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Gutted: A Sympathetic Primer in Six Parts. #1 Interstitium
.. in which our first guest columnist james taylor-foster explores your body’s undersung hero: the anatomical bubble-wrap you didn’t know existed.

In this six-part column, curator and cultural critic james taylor-foster explores spatial and design imaginaries through the lens of the body. Rather than looking at the systems we have constructed to understand the world, these texts explore our own visceral construction to reveal something of how we orient and experience life. This column pauses to consider the unusual relationships between the shapes of ourselves and the designed world.

I’m not often late to a party, but if I am, it’s quite late. It was only recently, five years after the news first broke, that I learned there was a human organ larger than the skin. A friend brought it up on the same day that this episode of RadioLab landed on my screen. So: here’s a brief breakdown of what I know. The so-called interstitium is a sort of connective tissue – a mesh, a matrix, a liminal web.1 Some describe it as a superhighway, transporting potions between the things that make us tick. It’s also a vast, bubbly shock absorber. This slippery network of collagen and water-filled fluid sheathes those organs that come up in conversation (the failing heart, the weak bladder, the irritable intestines – all extraneous sacks of meat without the influence of the interstitium). Like bubble wrap, the honeycomb-like network of chambers and tissue make the interstitium one of the veiled heroes of human anatomy. It’s not that it couldn’t be seen for all this time – it’s just that no one noticed it.

The so-called interstitium is a sort of connective tissue – a mesh, a matrix, a liminal web. Some describe it as a superhighway, transporting potions between the things that make us tick. It’s also a vast, bubbly shock absorber.

I’m no biologist; I only have a cursory interest in what the interstitium actually does, and to date it remains an unofficial organ. The truth is that no one really knows – but that’s not the point: the most compelling part of this accidental reveal lies in its audacious act of invisibility. The fact that such an indispensable part of the body has eluded the scalpel-edged eyes of western corpseologists for all of modern medicine should indicate something of its cardinal power. Now that its discrete life is under a bright light, to what degree should the interstitium be categorised as just another anatomical part? Science will have its say, but its gentle, unobtrusive presence offers a more powerful perspective on the blended, melded nature of things.

Referential drawing by james taylor-foster (2024).

The interstitium is science fiction made fact. Its existence dethrones any doctrinal approach to what we are and the world we form a part of. It opens a fissure to the fact that the great concrete dam (pick your human-built metaphor) that seems to have held new imaginaries at bay for generations has come to reveal itself as ill-maintained, cracked and braced to burst. Nothing appears to make sense largely because there is too much that we do not understand; much that we might never know.

Nothing appears to make sense largely because there is too much that we do not understand; much that we might never know.

When things are hidden, they are easy to deny. We—a term used here with a broad, wet brush—have become experts at constructing individual and collective realities based entirely on the things we know. We’ve even moved past truth and into post-truth. Flouting the possibilities of the unknown or the unknowable is an easy kind of savagery. Occasional glitches in the fact-fiction continuum offer glimpses towards the merits of being open to the hidden and yet untold. In 1993 Octavia Butler published Parable of the Sower, set in Los Angeles in 2024. In her burning, globally-warmed world of ‘hyperempaths’ a presidential candidate runs under the campaign promise to “make America great again.” In Ted Chiang’s seminal Story of Your Life, the protagonist’s entire understanding of linear time unravels simply by learning a benevolent aliens’ directionless language. In the case of the former, Butler precisely foreshadowed parts of the world that we have come to exist in. In the latter, a whole new way of being is unlocked purely through a curiosity towards the out-of-this-world.

We’ve even moved past truth and into post-truth. Flouting the possibilities of the unknown or the unknowable is an easy kind of savagery.

As is often the case with unintentional discoveries, the interstitium was prescribed a name long before much was known about it. (It was first designated as nothing more than “unrecognised interstitium”.) In an essay exploring the ramifications of its detection, Jennifer Brandel coined the term “interstitionary” to describe the often overlooked work that keeps a system, such as society, in harmony – unrewarded efforts and energy spent that slips between the cracks, obscured due to our incapacity to acknowledge their vitality.2 So many of the things we do are not tangible nor substantive, but softly world-shaking nonetheless. What skims the surface is rarely relevant.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. You must know all the while that it is there, but until it is needed you must never let it emerge into your consciousness in any shape that can be given a name.”

—George Orwell, 1984


Bio
james taylor-foster is a writer, cultural critic, and curator of design and digital culture trained in architecture. They are the curator of contemporary architecture and design at ArkDes, and have developed a number of curatorial projects in Stockholm including Cruising Pavilion: Architecture, Gay Sex and Cruising Culture and Space Popular: Value in the Virtual, alongside public installations with Studio Ossidiana, Swedish Girls, and others. They curated WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD – the first museum exhibition to explore the culture and creative field of ASMR, currently touring. Most recently, they worked with Joar Nango and collaborators to present Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library in the Nordic Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Their first collaborative collection of essays, softspot, was published in 2021 (InOtherWords).


Credits:
Cover image: Martin Simonic (2023)

Notes
1 [online]
2 [online]

Published
19 Jan 2024
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