok propose—an agencement—referring to the “material-semiotic agencies and their effects on the city” that emerge from assemblages of humans, technologies, texts, and so on.42
Compared to the scale of Sonfist’s vision for Time Landscape, which suggests a broader spatiotemporal conversation, Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation is seemingly a much more focused work, a single statement that occurred in the summer of 1982, when Denes, two assistants, and several volunteers raised a two-acre field of wheat on the future site of Battery Park City (fig. 5). The ethic that Denes brought to the creation and care of the wheat field contrasts starkly with the surrounding environment, dominated by skyscrapers. Denes writes that
the land I used was worth $4.5 billion. It produced a field of wheat worth perhaps a couple hundred dollars on the stock exchange. But it was the first wheat in Manhattan in 300 years—perhaps the first ever, since the Indians planted mainly corn—but also the last while civilization lasted, so perhaps worth more. But that was not my intent. Wheatfield was a symbol, a calling to account. It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns. It was an intrusion into the Citadel, a confrontation of High Civilization. Then again, it was also Shangri-la, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures.43
The area was a dumping ground for material from prior excavations at the World Trade Center’s construction site, covered in rubble and garbage. Denes and her team cleared the lifeless site, covered it in a thin layer of topsoil, which they then meticulously shaped into 285 furrows and planted with wheat seeds, all by hand. Over the course of the summer, they tended the field, weeding, fertilizing, irrigating, and finally harvesting it: the result was one thousand pounds of grain.44
Rather than the conversation and collaboration that Sonfist’s work suggests, Denes’s project is indeed confrontational in its visual juxtaposition of the wheat field with the city’s skyline, and the labor of Denes’s team as compared to the Financial District workers that look on or the construction workers who begrudgingly allow her access to the site. But eventually, she notes, as the wheat emerged the project was adopted by those construction workers. It was a conversion of sorts, or at least acceptance, of the unfamiliar yet plucky project, that emerged through increasing familiarity. Like the orderly frame surrounding Time Landscape, this durational engagement suggests a subtle form of assembly, Farías and Blok’s characterization of the “contingent and situated processes by way of which new urban concerns, constituencies and publics come together across difference.”45 Denes’s work seems to illustrate in this way a slowing down (as Stengers calls for in her cosmopolitical proposal46), which emerges through the life cycle of the wheat plants, a material and biological fact put into practice.
The world that these heterotopic and cosmopolitical works respond to is the city within which they are embedded. Manhattan, while incredibly diverse in the activities that shape it, can be read as a utopia of sorts, but only for some. Architect Rem Koolhaas, in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, synthesizes the city’s architectural evolution into an unconscious ideology guiding the city, which he calls Manhattanism, “whose program—to exist in a world totally fabricated by [hu]man[s], i.e. to live inside fantasy—was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated.”47 This statement, which seemingly anticipates the city’s ability to foster other forms of life, points to the kind of illusion that these heterotopic artworks challenge—the closing off from the other factors that ultimately sustain these worlds. Manhattanism, a celebration of the “culture of congestion,” operates through a process of multiplication where innumerable sites are created first horizontally through the grid laid out across the island, and then vertically through the creation of skyscrapers, which replicate each block skyward. The countless worlds within each building and floor are disconnected from one another and the monumental exteriors of the structures through what Koolhaas describes as a “lobotomy.”48 The city, through this multiplication via the grid, “becomes a mosaic of episodes, each with its own particular life span, that contest each other through the medium of the Grid.”49
Although this vision seems to suggest a diversity being produced through the grid, another architectural theorist, Pier Vittorio Aureli, rejects this in his book The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture , focusing instead on the mode of production that shapes Manhattan’s process of urbanization, rather than simply its form. He finds within it only segregation, a false difference masking the totality of capitalism and its all-consuming desire for control rather than a true and “absolute” separation, emphasizing self-sufficiency as a necessary component of any space that is to be more than mere enclave. Aureli writes: “Bound to the regime of the economy, this logic of inclusion/exclusion dissolves the potential dialectical conflict among the parts of the city, and transforms confrontation and its solution—coexistence—into the indifference of cohabitation, which indeed is the way of living in urbanization.”50
While Koolhaas might argue for the utopian character of Manhattanism as an agenda, clearly this agenda doesn’t encompass everyone, and is focused on a particular form, the skyscraper. Aureli’s model, more than Koolhaas’s, accounts for the negative space of the city, where interesting things can happen, and opens up the possibility of other forms emerging. The distinction that Aureli identifies is the same one that cosmopolitics focuses on—the emergence of something shared through the preservation of difference rather than simply a continuation of an artificial closure or separation that only masks the totalizing logic of capital and its urban spatial operations.
