Monthly Archives: June 2021
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
EPISODE 9: CECILIA VICUNA + SARAH LOOKOFSKY
My name is Cecilia Vicuña. I’m a poet and artist. I was born in Chile and I live between Chile and New York.
My name is Sarah Lookofsky. I was trained as an art historian. I grew up in Denmark and I lived for 21 years in the United States. I recently moved to Oslo where I am the Dean of the School of Fine Arts.
I thought it would be nice for us to begin with some of Cecilia’s poetry.
00:38 ENTERING (1983 POEM FROM “PRECARIO”)
I thought that perhaps this was only a way of remembering.
To record in the sense of touching the strings of emotion.
To record comes from ‘core’
The core of the heart.
Listening with the fingers. A sensory memory came first.
The scattered bones, the sticks and feathers were sacred objects I had to put in order
to follow their will was to rediscover a way of thinking.
Listening to the elements, I traveled down pathways of the mind
that led me to an ancient silence, waiting to be heard.
To think was to follow the music, the feeling of the elements.
This is the way a communion with the sky and the sea began.
The necessity to respond to their desires with a work that could be a prayer, a joy to the elements.
Joy itself is the prayer.
In the act of offering, I recalled an essential poetic form.
If at the beginning of time, poetry was an act of communion,
a form of entering into a shared vision,
now it is a space that can be entered,
a spatial metaphor.
It is natural for poetry to complete itself in space.
If the poem is temporal, an aural temple, the palace or form is a spatial temple.
Both temples are entryways to the sacred space of metaphor.
Metapherein means to carry beyond.
Metaphor takes us to other spaces of contemplation,
to contemplate temples us together
or temples simultaneously the interior and exterior.
An active form of contemplation, the spatial metaphor brings together two forms of prayer:
temporal and spatial.
Precarios is what is obtained by prayer.
The quipu which records nothing.
An empty string was my first precarious
object. I was praying, making a quipu, offering up the desire of memory.
A quipu is an ancient system of colored knotted chords that carry meaning created in pre-Colombian South America.
Desire is the offering.
The body is only a metaphor.
In ancient Peru, diviners traced lines of dust in the earth
as a way of divining or letting the divine speak through them.
They invoke the spirits through an incantation and tracing lines on ground.
Lempad of Bali says all art is transient. Even stone is worn away.
God makes use of the essence of the offerings and the people of the material remains
The form of temporal, spatial writing aspires to endure in the intensity of the emotion.
To recover memory is to recover unity.
To be one with sky and the sea,
To feel the earth as your own skin is the only way to pleasure her.
—from Precario/Precarious, New York, 1983.
05:58 RIVER AKERSELVA, OSLO
When I originally was proposed this idea by Elaine—Elaine and Cecilia and I worked together in 2015 on an exhibition in Aarhus where we spent, I don’t know, was it a long weekend or a week? It felt like a week in Aarhus but maybe it wasn’t. So coming into this conversation, I realized, having moved to Oslo, that the art school where I work is a former factory where sails were produced predominantly by female workers. The factory is adjacent to a river called Akerselva, which is the main river running through Oslo, a very spectacular river that runs for nine kilometers. It has 20 waterfalls and one of these big waterfalls is right outside the door of the art school. And it powered the factory, like many other factories that are adjacent to it and now are kind of post-industrial converted to, you know, living and schools and companies. I came from New York in the height of the pandemic and was afraid of the pandemic because of my New York experience. I didn’t feel comfortable gathering in a room, so I would walk along the river instead of having a meeting. I would take a walk and I would notice the river, so I began to research this river. And I read that in 2011 there was a big spill into this river from the water treatment plant, which is the drinking source of Oslo. In 2011, a pipe broke and 6,000 liters of chlorine was spilled into the river. When they assessed the extent of the damage they found basically no remaining life in the river, they found struggling crayfish that were barely alive.
