Gigantography at the entrance of San Pedro de Atacama 2021. Photographer: Colectivo Pésimo Servicio
Fighting ‘green growth’ with collective design: in conversation with Chilean art collective LAGDA
Community-building, socio-environmental activism and art come together in the most arid desert on earth. Darko Lagunas visits the Graphic Arts Laboratory of the Chilean Atacama Desert, better known as LADGA. ‘We cannot remain silent in front of the devastation generated by mining in our territory, so that Europeans can live “sustainably”.’
Can you tell something about yourselves and about LAGDA’s origins?
‘I am a 34 years old designer and my knowledge is mostly related to socio-political and cultural contexts. Together with Maxi I founded the Graphic Arts Laboratory of the Atacama Desert: LAGDA. Maxi and I first met in Valparaíso, Chile, and soon formed both a political and creative relationship, which would come to life six years later in the Desert. We are especially interested in studying the Desert’s graphic landmarks. By “graphic landmarks” we mean the many historical trails, geoglyphs, roads, petroglyphs, paintings and ritual sites that are still visible in the Atacama Desert today. These graphic landmarks can be read as testimonies of the past, but they also present ways of living that defy age-old colonial and capital-centered systems.’
‘I am actually not a designer, but a cultural manager, 33 years of age. LAGDA was born during the trips we regularly made together, between our hometown San Pedro de Atacama and Calama. The Chuquicamata Copper Mine – one of the biggest copper-mines in the world – occupies a huge geographical and symbolic space near the city of Calama. The mine scares and moves us, because it has monopolized all human activities. Artistic projects started to emerge as a response to this unjust and painful reality, and in 2020 we founded LAGDA: a get-together where people can share their sensible experiences of inhabiting the Atacama Desert and can collectively create territorial and political graphics.’
What has been your biggest inspiration in creating LAGDA?
‘My greatest inspiration, and I think Maxi’s too, is the Andean cosmovision: a way of perceiving and interacting with reality that has its roots in the traditional, indigenous culture of the high Andes. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui writes and talks about this for those who want to learn more. The cosmovision establishes keys for relations of collectivity and equality, not only between human communities but also between human and non-human communities. It shows that there are many ways to read the extractivist present. One way of experiencing a place is “transversally”. That means that we try to understand the place we inhabit not in terms of “north” and “south”, but rather as something that stretches from the sea to the mountain range. This way, we can reactivate the roads and paths that connected people for thousands of years and that still exist in the Atacama Desert. These are the graphic marks! To learn about the desert’s history you don’t have to lock yourself in a library, you have to go for a walk.’
‘I was born and raised in Calama, a city in the Atacama Desert, so I am very close to the Andean world. I also became inspired by the political dimensions that arise from the cosmovision of Andean peoples. This vision does not fit in Western and European, dominantly white contexts; it requires love for your community, complementarity and reciprocity, more than any form of “progress” or “development”. After the Chilean uprising in 2019, I found that we cannot continue endorsing the extractivist system, neither with our work nor with our words. I realized we could not remain silent while facing the immense devastation generated by copper and lithium mining in our territories. A whole ecosystem, and more than 12.000 years of Lickanantay culture, are being erased. Should all these atrocities be committed just so that European citizens can live “sustainably”? No more! LAGDA is a space to work against this colonial enterprise of death.’
‘Our graphics do not romanticize reality; they critically question it, using “simple” but deeply sensible language signs’
What is this colonial enterprise of death? And how does LAGDA work against it?
‘By this I mean mining companies that are installed in the desert, which limit, minimize or even erase whole ecosystems. In the Global North, copper and lithium are the new food for progress and development. When the Spanish colonizers arrived centuries ago, they told the Incas that they “ate gold and drank silver”. Now the new, and not so new, European, American and Chinese colonizers “eat copper and drink lithium”. This became the slogan of one of the designs we made. LAGDA laboratories provide spaces for dialogue, reflection and creation. Through activism and art, we critically confront these companies of death, and create possibilities for having a more bearable life.’
‘Protesting against copper and lithium extraction is more urgent than anything here. To us, both extraction models are continuations of the colonial system we have known for five hundred years already. When you live in a devastated context or in a so-called “sacrifice zone”, you realize that we have to talk about these modes of extraction. There is nothing more important to talk about. These models take away many lives and erase a whole belief system, practiced by traditional Lickanantay communities.’
So what works result from these perspectives and how do they come about?
