Reimagining the Pacific in Cubo Abierto

Cubo Abierto no. 5 (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Lima)

The most recent edition of Cubo Abierto, the magazine published by our partner organisation MAC Lima, has two pieces related to Reimagining the Pacific.

In the first, Paul Merchant and the Chilean art historian Catalina Valdés are in conversation with Giuliana Vidarte, one of the museum’s curators, about art, ecology and environmental crisis in Chile and Peru.

The second is an essay by Paul on two ways of thinking about ecological art: as a form of immersion, and as a form of rupture. Spoiler: the two need not be mutually exclusive…

We are looking forward to further collaborations – watch this space for news of an event in Santiago de Chile in July!

Cecilia Vicuña in Venice

The Biennale di Venezia, perhaps the world’s most renowned art exhibition, opened on Saturday 23rd April, and is strongly marked by a concern for ecology and more-than-human life.

The Biennale’s central show is titled The Milk of Dreams, after a book by the Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington, and the show’s curator Cecilia Alemani has said that she was guided by questions about human relationship with the planet: ‘How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life look like without us?’

Among the many artists exhibited is the Chilean Cecilia Vicuña, who has also received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Alemani writes that ‘For decades, Vicuña has travelled her own path, doggedly, humbly, and meticulously, anticipating many recent ecological and feminist debates and envisioning new personal and collective mythologies.’  

Vicuña’s work is difficult to categorise, ranging as it does from painting to poetry, video installation and performance. But it is all animated by a fascination with alternative (often non-Western) forms of thinking, and how these might change our relation to the world.

I’ve written elsewhere, for instance, about how her ‘documentary poem’ Kon Kon presents the Pacific Ocean as an active collaborator in her precarios, ephemeral installations on the beach that are swept away by the incoming tide. And when I come to write the book that emerges from the Reimagining the Pacific project, Vicuña’s work will undoubtedly feature prominently.

Vicuña may have travelled her own path for many years, but recently international recognition has been coming thick and fast. Last month, Tate Modern announced that Vicuña will create the new site-specific commission for the famous Turbine Hall, to be unveiled in October of this year. Something for those of us in the UK or nearby to look forward to!

What’s coming in 2022

“Pacific Sunrise” by kahunapulej is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Reimagining the Pacific is emerging from its Christmas and New Year hibernation, and looking forward to the final six months of the project in its current form. Here’s some of what you can expect in between now and the end of July:

  • A report mapping the varied and dynamic field of ecological art in Chile, with policy recommendations on how to strengthen it there and elsewhere. Produced in collaboration with Fundación Mar Adentro.
  • A new video essay made in collaboration with Professor Catherine Grant
  • A report on our panel at the LASA Congress in San Francisco in May, ‘Rethinking Ecology from the Pacific in Chile and Peru’.
  • Articles on contemporary ecological art in Peru, in collaboration with MAC Lima.

I’ll also be blogging on emerging topics and new stories of relevance – like this one about the danger posed to Peruvian anchovetas by the fish oil industry. What kind of cultural response is there to these issues?

On seeing indigenous environments

This week I watched Alas de mar (‘Ocean Wings’), a 2016 documentary directed by Hans Mülchi which follows two members of the Kawésqar indigenous community as they return to their ancestral lands in the far south of Chile. To say ‘ancestral lands’ is a little misleading, though, as in the Patagonian archipelago and in Kawésqar culture, the surrounding ocean matters just as much.

Alas de mar grew out of Mülchi’s previous documentary, Calafate, zoológicos humanos (2010), which addressed the exhibition of indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego in human zoos in Europe in the late 19th century. During that project, Mülchi met Celina and Rosa, two members of the Kawésqar community, who then became the protagonists of Alas de mar.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be focusing my research on how indigenous relations to coastal and marine environments are represented in Chilean and Peruvian culture, as part of a short visiting research fellowship at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. The way in which Alas de mar deals with this issue caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

The first is the prominence given to Kawésqar voices. Mülchi’s voiceover is sparse and reflective: he notes that he will never be able, as a filmmaker, to recreate how the Kawésqar saw and experienced the world before their near-extermination in the early 20th century. We hear much more from Rosa and Celina than we do from him. In one particularly touching sequence, Rosa patiently demonstrates a traditional form of weaving to an anthropologist travelling with the group, who is struggling to pick it up.