I began digging more and found out that this in fact was not the only spill, that there had been many. I mean like in 2012, there was 19,000 liters of oil spilled into the river by a hospital. In 1988, nine tons of acid with 23,000 salmon fry killed. A couple of weeks later, 16,000 liters of oil from industry. And in 1990, 19 tons of phosphoric acid, with an estimated death toll of 25,000 trout and salmon. So it’s a kind of ongoing, steady, non-dramatic event, which has been described as “slow violence.”
Every time I take a walk along this river, I think of Cecilia and Cecilia’s work. I know that so many rivers have been important in your life, Cecilia.
Yes, I hear you. And I feel the pain of the Akerselva, you know, it is such an amazing idea, like a short, tiny river that is immense at the same time, that is only nine kilometers long. So you can walk it in one day, you know, from beginning from its birth to its disappearance is something so astonishing to me.
10:22 RIO MAPOCHO, SANTIAGO
I can tell you that I was born next to a river, a river called Mapocho. Mapocho is the river that gives life to the valley of Santiago. Mapocho in the indigenous language means the “disappearing in the earth”, because this river comes from the tallest mountains in the Western hemisphere, the Andes, and halfway, it disappears. It goes under the earth and then reappears a few kilometers down the line, to go into the ocean. But, hearing you, what I was feeling is that I didn’t know the exact word in English for the word, the desaguadero, which is when a lake empties itself or when a glacier begins to create a watershed.
El Rio Mapocho, the river next to where I was born, is really rio de caca, a river of shit. And I don’t know the history, when did this begin? Did this begin with the Romans, did this begin with the Middle Ages? When did the concept of using water, not as water of life, but as a water of death, meaning a carrier of everything that’s unwanted like shit or toxic materials? So this slow violence, this calamity that you’re speaking of, is really a concept that water can and will be used in this way. This is what has poisoned the planet itself, not just every single river, but the entire system—because water is one.
I remember writing a long time ago, a poem called “Amnio Sacrificial”, and this is the amniotic liquid in which the baby is born in the womb. It’s also the planet itself is in my feeling or perception. It is an amniotic liquid for all forms of life. So how can we live and exist within this amniotic universe, disregarding and destroying it?
So this, I suppose, is the realization from which my art, my life has emerged. Because already in the sixties, I have to say, we knew these things. Already in the forties, we knew these things. I mean, how come that it seems that for this half a century or a little more than half a century, the real art of humanity has been denial. Denial of the reality of our doing, of what we do. So to wake up from that denial, I think is what’s happening now. And this is what I feel the water itself is asking. You know, the water wants to be water. This is also an ancient poem of mine, it’s like the river wants to be heard before being contaminated and this notion of hearing, how can we possibly open ourselves to a hearing when we have been trained—generations of us have been trained—not to hear, not to listen?
What is unique about the site that I’m in right now in Norway is that it has a green image. There are more electric cars in Norway than anywhere else in the world. This river, when you walk along it, there are signs describing it and its natural beauty and all the species that thrive there, but there’s no mention of the spill. Norway, it’s an extractivist economy at base. Even though it has such a green image, its main export is oil and its second greatest export is industrially farmed fish: salmon. I guess the word for that is greenwashing. But when people talk about Akerselva, they talk about the natural beauty.
And as I was preparing for this conversation, I thought, oh, I really don’t know about this river. I need to know more. I have been reading, but I need to know more. And I was kind of stressing out that we’re going to have this conversation and I’m not a scientist and I haven’t done all the research. But I thought, you know, I’m just rrgonna walk the length of it. I’m going to take the tram to the top and I’m gonna follow it from the lake all the way down. At one point you get blocked because there’s an old industrial site where the river is contained within a factory that’s still a factory. So there’s a continuity between the industrial age and our current age, that part is still accessible. And then at a certain point, when you get very close to the downtown area, it goes underground. It goes under the train tracks and then it emerges and flows into the ocean, into the fjord.
So all this to say: listening. The river has a language and we need to listen to it.
