An Atlas of Endangered Surfaces: A Conversation Between Ellie Irons and Christopher Kennedy
October 12th, 2015, 10:32 am: We’re sitting on a concrete road barrier at the terminus of a dead end street in Queens. Just behind us, Newtown Creek meets the East River. The Manhattan skyline shimmers in the distance and we can hear waves lapping on the shore below.
A few months ago this was a quiet, out of the way spot. Today, it’s a frenzied spectacle. Bulldozers thrash and moan, trees crash to the ground, plumes of dust and debris fly high. We’re witnessing the latest transformation of a site currently known as Hunter’s Point South.
More than four hundred years ago, this location was part of a great salt marsh in the Hempstead Plains grassland. The land we sit on was an “almost island,” regularly inundated by the vast estuarial flows of the East River. This tidal rhythm, this constant but consistent flux, had been in place since the end of the last ice age, when glaciers retreated and sea level rose in the New York Harbor, a process that was complete some 6,000 years ago.
In the early 1600s, as European settlers seized the land from indigenous peoples, this rhythm began to change. Marshland was infilled and topography leveled. By the mid-1800s the site was an active homestead, complete with domestic livestock. This gave way to industrialization at the turn of the 20th Century, when the site housed a sugar factory, an active ferry terminal, paint and varnish works, and eventually a newspaper plant. As American industry declined in the second half of the 20th Century, these activities gradually came to a halt, and in their wake the site was left once again to the rhythms of weather and tides. Over the following decades, a lush rewilded landscape emerged. It was a hybrid mix of new and old species, with an open meadow at its core and a thick band of trees running along the rivers bordering it on two sides.
This was the landscape we experienced when we were invited to participate in Chance Ecologies, a series of artistic responses and research-based projects that explore the value of wild spaces in the urban environment. The first iteration of Chance Ecologies, held in the Spring and Summer of 2015, provided a framework to explore, archive, and memorialize the re-wilded landscapes of Hunter’s Point South before its impending development.
We visited many times throughout April until late September, walking desire paths that had been forged by human and non-human alike, marveling at the quiet, the space, and its biodiverse terrain. As we explored, we came to appreciate the ground beneath our feet. To enter the site, we would cross through the recently developed park to the north, where we found a blend of anthropogenic materials and surfaces: concrete, astroturf, Bermuda grass-filled lawns, and patio decking. As we hopped a fence, the surfaces changed quite drastically: rich, freighted with meaning, and delightfully unpredictable. We encountered everything from plastic silt deposits, decomposing bricks, layers of historically deposited construction materials, and an interspecies growth of knotweed, mugwort, cottonwood, mulberry, and assorted grasses among others.
We began to document and archive these “endangered surfaces” through a process inspired by amateur field science and movement-research, systematically collecting a series of “aerial” photographs, surface samples, and video. We call the project, The Atlas of Endangered Surfaces, and it provides a comparative study between the spontaneous, un-designed spaces of the former Hunter’s Point, and the textures and structures that will take its place as redevelopment and gentrification continue. The resulting documentation serves as a source material for a sculptural artwork, video installation, and book [currently on view at Radiator Gallery] that visualizes the changing terrain as we moved from boardwalk decking and sidewalk pavers to construction debris and wildflowers.
Now it’s early October. The air is still mild and the sky perfectly blue overhead. Plants are going to seed, preparing for oncoming winter and the following spring. But spring won’t bring growth here. We’ve returned to Hunter’s Point South to witness its destruction, and to reflect on our experience working on Endangered Surfaces together. As we watch the bulldozers, our discussion ranges widely, from land art to novel ecosystems1 to the politics of urban greenspace, all the while accompanied by the sights and sounds of the site’s dissolution.
[East River Ferry fog horn] _
Christopher Kennedy: What do you think of these soil movers, these machines?
Ellie Irons: My god. They’re incredible. They’re sublime. They’re the embodiment of what we’re investigating.
EI: Yeah, humans as earth movers…but they’re also horrifying. They’re everything that the site wasn’t three weeks ago. How are you processing this?
CK: I don’t know. I’m feeling a little terrified. I feel like these things are beasts.
CK: Long elongated snouts, sniffing for sediment.
EI: Totally, sediment sniffers…and then there’s this dump truck driving by with a huge load. They’ve really transformed the site…the topography is…unrecognizable.
CK: It’s interesting to see just the diversity of material emerging from the surface. The production of space comes with all these consequences… [a dump truck rumbles by]
EI: Right! And that’s tied up in what we were talking about yesterday, the kind of practice versus a kind of heroic land art mode…I think that’s why some of those artists [Smithson, Morris] became interested in reclamation, as in how to use a quarry to make a public art work. I mean, producing this kind of awe, destruction, all of that stuff is bound up in there.