Alongside this active transmission of cultural knowledge, the film contains many sequences filmed from the group’s boat, which simply show the sea, the mountains, and the plant and animal life to be found there, sometimes accompanied by ethereal music. We also often see members of the travelling group in moments of quiet observation.

What Mülchi’s reflexive documentary suggests, I think, is that while it may not be possible for a filmmaker to recover or represent near-vanished modes of relating to the world, the effort and the attention are still worthwhile, and can still lead to a new appreciation of environments and cultures that are under threat.

Alas de mar is an interesting counterpoint, in this sense, to Patricio Guzmán’s El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015). I’ve written elsewhere about my unease with the way in which Guzmán confidently translates indigenous cultures through his own experience, and it’s intriguing to compare his work with a film that is superficially similar but ultimately very differently constructed.

This question of how to film (or indeed to write about) indigenous relations to the natural world is a complex one, to say the least, and I’ll no doubt return to it in the coming months…

PS I was intrigued, if not entirely surprised, to learn that the director of photography for Alas de mar was none other than Enrique Ramírez, who I spoke to about his fascination with the sea for this blog.

A long durée history of the commodification of the South Eastern Pacific

This week, we have a guest post from Dr Natalia Gándara, a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.

During 2020 and 2021, the international press has run several stories about the presence of a Chinese fishing fleet in the South Eastern Pacific region. Governments in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have installed alert and defence systems to monitor the extractivist activities of this fleet in their exclusive economic zones.  Despite this, the NGO Oceana has reported that in the waters off the Galapagos Marine Reserve alone, the fleet pulled up thousands of tonnes of squid and fish.[1] This phenomenon is not of course new. For centuries imperial powers have plundered the waters of the South Eastern Pacific, altering the marine ecosystems. If in the past, fur seals and sperm whales became a commodity, now is the turn of squid and tuna, products highly appreciated in the international market of the twenty-first century. 

This history of extractivism and commodification of marine nature needs to be critically examined. Moreover, it acquires a sense of urgency as the region is increasingly facing the impact of climate change and the deterioration of marine ecosystems. In particular, we need new and disruptive ways of thinking about society’s relationship with nature to comprehend and tackle these social, economic, and environmental challenges. For historians, this means writing the history of the seas, oceans, and coastal communities in a way that focuses on representations of nature, power relations between locals and foreign powers, the changing needs of global markets, the knowledge systems and technologies used in fishing, as well as the localised human impact of these activities. 

My doctoral thesis, titled ‘Thalassologies of Empire and Republic: Competing for Knowledge of the South Eastern Pacific in the Age of Revolutions’, engages with recent scholarship in environmental humanities. It explores the construction of global geographic knowledge systems and the commodification of coastal waters of the South Eastern Pacific, specifically addressing the changing representations and knowledge constructions of this region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This focus allows me to analyse the origins of enduring social representations of the seas as spaces of natural resources for human exploitation and profit. 

A critical understanding of society’s relationship with nature must also take into account the geopolitics of knowledge production and economic exploitation of these environments. In the case of Latin America in general and the South Eastern Pacific in particular, the commodification of the sea and its exploitation at an industrial scale in the late colonial and early national periods was entangled with imperialism, state formation, and the global expansion of capitalism. Crucially, my research also engages with how these power relations influenced and even shaped local representations and experiences with this marine region.

The commodification of the South Eastern Pacific propelled local initiatives to exploit what were considered local or national resources. In the late eighteenth century, colonial authorities in Chile and the viceroyalty of Peru fostered fishing projects, creating internal markets for these products, especially conger eels. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the South American republics had developed sizeable national fishing industries, particularly on whaling, catching animals from the Southern Ocean to the North Eastern Pacific.  

Latin American coastal communities have historically been marginalised from the studies of the cultural productions and economic exploitation of the Pacific. The acknowledgment of their engagement in the exploitation of the sea and the commodification of marine nature is relevant to tackle current Eurocentric and imperialistic narratives about the South Pacific history, and, very importantly, to illuminate how to engage with historical unsustainable practices of marine exploitation in Latin America.