16:31 LISTENING WITH FINGERS
Yeah. And in that sense, the metaphor of listening with the fingers is really no metaphor. For example, I remember there is this wonderful deaf musician. I can’t remember her name. I think she’s from Scotland. And she says that she hears from every pore of her body and she composes the amazing music, and she hasn’t heard music at all. She hears it with a different kind of sense. And I think the idea that we as humans have evolved so many senses that we have chosen to disregard, to abandon, it’s really very important. And I think this is one of the things that our art and rituals can bring back. For example, I have done rituals where I invite people to simply lie down, let’s say on rocks where you can touch and caress the ocean or the river and feel it come to your skin, caress your skin and move back in again, because the river and the ocean are sort of breathing systems. Breathing—not breeding creatures, but breathing. I don’t know how you pronounce the difference. Meaning breathing air, breathing oxygen. And so you feel there is a lot of knowledge that is not knowledge. A lot of knowing that is not knowing. A lot of feeling that is not feeling, but it’s something else can begin to emerge.
I remember years ago I was very sad about another one of my rivers, because as you said, there are many rivers in my life. There’s another river that is not even classified as a river. It’s classified as a mountain stream because it’s very wild and one moment it can be very thin. And if there is a lot of rain, which now is very rarely the case because there’s the brutal drought that’s been hitting Chile for the last 10-15 years. Most snow, most glaciers are disappearing very fast. It’s said that perhaps in 10 years, there will not be enough water for the people to drink in Chile. So this brutal reality of destruction of water is embodied by these alluvial rivers that have for thousands and thousands of years created themselves as a stream of water that can be huge one minute and disappear the next but still be there, still be there as potential.
So it is the potential for the regeneration that we are really attacking. And so how could we open—not just to the hearing of a sound—but to a sensing of a potential, where our interaction with that potential may bring it back.
Another kind of subtext of this conversation is that not only do all rivers, all water, connect to one another on this planet, but also we are water. And so I think what your work does so beautifully is kind of make us conscious of the fact that we are not separate, but the water is in us.
I think what art can do, and what your work does, is at once register absences through colonial violence, long histories that have erased cultures. You conjure these absences in your work. And not only that, but as you just said, it’s towards the future. Collectively, we’re here now to imagine a different future.
21:13 ALIVENESS OF PROCESS
I wonder if I could just jump in really briefly. From what you’ve both been talking about, there’s the sensing of different kinds of temporalities. There’s also this idea that death doesn’t happen once. It’s ongoing, but it’s also recursive. Things die. They come back. What does it mean to acknowledge that there are multiple streams that are happening all the time? And I think reclaiming things in the world that are not yet dead. What does it mean to have an art practice, or process, or research process, that can push us to think about sensing potentials or keeping track of regeneration? Claiming these violences, and opening them up so that things can keep going or become something else?
I can speak to that because this idea of process is embedded in every living system, and even in systems that in the old days were defined as non-living. Now, the definition of what is animate or inanimate is becoming blurry. It’s a very good thing, because in ancient cultures, indigenous cultures around the world, this distinction between who is alive and not alive, it’s just like a joke. It is not there. Because the aliveness of the processes of all the matter, of all energies, is perpetually an interaction. It is perpetually a process of both self-transformation and transformation of everything around it—because everything is in response to something else, you know? And so when we become aware, that awareness is perhaps the one process in which we can find the way to communicate, to sense the other processes, how they are playing with our process. For example, in Spanish, the word conocer, to know, which of course is from Latin, is composed of, and with being. So to know, it is ‘to be with being’. What being? The being of all that is, everything has being. So this is not an essentialist idea. It is something so incredibly beautiful to acknowledge that it is this awareness—what is like the equalizing field. Now we know that, for example, even subatomic particles become self-aware. We know that bacteria are self-aware. So this awareness, it’s truly like an ocean of awareness of which we are part. To me, that is the key understanding of how processes work in us.
25:02 LOOKING AT THE OCEAN LOOKING BACK AT YOU
In your very first work or Casa Espiral 1966, what I find so beautiful is you say at the moment when you became an artist was essentially the moment when you realized that not only were you looking at the ocean, but the ocean was looking at you. There was this mirroring. And I think that’s the kind of being-with that needs to happen. It’s just so simple.