Koolhaas opens his narrative investigation with a “Prehistory” describing the settlement of the city, the first sentence of which quotes the island’s earlier name: “Mannahatta.” This prehistory describes how Native Americans and early Dutch settlers were displaced by an increasingly organized strategy of development. Along the way he references the diversity of the island’s underlying landscape, topographically and climatically, and Broadway, the odd diagonal across the city’s regular grid. Broadway, of course, follows the route of an old Native American trail.
These features are the same ones that inspire Sonfist’s work, which seeks to reveal an older experience of the island. Likewise, Denes’s description of her wheat field refers back to previous generations that farmed there. And in Mattingly’s work, we see resonances with both agricultural and hunter-gatherer lifestyles that previously occurred in Manhattan. These works are reminders, in contrast to the culture of congestion, of other cultures, and other publics, beyond the one that Koolhaas describes.
Koolhaas refers to an “urbanistic Ego” shaping the city’s blocks, employing a psychoanalytic metaphor.51 The ego refers to the part of a personality that “mediate[s] between the id and reality,”52 suggesting an internal politics, attuned to contradiction. With this in mind, there is the possibility of sketching a model of the city that aligns with Freud’s, via Koolhaas. First, there is the underlying reality—Mannahatta—in all its diversity, that asserts itself in myriad ways, as when peregrine falcons roost on skyscrapers, coyotes wander through Central Park, or nonhuman agents otherwise emerge. Second, we have capitalism, pure desire for control and consumption and pleasure, a raw cultural id. Third, we have the urbanistic Ego, mediating between these two, Koolhaas’s model suggesting a way to manage and rationalize the capitalistic impulse of the city. Koolhaas describes Manhattanism as a desire to live in a totally constructed environment, one where humans would presumably exert total control. Total control is inevitably an impossible desire. Reduce the scale, however, and perhaps that illusion can be maintained over a certain amount of space, and for a certain amount of time.
Last, we have our artworks, these humble heterotopic interventions. For all of their effort to point toward other ways of being, each of them is a large-scale, funded project, created and executed in concert with the institutions and government agencies that sustain the city and its grid, and thus very much a mechanism of the capitalist economy and its rationalizing structure. How can we understand this seeming paradox, between the support of signature cultural institutions of high art and the vernacular alternatives these works illustrate or endorse? Displacement suggests a mechanism.
What these works point back to, in the little temporal or spatial remnants they hold outside of the occupation and multiplication of space by real estate, is that underlying contradictory reality: Mannahatta.53 This is something quite uncomfortable, and understandably repressed, in a city like New York. The city is after all, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, currently ringing itself in a system of flood control structures, not unlike those of its original namesake Amsterdam’s polders, that will begin to visually hide the unpredictable harbor and the dangers it presents from the city’s residents. An agitated state produced by fear of imminent disaster would be a strange and unsustainable thing to live with day in and day out.
Farías, as he evaluates the cosmopolitical implications of an urban park in a tsunami-prone region of Chile, suggests that its function is to “civilize” and govern this geophysical agent by mitigating its impacts and accommodating it in the city.54 These small artworks, then, perform a similar function of accommodation. They remind us, through their performances of the steady and fragile toil of agriculture, the serendipity of foraging, the undirected life of plants and emergent ecosystems, that total control is untenable, that other relationships and forms of life may just be possible, and possibly very necessary. In these sites, these voids, Mannahatta—the island hidden by the city—reemerges, calling itself simply environmental art, through moments of urban displacement.