‘Our graphics do not romanticize reality; they critically question it, using “simple” but deeply sensible language signs. We consider the territory we inhabit for instance a “Wounded Desert” (Desierto Herido). That idea invites us to think about all the entities around us as bodies; bodies that can be wounded. These wounds matter, because they have consequences for everyone. The desert’s transformation, caused by mining, weakens all human and non-human communities that inhabit it. In another sign, “Do they eat copper? Do they drink lithium?” (¿Comen cobre?¿Beben litio?), we connect the first years of colonization to today’s extractivist present and the colonizers that continue to come here, quenching their thirst with the minerals of the Atacama Desert. We find it important to explore methodologies in our laboratories that are not goal-oriented. Rather than producing individual works of art, our space makes decisions collectively. We have developed a methodological framework to stimulate this collectivity. In 2022 for example, we collaborated with the Fundación Desierto de Atacama and the Caput Collective. Together we presented a residency program which resulted in visuals ranging from pre-Columbian rock art and performances to games.’
[answer Maxi Lira] ‘All our messages and visuals are created during assemblies; they do not have single authors. Together, we appeal to popular imagination. Our messages are clear and to the point, they are not academic. We speak to the street.’
‘All our messages and visuals are created during assemblies; they do not have single authors. Together, we appeal to popular imagination. We speak to the street’
Can you tell me more about the collective methodology that LAGDA has developed over the years?
‘Every year we send out an open call to visual artists living in the Atacama Desert and every year the group we end up working with is different. Also, depending on what subjects we explore, we pick a graphic or visual art collective to collaborate with. This year, for example, we are working with the collective Caudal Gráfico. In their work, they question what affection, care and intimacy could mean in contexts of devastation. Care and support are at the center of this year’s residency. Every year we lock ourselves up, have many assemblies, parties, meals, conversations and laughs, and experiment with materials. It’s trial and error. We talk about, and create images in response to the place where we live. If you ask me, everybody should adopt this situated methodology!’
‘Trying out, testing and experimenting are at the center of our methodology. We think about materials and colors and solve small-scale problems that have big political implications.’
You chose public space as your exhibition platform. Why?
‘Everyone in the Atacama Desert realizes the burden and significance of these mining companies, but people do not discuss or criticize the space that extractivism occupies in their lives; they only assume its presence. The street is our gallery, because there we can make the presence of these companies visible. Also, authorship is not important to us. As said, our work is collective. When someone asks “who did this?”, or: “who will sign it?”, we answer collectively.’
‘We chose public space because we believe it is politically more relevant than traditional art spaces, such as galleries or museums. We find public space much more interesting: it brings our messages and contents closer to the people. As a public space, it works as a showcase to talk about what we are all interested in. We don’t care if the images or graphics get wet, broken or dirty; this will only trigger us to create even more and new works.’
‘We chose public space because we believe it is politically more relevant than traditional art spaces, such as galleries or museums’
Have you witnessed any impacts of the work from LAGDA so far?
‘San Pedro de Atacama is a very particular, multi-faceted territory: there is the border with Bolivia, Argentina, the desert, the extractive zone, the indigenous territories, and the tourist industry. Many ways of living coexist in the same place, it’s a complex and layered place. This means we cannot give a straightforward answer when it comes to the question of impact. By the people who live in this territory, LAGDA is well received. People have observed us and thanked us with nice words and support. But there is no institutional recognition. The institutions pretend we do not exist and they refuse to address the socio-political issues that we discuss. Personally, I believe that their ignorance cannot last forever: the institutions will have to face the social conflicts we address in our works. But when that time has come, we will already have started creating new images and languages. Institutions are always one step behind.’
‘I think LAGDA’s impact is first and foremost experienced by the people who are part of it: the residents, but also by local miners and their children. Without their experiences and without their wills, any “impact” would be irrelevant. To talk about what nobody wants to talk about, to put name and surname to our imposed misfortune, is already a way to have an impact.’
What’s next for LAGDA and do you have any planned exhibitions in Europe?
‘We are currently exhibiting in Europe for the first time. At the Zeppelin Museum in Germany we currently present work in the group exhibition “Into the deep”. In June, we will be in London and Brighton with our exhibition “Scorched Earth”. The exhibition will be at Phoenix Art Space in the city of Brighton including a colloquium, guided tours and a private view. After that, we will be holding a workshop with artists, researchers and academics from the Royal College of Arts on June 15th and 16th. In July we will be in the Tarapacá region in Chile, in the Festival of Dissident Art FADI. When we return to San Pedro de Atacama, we will organize a new laboratory in collaboration with Caudal Gráfico in July and August.’
‘In the future we hope to create a permanent school of visual and graphic arts in the Atacama Desert; one that is deeply rooted in the territory we inhabit.’