Yeah, it is true. It is so simple. So basic, so elemental. Every child is born sensing that, feeling that, you know. So we have a culture that removes that from the child, but in Chile, there is this extraordinary sage Humberto Maturana that recently died. And I was hearing in Santiago, one of his late talks, and he says something so beautiful. He says that every baby is born amoroso. How would you translate that into English? The baby is born amoroso or amarosa, you know, it means the baby is born wanting love and ready to give love. And so these back-and-forth interactive processes are already embedded in this living being that is just out of the womb, and feels already that way, because probably inside the womb felt the same. So, this is the real treasure of what humanness is. And we have to interact with our own awareness. We have to interact with the other awareness, and that can be the beginning of recovering potential. And recovering an ability to allow emergence to do its own thing. Because the beautiful thing about emergence—I’m a total fan of quantum biology, quantum physics, quantum astrophysics, and that’s really one of my passions—and what is it that they are discovering? It’s been like a century of discoveries, and it is the discovery of interaction, the discovery that information is situated in the exchange, which is basically the same as indigenous ideas or knowledge around the world, you know. You go to Aboriginal Australia, you go to ancient South Africa, still ancient peoples are current today. And their worldview now is not unlike a lot of quantum physics, you know? So it is this chance for us to recover those forms of knowing that are beyond description of the previous epistemology. It’s right there. It’s still available.
28:25 EACH RIVER IS DIFFERENT
I think one of the things that your work brings up so often is a kind of wonder, as well as that there is so much that is still unknown.
Yeah, and this not knowing is really also a misnomer, because the beautiful thing about language is that everything that we name is simultaneously a misnomer, so I think this is what allows language to communicate. The fact that it’s never exactly precise. It’s never exactly what either one, the speaker and the listener, thinks, but it’s always something else. For example, poetry. Poetry is the specialization of keeping that-that-is-not-there present. And to me, there is so much beauty in the quest, in the quest to revive these potentials in language itself, in relationship, in touch, in all the basics. It’s the basics that we need to take care of, because another wonderful thing in our conversation, the one we had with Elaine, the three of us a few days ago, is the notion of the locale.
The fact that each river sounds different from every other river, each part of the river sounds and is different from other parts of the river. And each river requires us to relate to it as a being, as its own thing. And so, then comes the idea of responsiveness, the responsiveness of the river and our response to the river, our responsibility for the river. And so for example, I can tell you that I have experienced the most wonderful relationships with regards to that responsiveness, as potential for ecological and cultural and political action.
30:29 RETURN OF THE MUSSEL
A few years ago, when I was doing my film, “Kon Kon“, I learned about this magnificent beach at the mouth of another huge river, the Aconcagua river. “kon kon” is at the mouth of “aconcagua” and “aconcagua,” the name itself is the name of the tallest mountain of the Western hemisphere. And it means “looking at ‘kon’”. And “kon” is the most ancient name known in this part of the world for life-giving water, water and life force. And it’s a feminine name. So I am in this beach at the mouth of river Aconcagua. And the fishermen there tell me that a certain mussel that we call macha has been extinguished through extractivist operations. Can you imagine extinguishing a mollusk that has lived there for billions of years? Well, that’s what had happened.
So I invited the group of people to come do the dance on the beach with our feet, the old way as I had seen when I was a young girl. That you would have your feet wobbling or wiggling in the sand, to enter until your feet touched the mussel that is hidden under the water. And that was a traditional way of bringing it out to eat. So I invited a group of people, we did the dance. Two or three years later, I come again to that beach and you know what the fishermen tell me? Did you know that the mussel has come back? So the dance, the performance was to call for the absent mussel. It was called in Spanish “La minga de la macha invisible”. So we’re going to be dancing for an invisible creature that is gone, extinguished. And it came back. So what that tells you is this, we can interpret this: Is it a coincidence? Is it the responsiveness of others? But in any case, the effect that that has on us as workers, as artists is encouragement, you know, and these give courage, insert the courage inside your body. Encouragement, you know. It’s the one thing that we need now, because how on earth are we going to be dealing with the disappearance of drinking water? Which is going to be happening already so soon, and in so many places is already happening.
