Following Artists into Orphaned Space

This week in North Philly Notes, Mrill Ingram, author of Loving Orphaned Spacewrites about providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us.

Recently I had the opportunity to launch my new book, Loving Orphaned Space, the art and science of belonging to Earth, at a Madison, Wisconsin based community arts organization called Art + Literature Laboratory. I was really pleased to be able to celebrate the book at a center dedicated to expanding community participation and access to the arts. The book is rooted in research I pursued on art-science collaboration, which revealed to me a new perspective on how we sideline the arts as an optional, even leisure pursuit. I’ve learned how the arts can assist all of us in navigating the everyday and imagining and enacting a better future. It’s also provided a powerful new perspective for my writing on the environment. Because so many of us don’t experience the power art can play, we often don’t recognize what we are missing. Sharing that insight was one of the reasons I wrote my book.

Following artists around is likely to pull a person out of their comfort zone. It certainly has done so for me. For example, in my writing, I am compelled to center emotional impulses and images I might have previously sidelined. The roots of this book lie in what began as a very personal preoccupation with the scattered bits of open space so many of us are surrounded by, much of it dedicated to infrastructure and often abused. Why did I care about these spaces? Why did I want to know more about each one of them? By following artists (literally) as they venture into such spaces, occupying them in a variety of ways, my personal, individual feelings expanded into something more social, that involved feelings of belonging and connectedness, respect, and responsibility, as well as delight and surprise. Wow! All that in a street terrace!

In the book I describe the energy and the politics of keeping infrastructure spaces such as drainages, stormwater basins, abandoned gas stations, right of ways, so policed and “empty.” It is an active process, an “orphaning” that quite literally, disappears space by keeping ecological and social relationships simple. This takes physical effort – I’m talking about fencing, channelizing, lighting, herbiciding, and cementing. Brownfields are orphaned by the toxicity of pollutants they are storing. I want us to think about what this purposeful disciplining of space costs us. I’m also talking about a psychic erasure. We literally do not recognize this space as Earth. Our culture normalizes so much land as a commodity, something anonymous, bought and sold, and with infinite possible futures but no history.

Open space is an enormous amount of territory, representing some 25% to over 40% of land in many cities. This is true around the world, as cities expand, and shrink, at different rates than their populations shift. In the wake of the pandemic, this kind of territory is being increasingly seen as a “solution” to problems like polluted stormwater, flooding, urban heat islands, lack of green space in neighborhoods. But I think there’s more here. I see these as spaces of struggle. Their distribution is deeply influenced by histories of racism and discrimination. Through my work with artists, I came to understand such spaces as portals through which people like me, our privilege revealed by how easily we disappear all this space, can catch a glimpse of important history and relationships and recognize potential for action.

I share stories of artists who’ve helped me to see this disappeared space in new ways, but also present a general framework to help us appreciate the work of art in building new connections and producing new results. I argue that the arts, by engaging with science and technologies of infrastructure in new ways, can transform those processes, shifting the purpose and the outcomes of technical endeavors for new benefits and ends, including ways to address inequities. In the book, I describe discoveries in phytoremediation, a process by which plants help dismantle soil pollutants, produced by a Chicago based artist, and a new model for capturing dirty water running off roofs and parking lots. I also celebrate ways in which artists build unconventional relationships, including with nonhuman beings, that can free us up to realize new projects and to experience and feel in new ways. I write about this kind of expansive and emergent relationship building as artists’ “diplomacy,” a term inspired by Isabelle Stengers.

It took me a while to put many of these pieces together in a way that felt coherent enough to deserve a book. In some ways the process of “loving” orphaned space is just beginning for me. I see them anew every day. In preparing for the talk at the book launch, for example, I looked at an image of open space distribution in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the first time, I put together the lack of open space in what is a very open city, with the I-90 corridor, which, when built in the 1960s, obliterated parts of a thriving predominantly Black neighborhood. Many businesses were lost and 1 in every 8 Black households in Minneapolis lost a home. The neighborhood lives on, still rich, but adjacent to a thundering expressway with the health threats, disconnectedness, and loss of property values that freeways bring.

This kind of recognition is the opening of the orphaned space portal. To venture in, and to occupy, involves many skills I learned from artists. They are certainly not the only ones doing this work, nor should they be. But for me, they’ve enabled me to shift my perspective on the land around me. They’ve provided me with examples of how careful listening, telling stories, and building relationships inside and out, can connect humans to each other and to other beings in new ways that transcend notions of a functioning system and enter the realm of loving.

New video showcases Philadelphia: The “Hidden City”

This week in North Philly Notes we premiere our new video for Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, with authors Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, featuring photography by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

Philadelphia possesses an exceptionally large number of places that have almost disappeared—from workshops and factories to sporting clubs and societies, synagogues, churches, theaters, and railroad lines. In Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, urban observers Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall uncover the contemporary essence of one of America’s oldest cities. Working with accomplished architectural photographer Joseph Elliott, they explore secret places in familiar locations, such as the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street, the Divine Lorraine Hotel, Reading Railroad, Disston Saw Works in Tacony, and mysterious parts of City Hall.

Much of the real Philadelphia is concealed behind facades. Philadelphia artfully reveals its urban secrets. Rather than a nostalgic elegy to loss and urban decline, Philadelphia exposes the city’s vivid layers and living ruins. The authors connect Philadelphia’s idiosyncratic history, culture, and people to develop an alternative theory of American urbanism, and place the city in American urban history. The journey here is as much visual as it is literary; Joseph Elliott’s sumptuous photographs reveal the city’s elemental beauty.

 

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