To move a mountain: an old proverb considers this an impossible feat. Only when endowed with supernatural, spiritual qualities can a human accomplish the task of such magnitude. Lima, Peru, 2002: the Belgian Mexican artist Francis Alÿs realizes one of his now most famous projects, When Faith Moves Mountains. Five hundred local volunteers armed with shovels form a single line that ascends an enormous sand dune on the outskirts of the city: their aim is to move the dune, if only by an inch. “Maximum effort, minimum result,” the artist insists.1 Looking at the dune the day after the event, no one can tell if it has changed. It remains stubbornly fixed in its usual place. We tend to think of a mountain as immutable and unmoving; as a constant feature that will not shift: it is a perennial landmark that orients us in space, just as it did generations before and as it will generations after. To move a mountain is a miracle. At least, so holds the common sense.
Against the old and new allegories and the common sense, the fact is people move mountains every day. Reporting on one such a mountain, Toromocho or “the bull with no horns,” in the Junín region of Peru in December 2012, The Guardian announced: “Chinese Mining Firm to Raze Peruvian Peak for 35 Years of Mineral Wealth.”2 The construction of the new open-pit mine has required a resettlement of the town of Morococha and its five thousand inhabitants, many of whom would not go, and will still not go, willingly.3 Two years later the Peruvian environmental regulator OEFA (Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental) temporarily halted the operation as the news of water contamination spread. All that is to say: every day human extractive activities radically reshape seemingly stable, unchanging landscapes, and, with them, entire ecosystems and ways of life. Nonetheless, this fact often remains occluded to people like myself, nonspecialist urban dwellers, far removed from the physical sites where these gargantuan extractive operations are performed. Writing on her home state, New Mexico, US cultural and art critic Lucy Lippard aptly called this phenomenon “undermining.”4
How can artists render visible this simple, but profound material fact? How can they counter received intuitions and engrained cultural allegories encapsulated in the proverbial notion that only faith can move mountains? And can showing their work influence whether extractive operations are undertaken or not, or how they are carried out? In other words, can an exhibition constitute an activist gesture and, if so, to what extent? In this essay I argue for the image- and exhibition-making as the modest means to reclaim “our right to look,” using the term as deployed by Nicholas Mirzoeff.5 Both artists and a curator labor to reclaim their own right to look and extend that right to their publics—that is, we each want to make “the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and the sayable” in context of the massive, unequal, and highly instrumentalized global circulation and accumulation of images.6
I draw upon my experience as a contemporary art scholar focused on Peru and my encounter with the work by two Peruvian contemporary artists, photographer Edi Hirose (b. 1973) and graphic and multimedia artist Nancy La Rosa (b. 1980). In 2016 I curated the exhibition featuring their projects, Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru, for the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin (September 23–December 10). Hirose and La Rosa aim both to expose dramatic changes of the Peruvian land stemming from extractive industries and to show their impact on everyday lives and economies of the settlements that have grown around them. In short, they reveal what many forces would rather have me—as a visitor, tourist, consumer, and potential promoter—not see. This willful occlusion and the struggle against it are not unique to Peru.
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I am an art historian and for a long time the issues of extraction were completely absent from my scholarly outlook. Still, there was a residual trace in personal history: my maternal grandfather came from the mining region of Silesia in southwestern Poland. He used to tell stories of how his mother worked down in the shafts. However, Grandpa and his brother left as soon as they could to avoid the dangerous business that most of the family members had been in. In Silesia there was no household untouched by some kind of disaster or accident. From childhood, I mostly remember seeing so many men with missing or disfigured limbs—witnessing absent men lost in the bowels of the earth, unlike anywhere else I had ever been. In the 1990s, with the advent of neoliberal capitalism in Poland, the mines closed, my grandfather died, and we lost touch with that family branch. I forgot about mining and its impact for a long time.