My goal as a researcher is to rethink the history of global commodification of the world’s oceans, to question current inequalities in the production and exploitation of marine nature and their impact on environmental justice, and to re-imagine human history in the light of the climate crisis. Only by linking local with national and global dynamics, and giving agency to local actors as well as international and imperial powers, we will be able to truly examine global representations of the world’s seas, their historical economic exploitation and to develop new critical understandings of how coastal communities respond to social and environmental pressures, particularly relevant in the current political and environmental context. 


Creative Environments workshop: call for contributions

Creative Environments: a workshop on collaborative methods for researchers and artists

Friday 17 September 2021

Call for Contributions

The Brigstow Institute and the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol invite contributions for a workshop on the role of creativity in conducting and communicating environmental research. During this one-day event, participants will consider how creative research methods and collaborations between researchers and artists can enrich our understanding of contemporary ecological challenges. 

Amid growing scholarly interest in art-science collaborations and in transdisciplinary and co-produced research, what can be learned from existing best practice, and what innovations are needed in order to further cultivate ‘arts of attentiveness’ (van Dooren et al., 2016) to our environments? In seeking to answer these questions, the day’s activities will include presentations from academics, a showcase of work by local and international artists, and plenty of time for brainstorming and generating new ideas. 

The workshop forms part of the AHRC-funded research project Reimagining the Pacific (PI Dr Paul Merchant). The event will be held in person at the University of Bristol, subject to covid restrictions, but may switch to an online format if necessary. Virtual participation will be facilitated. The workshop may lead to a co-authored publication or other output (format to be discussed at the event). 

Contributions are invited in a variety of formats (the following list is not intended to be exclusive):

  • presentations showcasing examples of academic collaboration with artists and creative practitioners, or the use of creative research methodologies
  • readings or performances of material created as a result of such collaborations
  • (audio)visual materials to be displayed at the conference venue and online
  • theoretical reflections on the co-production of knowledge 

Submissions from early-career researchers are particularly welcome. Please send a 250-word abstract and a brief biography to by 15 July 2021

Enrique Ramírez: sea thinking

In early April, I spoke to the artist Enrique Ramírez, whose work returns again and again to the ocean as a source of inspiration, a place for reflection, and a material with which to make art. Ramírez was born in Santiago de Chile, but has lived and worked between Paris and Santiago since 2010.

Ramírez told me that he feels like a Chilean artist when he is outside Chile, but that when he returns to his home country, he feels like something of a tourist. This sense of displaced identity emerges in his work: much of it has to do with the particular political significance of the sea in Chile, but Ramírez also makes art that explores travel and migration across oceans, as well as ecological problems that ignore national borders.

Here are two examples to demonstrate the multiple meanings attached to the ocean in Ramírez’s work. The first is Los durmientes (The Sleepers), a video installation from 2014. The title is a macabre play on words that refers to the bodies of those ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime in Chile, which were tied to heavy rails and thrown into the Pacific from military helicopters. The installation consisted of three screens, arranged in a 180-degree arc around the spectator. Each screen played a different, 15-minute-long video: an aerial view of the ocean, a long travelling shot following an old man walking along a beach, carrying a dead fish, and a view of floating crosses. At the end, the camera drops in terrifying freefall into the water ( you can find a shortened version online here).

Still from Los durmientes (2014). Courtesy of Enrique Ramírez.

Océan, 33°02’47”S / 51°04’00”N (2013) is, at first glance, a very different proposition. This is a film consisting of a 25-day-long continuous shot, from a camera mounted aboard a cargo ship travelling from Valparaíso, Chile, to Dunkirk, France. The project has existed in various formats beyond this film, however, including a multi-screen installation, a book, and a website on which one can view 23 short films relating to the journey. These short films draw on, but go beyond, the long film at the work’s centre.

Still from Océan, 33°02’47”S / 51°04’00”N (2013). Courtesy of Enrique Ramírez.

