History and Theory Experiments in the Swamps of New Jersey

swamp from biodiversity site

The swamps at the edges of my childhood town in Bergen County, New Jersey were strange zones of muddy flats and reeds that ended in the Manhattan skyline. If you grew up in New Jersey and were not that interested in going to the mall, you probably went to the swamps. We “swamp kids” were metal-head teenagers, who thought “fun” involved transforming this landscape by whacking reeds, shoveling out trails and building hills. The swamps were viscous landscapes, where virginity was lost, D-batteries drained (playing awful music on tape decks), and road bikes shot up dusty hills. The swamps were places where the more normative, middle-class trajectory of suburban adolescence was momentarily suspended. It was a space I constantly considered as a kid, but have not thought about in a long time.

The swamps of New Jersey never appeared in recent and hilarious representations of New Jersey youth, primarily because they do not fit the narrative role that New Jersey often plays. The swaps were the furthest thing from the “malls” — spaces that typified aspects of New Jersey town life and that are endlessly contrasted to the more urbane Manhattan. The malls of Jersey appear in publications and writings, but the swamps do not. But despite the swamps invisibility, I have come across the swamps again in the most unexpected of places — an art practice, an essay, a film. What I never knew, was that adults also saw the swamps as spaces of transfiguration.

Here is Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s video “Swamp,” (1971) filmed in the New Jersey swamps of Bergen County. It completely captures the minimal flora and sounds of these landscapes.

In an interview Holt conveyed some thoughts about the film

“it deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed as the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”

And Smithson added…”it’s about deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness”. 

As Smithson and Holt wandered the swamps, the swamps were used as dumping grounds for building debris from Manhattan. As a child, my friends and i could watch trucks roll into the swamps and dump bricks and stones into mounds which we would then climb. It is only recently that I learned that the remains of Pennsylvania Station were dumped here. Architecture history buffs traverse the swamps looking for the remains of this and other famous New York City buildings

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In the past few years, I have come across the swamps again, as an aspect of post-structuralist urban theory. In the opening passages of his essay, “Anxious Landscapes”, the architecture historian Antoine Picon recalls looking out of an airplane on his way into Newark airport and seeing a strange landscape neither wholly natural or human. Picon was viewing the swamps. His perception of the swamps begins this essay on architectural and technological history, concepts of nature, and the production of selfhood. The Anxious Landscape, as he labels it, can be seen in the New Jersey swamps, and in the visions of Piranesi, Boullée, and contemporary films, such as Blade Runner.

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Within this landscape of anxiety (the swamp and related spaces), Holt, Smithson, the scavengers, and Picon all revel in the momentary  disorientation.  For Holt, Smithson and Picon, the contemplation (or navigation) of this type of space produces an alternative form of subjectivity.  In Smithson and Holt’s video, we witness a type of anti-explorer — a parody of geographical exploration. In Picon’s essay, he also questions how one might navigate or map the anxious landscape without a corresponding transformation in the viewing subject. This is a form of landscape that demands a certain transformation in those that move through it. I suppose that was how I used the swamp, as a landscape in which to get a bit lost and to try to become something different.

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  1. martin

    The swamps occupy an interesting place in relation to New York City. It is relatively common practice around the world for swamps to be filled in to make them “more useful environments.” As if left on their own, they would eventually bleed into our “used” spaces. The mention of Blade Runner is interesting too, because the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” discusses a similar concept to the invading uselessness, called Kipple. AND, ironically enough, their God-figure in that book, Mercer, is seen (through virtual reality) climbing a barren hill in – of all places – a dried up swampland.

    All evidence that supports the idea that all “wasted” spaces are really the spaces of freedom and self-discovery.

    good stuff. i enjoy reading.

  2. dlgissen

    Thanks Martin. I particularly like your last point: “‘wasted’ spaces are really the spaces of freedom and self-discovery.” I plan on posting some “unused” dissertation material on another space that relates to that idea and the post above. But this space (mystery will be revealed soon!) operated within a much more publicly visible sphere. Thanks for stopping by.




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