Quite in contrast, my research has been focused on artistic projects developed in the cities—and Peru's capital, Lima, specifically—which vast bodies of scholarship in social sciences have long considered as privileged sites of conflict and the emergence of social movements in the long modernity. Hence, in a way, the exhibition project comes from the reflection on how our conception of the world, our visible and sayable, is the result of both physical and social spaces through which we move and that inform and shape the construct, based on both what we see and what we do not see. More specifically, it also stems from the conviction that the regimes of visuality willfully occlude the most pertinent sites of political and social contestation today, and, to this end, Peru constitutes a perfect case study. In the popular transnational imagination, the country is best known for its pristine sites of impressive Incan ruins, majestic glaciers of the Andes, and the Amazon rainforest. In other words, it is the country for tourism, be it trekking or volunteering. Indeed, since 2011, Peru has been developing an ambitious branding campaign, Marca Perú, designed for both international and national publics, that reinforces the imaginary of the exotic, primordial natural and ancient cultural beauty.
In that sense, one of the 2016 videos of the Marca Perú campaign, Perú, dedicado al mundo (Peru, Dedicated to the World), is particularly instructive as the manifestation of the official Peruvian “visuality” in its obfuscation of the lived reality of many Peruvians and the recreation of the national servitude.7 The video opens with a panoramic shot of a breezy Andean vista and quickly cuts to a close-up shot of a bare foot digging into the earth with a wooden hoe. The handle of the tool seems to unite the body of a traditionally dressed peasant with the earth. In the images of a potato harvest that follow, a similar motif repeats: freshly excavated, dirty bulbs with their extensive roots system visually tie an old man holding them up to the land. An array of other lush produce follows: garlic, papayas, cotton, grapes, blueberries, and limes. In each case, an indigenous body extends directly from the growing plant and into the camera, hands heap-full of bounty reaching out to the imagined viewer in the gesture of an offering. Much could be said about this video; here, I just want to signal how much it roots the Peruvian (indigenous) people in the mostly preindustrial and unspoiled land, and how much it equates them with nature and its fruit—both equally available for foreign consumption. At the same time, it carefully removes from the visual field unsightly images of another type of extraction that has historically fueled the Peruvian economy—that of gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, and oil. It was in contrast with Marca Perú's branding campaign and my own experiences as a foreign visitor and researcher that I conceived of Moving Mountains and the labor that I set out for the exhibition.
I have been working in Peru since 2009. On my first visit, in January, I spent ten days in Lima and four days in Cuzco; where else would I have gone as a foreigner? I came back to work for three months during the following Northern Hemispheric summer. Just days before that trip, on June 6, the violent clashes between the national police and Aguajún and Wampis indigenous peoples of the Amazon left at least thirty-two dead. The government unleashed a deadly force against peaceful protesters who were set on defending their lands from oil, gas, and logging exploitation via the US-Peru free-trade agreement. This event, widely reported on internationally, brought into a sharp contrast the image of the country that was “sold” to me as a foreigner and a perceived tourist, and its lived reality. In other words, El Baguazo—as the confrontation came to be known—compelled me to consider how carefully my movements in and through Peru were orchestrated and constricted, constructing perfect “exotic” vignettes and removing from my (foreign) sight all the uncomely corollaries of the so-called national development.
As a result, I quickly realized that my visible and my sayable in Peru had to be constructed differently than the image of the country and its people that was imposed on me by the branding campaign and pervasive tourist industry, to establish my relationship with them on my own terms. In order to construct such a divergent visible and sayable for myself and other, both external and internal, observers of the country, I deferred to the keen eyes and actions of contemporary artists who have been working to produce alternatives of the authorized, consumable images. Both born and raised in Lima, Hirose and La Rosa have been constructing their own imaginaries of the country, its diverse people, and lands, searching for perspectives that would allow for forging their own autonomous relationships to them. They both frequently mine Michel de Certeau's contradistinction between seeing from above and walking as two opposite modes of relating to space: they produce images that result from sensual, embodied, and necessarily fragmentary experiences in concrete localities.8 In that sense, they also refute what Mirzoeff called the visualities of the imperial and military-industrial complexes, dependent, respectively, on bird's-eye perspective and aerial visualization.9 By staying close to the ground, they remain in the space that opens up possibilities of the face-to-face encounter with others.
