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!

Mobility and identity in the Patagonian Archipelago

By Paul Merchant

Cast your eyes over a map of Chile, from top to bottom, and you’ll notice a strange development. South of Temuco, the lakes become more frequent and larger, and eventually, after Puerto Montt, the land fragments into hundreds of islands, some quite large, like Chiloé, and many that are very small. You can travel by road as far south as the town of Villa O’Higgins in the Aysén region, but beyond that, unless you cross into Argentina, a boat is the only option. In Chile’s far south, the Andes seem to gradually sink into the Southern Ocean.

This remarkable landscape (though perhaps seascape would be a more appropriate term) is home to communities whose lifestyles and methods of travel offer visions of identity and belonging beyond Chile’s current political order.

Quellon on Chiloe Island (image: Wikimedia Commons)

My research project ‘Reimagining the Pacific: Images of Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present’, which is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores how cultural responses to the ocean reveal contemporary ecological challenges and neglected local histories. In Chile, the last ten years have seen increased interest on the part of documentary filmmakers in the past and present of indigenous communities in Chile’s watery south. These communities, such as the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, suffered terribly as a result of the arrival of European explorers, missionaries and colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with many dying from disease and malnutrition, and some groups disappearing entirely.

Yet not all is lost. In Patricio Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015), we meet Martín González Calderón, a Yaghan man who explains how the Chilean Navy’s strict control over maritime space has made it almost impossible for him and his family to travel by boat using the skills and techniques passed down over generations.

Guzmán also speaks to Gabriela Paterito, a Kawésqar woman who recounts a long journey by canoe that she made when she was a girl, and the director prompts her to state that she does not feel Chilean at all. In Guzmán’s film, indigenous mobility by water in the Patagonian archipelago is presented as lost to the past, and impossible in the present (I’ve written elsewhere about how Guzmán consistently relegates indigenous experience to a separate timeframe, or even a separate world).

Other filmmakers have taken a different approach to these issues, however. In Tánana, estar listo para zarpar (Tánana, being ready to set sail, 2016), for instance, we meet Martín González Calderón again, but this time at much greater length. The documentary’s directors Alberto Serrano Fillol and Cristóbal Azócar do not provide an explanatory voiceover. Instead, the camera follows González Calderón as he goes about his daily life, and then seeks to build a boat in which he can recreate a childhood trip around the False Cape Horn, near the southern tip of the continent, that he undertook with his father.

Another documentary from 2016, Alas de mar (Sea Wings) exhibits some similar characteristics. Here, the director Hans Mülchi does provide a voiceover, but it is intermittent and reflective. The film follows the journey by boat of two Kawésqar women, Rosa and Celina, back to the region where they grew up. The voices of Rosa and Celina are much more prominent than that of Mülchi, or indeed that of the European anthropologist who is travelling with them.

Yaghan bark canoe, Wuluaia Bay, Chile (image: GrahamAndDairne on Flickr)

It is not only the human voice that counts, though. Both Tánana and Alas de mar contain long sequences in which the only sounds audible are the sounds of travel by sea: the flapping of a sail, the rush of the wind, the crash of waves against the hull, or the roar of a motor. This openness to the sounds of the marine environment allow the spectator to share in the embodied experience of the protagonists in a way that escapes any definitions that might be imposed by spoken or written language.

It is precisely because Alas de mar and Tánana do not offer definitive answers to the question of the relation between indigenous identity and Chilean identity that I find them valuable to think with. The people whose stories are told in these films have been displaced from their childhood homes (as is the case for Rosa and Celina), or are held in place by the state’s unwillingness to allow maritime travel outside of specific, limited purposes (in the case of Martín). And yet we see them strive to retrace past journeys and reclaim certain modes of mobility as an essential part of their heritage.

In fact, indigenous identity itself appears as fluid and mobile in these films. Martín notes that while he understands much of the Yaghan language, he cannot speak it well himself, and in Tánana we see him teaching boatbuilding techniques to family members who are clearly of mixed heritage. In Alas de mar, Rosa and Celina share weaving and construction techniques with their fellow travellers.

At a time when the Constituent Convention in Chile is determining the form of the country’s new constitution, with the participation of many indigenous groups, including the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, these films’ visions of mobile and changing identities present a source of inspiration for a plurivocal or even plurinational political order.

Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens have suggested that an ‘archipelagic American studies’ can offer a way of ‘decontinentalising’ our understandings of space and identity. A way, in other words, of recognising the cultural and political value of apparently marginal or ‘in-between’ spaces like islands, seas, beaches and inlets, and the people who live in them. Perhaps a decontinental understanding of Latin America might allow a similarly generous approach to its many voices and perspectives.

This post was first published on the Migration Mobilities Bristol blog: https://migration.bristol.ac.uk/2021/11/02/mobility-and-identity-in-the-patagonian-archipelago/

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. 


[1] https://usa.oceana.org/publications/reports/oceana-finds-300-chinese-vessels-pillaging-galapagos-squid

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.

Port Cities and the Moving Image

One of the topics that this project will be focusing on is the cultural and political life of port cities like Valparaíso in Chile and Callao in Peru.

Paul will be talking about some of the preliminary work he’s done on this topic at an online research event tomorrow, Wednesday 3rd February. The event, which is at 4pm GMT, will present four different perspectives on the topic of ‘Port Cities and the Moving Image’, from Chile to Japan via Vancouver and Bristol. It has been organised by the Screen Research group at the University of Bristol. You can find more details and a link to register here.

Paul will be talking about Pablo Larraín’s 2019 film Ema, in which the labyrinthine cityscape of Valparaíso stands in for intricate social hierarchies that the protagonist is aiming to upend. You can read a blog post on this topic, as part of a dossier on Ema at the film site Mediático, here.