In May 2022, we had the privilege of visiting the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and collaborating with the local community on a project that involved the land and its resources. Our resulting work, Messa in Luce, features fourteen clay tablets sourced, shaped, fired, and sonified with sounds recorded during our research expedition. This account documents our personal experience of collectivity, exchange, and nonlinear passages of time in the Atacama region as temporary cohabitants.
On our first morning in Coyo, an Indigenous community situated fifteen minutes from the city of San Pedro, our hosts took us to a viewpoint of the Licancabur Volcano. While we were faced by the unbounded terrain and watched the sun blushing the snowy white pinnacle, the shepherd and cultural leader from the community shared with us that before stepping foot on this sacred land, any outsider must seek permission from the Pachamama, the Earth goddess, to partake in her bounties. The shepherd initiated a ceremony by digging a hole, and we each knelt beside him, burying something meaningful—a piece of clothing, a heartfelt poem, or fallen seeds from the garden. The shepherd chanted softly as we made our offerings and provided us with coca leaves and wine to place in the pit. Despite the language barrier, his voice resonated with the land’s presence, leaving a profound impact on us.
In this worldview that aligns with the land’s cycles of growth and decay, seeking permission to participate in those cycles becomes more than a ceremony—it is to follow the law of Nature. In the Atacama, before salt mining for lithium extraction was industrialized, rocksalt could only be taken from the mountain at night and during snowfall1. For those who have coexisted with the desert since its green and lush days, the presence of such natural conditions compensated for the absence of the mineral. Every removal, displacement, and consumption requires something in return to maintain balance. This way of life, rooted in the belief that our relationship with Nature is one based on exchange instead of on extraction, helped the Atacameño people preserve their land and resources for as long as they could.
Later, the shepherd showed us where his family collected mud for pottery and offered assistance with the clay firing ritual in an ancestral pit. With his guidance, we dug, washed, dried, and sieved wild clay from the San Pedro River. The water level fluctuated dramatically during our visits, from a rushing stream to a muddy trickle. This ephemeral river captivated us, recognizing its vital role in the livelihoods of many. Tracing the water in the world’s driest place reveals the story of the land, its people, and fundamentally, of Earth itself.
Following Rio San Pedro north, we arrived at Guatín, a paleo-wetland and present-day waterfall. We used hydrophone and piezo-electric sensors to record eroded matter settling beneath the riverbed, compressed, heated, and awaiting eruption. Later, we brought the wild clay to cast a portion of the volcanic relics, calculated and imprinted the amount of solar irradiance to commemorate our encounter with the earth’s depth. The Atacama Desert, besides being the driest place, receives one of the highest solar energies due to its high altitude and cloudless skies. The shepherds of the Atacama observe the sky to derive interpretations of ground events, leaving petroglyphs and passing down stories.
The title of our project, Messa in Luce, refers to the excavation of relics in archaeological praxis. It is an ongoing work that studies the Atacama region as both a contemporary and ancient geological specimen. The shepherd’s guidance provided not only knowledge about the order of life in the Atacama but also positioned our ephemeral human experience with the entangled and overlapping timelines of the land’s biography. Traversing the natural, scientific, anthropological, and colonial aspects, we came across historical records in the Atacama that resonate with archaeologist Christopher Witmore’s notion of “symmetrical archaeology.” This approach maps the relationships between different pasts permeating the present through a topographical perspective rather than a linear chronology2.
We rooted our practice in the field, and by doing so we partake in the circulation of resources and engage with Nature as its citizens. The notion of exchange guides us away from the relentless pursuit of unfettered growth and progress, and instead instills a slowed, cyclical rhythm. It serves not only as the key concept in the current project, but also as an aesthetic and research methodology we hope to bring to our future collaborations with scientists, activists, and the planet Earth.
- Vilches, Flora, et al. “La Minería de La Sal Durante El Siglo XX En San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (II Región): ENTRE LA EXPLOTACIÓN ARTESANAL Y LA INDUSTRIALIZACIÓN.” Estudios Atacameños, no. 48, 2014, pp. 209–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26395115. Accessed 1 July 2023.
- Witmore, C. 2007. Arqueología simétrica: un manifiesto breve. Complutum 18: 305-312.