Salar: Adaptation

As part of the 2022-2023 cohort of Rydell Visual Arts Fellows, I have new work on exhibit at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz California, from January 18- March 24, 2024.

These works are part of a longer art research project entitled We Build Ruins that reconsiders the history and fate of the industrialized Atacama desert in northern Chile, by simultaneously understanding it as a place once covered by water, as an arid environment described by rare geologic and organic systems, and as a high-altitude mining site transformed and abused by devastating infrastructures. Robotic extra-planetary modules such as the Mars Rovers and Perseverance have been tested here as the conditions and geology serve as ready analogs for Martian environment and terrain. The mining techniques currently being developed in Atacama are also contributing to a neoliberal imaginary for eventual off-planet operations.

I seek to re-frame the common narrative of deserts as ‘wastelands’ made productive only through industrial exploitation, and to shift the goals of both earthly and extra-planetary inhabitations away from dominion and extraction, and toward listening and adaptation. This trio of works includes a multi-channel audio work, a single channel video projection created together with key project collaborator Rodrigo Ríos Zunino, and a series of photographs arranged as a dual screen slideshow, which consider the contrasts between different orientations to being a visitor, and perhaps one day a guest, of the Atacama desert. The video features glimpses of an ‘Earthsuit’, or clothing that I knit and wove by hand from materials found in the desert (undyed sheep’s wool, plastic bags, twine, cassette tape) that are intended to be both practical but adaptable, not a spacesuit that completely insulates its wearer from the elements of a place but a suit continuing life on damaged Earth using materials at hand.

My colleague Zac Zimmer, Associate Professor of Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote this short text for the exhibit:

Listening and Adapting in the Age of Extraction: Two figures, two suits, two ways of being.

We have ancestors in common, but Margie the Martian returns to Earth for the first time, and finds an all-too familiar landscape: the inhospitable desert. Contained within her spacesuit, armored against a hostile environment, Margie carries her own atmosphere with her. She has practiced for this descent her entire life. This is the terrifying inversion of terraforming: the moment that Earth becomes Mars.

The Earthsuit’s weave is a pattern of hospitality. It, too, offers some protection against the formidable beauty of the Atacama, but its mesh of Andean wool and plastic bags is permeable and open to adaptation. An Earthsuit is a tool for listening, sensing, and emplacement. It is a garment for the visitor who wishes to move through the Atacama’s grooves across all scales: the cracked earth of a desiccated ancient seafloor, the artificial valleys between tailing piles and mountains of evaporated salt, and the tire-tread patterns of heavy machinery. Embraced within the knit and the weave, whoever wears the Earthsuit will find the stillness necessary to integrate into landscape and soundscape.

Salar: Evaporation

Premiering a new installation work created together with Rodrigo Ríos Zunino: Salar: Evaporation is a multi-channel video and sound work based on recent fieldwork in the Atacama desert.

On view this weekend during the opening festivities of the Graz Kulturjahr, at esc medien kunst labor here in Graz, Austria; the installation continues from February 4-21, 2020 Tues-Fri 14h-19h.

esc medien kunst labor, Bürgergasse 5, 8010 Graz Austria

A significant portion of the world’s lithium is mined in the Salar de Atacama, the salt flats of the high altitude desert in northern Chile. This desert was once the bottom of a sea and still consists of rare geologic and organic systems, though now it is aggressively mined for the ingredients for batteries used in smart phones and electric cars. Salar: Evaporation seeks to de-totalize industrial extractivism in favour of manifesting many worlds from the perspective of temporality, land, and space. This multi-channel video and sound installation takes an experimental rather than purely documentary approach, challenging the deadly hubris of human exploitation in the desert by working with the forces characteristic of the desert itself, such as mirage, perceptual distortion, and the long duration of the geologic present.

The work reflects on landscape, infrastructure, and environmental change, exploring the micro and macro scales of human intervention and activity in relatively remote areas which occupy the space between urban sprawl and wilderness, and investigates the role of people (and artists) as agents in the myth-making and storytelling process which bring critique and create counter-narratives to those of progress and growth that propel unsustainable extractivist corporate and state-sponsored industries. Particularly at this contemporary moment, where the people of Chile are engaged in widespread national resistance and protest to business as usual by the state and corporate forces that have ravaged the country and environment while propagating gross economic and social inequities, such areas of resource extraction like the Atacama desert can hardly be understood as peripheral or as neutral sites of industry. Instead, they are centers of power, exploited to feed the forces of global capital to the benefit of a global elite. The future technological ‘smart’ cities will actually function as the peripheral expressions of this power which is being pillaged from the desert. Instead, we consider how the desert produces power in the form of unique and fragile ecosystems and geological expressions of time, from which we may learn and imagine alternative worlds.

This project is part of a larger series of works based on my research and fieldwork in the Atacama desert in Chile entitled We Build Ruins, and was made possible with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Hellman Fellowship, the Arts Research Institute of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Committee on Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz.