Lara Almarcegui in conversation with Stefano Graziani and Bas Princen
This oral history was filmed by Jonas Spriestersbach in October 2022 in Montréal. It is part of the CCA project The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project, an open reflection on how past and contemporary image-making practices serve as critical tools to read our built environment and design today’s world.
- When I come to a new city, I look for different empty or abandoned areas—wastelands—that might help me understand the place. I don’t know how to locate or define a city’s wastelands in advance, so I begin with a good map and book some appointments with civic representatives or researchers who can explain the areas in the region. When I visit a site, I come equipped with information about its geography, politics, and development. But then I’ll visit the site with an aesthetic perspective.
Here in Montréal, we already had a meeting with municipal representatives to discuss different areas of concern, about twenty possible sites that could be the focus of my project. Some areas are awaiting designation, while others are about to be demolished or under development.
- Do different cities define wastelands differently?
- I consider the definition of a wasteland an open question—they can change a lot based on the city or place. In Montréal, citizens often claim private spaces as wastelands, something that isn’t common in other places. Since civic engagement and opinion can shape the definition of a wasteland, I must learn about its unique issues, place by place.
Across different cities, I am interested in sites where development is about to happen and a space will be defined by design. A lot of my works stand against construction policies or designed landscapes. This was my starting point as a young artist living among a fury of real estate development in Spain. I was curious to understand the indeterminate structure of wastelands—if you look more closely at these sites, you learn about the varied decisions and interests that drive construction projects. I don’t have a fixed category for wasteland because it adapts according to the geography of a site and its regulations, and the politics of a place.
Guides to the Wastelands
Life of the Project
Artist book: Guia de Terrenos Baldios de São Paulo.
Guide to The Wastelands of São Paulo
Realized for the 27th Sao Paulo Biennale: Como Viver Junto, Sao Paolo, Brazil
7 October – 17 December 2006
Artist book: Guide to Al Khan: An Empty City in the Village of Sharjah
Realized for the 8th Sharjah Biennial: Still Life. Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change, Sharjah, UAE
4 April – 4 June 2007
Artist book: Bilboko itsasadarreko eremuen gida.
Guide to the Wastelands Along the Bilbao River Estuary
Produced for an exhibition at Sala Rekalde in Bilbao, Spain
17 April – 21 May 2008
Artist book: Guide to the Wastelands of the Lea Valley,
12 Empty Spaces Await the London Olympics
Produced for the Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK
19 June – 18 October 2009
Artist book: Guide to the Wastelands of Flushing River, Queens, New York City
Commissioned for a solo show at Ludlow 38 Gallery, New York, USA
15 April – 15 May 2010
Artist book: Guida alle aree abbandonate del fiume Tevere.
Guide to the Wastelands of the River Tevere
Produced for a show at the Fondazione Pastificio Cerere, Rome, Italy
10 November 2011 – 7 January 2012
Artist book: Vacant Buildings in the Hotel District, Beirut
Presented at The Beirut Experience at Beirut Art Centre, Lebanon
12 October – 19 November 2011
Presented at Villa Bernasconi, Lancy, Switzerland
20 April – 10 June 2012
Artist book: Guida di Sacca San Mattia, l’isola abbandonata di Murano, Venezia.
Guide to Sacca San Mattia, the Abandoned Island of Murano, Venice
Realized for the 55th Venice Biennale: The Encyclopedic Palace, Venice, Italy
1 June – 24 November 2013
Artist book: L’île de la Chèvre, Un site à l’abandon dans la Vallée de la Chimie.
A Site in Chemical Valley in the Process of Being Abandoned
Realized for the 14th Lyon Biennale: Floating Worlds, Lyon, France
20 September 2017 – 7 January 2018
Artist book: Die Kiesgruben von Basel. The Gravel Pits of Basel
Produced for Art Basel, Basel, Switzerland
11 June – 17 June 2018
Artist book: Les friches Rio Tinto à L’Estaque, Marseille.
Des terrains en attente de développement. Land Awaiting Development
Presented at FRAC Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, Marseille, France
16 October 2021 – 16 January 2022
Artist book: La carrière Francon / The Francon Quarry, Montréal
Produced for The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project exhibition
at the CCA, Montréal, Canada, and acquired for the CCA Collection
2 May 2023 – 3 March 2024
- Your work also focuses on preserving the area in the condition you find it. Would you consider yourself an activist against land development?
- In a way, my work is a political action. On the other hand, my projects are about uselessness. The wasteland is empty. Maybe it has an economic value, or maybe a company has acquired the site and has a plan, design, or function for it in mind. But the physical state of the site remains open-ended.
- What is the work for you?
- The work is the place. It’s not a concept, but a real, existing place. It’s a wasteland, protected as part of a project that can be visited without people being aware that an artist is behind it. I’m simply documenting wastelands and looking.
I try to preserve wastelands by convincing developers and policymakers to do so, but if I fail, I move on to another place. Merely to say that a place is important, to invite people to learn about it, is a gesture of preservation, though less permanent than its physical preservation. Often, I choose wastelands that are about to be developed or those about to disappear for these reasons.
- So, your work is about fleeting landscapes. In this way, it’s very melancholic.
- It is very melancholic, and in this sense not an activist project.
- Would you consider the wasteland a ruin of nature?
- Wastelands and ruins are related in that they both don’t follow a predetermined design. But for me, a ruin designates architecture overtaken by nature. I see ruins as rooted in the past and memory, while wastelands are much more about the present and the future. They designate a blank and open moment of the possible.
- And what happens when the wasteland becomes art? Because it definitely becomes art through your work.
- This was a problem in my early projects because I felt like I was designing too much. Then I hung around with other landscape architects working with wastelands and realized that I bring these spaces further and differently than landscape architects. When I say I do nothing, I really don’t intervene at all.
- As photographers, we similarly don’t make any physical changes to the landscape with our work.
- When I look at photos, I often miss a bit of information about the landscape. I guess it triggers a process of looking for answers about a place. What will happen to it? That’s a reason to make the guides to the wasteland. I get a chance to speak about blank content. Providing a perspective on the present and future of the site is vital. What I choose to write also changes by city and by wasteland. When you look at these places more closely, you find tricky issues that people aren’t discussing.
- Photography documents what we can see. It cannot document the scale or feeling of a landscape. It can only picture what we see with our eyes. How do you approach photography in your work?
- I must photograph the wasteland myself. Through my work, I learn deeply about a place, so the photographs document my vision. My photographic approach to wastelands takes a point of view considered incorrect in photography—80 percent of the composition focuses on the ground. I’m in talking about what’s on the ground and how the image documents the exploration of my eye across a landscape. But then I need an accompanying text to provide context to the photography.
- You visit these places and take photographs and documents, and you also organize guided tours of the wastelands. Do you see photography as documenting a performance?
- In the guides to the wastelands, photography serves to document existing places, and to take notice of places in the here and now. It’s not performative or a document of a performance, and it’s different from documenting an artwork. It’s an instrument to help us think about where we are, which I think is necessary.