EI: I think that’s why we have to find a different way to work with the landscape, because the human impetus towards spectacle and towards using our powers on the landscape to create wonder or awe…I’m not sure exactly what I’m getting at but we have to find a way to be more subtle…
CK: I was really enamored with Spiral Jetty when I was really young. I thought oh my god this is so amazing…
CK: …and then I read more about it and realized it took years to move all this earth and wasn’t actually good for the surrounding ecosystem. Oh, this scene right now…[A large oil truck enters the site, passing directly in front of us.]
EI: Oh my god…umm, incredible.
EI: I wonder if they’re actually going to use that oil on site to refuel their machines…I mean I’m sure these machines are monstrously hungry.
CK: The beast is being fed.
EI: They can’t actually eat the stuff that it looks like they’re attacking. For consumption they need fossil fuels.
CK: A ginormous oil truck is just descending into the site…oh god.
EI: And here comes the helicopter with some surveillance…
[a helicopter buzzes overhead as we wait for the rumble of the oil truck to recede]
EI: So we were trying to edge towards what we’ve accomplished here by starting to talk about earthworks and what connection that has to Smithson’s non-site work…
EI: By his methodology, we would take piles of this [gesturing to massive piles of dirt and debris] and we would put it into the gallery and it would refer back to the site. What we’re doing is something different. By collecting this material, we’re aiming for a different kind of reference to the site.
CK: I think of a lot of that is just simply making visible what is often unnoticed, and I think what we’ve done is very subtle in a way, that’s really beautiful and necessary…
CK: Because there’s such an impetus for ecological art to be so connected to urgent, alarming things – whether it’s data sets or pictures of ice caps melting – and so often the methodology and the strategy for participation and engagement has to include something really, like you’re saying, spectacle-worthy.
EI: Yeah, true.
CK: But I don’t know if I really believe that’s how people’s belief systems and thought patterns change. I actually think it’s through subtle and intimate individual or group experiences where a memory is formed, and stories are told to friends…where a network of accountability can emerge.
EI: Totally, and that’s a different experience and information stream than what you can find being broadcast everyday by large corporations or entities that don’t care about you, or by media that is perhaps seeking to inform you but not necessarily to engage with you in such a way that you actually change your mind about something.
CK: Right. I guess I’m tired of the guilt driven art that I see sometimes when there’s a socially themed show. I’m more interested in getting people excited about things that are literally right in front of them.
EI: I think that’s a huge part of it. I mean, we’ve lost it here [at this site], but it can exist in other places and by cultivating engagement with or excitement for it then perhaps we carve out more space for these things to continue existing in the future, rather than being reduced to this.
EI: It’s a strategy for building a sensitivity and awareness for smaller, quieter, slower, less resource intensive ways of appreciating the world.
CK: Yeah and I’m sure you see this a lot in your own work; once you start a project, and people are involved in that project, it lasts beyond whatever function it has in a gallery setting. After you started seed collecting I’m sure people would send you pictures or say, “Look Ellie I found this plant!” Right? That happens to me all the time. People will send me pictures of fungi, and I maybe haven’t talked to them in three years but they now think about mushrooms because I facilitated an experience with them.
EI: Yeah, that’s huge. They’re thinking about mushrooms, they’re thinking about you, and had the impetus to actually take action and send you something.
CK: Yeah, for sure. They took a moment to notice. What about this term “endangered”?
EI: Yeah…that is a good question. Maybe it’s a little like when I decided to call my plant pigment project Invasive Pigments. Because I grabbed the term “invasive” everyone’s like “Whoa! Oh no! Invasives!” and it’s not actually that I think that we need to freak out about these plants, but that it has a cultural cache and it gets people invested initially. In a way I have a problem with that: I’m using this alarmist term to get people interested and it leads to some misinterpretation and having to explain a lot, and I feel like “endangered” has a bit of that.
CK: Because it’s more institutionalized, right?
EI: Yeah, because of the history of what an endangered plant or animal is, and the legislation around that, but it’s also realizing that those plants over there [gesturing to plants at the edge of the site, not yet bulldozed] aren’t just sitting there doing something by themselves and you’re separate from them and you tearing them out by the roots is separate from you. It’s completely connected. We have to come back in and plant something in there. And because we plant something in there, then we have to maintain it and it takes a certain amount of human capital to maintain these ecosystems. So where do we want to put our resources? Are our resources really best supported by mowing lawns, and using herbicide and maintaining a designed landscape? In some situations yes, but in other situations it’s ok to let it be free to go wild.
