The sound of rushing water draws me in; it is as if I am facing Las Damas, in Huila, Colombia, and I am watching the powerful waterfall cascade away from me. The waterfall takes a different shape than the one I imagine. The direction of the waterfall is bent, twisted, and almost contorted. The movements are intentional; the cascade is taking its own path toward resisting the traditional direction of flowing downstream.
On April 7th, Colombian, UK-born multimedia artist Carolina Caycedo presented these water portraits and more of environmental justice art at Pitzer College. Caycedo specializes in conducting spiritual fieldwork and displaying her research through various forms. I was grateful to attend her talk and learn how her art exposes the ironies of sustainability, environmental violence, and extractive practices on the natural world. In her talk, Spiral for Shared Dreams, Caycedo captured her audience by displaying the dichotomy of water in Colombia.
First, Caycedo points to “green tech” as an illusion of development in Colombia, specifically criticizing hydrological dams. In Colombia, hydropower accounts for 68% of electricity generation. However, Caycedo offers that the state fails to consider the environmental and social impacts of the dams. For example, in Santander, Colombia, the 2014 Hidrosogamoso dam caused massive deforestation and forced displacement of local people.
For the state, the dams constitute a symbol of development, and ironically, a step in the “right” direction to employ more sustainable energy sources to satisfy the vast energy demands. Still, chaos follows the hydroelectric power projects in Colombia. In 2018, massive flooding in the region bordering el Rio del Cauca occurred due to the Hindroituango Dam. William Gutiérrez, a fisherman and gold prospector told The Guardian, “We’ve always said this river could not be dammed…But the dam is more important to those in power than our lives.”
Caycedo’s art, specifically, Geocoreografias Oritoguaz - Descolonizando La Jagua (2015), echoes the narrative of catastrophe and chaos to ask: the step taken to build hydrological dams is “right” for who?
Caycedo reflects that development harms the well-being of marginalized communities in rural Colombia, especially Indigenous communities along el Rio Magdalena. Water is subject to the extractive practices of hydrological dams, which artificially control the movement of water to create energy. The forced movement affects the relationship between communities and water, a pillar for Indigenous water protectors.
On the other hand, Caycedo’s art demonstrates the agency water has as a free-flowing river. In Esto no es agua, this is not water (2015), Caycedo describes her art as “‘Water Portraits’. These water portraits consider rivers and water as social agents within contemporary environmental conflicts, and invite us to decolonize landscape and our contemplative relationship towards it.”
In the talk, Carolina Caycedo explained that the Water Portraits center the action of flipping the river. As a result, the river flows upwards, making it impossible to be dammed. Here, the movement of the river is controlled by the water itself; with the new direction the water takes and the path that the river follows, the free-flowing water can change the course of events.
Given that Caycedo’s art shows how rivers take their own decisions and shift directions, rivers embody the inevitable agency of nature itself. To protect their agency, water protectors in Colombia protest against hydrological dams and their artificial movement of water.
The documentary Geocoreografias Oritoguaz - Descolonizando La Jagua (2015) shows how water protectors took direct actions to defend their right to water, the rights of the river, and to protect their social relations with the river that was to be disturbed by the Represa de Oporapa. This represa, or hydrological dam in the south of Huila, forms part of the “Plan Master de Aprovechamiento del río Magdalena” or “Master Plan to Take Advantage of the Magdalena River,” which aims to successfully construct 9 hydrological dams. In protest, the water protectors in Huila formed, with their own bodies, the phrase: Rios vivos, or “Alive rivers.” This phrase and water protectors provide subject-hood and voices to the water that is exclaiming its agency through natural ways, yet is being silenced by “green tech” developments.
The water contrasts displayed in Caycedo’s art are encapsulated in the concept she coins “geo-choreographies”, or what I understood to be the choreography of geological and natural elements. Carolina Caycedo then utilized geo-choreographies to expose the dichotomies of nature’s movement, especially questioning: who or what dictates the movement? Who or what protects and rules the movement?
Caycedo’s art captures the beauty, complexity, and complications found within geo-choreographies. In her talk, Caycedo described that to fully display the breadth of the knowledge of geo-choreographies, she employed a multi-varied view in producing her art, which she says is an antithesis of the colonial view. Adopting a multi-varied view draws the attention of the viewer to the primary subject: a natural landscape. On the other hand, a colonial gaze adopts a detached viewpoint over a natural area, removing its subjecthood (think: aerial photographs demarcating a specific territory).
Caycedo’s application of a multi-varied view forms part of the process of (un)learning the colonial gaze. As an artist, she issues a call to take accountability for our implicitness in replicating the colonial gaze in our cultural production.
The crucial step Carolina Caycedo takes to be held accountable for her craft is to display water justice rights and natural subjects in her art to cement their position in our historical memory. Caycedo’s art builds and contributes to Colombia’s environmental and historical memory. Unlike the state that aims to erase the effects of the armed conflict on marginalized communities and the subsequent environmental violence inflicted upon them, Caycedo uses her art to insert the stories of struggle and resilience into Colombia and the world’s environmental and historical memory. Her pieces are coming from what she calls a survivor’s perspective; meaning, the survivors that tell their stories are retrofittedly included in the country’s historical and environmental memory.
With these actions, Caycedo prompts us to consider how moving forward, the stories of colonized peoples will be actively known as forming part of the country’s historical and environmental memory. Carolina Caycedo’s talk on multidisciplinary art truly showed me how memory, or to re-member, is a political act; Caycedo’s narration positions itself as a form of protest, re-membering and requiring the stories to be a part of the fabric of memory of a place.
MONTES, S. (2019, January 19). Las Plantas Hidroeléctricas representan 68% de la Oferta Energética en Colombia. Diario La República. Retrieved from https://www.larepublica.co/especiales/efecto-hidroituango/las-plantas-hidroelectricas-representan-68-de-la-oferta-energetica-en-colombia-2829562
Feeney , J. K. (2022, July 13). Displaced by a dam, women defenders fight for their land rights in Colombia. Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved from https://news.mongabay.com/2022/07/displaced-by-a-dam-women-defenders-fight-for-their-land-rights-in-colombia/
Daniels, J. P., & Ebus, B. (2018, June 12). Colombians who once fled war now forced to run from catastrophic flooding. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/12/colombia-river-cauca-breach-flooding-farc
Molina, P. P. (2019, February 28). Opinión: Represas en el sur del Huila, ¿desarrollo o destrucción? La Voz de la Región. Retrieved from https://lavozdelaregion.co/opinion-represas-en-el-sur-del-huila-desarrollo-o-destruccion/
Here, I refer to the concept of Retrofitted memory, as defined by Maylei Blackwell in ¡Chicana Power! : Contested Histories of feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011) as “Retrofitted memory is a practice whereby social actors read the interstices, gaps, and silences of existing historical narratives in order to retrofit, rework, and refashion older narratives to create new historical openings, political possibilities, and genealogies of resistance” (pg 102).
I use re-member, a term introduced to me in Roberto Lovato’s memoir: Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas (2020), as a way to piece histories that have been erased, silenced, and ignored: “reconstituting the layered and discontinuous fragments of my forgotten, macheted self” (xxv).