The way in which Océan makes visible the ‘forgotten space’ of global shipping is highly reminiscent of the film with that title by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, and Ramírez told me that Sekula has long been one of his great sources of inspiration. Los durmientes, meanwhile, addresses some of the same topics, albeit in a more formally daring and arresting manner, as Patricio Guzmán’s 2015 documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button).

Yet Los durmientes and Océan have something in common that gets to the heart of Ramírez’s interest in the sea. Both works start with film, but are not – or not just – films. Film and video projections instead become material elements of the exhibitions that Ramírez puts together. He told me that he takes the cinematic principle of montage as a starting point for his exhibitions, with the big difference, of course, that whereas the film spectator is sat in front of one screen, and has to follow the scenes and shots in an order that the director has determined, the visitor to an exhibition by Ramírez (or, in fact, to the Océan website) can choose their own path. They are, as it were, in the editing room, splicing together their own experience from the elements that the artist offers, whether those are videos, sculptures, or a sailing boat suspended from the gallery ceiling.

Ramírez hopes that this might generate a kind of dialogue, ‘as if the exhibition and the spectator were talking to each other’. In this way, though his works might make reference to specific historical events or political issues, the requirement for any prior knowledge from the spectator is superseded. ‘They might know something about Chile, or not. And if they don’t, then perhaps that work can speak to them about migration in the Mediterranean, or the problems at the Mexico-US border. It’s important for the work to be able to speak without us knowing where it comes from.’ Ramírez wants his work, like the ocean, to resist containment by national labels.

In Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar, we are told that ‘the act of thinking is like the ocean’: unpredictable, endlessly flowing, creating unexpected connections. This is the kind of thinking that Ramírez’s work encourages in its spectators as it takes film and turns it inside out, transforming a finished product into an element to be ‘edited together’ again with other elements of an exhibition. As befits the son of a sailmaker, Ramírez is constantly asking his spectators to reflect on their relationship to the ocean, and by extension on their relationship to each other.

World Water Day and the Día del Mar

There’s been an odd sequence of themed days this week. Monday 22 March was World Water Day, a day instituted by the United Nations in 1993 which is part of an effort to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The following day, Tuesday 23 March, was the Día del Mar (Day of the Sea) in Bolivia, commemorating the loss of the country’s coastal Litoral department in the War of the Pacific against Chile (1879-83).

This project is about the ocean, rather than about freshwater resources, and isn’t (directly) about Bolivia. So why am I bothering to write about the near conjunction of these two dates? Well, for a start, the more conversations I have with artists, curators and NGO members in Chile and Peru, the more I realise that it doesn’t really make sense to consider the ocean as separate from the other parts of the water cycle. In both of these countries, freshwater resources like lakes and glaciers are under threat from climate change and from activities like mining, and there are a quite a number of recent artistic interventions drawing attention to this issue. Here are two examples: Cecilia Vicuña’s ‘Menstrual Quipu‘, an installation which protested against the effects of mining on the Glaciar del Plomo in Chile in 2006, and the work of three Peruvian artists exhibited online this week to mark World Water Day.

Bolivia’s Day of the Sea, conversely, enshrines a vision of water as territory which can be claimed by a nation: this week, the Bolivian president Luis Arce reiterated the country’s demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean and called for a new round of negotiations with Chile.

In short, the sequence of these two very different commemorative days shows us how water is never just one thing (to put it rather inelegantly). It is both a universal resource that transcends national boundaries and, in some forms, highly contested territory. To borrow a phrase from the geographer Jamie Linton, ‘water is what we make of it’. Our social and cultural attitudes to this fundamental element of global ecosystems can and do shape the current state of the world’s bodies of water.

This much is easily visible in Chile, where the current Water Code, which allows for free trading of privatised water rights, has given rise to a range of environmental problems and social inequalities. I’ll return to this topic later this year, as the process of drafting a new Chilean constitution continues.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Enrique Ramírez, an artist whose work explores the uncomfortable political history of the Pacific in 20th-century Chile.

A Surfing Story

The latest instalment of the BBC’s excellent Storyville documentary strand is a film called Into the Storm: Surfing to Survive. This documentary, directed by Adam Brown, follows Jhonny Guerrero, a teenager from the Chorrillos neighbourhood of Lima who is pursuing a career in professional surfing with the help of a project set up by Sofía Mulánovich, Peru’s most successful surfer.

