Los Angeles-based artist and activist Carolina Caycedo works primarily in the area of social justice. Her practice spans a variety of media and largely concerns itself with the problematics of river rights in Latin America, where hydroelectric dams are causing hardships for local and indigenous cultures. Here, Caycedo explains the genesis of her practice, discussing large-scale projects such as Genealogy of a Struggle (2017) and the multifaceted Be Dammed (2012–ongoing), which was featured in “If the River Ran Upwards” (2018) at the Walter Phillips Gallery on Treaty 7 territory in Banff, Alberta.
One component of Be Dammed serves as the centerpiece of her current exhibition, “Cosmotarrayas,” on view at the ICA Boston through July 5, 2020. Caycedo created this series of hanging sculptures with handmade fishing nets and other objects collected during field research in river communities affected by the privatization of waterways. These works, assembled from objects entrusted to the artist by individuals no longer able to use them, demonstrate the connectivity and exchange at the heart of Caycedo’s practice, bearing witness to dispossession while representing resistance to corporate and governmental attempts to control the flow of water. A survey of her work opens later this year at the MCA Chicago (September 26, 2020–March 7, 2021).
Maeve Hanna: Could you explain how Genealogy of a Struggle came about?
Carolina Caycedo: I was invited to the Vargas Museum, at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, Manila. It was a great opportunity to build a bridge between the situations happening in the Philippines and in Colombia, my home country. I wanted to highlight the fact that social and environmental defenders are getting erased in these countries. They appear to be the new enemies of capitalism. I had the privilege to collaborate with two local human rights defender organizations, Karapatan (www.karapatan.org) and Kalikasan (http://kalikasan.net). I approached them with the desire to honor killed environmentalists. I think of environmental defenders as ancestors in thought and struggle, so there is an aspect of genealogy.
We were trying to represent the wide range of approaches to struggle, including disciplines and perspectives used in the Philippines right now. We had eight Filipino cases, including indigenous and peasant activists, a journalist, an engineer, and an ethnobotanist. We also had two Latino cases. One was Nelson Giraldo, who was involved with Ríos Vivos, or Living Rivers, which is a Colombian social movement that I collaborate with. Giraldo had struggled against the Ituango dam on the Río Cauca, and he was killed. Another example is Berta Caceres, who won the Goldman Environmental prize a couple of years ago. She was fighting a big dam in her home country of Honduras, and she was killed in her home. We wanted defenders from the Americas to be included in this list so there would be cross-pollination between acknowledging local people and sharing information about our conflicts back in the Americas. We facilitated a vigil at the university. Some of the victims’ family members were present; they had the opportunity to speak about their experiences and remember their loved ones. We created vigil candles honoring each individual chosen for the project, and people could take the candles with them.
MH: Have you always worked within the fields of environmental and social justice?
CC: I have always worked in social justice issues—I grew up in Bogotá, where a lot of inequalities are visible in the streets. I didn’t have to look far to see the problems going on around me. I’ve always been informed by things that I see in everyday life. The prism of intersectionality has helped me to understand that you can’t fight for the protection of your territory if you are not struggling against patriarchy, as well as economic and cultural inequalities. I exert my citizenship through art, and that’s how I relate to other citizens in the world.
MH: How did you come to be concerned with creating a practice dedicated to these areas?
CC: I grew up close to the river that became the first case study or trigger for this process—the Magdalena river or Yuma river, which is one of its non-colonizer names. It was part of my personal history, and it therefore impacted me personally. However, it’s also about how it affects a more general context and larger population. I read an article that explained how the first dam to be created by a transnational company was happening in the Yuma river. Because it is part of my personal history, that was the entry point for me. The translation of the title was along the lines of, “The river doesn’t allow it.” Speaking about the river in the first person, the title of my work suggested that the river would not allow the diversion the dam would cause.
The day that the diversion was planned, the river, which is the biggest in Colombia, flooded. I spoke to locals, and they informed me that the river knew it was going to be diverted and flooded to protect itself. This indicates to me a deeply embedded agency within the spirit of the river—that it is a political agent in environmental conflicts. Conservation is about stopping damaging human activity and encouraging those activities that help a place to thrive, those that have to do with ritual and ancestral knowledge.
MH: Be Dammed is an ongoing project that takes many forms. Could you discuss its different manifestations?
CC: Be Dammed involves many different iterations, including fishing net, video, and book works. It started as a research-based project in 2012, using the lens of environmental justice, decolonization, ancestral knowledge, and feminism to look at the different effects that infrastructure has on social bodies and bodies of water. Some of these forms exist in institutional spaces, while others remain as community initiatives. These projects do not always need to be translated into the white cube or to become part of contemporary art language or the art market.
The methodology of my video essays has to do with the spiritual fieldwork of compiling testimonies, visual interviews, and the narratives of the protagonists in the story or conflict. I have also done work with satellite imagery, as well as hand-illustrated and written work that addresses younger audiences. There are fishing nets, which are more sculptural pieces, and I also make other sculptures that involve concrete—the material of the dam. All of the work involved in Be Dammed speaks about the same thing. The visual and material approaches are there to reinforce my main concern, which is a commitment to pointing out the lies behind hydroelectricity and developmental thinking.