How do we position Swale, so to speak? Mattingly calls it a “sculpture and a tool,”55 but these terms seem inadequate to describe what is experienced much more like an environment or an architecture, in the sense that it is entered into and inhabited, by humans as well as plants. That’s certainly the case with Triple Island and Waterpod, both imagined and for a time occupied as dwellings. Is Swale a landscape, or even a seascape? Theorists associated with landscape architecture and geography have long wrestled with these terms, tracing their origins back to earlier generations of Dutch, German, and English speakers on the shoulders of the North Sea, and considering the varying ways they have been used to refer to sites themselves or depictions thereof.56 More recently, landscape urbanists—a cohort of practitioners and theorists particularly interested in large-scale networks and postindustrial environments—have conceived of landscape as “medium” and “model” of the now ubiquitous urban environment, emphasizing its ecological characteristics, specifically open-endedness, indeterminacy, and self-organization,57 and often engaging with sites that are residual by-products of contemporary economic processes.58 This is one way to access the more performative aspects of landscape that these works hint at, especially in their urban heterotopic context. But another conception finds more resonance with the intimacy of these worlds and the attention to nonhuman interrelationships they call forth: Kenneth Olwig proposes a “substantive nature of landscape,” drawing out an etymological history for the term that emphasizes its performative and political, as well as material, structurations.59 Olwig develops his reading by looking back to the “lands” of Northwest Europe that formed their own political units. Landscapes, in this light, become socio-material worlds. Swale, floating around on its barge, seems an unlikely landscape, in the conventional sense, but its ad hoc politics and aspirations for alternative social ordering resonate with Olwig’s sense of the term, provocatively illustrating the cosmopolitical register to which landscape practices could once again aspire.
Time Landscape and Wheatfield both share with Swale many attributes that may aid in situating them collectively. Each has a rectangular form, smaller than a typical Manhattan block: Denes’s Wheatfield is the largest at 2 acres, while Swale is 5,200 square feet, and Time Landscape is 8,000 square feet. Each project employs vegetation—whether in the form of wheat, fruiting plants and shrubs, or historically native species—and by extension, central to each work is the horticultural activity necessary to realize each vegetal assemblage. And each occupies a site in the interstices of the urban landscape. Wheatfield occurred between its host site’s creation as a landfill for material from construction of the World Trade Center and its transformation into the construction site for Battery Park City. Mattingly seeks extra-jurisdictional waterways with Swale. And Sonfist chose a strip of right-of-way—a void in the fabric of the city (other examples of such voids include the residual parcels acquired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates).
Wheatfield, a temporary installation, is gone, now occupied by the high-rise development and manicured park spaces of Battery Park City (such as Michael Van Valkenburg Associates’ meticulously curated Teardrop Park, which nonetheless materializes other environmental processes via features like its dripping wall). The weedy Time Landscape persists, always rhythmically changing and evolving behind the tall fence that surrounds it. Swale is always on the move. Representation, primarily through photographs, and less often drawings, is therefore an important way in which these works become known. Scene or site? Here again arises the tension of landscape raised by its theorists. The dynamic character of these works, appearing in surprising places in the crevasses left by urban capitalist systems, suggests that the more contemporary conceptions of landscape can also be seen at work here. Mattingly invokes utopia in her manifesto, a word literally meaning both “good place” and “no place,” and perhaps pointing to the displacement of our dreams of a better life from the material world and into the representational one.
These environmental art-activist landscapes require a performative dimension to sustain them and the common-worlding they articulate. But while art, and public artwork in particular, can easily become incorporated into the capitalist logics of place-making-oriented gentrification schemes unfolding in places like Manhattan, these works operate differently, thanks to this performative dimension. Social practice art is a term used to describe a community-minded approach to art, often engaged in forms of resistance to commodification—“artists devising social situations as a dematerialised, anti-market, politically engaged project to carry on the avant-garde call to make art a more vital part of life,” Claire Bishop writes in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.60 Although Bishop is skeptical of an uncritical uptake of these works, whose political and ethical evaluation muddles their critique as artworks—especially when maximization of audience authorship or participation is the primary criterion—there is resonance between the political-economic resistance of social practice art and the environmental artworks we’re considering. Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined the term relational aesthetics to describe this mode of practice and critique, argues that “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of actions within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”61 It is precisely the horticultural and spatial models of action these works enact that is the key to their resistance.
