'waiting' by Jason Larkin published by Photoworks and Fourthwall Books 2015

Ideas Series Essay: Waiting in Ameixeiora

The waiting.today website expands on Jason Larkin's images from our recently published photobook 'Waiting' with texts exploring global notions of the same theme. Here Paul Goodwin writes on a new community housing project in Portugal.

I have always been fascinated by the nature of time in the city. We usually understand cities as crucibles of space. Cities are arguably where we have our most powerful spatial experiences: great architecture, public spaces, parks, buildings, dwellings and so on. In some senses, space – as container, product and mental representation – has come to define our relationship to cities in an era of massive global urbanisation. But time and temporality are just as central to the phenomenology of urban life. Waiting is a suspension of the dynamic flow of time and experience. It is a pause, a gap, a black hole, a shadow of temporality between a start and an end point. Deleuze said: “It is never the beginning or the end which are interesting; the beginning and the end are points. What is interesting is the middle – all the points between the beginning and the end”[1] The truth of this observation hit home to me during a troublingly hot afternoon while on an artistic research visit with some artists to investigate and map a group of isolated shanty towns and run down housing developments in a place called Ameixoeira in the periphery of Lisbon, Portugal in the summer of 2009[2]. We were aware of the fragile nature of time in shanty towns like the ones in Ameixoeira as they were literally being bulldozed into non-existence by state authorities and residents had little choice but to wait to be ‘rehoused’.

Leaving Lisbon in the morning I remember we passed through a huge white city of glass and towers on the way to find Ameixoeira and stopped off for lunch. We were lost. Ameixoeira, like nearly all shanty towns are off the map. They are invisible, lost, submerged and liminal spaces. For most Lisbonites they exist only in the lurid newspaper headlines and TV news reports about the crime wave and threat to decent people that purportedly emanate from them. By car from Lisbon it took us at least two and a half hours to find it. On the way we stopped to ask people we assumed were locals or residents of the area. Most had heard of it but didn’t know how to get there. As I gazed out of the car window I caught a glimpse of a sign above a shabby looking small cafe. It read “Snack Bar Paradise”. Locals were sitting outside, looking, waiting in the sun.

Ameixoeira began as a new community housing project built originally to provide very low cost housing for Portuguese young people and low-income families to tackle the acute housing crisis. More recently these developments had been occupied by mainly African (Cape Verdian, Angolan, Mozambican) immigrants and gypsy communities who were relocated from adjacent shanty towns. There is a large presence of evangelical church activity in these neighbourhoods. The almost total absence and even abandonment of the state was very evident in Ameixoeira. My general impression of the space was one of it being a space of desolation and isolation; a wasteland of failed modernity.  It was a ‘non-place’. It had almost no urban amenities – parks, squares, open public spaces etc. It’s geography consisted of a number of huge ‘super barrier blocks’ arranged in rows – linear avenues – on top of a hill. The main social spaces – I hesitate to use the term ‘public’ – were linear streets and ‘avenues’. At one end of the main street was a huge, monstrous chapel-like building that pointed upwards to the sky, probably a pastiche (or homage?) to Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp. This we were told, was originally built as a cultural centre for the gypsy community but had since been largely abandoned and rarely used.

Residents, particularly young people, sat around in groups, on the street, watching, waiting.  Watching each other? Waiting for whom? For what? For something to happen? Time seemed to have been frozen in Ameixoeira. Nothing happened, nothing moved. Everything was flat and still. There was an abundance of space. Space dominated everything. There was no sense of place. Spaces overlapped each other in linear rows that seemed to lead to nowhere and generate no activity, apart from children playing in the street. Time and space are out of kilter in this place, I thought. ‘The time is out of joint'[3]. This was not Lisbon time or even ‘urban’ time. Ameixoeira had its own indecipherable, hermetically sealed temporal logic and chronology. Concurrently the space was overdetermined, folding in on itself. All you can do in such a place is wait and look. There is little spatial, temporal or cultural material from which to create coherent, meaningful social trajectories. Urban navigations are useless in this kind of space because there is nothing to navigate from or to. It is an urbanism of bio-political stasis, designed to contain and render non-mobile, docile occupants, not citizens. If the time is ‘out of joint’ and the space is folded in on itself, where can you go? What can you do? Nothing, nada, zero, terminality. The end product inevitably is a population turned in on itself, waiting. Violence becomes the language of social mediation in such a situation: the negation of the negation. 

Paradoxically this eventually can be a means of escape, an unwitting mode of resistance, the only way the wretched of the earth can resist the neoliberal urban regime of biopolitical stasis. If we follow Deleuze that ‘what is interesting is the middle’ and the ‘points in between’, then perhaps we are have much to learn from the spatial predicament of the inhabitants of phantom spaces like Ameixeiora. Waiting can be a form of stasis but at the same time a dynamic mode of becoming, of being. As we wait and spatial contradictions pile up we can plan, strategise, conserve energy for the struggle to come. We inhabit the margins in our banal invisibility and wait for the right moment to strike back and reclaim our space. The space of the shadows becomes a space of potentiality. The shanty towns of Ameixeiora no longer exist, except in the memory of its former denizens and artists and researchers like myself who attempted to document their spatio-temporal existence. Waiting was a mode of life for many residents in Ameixeiora. But they didn’t wait in vain.

 © Paul Goodwin 2015

[1] Giles Deleuze, Dialogues, trans. by H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.39

[2] This account is based on field notes by the author during a curatorial research project called “Underconstruction” with artist Monica de Miranda that mapped and documented shanty towns in the urban periphery of Lisbon, Portugal in 2009. Ameixoeira was a Portuguese parish, located in the municipality of Lisbon. It had a population of 9,644 inhabitants and a total area of 1.62 km². With the 2012 Administrative Reform, the parish merged with the Charneca parish into a new one named Santa Clara (from Wikipedia).

[3] Jacques Derrida quoting from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Specters of Marx, the state of the debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge 1994

This article was originally published on waiting.todaya website created alongside our recent publication with Jason Larkin and Fourthwall books.

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waiting.today shows images from Jason’s waiting series alongside a collection of essays, poems and stories exploring global perspectives on the same theme.

Related project: ‘waiting’ by Jason Larkin

A new photobook by the British photographer Jason Larkin, published by Fourthwall Books and Photoworks, focusses on people waiting in Johannesburg.

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