MH: Your work is craft- and process-based, performative and durational, with many of the pieces resulting from gatherings or ceremonies—collections and objects created as a way of honoring a legacy through an archive of what’s happened. How do these elements come into play, and how did you develop this kind of practice?
CC: My practice responds to context rather than a particular medium. I want to be flexible in using different mediums and materials because, as artists, we have to respond to the context in which we are presenting. Sometimes the context is a white cube or an institution, but it could be a social gathering. Whatever comes out of such a collaboration doesn’t necessarily need a translation into the white cube. Instead, these kinds of collaborations can remain as a community initiative, a collaboration with a specific family or group. My work responds to the agenda of those on the ground. Sometimes, I come to a specific project with an agenda, but I have to adapt the work accordingly. For me, the aesthetics are not a priority. Instead, it is about adapting my skills to the needs and desires of the people involved in the project.
In terms of materials, my practice is largely based on fieldwork, which I refer to as spiritual fieldwork. I insist on a spiritual approach, more than a scientific or objective one. It is really about understanding the potential in the objects. The fishing nets are a great example. It’s also important for me to consider understanding things in relation to my personal life. Sometimes I work with objects found or given to me during fieldwork. Other times, the objects have been found in my own personal sphere. I come to each object differently and intervene with it in an intuitive way because the strength of the object is already there and I merely add to it.
MH: You mentioned that you also work with the form of the artist book, and these works are quite sculptural. They can be cartographic and almost a form of territory. Could you discuss Serpent River Book (2017)?
CC: Yes, these sculptural and cartographic works are representative of territories. I’m quite critical of the term “landscape” because it is a tradition that has contributed to a colonial discourse and format. It’s a horizontal format that becomes a window through which we look and access a place, a location, a locale, a territory, but it situates us outside as passive viewers, as observers. Art has been very complicit in colonizing the gaze and situating us outside, separated from a territory. However, we are not outside, we are inside and part of the territory. We need to unlearn the idea of landscape that we were taught, embed ourselves in the middle of this territory, and start participating and engaging in this set of relationships. I believe this is part of the de-colonial process—to unlearn these formats that we’ve been taught by the academy and start understanding the different gazes that exist over a territory. If we don’t do that, we will never really have empathy or build empathy with people on the ground who are involved in environmental struggle and conflict.
Serpent River Book has a lot to do with these ideas. You can open it in different ways; you can start reading from the middle, from the back, from the front, or upside down; you can play with it, roll yourself up in it, or display it as a more sculptural object, as it was exhibited in “If the River Ran Upwards,” which is already in effect breaking down those confined structures of what a book should look like, be like, and what kinds of information it should contain. If a book contains knowledge, and if a book is like a river, then the river contains knowledge. How can we read a river? How can we transmit that knowledge and information into a book? How can we understand that kind of knowledge differently? What are other ways to materialize and visualize those territories? It’s not a fixed sculpture—it’s a bit like the nets in that sense. Like a living sculpture, it needs interaction for it to take shape and communicate. It’s a sculpture/book where different narratives can be imbued, and it depends on the person reading it. It speaks again to the different access points that I want to have in the work, which then speak to different sets of knowledge and experiences.
MH: In deconstructing the regularized format of the book, which is read from one end to another in order to consume knowledge, you are allowing for knowledge-sharing.
CC: This definitely facilitates knowledge-sharing. We have used Serpent River Book in different performances, and we have collaborated with dancers in Los Angeles, where we used it as a starting point for different choreographies and movements reflecting the themes in the text. For example, one part of the book speaks to the Doce river, which was totally contaminated with minerals after a mine-tailing dam broke. Scientists say that the river is dead now. But indigenous people who live on the shores of this river, the Krenak, refer to it as Watu, which means “grandfather.” They have said that Watu is more intelligent than the toxic mud that has contaminated it. When he felt the mud coming down his body, he buried himself under the river bed and is just waiting for the mud to pass, so that he can wake up. It’s beautiful because it speaks to the hope that the indigenous people have, the understanding of the natural cycles of the world. Perhaps the toxic mud will still be there even after humanity is gone from this planet, but eventually the river will wake up. It can regenerate. Bodies of water have purifying attributes; they carry nutrients from one place to another, but they can also regenerate. We represented that moment when Watu is sleeping under the river bed, and we performed this moment with the book. It’s an object to look at, to be perused, a container of information; but instead of closing the project, I wanted to allow for different lines of collaboration to open with it. I’ve also distributed free copies in communities involved with the project. I’ve used it for workshopping and sharing the stories in different contexts. It’s a piece that doesn’t have an end point but sparks different entry points of activation, as a book, as a sculpture, and as a river—rivers have branches and streams that feed into them. There is always the possibility of making new publications that can feed into this one. I see this book as having the potential to keep growing, and I always approach pieces and performances like that.