Miwon Kwon, in her essay “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” tracks an evolution within site-based artwork from its emergence in the 1960s—when “site-specific art, whether interruptive or assimilative, gave itself up to its environmental context, being formally determined by or directed by it”—forward to more contemporary works that illustrate a “deterritorialization of the site” that “leaves behind the nostalgic notions of a site as being essentially bound to the physical and empirical realities of space.”62 Kwon correlates this shift with the inevitable ability of the current socioeconomic order, which “thrives on the (artificial) production and (mass) consumption of difference,”63 to co-opt those processes in extractive ways, turning sense of place into a marketable and acquirable commodity.
Swale, Time Landscape, and Wheatfield each in their own way suggest the seriality that Kwon associates with commodification—the first is always on the move; the second is envisioned as part of a network; and the third was performed again in Milan and London. Yet, compared to site-specific sculptures that might occupy an urban plaza, like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which Kwon references as illustrative of the “physical inseparability between a work and its site of installation,” or other later works that exhibit a “semantic slippage between content and site,”64 these works manage to somehow keep their engagement with a sense of place and site, while nonetheless exhibiting nomadicity or seriality. It is this ongoing engagement that I argue represents the cosmopolitical potential of these works, their ability to hold open space for world making.
How is this resistance accomplished? Maria Hellström Reimer considers Time Landscape and Wheatfield as “unsettling ecoscapes,” in contrast with more conventional environmental or land artworks that exhibit conservative tendencies in their mythologizing of the relationships between humans and nature. Reimer refers to their ability to reassume landscape’s “spatio-temporality,” emphasizing Time Landscape as a newly established “agent in a new environmental context,” and Wheatfield’s potentially “agitating effect.”65 Both works operate not only ecologically, but territorially and politically—Reimer points to the former’s colonization by litter, invasive exotics, and the homeless, and the latter’s contrast with the surrounding real estate market. This characterization suggests that if the works are indeed shaped by a process that is both spatially and temporally performed through planting, growth, and/or harvest, co-option may be problematic, because the ongoing production of these spaces operates in ways that run against the capitalistic logic that Kwon describes.
For Wheatfield, the power of its image only matters through its juxtaposition of site conditions, changing meaning dramatically in different contexts, as evidenced by its recreation at another more compatible site in London that contained associated milling and baking installations on a vacant plot of land. Reimer argues this reproduction enacts a shift from contemplation to agency; the new image produced is one that lacks the dramatic contrast of the earlier installation, but instead offers a new one suggesting an insurgent reclaiming of production—the potential for contrast lies in the modes of action that produce the work and to which they are juxtaposed. Despite the seriality of the work’s components themselves, the context, and the field of relationships it provokes, is not easily replicated—there is only one Manhattan after all. Even more, the temporal aspect of Wheatfield ensures that the desired effect is only maintained for a few weeks at best before harvest. During the remainder of the year, the crop grows for a few months, and after the harvest the land must literally be left fallow until the next planting, preventing the possibility of co-opting the event’s potential.
Time Landscape explicitly illustrates fallowness as a process with its own agency, which may or may not be easily appropriated, given the entangled weediness that has replaced the author’s vision of what constitutes a “Native Forest Landscape.” This is ironic given the parallel shift in ecological thinking away from notions of fixed trajectories and climax communities to a recognition of disturbance and contingency in ecosystem composition. While Sonfist wished to illustrate a (pre)historic Manhattan, the question that Time Landscape itself has posed is whether the image of “native forest,” reconstructed again through management of invasives and detritus, is primary, or whether fully unpredictable wildness is more what Sonfist was interested in. Answering in favor of wildness would mean that any attempts at management would functionally destroy the work—the recreation of the “native” image through sustained human intervention would render it innocuous background landscaping in the increasingly ubiquitous paradigm of sustainable native plantings. Time Landscape is taunting us to come over its fence, knowing full well that we would risk its significance as art in doing so, even as it moves beyond the artist’s original vision of what native vitality might mean (fig. 6).