In the Akerselva, there’s also a very rare river mussel that was thought to be extinct, but then after they did a thorough accounting of the species they couldn’t find the river mussel. So maybe I should go out and do a little dance?
Yes, a little dance at the Akerselva!
It’s amazing because the sensing is with your feet, it’s with your bare feet.
That’s right. I have a little film of it. The film, you look at it, and if it’s not big, I think that’s just a tiny little documentary of that moment of the attitude of all these bodies. What would be the right word, wiggling waggling, their feet, right and left. So your feet begin to sink in the wet sand, because this is a little bit very close to where the waves break, but not yet in the dry sand, so it’s like in that intermediate transitional sands. And these transitional sands are always the preferred place where life regenerates and emerges.
And so there is the metaphor that these phase transitions, in all processes that take on water, become liquid and so forth. We, in our spirit, in our minds, in our understanding also go through these phase transitions. And so if any goodness can come out from this horrendous period we’re living in, where so many people have been massacred by disease or by the destructivist push like in the Amazon. Every Indigenous community in the Americas is being massacred in order to burn their forest, in order to grab the rivers, the oil under the rivers, whatever it is. So how could we transition our senses and our thoughts to a space where we don’t tolerate such things? Each one of us, all of us, it has to be all of us. Not just the people who are willing, but also those who are not willing. So I think that’s the challenge for the new art to come—in that reaching out to engage and work with those who don’t want to take part in this transformation.
36:40 EVOLVING INTO ONE
Well, I just saw the publication of an article today, and I didn’t have time to read it because we were having this meeting, but it was published in this wonderful website called phys.org. And it’s about how it’s a new discovery that I am guessing now, because I haven’t read the article, but the headline is that now it seems that human beings are evolving as groups. I read that and it really chills my blood. It is so incredibly beautiful because you see there’s a lot of criticism of the very many movements that are rising up around the world, let’s say in Hong Kong, in Madrid, in Colombia, in now, even Brazil, Chile, the Arab Spring, I mean, everywhere, there is this rising up of this emergent force that is headless. And the criticism is that why doesn’t this become a political party that organizes people, because then these are the massacred by the military police and so forth. And it sort of dissolves. But you have that, which is what the media tells you. And then you have this discovery that communities are becoming like one organism. That is how bacteria operate. That is how slime mold operates. So I think learning from science as a language that communicates with art at a deeper level where both the art and the science are sort of transforming the self-awareness of a group which becomes a sort of organism. That to me is mind blowing. And that is perhaps where humanity is already moving. And if we interact with that, knowing perhaps the knowing itself will guide us in new kind of knowing, a knowing of the group as an organism seeking survival, seeking the continuity and the caretaking of the water, the river, the forest, the desert. Every living thing has a language that we need to attend. And it will be a new kind of combination between science and art.
I was reading about a study of farmed salmon, and the caretaking that goes with this practice of taking care of, you know, 50,000 salmon that are hungry and they’re underwater in these pens. But it made me think of the kind of individuation that you’re talking about between a life form, a being, and the being-with when you take up this one salmon, but it’s with 50,000 other salmon. It’s kind of reaching that understanding that we are not alone.
Especially now you know, for example, think of what’s happening with the pandemic. The pandemic has separated all of us, and we’re all in an isolation that feels so alien to us because we have always lived in groups. I mean, human beings, everybody knows they are social beings. You know, we can’t survive without each other. And yet, now we have pushed the environment to such a degree that we are forced to be isolated and what a monstrosity that is, because isolation is exactly what would prevent us from moving to a new kind of awareness. But perhaps the possibility exists that this kind of thing that we are doing, Elaine is in New York, you are in Norway. I am also in New York, but till a few days ago, I was away in Chile, and we were still able to communicate in a way that is almost telepathic. You know, for example, I see, I read, of your thinking, Sarah. And I believe I know about Elaine. And there’s something that communicates, that is not just via Zoom or through this digital system, but something else like a web of knowing that there is life exchange happening through understanding, through awareness. And to me, those are the only threads of hope in a moment so brutal as the one we live in.
41:24 THIS IS THE RIVER I CARE FOR
I was watching a little documentary about the rebellion against the damming of a river very essential to Sami life and practices, and the activist whose name is Niilas Somby said that “all rivers are important, but this one is the one that I take care of. This is the one that I have to protect. This was the one that I have responsibility for,” is the word he used.
So, I think it’s the kind of awareness, both that you are in your environment and that you have responsibility for it. I think what Cecilia’s alluding to with our telepathic communication is we have to reach beyond. And I think that art has the capacity to make these connections and it’s the kind of connections that are abundant, and that this many stories can be told. For example, how Cecilia was saying that there’s salmon farming in Patagonia, and some of the same salmon companies that are operating in Norway are operating in Chile. The pellets that these salmon eat are from anchovies that are fished in Chile and in Peru. The electric cars that are roaming all over Norway have lithium batteries, some of it mined in Chile. That lithium mining is polluting some of the waterways in Chile that we have been talking about. Art can make these kinds of connections, this is the kind of world we’re living in and it must be addressed at that level.
Suddenly in the year 2019 in October, just a few months, actually three months before the pandemic broke out in the world, the Chilean people rose up practically in every town and spilled into the streets like a human river, demanding action to face the incredible unfairness and injustice of a system that not only privatizes water and allows for all these mines to destroy the land, destroyed the water destroy people’s lives, but also allows for extractivist operations. Like the Norwegian style in Patagonia, who’s polluting these primal waters of this. One of the few that are not polluted is now being damaged by the system. So this great, great movement of becoming a human river eventually came even with the pandemic arriving, became into a call to rewrite the constitution. And this, I believe, is the first time that this is being done in this manner in the world, where people’s human river of discontent has become a very concrete call, where people will collaborate in a new manner. And so an election took place while I was in Chile, and this election elected mostly independent, unknown people to be the writers of this constitution. So this is a new kind of collaboration where artists, intellectuals, peasants, indigenous people, scientists, professors, politicians, are going to have the chance to collaborate in a new manner. So what did it take: the suffering of almost half a century of oppression, torture. The brutalization of, and dehumanization of, the people through abuse and exploitation to have this rising of beauty that has the chance to create a constitution, an institution of togetherness. That’s basically what it is because “con” means together, it means “with”. So what kind of collaboration is the one that is called forth by the present moment? I believe it’s that kind of collaboration of the areas and sections of society that have never really collaborated before. It’s not just for example, all of my work has been born out of collaboration. I have collaborated with the rivers, with the birds, with the animals, with the ocean, and also with many, many people throughout. And I continue to do that, but that’s just the beginning. It is opening to the idea of collaboration at a larger scale. Who do we need now to turn around these policies that continue to allow extractivism to destroy the planet?
