ATACAMA LAB: 07

INCUBO October 2-17, 2007
Atacama Desert and Santiago, Chile

Earthworks map the intersection of geomorphology and human construction. They begin with the land itself and extend through the complex social and ecological processes that create landscape.

Since humans first took an active role in cultivating food and medicine nearly 10,000 years ago, we have been involved in shaping the surface of the earth. We quickly learned the importance of maintaining soil fertility by adding available organic nutrients. Human development occurred over millennia because of our ability to sustain ourselves in the places where we lived. (I use ‘we’ deliberately to indicate a cohesive linage of humanity.) Understanding the chemical make up of soil fertility began with the identification of its key ingredients, phosphorus in 1669, nitrogen in 1772, and potassium in 1807. Nitrogen, while comprising 78% of the earth’s atmosphere, was considered nearly inert because of the strength of its molecular bond. The advent of industrialization brought the ability to move vast quantities of material and opened the door for the creation of chemical fertilizers to feed the biological hunger for usable nitrogen. This required a source for naturally occurring nitrates, which were found in accumulations of bat guano and in mineral deposits in the Atacama Desert. Chilean saltpeter (potassium-nitrate), an essential ingredient in making fertilizer and explosives, was the primary global source from the mid 1800’s until World War I. The mining and global redistribution of nitrates from the Atacama Desert marks a turning point in the ecological balance of the planet—a movement from local ecological cycles where the fertility of a given region is measured by the ability to retain and reinvest nutrients into the soil, to industrial ecological cycles that measure yield productivity in relation to the quantity of imported nutrients. The creation of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 1900’s provided an economical source of synthetic nitrogen causing the commercial value of Chilean saltpeter to evaporate and its extraction to subside.

Atacama Lab will use the interpretive frame and working methods of Land Arts of the American West to examine terraforming in the Atacama Desert. Within our expanded definition, earthworks (or land art) include everything from petroglyphs to roads, dwellings, and monuments as well as traces of those actions. We will travel and camp in the Atacama for ten days to directly experience the ground-truth of our itinerary visiting sites of art, architecture, geology, industry, infrastructure, and science. Our sites are divided between exploration and manifestation, between analysis and construction. Of course these activities are interdependent and crossover is expected. Operating with limited gathered or imported materials students will work in direct response to the landscape. Works can be analytical, originating from documentation or interpretive mapping, constructive, spaces or objects made within the landscape, or a combination of methods. We will work with a ‘no-trace’ ethic to minimize the impact of our occupation of the land. Each student’s research trajectory will determine the definition and scope of their work, including media, physical to digital, and methods, reflexive to performative. Exchange between students and faculty participants will intermesh individual pursuits within the collective frame of the workshop.

The work produced is a critical aspect of this endeavor. While each participant will absorb a large and diverse body of information and experience, our success will be measured in the translation of that energy into new earthworks. We seek to create an active measure of landscape. The workshop will conclude with documentation and a group discussion of the experience and completed works.