Similarly, Swale’s travels create a sense of spectacle, but in its inevitable retreat any sense of site value that might be derived is fleeting; and this spectacle is unlikely to be particularly valuable, given the ultimately mundane character of the work itself, which is that of a humble community garden (fig. 7). Ultimately, there is something about the way these works make or perform their identity as sites that are distinct from other environmental art—which, as Reimer and Kwon suggest, often emphasize more static and received images of our relationship to the environment—and are underwhelming in comparison. Their fleeting or changing presence and spatial seriality in these cases in fact aid the resistance of these works to commodification by undermining the stability of their value. While Bishop might be skeptical of participatory art’s conflation of political and aesthetic criteria and the ability and qualifications of activist art to accomplish political goals, perhaps some credit could be given for the “modes of conceptual and affective complexity” and not only their location within but also their mobilization of “a specific time, place and situation” as dynamic ingredients in their construction.66
If there is any ethical or political criterion that emerges,67 it is not simply democratic, but perhaps some cosmopolitical sense of care.68 As an often asymmetrical and always messy world-making practice (that sidesteps any questions of audience or spectator that bog down such debates about participatory art), care becomes a way to reveal the relational complexity of these projects, both in their performance and their overall political attitude. In the practices of care insisted on in their figuration, these projects accomplish their resistance and successfully hold space for other ways of relating in a striking and indeed monumental manner. They continually hold open the promise and possibility of a common world that captures other, more-than-human forms of life in the city.
As a genre of art, the meaning that these particular works point to is sometimes nostalgic and sometimes imaginative, but always resolutely other. What would it mean to allow the wooly wildness of Time Landscape to extend beyond the fence and play a prominent role in the urban territory by design? Is there a logic for the city in which a wheat field meant for consumption could logically exist alongside the planet’s most valuable real estate? Could apples for the picking line the city’s streets and parks without being read as a tragedy of the commons or a potential liability? There is increasing interest in and awareness of urban nature, permaculture, and other practices that begin to illustrate that such possibilities are compelling and viable. And what these moments share is a sensitivity to and recognition of the value of plants, animals, and other surprising others within the city.
In these voids—the landfill, the vacant lot, the waterfront—there is a space where something “absolute” can sprout. The landscape urbanists who, like Koolhaas, exhibit an interest in capitalist urbanizing processes, would tell us that these spaces are simply part of the urban metabolic cycle, the inevitable waste or dross of any healthy organism,69 ready to be reclaimed by some place-making process as the next postindustrial amusement park, an argument that serves to validate the global forces of urbanization. Landscape architect Gilles Clément offers an alternative interpretation, referring to these neglected sites and leftover territory, which he calls the “Third Landscape” (a term that resonates with notions of “blasted landscapes”70), as the main refuge for biological diversity, writing, “It is the space of indecision, and the living things that occupy it act freely.”71 This definition assigns a positive value and a sense of occupation, rather than absence, to these heterotopic spaces. Most importantly, Clément suggests a sense of agency to be found in them. Even though nonhuman life has been displaced from broader landscapes into hedgerows and roadsides, its potentialities remain, pointing the way to a collaboratively composed “planetary garden.”
While relational and social practice art are often focused on human-to-human relationships and democratic or anti-capitalist goals, the concept of relation as form that those artists call forth is worth considering in this more-than-human light. Haraway, in Staying with the Trouble, identifies a number of artworks that engage with and advocate for other species, which invite us to consider new directions for our spatial practices and modes of representation. In her attention to projects that emerge from indigenous groups or speak to the plight of nonhumans, Haraway demonstrates a sympathy for and appreciation of the displaced. She also recognizes that by reopening to the possibilities offered by others, we may find some hope for the challenges we face. These “engaged science art activist worldings [are] committed to partial healing, modest rehabilitation, and still possible resurgence in the hard times of the imperial Anthropocene and Capitalocene,” which illustrate what she calls sympoietic worlding-with, a collaborative vision of space-making practice across species.72
Haraway’s vision of more-than-human, cosmopolitical worlding is a useful one for understanding the urban environment that the works considered above aspire to inaugurate. Seen in this light, the native plants and weeds, wheat, and fruiting shrubs become active nonhuman participants in these works, equally responsible for the cocreation of alternative environments. These works, as they scale up environmental art activism from the gallery to the landscape, provide compelling examples for rethinking how we design and perform urban environments, and making manifest the relationships of care necessary to sustain life of all kinds.
