Habitat Degree 51N / -0E

Habitat Degree 51N / -0E is a year long collaboration with the film-maker Michael Hrebeniak as part of UCL East’s public engagement programme.

This installation takes its name from the geographic coordinates of the lost Manor Gardens allotments, located half a mile from Marshgate at the westerly end of the Queen Elizabeth Park on an island bordered by the River Lea and the now buried Channelsea River. Eighty small parcels of land had been bequeathed in 1924 in perpetuity to local people in this deprived borough by Major Arthur Villiers, and these were stewarded across several generations by a close-kit community of Hackney families and, following World War II, migrants from West Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

The area had a hidden rural character unique to an otherwise industrialised terrain, enhanced by wild hedgerows and plum trees along the banks of the tidal Lea. It was notable, too, for the unique vernacular architecture of its buildings improvised out of the junked materials of the bombed East End: a poetic riot of accidental forms and aberrant geometries in the service of self-regulating invention. The whole site was bulldozed in 2007 by the Olympic Delivery Authority, despite voluble protests from local people, to be overwritten by the hard infrastructure and grassy monocultures of today’s low-maintenance park.

To us, the allotment as social structure represents a self-determined liberty or register of conviviality with each plot entirely unique. It symbolises not only a fertile engagement with the more-than-human world in relation to food autonomy, but also the sympathetic shaping of the body in its contact with soil. An allotment is a primary example of what Michel Foucault called a heterotopia: a real space of relations as opposed to the ‘fundamentally unreal’ or perfected ‘space of utopias,’ and a ‘messy, ill-considered jumble,’ the experience of which provokes a reorientation of ‘senses, dispositions and expectations’ yielding ‘moments of rupture.’

In light of the erasure of thousands of such patchwork sites across Hackney over recent decades, the fertile disarray of the allotment is seemingly intolerable to the corporate notion of spatial order, which values only efficiency, standardisation and predictability, in the same way that the practices of community food subsistence are distasteful to an industrial food system rooted in centralised control, exploited labour and biocide.

The memory of Manor Gardens was preserved in two contemporary cinematic elegies: Mark Aitken’s This was Forever (2007) and Emily Richardson’s Memo Mori (2009). Images taken from these works have been composted as shadows within the installation’s accompanying film. This maps the 560 deleted acres of the pre-Olympic location in the form of a haphazard flânerie, one marked by boredom and frustration at the realisation that a complex ecosystem – built as well as natural – and its associated cultural memories, lie not only beyond visibility but are now entirely traceless.

Our shanty assemblage has been co-designed with local children from St Winefride’s Primary School and the Little Manor Play Projects. They have also planted and tended its miniature allotment, which symbolically reinstates the memory of Manor Gardens and its international and intergenerational transmission of growing cultures. In common with standard allotment practices, it is constructed from recovered waste materials. It is scruffy and makeshift; a horticultural slum, perhaps. But by late-summer it should be over-brimm’d with swollen fruits and ripened vegetables.

And at that point, we might be given to understand that our calamitous dissociation from the cycles of the natural world need be only temporary, and that the old model of ecological sanity embodied by the allotment might gesture, once more, towards a viable human future.

May 2024



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