For more than fifteen years Edi Hirose has been creating photographs through a long-term engagement with diverse places and communities across the country, quietly testing the conventions of landscape photography to render visible blind spots produced by Peruvian (and, broadly speaking, Latin American) developmentalist and technocratic agendas of the last seventy years. Challenging traditions of high visibility and panoptical images, Hirose stubbornly refuses to use drone technology that enables the creation of spectacular vistas of disaster capitalism at work. Rather, he takes his photos grounded in the earth, climbing the hills to find the vantage points that reveal the underbelly of extraction from a quotidian perspective of a laborer or passerby and peering into their dwellings. And, by manifesting the environmental degradation, he hints at the peripheral and liminal presences of subjects and experiences that upset triumphant narratives of prosperity and progress, and whose very existence is threatened by the very forces from which they try to subsist.
Hirose's series Expansión 2, developed since 2012, spans three distinct zones of Peru—quarries on the outskirts of the city of Arequipa and Hirose's rapidly growing hometown, Lima, in the dry desert coast; the mining town of Cerro de Pasco in the Andean sierra; and the tropical rainforest of Madre de Dios in the Amazon basin. Despite their vastly different geographic, climatic, and—most notably—historical formations, the artist encompasses them all as one series. In macro-economic terms, the country's GDP has been steadily raising for the past twenty-five years, making it one of the quickest growing and supposedly successful economies in Latin America.10 Looking at the micro-scale, on the ground level of diverse localities, Hirose exposes what these data do not show—the unsightly and rarely seen sites produced as a flip side of development projects and the supposed Peruvian economic boom.
Located in the Central Andes, at 4,330 meters (14,210 ft) above sea level, some 270 km northeast of the capital, Lima, the town of Cerro de Pasco—also known as “Ciudad Real de Minas” (Royal City of Mines)—prides itself to be the first mining center in Peru and the highest city on Earth.11 The Spanish conquerors began mining and exporting its silver in the early seventeenth century to fill the royal coffers in Madrid. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the silver ore sources declined, the antiquated mining operations were taken over by the US-based Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation (1902–1974), and the extraction turned primarily to copper, lead, gold, and other rare minerals.12 At the same time, the methods changed—from underground to “modern” surface mining. Today, gargantuan open pits and tailings define the topography of the city. Human settlements are squeezed between gaping abysses and mounds of refuse. As some observers say, the city is being “devoured” by the mines. Not only is the earth being swallowed up and spewed out by the mining operations, but the refuse pollutes the town's lakes and, with it, inhabitants. And yet, as precarious constructions depicted in Hirose's photographs attest, people flock to towns like Cerro de Pasco to pursue their dreams.
Dreams and greed have also fueled the most dramatic human intervention in the Amazon rainforest, which Hirose documented in the Madre de Dios region at the base of the Andes in southeastern Peru. A sharply increasing price of gold sparked a new gold rush for the alluvial deposits created by meandering Amazon rivers.13 In the zone where vast areas are under environmental protection and in custody of indigenous peoples, most of the mining operations are conducted illegally by so-called artisanal miners. Many Peruvian disenfranchised and poor turn to independent mining as a means of subsistence. Even a speck of precious metal is worth the effort. In the process, they clear vast areas of the rainforest, dynamite riverbanks, and strip layers of earth on the floodplains. Mercury used to extract gold from the gravel seeps into the water and spreads through the food chain, from fish to humans. The landscape in Hirose's photographs looks like a desert: swaths of barren land devoid of life, except of remnants of trees and bright blue tarps left over from the mining operations (Figure 1). Only one lonely figure dredges through the water. If she were to speak, perhaps she would tell about what remains invisible in these pictures: makeshift settlements, their violence, slave labor, and human trafficking.14
In turn, a laboring body appears in stark contrast to the towering cliffs of the ravines penetrating the hills on the outskirts of the southern city of Arequipa. They are the source of sillar volcanic stone, unique to the region. This soft, workable rock has been used since colonial times to erect the glowing façades of Arequipa's architecture, which gave the city its nickname—White City. As Hirose's photos evidence, the process of extraction and working of the stone has not changed in centuries. It is still done by hand by maestros canteros (master quarrymen), who rely only on a sledgehammer and chisel to perform their work. One of the monumental walls of the quarry is emblazoned with the coats of arms of Peru and Arequipa, masterfully carved into the rock. They flank a partially rendered monumental mock façade—a faithful reproduction of the Church of the Society of Jesus, considered the prime example of the syncretic Arequipeña school, which combines Western and indigenous influences.15 This spectacular feat stems from the establishment of a touristic circuit through seventeen quarries, called La Ruta del Sillar. On the one hand, the project was conceived to improve living conditions of the quarrymen, who now guide tours and perform carving demonstrations for tourists. On the other, it is also meant to protect this historic zone from the encroachment by the city slums. In a way, the quarries are then mined twice: one, for the actual stone, and two, for the historic heritage.