46:38 THE RIVER, THE OCEAN CALL THE SHOTS
I can think of one story because that river is the one that calls the shots. The ocean is the one that calls the shots. From my perspective and in my work, what I do, I come to the river or I come to the ocean, emptying myself of all idea, of all thought, of all everything. And when I become like a piece of dirt, like a piece, I become like one of those little basuritas, the debris that’s lying around the ocean edge of the river, I become that, then something comes. Something comes which in any way that I would describe it would falsify it. So all I can tell you is that in doing it, just a feeling begins to emerge and the river indicates what I have to do. For example, in the Mapocho river and the river I was born next to — Because as a young girl, I always kept playing on that river of shit because it’s literally the place where the shit comes down the city and we’re forbidden to come close to the open sewage river. But we as kids, illegally always found the way to get into the river and make ourselves within that dirty fucking water. And the river somehow responds to that with images and these images have converted into my art. I have done so much work around this river, but the last piece I did is called Quipu Mapocho which is a work where I went to the birth of the river up in the glacier, which is close to 4,000 meters above the sea. I walked there with two friends, you know, a musician and a filmmaker. And I did my first free show, up in that place. And then in different places around the trajectory of the river, all the way into the sea, I invited more and more people to do rituals there, including in the middle of the city. Because this river crosses the city. And in one of these performances, I can tell you that I did it in the river. That used to be an Inca river that connected this Northern part of Chile to the Southern part of Chile. And this is now a bridge where all the unwanted people gather, meaning the immigrants, the refugees who arrive in Chile seeking to work because societies are so cruel and monstrous in their own countries, you know, in Venezuela, in Colombia, in Peru, in Bolivia. And so all these people are gathered in this river. And I arrived there with a small nucleus, my mother, and perhaps four or five friends. And I began weaving the people, and the people who are crossing fast, because this is an active river with traffic, both cars and trucks and people. And you see how some people want to be part of this living web that is being woven body against body. And some people want to shout at it. Some people want to be bad about it. But I can tell you that once this sort of living ball woven with red thread, all of us, of course, it’s pre-pandemia that I did this aware of pushing each other, unknown people are squeezed into one knot, one living knot, what I can tell you is that all of us who were in that moment, what we experienced was a sort of explosive joy, explosive love, explosive commitment to the beauty of being alive.
It’s something that I know. It has to happen. You know, I believe it is beginning to happen that people—because there’s so much hatred and so much division, which is completely pointless, especially when we come to a point where water begins to disappear, for example, in Chile—how this is going to become a new law for the land. So I do feel, perhaps it’s a crazy feeling, but I do feel that all these rituals performed during 50 years are part of that transformation, you know, and that similar work done by hundreds and hundreds of people do have the effect of breaking those artificial barriers that separate people through assumptions, through expectations, through ideologies. And I think we’re coming to a place collectively as humans, where we can see that all those are limiting because of the necessities, the new needs, when water disappears, when monstrous diseases are unleashed, something new has to come.
53:08 RIVER AS ARCHIVE
I love what you said, Cecilia, about the river is the one that calls the shots, earlier. You know, the river is also the one that remembers. So in our conversation over the weekend, I think Sarah, you said the River Akerselva is an archive. When things have been broken, to remember or reassemble might also be coming from the river.
I remember seeing a film so long ago where a Japanese scientist said that the molecule for water—I don’t know how to say it in English, H2O—it is an impossible combination that if science were to try to put together the molecules that compose water, it would be an impossibility. And so I thought, what a fantastic thing that water is, this liquid water, water has been found in intergalactic spaces all over the universe, but not liquid water. So what is it about this liquidity of this planet, water that exists for us to inquire that we have yet to learn? So this archive is really what the river is holding for us as future-knowing, that is what I felt when Sarah spoke of the Akerselva as an archive. It was very, very moving Sarah, to hear you and imagine you and your kids walking down that river.
Yes there are so many histories recorded of the river, of its industrial histories of contamination.
55:30 DIALECTS OF THE RED WING THRUSH
There’s a bird that lives on the Akerselva called the red wing thrush and it also thrives along the Akserselva. And it sings in dialect. So, you know, how Cecilia was saying that every part of the river is its own river and a different river, the red wing thrush, depending on where it is in the river, that the red wing thrush population will sing in one place, and in a different dialect in another place. And then the thrushes that live in between two dialect areas will be able to sing in both dialects.
It’s perfect to see the translator, the one that communicates. I think that’s the role of the thinker and the artist to be open to both sides. For example, in that piece that I was describing about the bridge, what I was feeling was that each one of us wants to be a bridge. You know, we want to be living bridges amongst those who hate each other, who ignore each other. We want that. So why don’t we let it be that to be the speaker, to be the singer, to be the thrush that can sing both ways. The way of each side, that’s the most beautiful image. I love these birds.
Wow. Yeah. I saw one today, we don’t speak the same language, but we had an eye to eye.
