Names vs The Nothing

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman: There’s this 80’s movie that I have a real soft spot for. I saw it in the theater in fact. Now I get to show it to my kids. It’s a good one, which is a good thing because when your kids like a movie, you end up watching over and over again. It’s called The NeverEnding Story.

Voice from the Movie: “The NeverEnding Story? What’s that?”

Roman: The Never Ending Story is a tale of a boy adventure named…

Voice from the Movie: “Atreyu!”

Roman: He and is luckdragon named…

Voice from the Movie: “Falkor!”

Roman: They’re trying to save the world from the onslaught of a terrible force called…

Voice from the Movie: “The Nothing!”

Roman: But the story also takes place inside of a book that’s being read by a present-day boy. A boy named…

Voice from the Movie: “Bastian.”

Roman: Pretty much all the dialogue in the movie is written with exclamation points. Anyway, so Bastian, the reader, realizes that he is actually written into the story and it’s up to him to save the storybook world.

[thunder]

Voices from the Movie: “Maybe he doesn’t know what he has to do!”

“What do I have to do?”
Roman: Bastian winds up defeating The Nothing. Spoiler Alert. By giving the empress of the fantasy world a new name…

Voice from the Movie: “He has to give me a new name. He’s already chosen it. He just has to call it out.”

Roman: It’s really hard to hear but he names her “Moonchild” there. I didn’t know that for like 20 years. The power of one child’s imagination saves an entire world! Seriously, it’s a great movie. Anyway, there’s a reason why I’m telling you this story. I want you to hold on to that idea. That a name can defeat a Nothing. With that in mind, here’s our producer Sam Greenspan.

Greenspan: Hey, Roman.

Roman: All right everyone in Listener Land, Names versus Nothings.

Greenspan: When I was a kid, growing up in South Florida, there was this beautiful green place where I always wanted to go play. It looked perfect for a kid to run around and throw a ball. It was a flat, mowed lawn that just stretched into infinity, but my parents wouldn’t ever take me there.

Roman: Yeah, but with good reason.

Greenspan: It was inside of a giant highway interchange. My 5-year old self would never have been able to convince my parents that this would be a good place to play because no responsible parent takes their kid to play catch of the side of I-95. But I don’t think I would even have known how to ask them to take me there because this place isn’t really anywhere that we think of as being a place. There’s no name for it.

Roman: Let’s call it, A Nothing.

Greenspan: As a kid, I couldn’t look away from this perfect grassy areas, but as I grew up and became a driver, I learned to ignore them like everyone else.

Roman: So, what happens when you give that Nothing a name?

Graham: That’s totally what I’m doing. Giving things a name.

Greenspan: So, this is my friend Graham.

Graham: My name is Graham Coreil-Allen.

Greenspan: Graham is an artist in Baltimore and he has this project where he’s trying to categorize and classify all the different kinds of invisible public spaces that we overlook. He published a field guide for how to spot them. It’s a part of a bigger project called, New Public Sites.

Graham: New Public Sites is… It’s an investigation into some of the invisible sites and overlooked features of our everyday public spaces within cities that are not traditionally framed as public space. It’s important to name these places because by giving these places succinct and fun and poetic names, we can help start a discourse about our public spaces and how we wanna envision them for the future. I’m reminded of The Never Ending Story. Bastian, you must give me a name!

Voice from the Movie: “Call my name.”

Roman: See?

Greenspan: Graham gives this tours where he puts his language to use, describing incredibly boring pieces of the Baltimore landscape.

Graham: This is the first site along the tour. In here we have a void. I remember the building that used to stand here, it was painted blue. Passing through it, you can imagine how us, as ghosts, should the building be standing here, would have to actually be invisible to pass through these walls and now it’s the reverse. The building is the ghost and we’re passing through these walls.

Roman: So, Graham is really giving the tour of a vacant lot.

Greenspan: Vacant lot is one way to put it, but notice what Graham called it.

Graham: A void.

Greenspan: And if you pull up his book that Graham published, sort of a field guide to these new public sites, you’ll see…alright, hang on… Okay, I don’t have the book handy but here this is the PDF. I wanna do Command F. V-O-I-D. Okay, page 14. “Void: A framed open space imbued with the psychic presence of a former mass..

Graham: …endure the profound immersion of seductively infinite nothingness.”

Roman: That certainly is a something. To find out more about these invisible public spaces, Graham and Sam rode bikes to the edge of East Baltimore to look at a few, like the one Sam pined for as a kid.

Graham: It looks like there’s a small parting that you can actually see through. Right now we’re at the foot of a small embankment that’s probably 15 feet tall or so, we’re gonna walk up to the edge of this embankment and meet a low-lying concrete wall that will safely separate us from the cloverleaf of traffic. Right beyond this on-ramp onto.., we’ll be able to hopefully actually look into a freeway eddy. So, let’s do that right now.

[car noise]

Greenspan: Right now we’re darting across the street during a huge volume of traffic.

Graham: So, look me at. There’s this curved highway exit ramp coming in front of us and maybe a 15 ft or 20 ft ahead of us, there’s kind of this almost like a wilderness area. Fenced in, it says “No Trespassing” right by it, Maryland Transportation Authority.