The landscapes of extraction in Pasco, Madre de Dios, and Arequipa reverberate in the images from Hirose's booming hometown. For the past several years, new high-rises have been replacing traditional single-family residential architecture in the middle-class districts around the center of Lima. Old casonas are systematically being demolished and have practically disappeared from many districts. Multistory apartment buildings pop up also in the lower-middle-class neighborhoods. Demand, investment, and, most likely, money laundering stimulate the industry. Like mining, new construction requires moving massive quantities of earth: first removing it to dig enormous foundation holes; then filling them with concrete, produced with gravel, sand, clay, and limestone extracted from elsewhere. In Lima it also devours one of the city's most fragile ecosystems—acantilados, steep cliffs overlooking the Pacific.
In turn, attuned to the confluence of pictorial and material conventions in various historical modes of representation, the work of Nancy La Rosa illuminates the issues emerging from different ways in which diverse groups understand and relate to the spaces they inhabit. The artist seeks to uncover symbolic charges and discourses of power anchored in seemingly transparent, clear, and legible images such as topographic maps. Through the examination of distinct modes of seeing and depicting space, La Rosa denaturalizes pictorial conventions as the secure containers of certain facts and information, and vindicates embodied and indigenous knowledge. Thus she challenges viewers like me to grasp how often our relationship to land, territory, and natural environment is irrevocably distant and mediated as if there was nothing more to see beyond their conventional, schematic representations. To this end, starting with the 2008 series of silkscreens Open Pit (Tajo abierto), her body of work has systematically examined traditional mapping techniques produced by a disembodied aerial eye of a surveyor, developed since the Renaissance and the time of colonial encounters. As their counterpart, La Rosa produces images in various media, frequently relying on do-it-yourself pinhole cameras, which result from her research on indigenous beliefs on nonhuman perception and agency, as well as her various embodied, face-to-face encounters with the earth and its diverse dwellers.16
If the Open Pit series appears as a straightforward topographic representation of the physical enormity of three major Peruvian mines of three strategic minerals—gold, copper, and iron (Cajamarca, Toquepala, Marcona, respectively), La Rosa's other images complicate the maps' seeming, naturalized unambiguousness. In Study 1 and Study 2 from the series Insufficient Data (Datos Insuficientes) (2008) and Interference in Aerial Photography (Interferencia en fotografía aérea) from the series Unquantifiable Interferences (Interferencias no cuantificables) (2009), La Rosa recounts an episode from the history of aerial photography, popularized after World War I for the purposes of mapping, geographic surveys, planning, and archaeology.17 In her manipulated maps, she reminds us that clouds often acted as obstacles to the camera lenses, resulting in voids in representation. Puffy clouds hover over irregular blank spots in the grid and network of topographic lines. “Insufficient data,” some of them proclaim. The series suggest that through the processes of mapping and representation, land turns into resources to be extracted.