CK: Right, and I feel like it’s a lot about time and hyper-realism, this idea that we can manage time and we understand temporality in a certain kind of way. I think ecological time is often outside the boundaries of our understanding. Or we construct a lot of narratives in our minds and the social systems that adopt and reproduce those narratives don’t allow us to access the true idea of what ecological time really means.
EI: Yeah I really like that…
CK: The argument is always, it’s easier or more efficient to do this now as opposed to a long-term, 10-year project that would be there for generations.
EI: Yeah a lack of understanding of how fast things change….
CK: [Benjamin A. Huseby] talks a lot about this idea that we use nature to tell stories about who we are. For him it’s about nationalism and identity. Referring to where botany originally became a scientific discipline, in Sweden, he says, “With a country with a very recent tradition of forced sterilization, of ethnic minorities, and transgendered peoples, the fear of the other, the dark, the exotic…botanists even talk about keeping genotypes clean…”
EI: Yeah. The language in there is fascinating. Even in the realm of cultivated plants there’s this snobbery in terms of if it’s a hybrid and what kind of hybrid, or if it’s a “pure” strain.
CK: Right…so curious and quite dangerous, no?
EI: I heard this fascinating thing from an ecologist who’s on board with the novel ecosystems concept. She went with me to survey plant life in a vacant lot recently and she was saying, what’s so funny to her is that plants are so good at exchanging genes. A lot of them are polyploids and they have multiple sets of DNA and can incorporate new snippets. There are some native plants that are coming back and doing better in New York City and they’re being celebrated. But she says, I bet you anything if we see [this newly successful native’s] DNA we’re going to find out that it’s mixed with an exotic. So they’re now mestizo. They’ve mixed with a foreigner and they’ve got an advantage from being mixed. And they still look like a native plant. She’s says there is other language you can use [i.e. cross-species hybridization] but that’s what it means. That’s the discussion that’s being had.
CK: Wow…but the main argument from botanists and biologists is that non-native species will irreparably harm an ecosystem, so is it a moral question?
EI: I would love to talk to this Parks Department woman I went out with when seed gathering with about that. She was someone who really bristled when I mentioned novel ecosystems and I think her main thing is not necessarily that these non-native plants are inherently bad but that if we embrace them, we embrace a system that doesn’t advocate for restoration. And she thinks restoration is important.
CK: And biodiversity?
EI: But that’s also negotiable because the ecologist I mentioned who’s on the pro-novel ecosystem side was saying you get this local microclimate diversity in places that have introduced species. So there might be native and introduced and they’re all together in this little pocket and it’s actually more diverse but that globally we might be heading towards less biodiversity in areas that have similar climates. But that’s just what humans do.
EI: We’ve basically created a bunch of new migratory paths and connected the continents via travel and shipping. It’s not a land bridge, but it’s permanent along as we keep up global trade. And then there’s the amount of effort required to take patches of land back to some ideal state, say pre-1600 if you decide that’s what it is. Then you’ve got this war mentality that emerges. There’s an invader, get it with the poison and rip it out. What kind of relationship to living things is that in the end? To have these remnant patches that your fortifying against what you view as the fallen. And you get this garden kind of thing, who’s outside the wall and inside the wall – what’s perfect and what’s not…
CK: I mean epistemologically this way of thinking emerges from a “Tree of Knowledge” model where it’s assumed that we have binaries. There’s Truth with a big T, and an Absolute with a big A. Lesser things are at the bottom of the tree, and more advanced or “better” things are at the top. That’s the central thesis of capitalism in a lot ways…that there is Truth in a system of competition, survival of the fittest.
EI: Right, and for this article I was working on I did a little research on that and came across all these agricultural department websites that are studying weeds, or different ways to manage your garden, and a lot of it is directed at people who love plants. But then the crazy side, that flip side is that you love plants but you love a certain group of them and so you have to use this war language against the other group. Vilify them in order to make them other…
CK: And to rally support, organizations like The Nature Conservancy need something to rally against.
EI: And they can’t rally against capitalism, because they need big donations.
EI: They have to find something else.
CK: BP is part of the plan.
EI: Yeah…because they need to…the karma thing, right?
CK: It’s for the greater good somehow…
EI: And that’s why I was looking at this landscape [as it was pre-development] and saying it’s already functioning; it’s already working. It’s doing something for us and we haven’t really done anything for it. I mean in this case it’s a specific landscape but overall why do we need to pour more energy into destroying more stuff.
CK: And then put energy into designing a landscape on top of an existing one.
EI: It’s already there and it’s not just that one landscape, it’s just the idea that everything has to be fixed and improved…to be sustainable means solar panels and certain native species planted and maintained.
CK: Right…I guess one of the larger questions for me to is about housing and equity. I believe there’s a need for more housing in NYC for sure, but I do wonder about this obsession with building something new on lands that haven’t been touched or have these functioning novel ecosystems when there’s a lot of existing space. Maybe it’s a matter of taking stock, or moving up, instead of out. Or rehabbing space.