While not an entirely cliché-free production (kid from tough background finds a way forward by following his passion), it’s a sensitively constructed film that shows how surfing in Peru has traditionally been the preserve of the wealthy and the well-connected. And this appears to remain largely true: Jhonny discovers his passion for surfing off the beaches of his own neighbourhood, but the documentary suggests that without the intervention of Mulánovich and her team, he might have been drawn into a life of crime and drugs.

Does this deprive Jhonny of agency, and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes about Lima’s poorer barrios? Into the Storm comes perilously close to falling into that trap, but ultimately avoids it by paying careful attention to Jhonny’s own words and experiences.

“Local surfers from above #chicama #surf #peru” by neverything is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At one of the documentary’s most affecting moments, Jhonny is persuaded to leave his home and to go and live with a family in the more affluent area of Punta Hermosa after being injured in a shooting. Into the Storm doesn’t shy away from depicting the emotional turmoil involved in this decision, nor does it avoid addressing the mutual incomprehension that arises between Jhonny and his mentors, who by their own admission belong to a different world. Jhonny only achieves his best results once he has achieved a degree of reconciliation with his family, and moved back to Chorrillos.

The film raises some intriguing questions for our project: to what extent can the ocean truly act as a space of liberation or escape from social divisions on land? How does the practice of surfing relate to contemporary social and cultural tensions in Peru? Writing in 2009 about surfing in Peruvian literature, David Wood suggests the following:

surfing emerges as an effective medium for addressing the tensions inherent in binary visions, which have characterized Peru’s cultural history […] (the coast and the Andes, heterosexuality and homosexuality, tradition and modernity). By locating itself in a border-land (or, more properly, a landless border), a transitional and ever-shifting space that is located between or beyond such binaries, surfing and the surfer constitute a privileged means of considering problematising and transcending some of the most thorny issues in contemporary Peru and Latin America[…].

David Wood, ‘On the Crest of a Wave: Surfing and Literature in Peru’, Sport in History, 29, 2 (2009), 226-242 (p. 241).

It will be interesting to see how recent cultural developments might fit into, or challenge, this critical framework, and to what extent it might apply to Chile. One area we intend to explore is the intersection between surfing and environmental activism: Peru is unusual in having a ‘Ley de Rompientes’, a law passed in 2000 and implemented in 2013, which allows specific waves to be inscribed in a register for conservation. The NGO HAZla por tu Ola campaigns to have more waves included on this register, and the documentary A la Mar (in Spanish) recounts the history of this campaign.

In Chile, meanwhile, Fundación Rompientes is campaigning for a similar legal framework to be implemented. More to follow on surf culture on that stretch of the Pacific coastline…

Introducing the Project Partner

We’re very fortunate to be working with some brilliant organisations in Chile and Peru on this project, and in the weeks and months to come we’ll be sharing details of some collaborative activities with Fundación Mar Adentro and MAC Lima.

To kick things off, though, we wanted to introduce the official Project Partner, the Centro de Cine y Creación (Centre for Cinema and Creation, CCC) in Santiago de Chile. The CCC has provided hugely valuable support for the project since application stage, and we’re very excited to be working with them.

Chilean cinema has seen tremendous international success in recent years (thinking of A Fantastic Woman winning the Oscar in 2018), but this success hasn’t been reflected in its distribution within the country – neighbourhood cinemas risk becoming a thing of the past. With that in mind, the CCC is restoring a historic property in the centre of Santiago, in order to turn it into a community centre with a micro-cinema, offices, workshop spaces, an art gallery and a café.

The aim is to explore how cinema, alongside other arts, can help foster a sense of community in the rapidly changing neighbourhood of Argomedo. As part of this effort, the CCC is particularly interested in engaging with environmental issues (and this is where we come in).

Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that many activities have had to shift online, and the CCC has adapted admirably, offering storytelling and short films for children via Instagram, among other events. You can find out more about their activities on their Instagram and Facebook pages (in Spanish). And stay tuned for news of our first event together in April…