In contradistinction to the Western conventions of perceiving and mapping space, in Travel Notes (Notas de viaje) (2014), a series of drawings and prints realized during the Latin American Roaming Art residency in Ollantaytambo, a village in the Sacred Valley in the Cuzco region, La Rosa approximates distinct perspectives on the “tired stones” (piedras cansadas in Spanish or sayk'uska in Quechua)—giant monoliths originally destined for Inka constructions. “Tired stones” are animate entities. According to the early colonial chronicles and indigenous stories, the stones refused to obey the builders and follow them from quarries to the building sites. Moved by the weary rocks' exhaustion, recalcitrance, and tears, the Inka left them where they rebelled against the human will, and where they can still be seen today. The central ink drawing of the series deploys images appropriated from the chronicles of Guamán Poma de Ayala and Martín de Murúa, in which the seeing, sensing, and perceiving stones cry bloody tears while being pulled by the ropes. Sayk'uska are not inanimate objects. Rather, they embody the quarry from which they came, contain its spirit, and possess their own latent agency.18 In another print, a quotation from a twentieth-century Quechua song evokes the laments of contemporary engineers building highways, which echo the Inkan sentiments over “poor” rocks that they dynamite, pulverize, divide, and scatter.19
The video and photo installation Surface / Essence / Presence (2014) offers a look at and a look of the “tired” seeing monoliths scattered throughout the Sacred Valley. Three video projections capture nine distinct stones spread along the route from the Cachiccata quarry located high in the mountains, through the valleys and fields, to the outside of the Ollantaytambo fortress, for which they had been destined (Figure 2). Without sound, these are very quiet videos, both literally and metaphorically, to the extent that at a first glance the images might seem still. Movement is perceptible only in the blades of grass and leaves hovering in the wind, clouds rolling slowly through the sky, and their shadows sweeping over the land. A passing train appears almost as a jarring surprise in this seemingly immutable, fixed landscape: the stones stubbornly fixed in their place. The reverse of the three screens features a series of pinhole photographs that La Rosa took attaching her camera to the surface of the rocks. The hazy, shimmering images depict the mountains, valleys, fields, towering trees, and roads as seen from and by the rocks. How and what do they see?, the artist seems to ask. La Rosa thus proposes to radically rethink matter not as inert and shapeless, but as imbued with an autonomous agency, which demands of her, and of us, an equitable relationship.
Finally, the video That Which Is His Did Not Exist (Lo que es suyo no existía) (2016), realized together with Juan Salas Carreño, combines children's drawings and fragments of the interviews with inhabitants of Huepetuhe, a small district in the Madre de Dios region, realized during the Hawapi artist residency in 2015. Migrants from the impoverished Peruvian provinces have been constructing Huepetuhe for the past thirty-five years, drawn to this remote and challenging environment by alluvial gold deposits under the rainforest floor. Although the district is most infamous for illegal and poorly regulated gold mining, which—with the introduction of heavy machinery—wrecked unprecedented devastation on the Amazon jungle, most of the population works in the services related to the industry. To the whirring roar of a power generator, the drawings and interviews respond to questions about the past and the future of the district, as well as the changes it has undergone. Their fragmentary juxtaposition brings to the fore the contradictory character of life in Huepetuhe, where hope, despair, nostalgia for the unspoiled past, perceptions of wealth and abject poverty, optimism, and fear coexist. Similar, contradictory and ambivalent emotions are also embodied in the 2012 small sculpture The Present Is in the Source, Course, and Estuary (El presente es en el origen, el curso y la desembocadura)—a to-scale model of a fragment of the Madre de Dios river made with 18-karat gold that La Rosa recycled from family jewelry. Here, the artist not only points to the issues of the origins of the precious metal, its uses, and their impact, but also brings together two distinct scales—intimate and personal, and planetary. And thus again she raises the questions about our relationships: where, with whom, and with what do they begin and end?
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It was quite precipitous that the planning for Moving Mountains coincided with the beginning of protests at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the so-called Dakota Access Pipeline. With the protests in North Dakota gaining momentum, diverse communities organized in Texas, where I live, to protest the construction of the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners' other transnational project, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in West Texas.20 Not unlike Peru, the state of Texas is also frequently depicted as vast, open, and unspoiled land even though it holds approximately one sixth of the entire US pipeline mileage, for example. In the context of the global visual economy and massive circulation of images, we have to think carefully how these images define what is visible and sayable for us. Mierzoeff's concept of countervisuality is a productive tool to think of the images, such as those by La Rosa and Hirose, that contend with the official, authorized imaginary of the land and people's rootedness in the land, developed by media, PR firms, and official and semi-official branding campaigns such as Marca Perú. More broadly, such critical counterimages expand the scope of the visible and sayable beyond “pilgrimage sites” designed for urban and suburban dwellers, be it ancient Machu Picchu or, to evoke another Texas example, Donald Judd's vast Minimalist compound in Marfa.21 Likewise, with the exhibition, our goal was to counter the persistent invisibilization of the fractures in the social and Earth's body both in Peru and beyond.