Yeah. You’d be surprised. You know, I remember being on an island Chiloé in the south of Chile where this very exquisite singer, a little bird that is also of course going extinct. I was so thrilled to hear the song, one of my walks up and I started to sing back to it. Can you believe, of course, I don’t know how to sing that song, that exclusive bird song, but whatever I did, the bird went silent, waited a moment. I went silent, and he sang me back. And for a long stretch, the bird would always be near and would continue to want to enter into that dialogue. So you should do the same with your red thrush. You never know what the thrush will think of your song.
58:27 UNUY, QUECHUA FOR WATER
Okay. This is part of the water sequence and the water sequence is based on the Quechua concept of unuy. Unuy means ‘water’ in Quechua but if you look at Quechua from the perspective of Spanish, it’s also Una, which means ‘water’. So this water sequence is composed based on the gaze of the language, the Spanish language into Quechua, and incorporating Quechua concepts distorted by Spanish.
59:32 WATER AND ITS THIRST ARE ONE (POEM)
[CECILIA SINGS/READS POEM]
63:29 THE WATER IN OUR EYES
Thank you for doing that. It was a very nice way to end, with the amniotic fluid and the thirst. In some other place that I’ve read, you write that the reason we see is because of the water in our eyes. I think there’s something there.
Yes, thank you so much. I have to say this: that to meet again with you, Elaine, and you Sarah, it brings back, I never had the chance to tell you how beautiful and meaningful it was for me to revive the seed project for you. It was really one of the highlights of my life at the time when I really was the most overlooked person and an artist. And now for the first time, I will have the chance to recreate the seed projects for Chile now, as an older woman, you know, so my memory of having done it with you, even for, for a moment, it was something that would live with me forever.
That was definitely one of the highlights of my life. So I’m happy to hear that there was some resonance that’s very special. There are so many seeds flying through the air in Oslo right now. My computer screen is covered in pollen. There are so many seeds. When you’re walking, it’s constantly like in your ears and in your head. So it felt nice to be biking here with seeds in my mouth to record with you today.
For me as well. So precious, really Sarah and Cecilia, incredible. You know, I work with seeds. So Cecilia your piece has stuck with me for five, six years. Yes. Thank you so much. It was really a gift to be assembling some of them. I remember you were on the computer, we were doing it on Skype and you were saying, no, do this and how does that look? And so that was a real honor to assemble and pick the seeds in Denmark. Really, really beautiful. I’m so happy to hear you will do it in Chile.
Yes. I mean, look around, my last big exhibition in Chile in a solo exhibition, in a museum was in 1971. So for all this time, I have been completely overlooked, marginalized in Chile by the art scene. And now all of a sudden, you know, because of all the things that are happening with my work outside of Chile, it’s like, “oh, Cecilia exists after all”. It’s just very sad because of the colonized mind at work, you know. But on the other hand, I’m still alive. I mean, how many women are never acknowledged, you know, or they’re acknowledged when they’re 90. I’m lucky that I’m 70. So I may still have some strength left.
Like seeds that are dormant but as you said, it’s an awakening. It’s an amazing time in Chile.
It is. It is, it is. One thing that I wanted to say, and I forgot, is that the great fighter for the rights of water was elected as Governor in the province of Valparaiso, which was the most badly hit by the privatization of water. In this election for constituents to write the constitution and also for governors, something extraordinary happened which is, that Rodrigo Mundaca who has been one of the great champions and leaders in the fight against the privatization of water was elected governor of the provincial Valparaiso. So this is a huge turnaround to have for the first time a governor that cares for people and water. And the well being of both in conjunction. It is really something to look forward to.
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Elaine. I send my love to both of you.
Thank you for listening to us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan and I had the great pleasure and honor of hosting this conversation between two friends, poet and artist Cecilia Vicuna in Chile and New York, and art historian Sarah Lookofsky in Oslo, on May 30 and June 3rd of 2021.
This episode was produced collaboratively with Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Genevieve Pfeiffer, and Elaine Gan.
You can find out more about our speakers and our lab, or listen to other episodes and access transcripts at our website https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com
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We are extremely grateful to the Green Grants Program at New York University, the Center for Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and to the Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.