Greenspan: Correct.

Roman: With the invisible public space and site Graham turns to its field manual.

Graham: Freeway Eddy: An interstitial fragment of space between intersecting curves of highway pavement.

Greenspan: And there you have it. That grassy, non-place I always wanted to hang out in as a kid, now has a name. A Freeway Eddy.

Roman: Graham’s field guide To New Public Sites is full of new identities for these kinds of places.

[music]

Graham: So, here we have Median Refuge: A limital zone of linear respite between parallels of churning traffic.
Enlightened Elevation: Supple terrain providing the ideal incline from which one may gaze from a wide-viewing distance.
Monumental Isolation: Big, loose-parts. Movable materials that invite playful reconfiguration.
It is actually an architectural term. “Big loose parts.” It’s a pretty fun-sounding term if you ask me.
Triangle Crossing: A three-sided, concrete platform or asphalt zone providing solace for street-crossing pedestrians. We have Aural Saturation: The overwhelming occupation of a surrounding soundscape by site-generated droning noise.
Medium Refuge: A liminal.. pause of restraint.
Empty Signifier: a post or a poll absent of its original sign and/or meaning. Serious note… Soil horizon….

Greenspan: If there’s a common theme connecting these sites, it’s that they’re mostly the empty, left-over spaces from car-centered city planning. It’s an odd celebration of these nothing places. Listen to how Graham describes them.

Graham: Beauty that one can enjoy. Spectacular and sublime. Quite beautiful. This is a really beautiful spot. We’re actually standing right now in a long strip of sunlight that is created by the space between these two elevated highways. We’re at the Chinatown bus stop across the street from the Baltimore Travel Plaza, miles outside of the city. Perhaps the most unglamorous way to enter Baltimore and yet it’s a gateway for hundreds a week and it’s a quite beautiful space.

Greenspan: Here’s where I gotta draw the line, Graham because there are some trees, there are some birds, you know, I guess there’s some intent of landscaping this area around here. But it’s basically a big parking lot with some trucks, diesel gas across the street is a subway, there’s a bus stop. What are your grounds for calling this beautiful?

Roman: Let’s be clear here. You can call that grassy patch of a highway, a “Freeway Eddy” all you want, but I’m not gonna take my kids to play ball in one. A highway exit ramp by any of their name is still just as unattractive and dangerous.

Graham: This is beautiful because it’s a space that’s shared by so many and yet it was completely undesigned. This space was designed as a parking a lot and it’s become this huge nexus for people coming in and out of Baltimore. So, it’s not necessarily what it looks like, it’s more about what it represents.

Greenspan: Yeah, there’s no denying the experience of being in these new public sites is actually pretty terrible. But for Graham, the beauty is in their potential.

Roman: Sometimes, every day unremarkable spaces can become something more simply by virtue of people being there.

Greenspan: It’s worth noting here that Zuccotti Park in New York City, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, was a privately owned space and not a public park. So, if your goal is finding new spaces for engaged democracy to happen, as it is for Graham, then you need a way to redefine the places in your neighborhood and that kind of activity can happen.

Graham: And I think it’s important not to fetishize public spaces as only existing in town squares or Yosemite or Yellowstone or something like that. Not just the national mall in DC for example, but any place. Our everyday public spaces. You know, the spaces that we all share. It’s everywhere and we all have access to it. These spaces are the places where this happens. It doesn’t just happen over the Internet, it happens in physical spaces. New public sites are these physical spaces that we can appropriate, that we can make our own, if it’s only for a temporary demonstration then so be it, but maybe it’s for a farmer’s market, maybe it’s for a community garden, maybe it’s simply for a playground or a place where we need to add a few benches to make it a better bus stop, but nevertheless, there’s potential there. And by giving it a name and by starting that conversation, we can kind of get these ideas moving into reality.

Roman: So, it all comes back to a name against a nothing. When you give a nothing a name, you can re-imagine as a something.

Graham: If we can create terms for these otherwise invisible experiences and places and things that we all share, that we all of us share, these public spaces, these new public sites, then it’s a starting point. It’s a starting point for that conversation. By giving it a term, we can then talk about it and we all know what we’re talking about, then that’s the first step. The second step is envisioning, “Okay, well, how does this need to be improved?” And the third step is, “How do we do that?”

Roman: The naming is where it starts. I don’t know if I’d name anything Moonchild though.

Comments (3)

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  1. Kevin

    My favorite word for these spaces is “Spandrel”: the space between two arches in .

    Stephen Jay Gould also adapted the term it in the context of evolutionary biology. “Evolutionary biology needs such an explicit term for features arising as byproducts, rather than adaptations, whatever their subsequent exaptive utility.” So do places!

  2. Adam L

    I was fortunate enough to visit Edinburgh, Scotland, recently, and something that surprised me was that most of the roundabouts (of which there are many) had small parks in them. And much to my surprise, there were people in most of them, and it seemed like in many cases people were actually just hanging out there. I’d never seen anything like that in my native US.

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