EI: I think that’s what is so crazy to me. We need density, but we also need open space because we have density.
EI: I think that touches on something that I’m concerned about in terms of the stuff I’ve been working on with vacant lots. What’s my social responsibility as an artist coming into a space that could be looked at as ungentrified (at least in the last forty years), doing an art activity there and then gentrifying it slightly because I’m doing that. Here people were already using this site for recreation, and we, as artists, didn’t have anything to do with it disappearing. So it’s kind of a different situation than if I went to a down-and-out neighborhood that maybe could make an empty lot into a community garden, and asked them to keep it wild. Everyone deserves a nice space to be in outside. Whatever neighborhood you live in…So what role does green space play in gentrification? What role does “wild” green space play versus designed green space? And if we’re able to change people’s perceptions, so that wild greenspace is more desirable, does that mean that we make it inaccessible to a group of people who can’t afford the neighborhood? There’s someone I’m corresponding with who’s studying this in Japan and in Australia and he calls it informal green space. He’s interested in mental, physical, cultural, and biological benefits of green space. He finds communities that are actually using the alleyway behind their house because they tore up the concrete and they have let it go wild or they’re planting something or the edges of canals that aren’t meant to be accessed, but people have cut holes in them and go fishing there. He’s basically asking, if we facilitate more of this, if we help people see these spaces as desirable and beneficial, does that mean the people who already know they’re good won’t be able to use them anymore?
CK: I think the “waterfrontification” of New York is really dangerous. It’s definitely been leveraged as a tool for economic development, alongside this idea of “cleaning up the neighborhood.” And I think more access to the waterfront is great, but all over Brooklyn and Queens, more and more places are becoming like this [gesturing to the already developed park to the north] and I don’t know if that’s OK on some level when certain people are displaced, priced out, or a park is managed like a business.
EI: Yeah…it sort of comes back to capitalism. There’s not enough government intervention to keep space affordable. There needs to be more affordable space everywhere and there need to be rehabbed buildings like we were talking about. And they should fill in, and finding ways to make more, better housing exist in places that are already there.
CK: What’s interesting to me though is that things like this change people’s perception and memory of what they thought this place used to be. I was just talking to this person that lives in this condo right there and she’s just like “Oh, it’s so much better and so much more beautiful now because they put in this park.” Because there are recreational things for people in this very obvious way we assume it’s better than what it used to be. So I don’t know, I really think it’s more complicated than that.
EI: Right, exactly. It’s not like the waterfront has not been made accessible to us until this it what happens to it.
CK: Right, because it was there all along.
EI: And there were people using it.
CK: Right. And there’s something about the erasure of histories that’s really problematic, too – like turning the Gantry into a monument for this new theme park style livable space.
EI: I think being forced to look at that dichotomy between the two spaces, the designed park and the wildness of the site, and going back and forth every time I came here – the shift exposed so much texture and friction.
CK: To know that there was once a salt marsh here, and it was a homestead and the land has been dramatically changed geographically and geologically… Wow.
EI: This scene is a metaphor for what we’re doing to the whole planet. Walking through there seeing the quantities of earth being moved. That’s what humans are doing. We are the biggest movers of sediment.
EI: We move more than rivers, more than wind…Working with this site has been a microcosm for thinking about development and biodiversity and ecosystems. And just watching it move from what it was, to what it is now…the presence of the designed side has been really informative.
Ellie Irons is an interdisciplinary artist and educator pursuing the long tradition of the artist-naturalist in a contemporary, hybrid format. Focusing on urban ecology, Irons uses a variety of media, from walks to WIFI to gardening, to reveal how human and nonhuman lives intertwine with other earth systems. The objects and experiences she creates often probe the concept of the Anthropocene, a hypothetical geologic age defined by a massive interplay between our species and all other matter.
Christopher Lee Kennedy is a teaching artist who works collaboratively with schools, youth and artists to create site-specific projects that investigate queer identity, radical schooling, and local ecologies. These projects generate publications, research, performances, and ongoing exchanges that celebrate the collective knowledge of a place and its forgotten histories. Kennedy is currently an assistant professor in Art and Design Education at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.
- A novel ecosystem is a system of abiotic, biotic and social components that, by virtue of human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” — I would add to this (via ecologists I’ve talked with about it)- that it’s a space that is so heavily manipulated that it would be impossible (or extremely difficult) to return to its previous state. Hobbs, R., Higgs, E., & Hall, C. M. (Eds). (2013). Novel ecosystems: Intervening in the new ecological world order. Oxford, U.K: John Wiley & Sons. ↩