The challenge, one that flies in the face of our usual impulses, is to let things play out, and allow new relationships to emerge that we didn’t—and couldn’t—predict. Any other move is only to perpetuate cycles of displacement. This is the lesson that cosmopolitics offers for me—to bring one world alongside another, and see what happens. In the case of Swale, this comes in the form of high-speed plate tectonics, where distinct socioecological communities are brought together via a floating island. Simple addition won’t necessarily work, however. If one world is pulled in, another may have to go. Realizing Swale’s vision of edible fruit lining our streets and parks means attending not only to legal limitations but also to auto emissions and pesticide applications, aesthetic and economic expectations. Making a common world is a slow process, and requires careful attention to those less-than-integrative practices that have held things apart for so long.
These works don’t necessarily offer a fully integrated vision, without conflict, but instead gesture toward other concerns that ought to be remembered or considered. And so they really do function as monuments, like Sonfist suggests, to precisely the kinds of heterotopic networks that have been written off as waste and absence. Like so many other monuments, in their mythologizing of particular moments in our relationship to the nonhuman world, they anticipate a space in which a new public can form to explore and contest those very issues, modeling new forms of life and imagining new worlds. Unfortunately, that space hasn’t yet come to pass, and those publics have yet to coalesce. In the meantime, these works remain floating, cosmograms in a bottle, potently drifting in the urban milieu.
Thank you to the reviewers and editorial team for their assistance in preparing this article, and to the artists for providing use of the images accompanying the piece.
For arts-based efforts, see Grodach, Foster, and Murdoch III, “Gentrification and the Artistic Dividend”; for community gardens, see Horst, McClintock, and Hoey, “The Intersection of Planning, Urban Agriculture, and Food Justice”; for parks, see Loughran, “Parks for Profit”; for “political ecology of gentrification,” see Quastel, “Political Ecologies of Gentrification.”
For projective ecologies, see Reed and Lister, Projective Ecologies. For ideas of “open works” and indeterminacy in design, see, for instance, Waldheim, “Strategies of Indeterminancy in Recent Landscape Practice”; Blau and Rupnik, Project Zagreb.
For “tactical biopolitics,” see Costa and Philip, “Introduction.” For tactual urbanism, see Lydon and Garcia, Tactical Urbanism. For the biopolitical entanglements of environment-art-activist projects, see those profiled in Kirksey, Multispecies Salon; or Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
The laws governing New York City Parks recommend fines of up to $15,000 or no more than six months in jail for persons who “deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation” in the city’s parks and open spaces (www.nycgovparks.org/rules/section-1-04). This policy also precludes foraging.
Yaneva, “Introduction: What Is Cosmopolitical Design?,” 14 (emphasis in original).
“Swale—A Floating Food Forest,” www.swaleny.org/ (accessed March 11, 2019).
“Mary Mattingly—Swale,” Mary Mattingly, marymattingly.com/html/MATTINGLYSwale.html (accessed March 11, 2019).
“Waterpod™ Concept,” Waterpod™, 2008, www.thewaterpod.org/concept.html.
“Mary Mattingly—Triple Island,” Mary Mattingly, marymattingly.com/html/MATTINGLYTripleIsland1.html (accessed March 11, 2019).
Sonfist, et al. “Time Landscapes,” 2015, www.alansonfist.com/landscapes_time_landscape.html (accessed September 6, 2019).
For a more recent and comprehensive attempt to map the historical landscape of the island, see Sanderson, Mannahatta.
“Mary Mattingly—Swale,” Mary Mattingly, marymattingly.com/html/mattinglyswale.html (accessed March 11, 2019).
For instance, Berger, Drosscape. This project is emblematic of the urban metabolic dimension of landscape urbanism theory, which ultimately reifies neoliberal capitalism as what might be called a world ecology. See also Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life.
The onto-ethico-epistemic argument that authors like Barad lay out seems like an especially fruitful avenue to explore the ethical dimensions of such artworks. All art, like all material-semiotic things, is already political. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway.