In Many Ways:
an attempt to explain HAWAPI’s approach to Climate Change through art
HAWAPI means “outside” or “to be outside” in Qechua, the native language of the Andes. It represents our ethos of working beyond the usual confines of the art world. Each year HAWAPI takes a group of artists to demanding and unexpected locations to develop and produce site specific works in public space. HAWAPI chooses locations that encourage the participants to engage with marginalized communities and environments that are deeply immersed in, or palpably effected by specific social, economic, political and/or environmental issues. In 2014 HAWAPI took a group of artists to the remote Andean glacier Pariacaca in Peru.
In many ways, HAWAPI 2014 was an experiment. Initially it was an experiment in making art focused on the issue of climate change in a remote-yet-relevant location. However, as we progressed it became clear it was an experiment in much more than that. Our basic premise was to spend one week living in total isolation from the outside world, in as close proximity as possible to the Pariacaca glacier in the highlands near Lima. In order to do this we had to take with us all the supplies, food, fuel, materials and tools that we might need during our time there. Our only communication with the outside world would be via satellite phone, and even then, only in an emergency. Our only sources of power would be gas for cooking, solar panels for lighting, and two portable generators for recharging batteries and powering tools. Our only shelter would be our tents.
Our camp was perched on a stretch of sedimentary rock at an elevation of 4,444 m above sea level. This ground had at one time been the bottom of the ocean. It was flanked on either side by two lakes that had formed at the foot of a valley carved out by an immense glacier that disappeared at the end of the last ice age. Our view was dominated by what remains of that glacier, the Pariacaca mountain range. In order to reach our camp from Lima, we had to travel by car for thirteen hours along a narrow winding road, which runs alongside the Cañete River all the way from the arid desert coast to less than fifteen kilometers from the glacier, which is its source. From there it was a two-hour hike to our camp. This meant that everything we took with us had to be carried; by us, by llamas (of which we had eighty) and donkeys (of which we had two).
In December of 2014, Lima would be host to the twentieth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20), so it was a priority that we found a location that was both relevant in terms of this event but also directly related to Lima. Pariacaca, like all tropical glaciers, is highly sensitive to climatic changes and is likely to disappear in the next few decades if global temperatures continue to rise at the current rate. Given that Pariacaca is the main source of water for Lima—a city with a population of over 8.4 million located in one of the worlds driest deserts—its importance cannot be underestimated. It felt like an ideal location for the project.
It became apparent very early on that working in such a remote area meant that we would have to give up a number of comforts that we take for granted in our daily lives such as electricity, flush toilets, and motorized transportation. Finding viable alternatives to these comforts, while attempting to minimize our impact on the area, presented us with the opportunity to test some of the technologies that are commonly cited as potential solutions to the problem of climate change. One of these technologies was composting toilets. In total there were twenty-six people at our camp, and I knew that over the course of seven days our excrement would be an issue. For most of us, dealing with our own feces is not something we have to worry about; we simply press a button and forget about it. As chance would have it, through a close friend I met Isabel Medem a young entrepreneur who runs an initiative that aims to supply some of the millions of residents of Lima who do not have access to the sewage system with composting toilets. While the toilets that they distribute and maintain are designed for an urban setting, Isabel agreed that it would be interesting to test them at the HAWAPI camp site and kindly offered to lend us two units to take with us. In order to try and ensure that the toilets would be a viable solution, I accompanied some of Isabel’s team on one of their dawn feces collections in the outskirts of Lima and took a crash course on the basic maintenance of the toilets. Ultimately, the toilets ended up failing due to a problem which was caused by imperfections in the sawdust that we took with us. I won’t go into the details of the unpleasant results, but it was interesting to observe how difficult it was for all of us to change our habits in order to correctly use a perfectly comfortable and practical alternative to the one we are accustomed to. All this made me realize that there are no easy solutions to the biggest problems we face and that the options that do exist will require massive structural changes to implement, and a long time period of adaptation.
The second technology worth noting was solar power. Given the nature of our activities, I knew that electricity would be essential, and it was my hope that we would be able to use solar power to satisfy the majority of our needs. The process of acquiring, transporting, and installing (with the expert assistance of Frank Cebreros) the solar panels was relatively simple. However, within barely an hour of flicking on the switch, the whole system short-circuited and burnt out beyond repair.
We had brought with us two portable fuel generators and so were not left without electricity. This created an interesting situation. Our original intention was to consume as little fossil fuel energy as possible. However, when faced with the prospect of having no electricity at all, we seemed to quickly forget our environmental intentions entirely. The generators ended up running almost constantly, and often when they weren’t even being used. This is not to say that we had abandoned our principles or that we no longer cared about the impact we were having. It was rather a situation that is representative of something that I think is common to all humans. We find it hard to make do without things we have become accustomed to, and often we prefer to turn a blind eye, rather than radically shift our behavior. Simply put, it takes more than good intentions to adapt to new circumstances, and it is not until situations become critical that real change can happen.
A smaller and more personal objective, which myself and a few of the other participants had, was to reach the Pariacaca Glacier and come into direct contact with it. The most direct route to the glacier from our camp was also one of the least explored and so, other than a rough route based on what we had seen on Google Earth and some vague directions from the locals, we had very little idea of how to reach the glacier, or if it was even possible. The day we chose to make our attempt was, out of pure luck, one of the fairest in terms of the weather. Juan Bañon, Alejandro Jaime, Mark Dorf and myself set off in good spirits. As we approached the glacier the terrain worsened and became progressively more complicated and we would stop every so often to contemplate our surroundings and discuss the route we should take, but overall we made good progress. In this process, Juan’s knowledge of the mountains and years of experience as a camp cook were invaluable, and with minimal effort we were able to reach the glacier before lunch.
As we sat at just over 5000 meters above sea level right beneath the huge mass of ghostly blue ice our mood was as elated as our breath was short. While Mark and Alejandro worked on their interventions, Juan and I could not resist the temptation to explore a little further and so climbed to the top of the next ridge; from there we had a clear view of a sharp jagged snow covered summit. Although we both remarked on how different the peak looked from this vantage point, we thought no more of it until we were half way back down. Looking back at where we had come from, we realized that the peak we had thought was the summit was in fact a much smaller peak, which from our previous vantage point completely hid the true summit. As Juan so elegantly put it, “Pariacaca had cheated us.” We both laughed at our own naivety and at how easily we had been fooled into believing we were seeing what we wanted to see. I couldn’t help but think that within this lay a deeper insight into how we view things around us, and the perils of letting our optimism get in the way of seeing things for what they are.
We as a species have a tendency to overestimate ourselves while underestimating and simplifying everything else. During the course of the project I underestimated the dimensions of the landscape and the influence of the environment, and I simplified the complexity of the issue and the variety of interpretations that others in our group might have.
Climate change, largely because of the time frames in which it occurs, but also because of its very nature, is an incredibly abstract concept and one that is very difficult to fully grasp. The weather, on the other hand, is very concrete and immediate and so—despite all our better intentions—it was the weather that dominated our conversations, held the most sway over our actions, and ultimately had the biggest influence on the works we created. So, while global warming is a very serious issue and climate change has been a very effective tool in creating a shared sense of responsibility, it is important that we not lose sight of more pressing and tangible problems that need to be addressed. For example, no amount of international treaties will change the fact that our current culture, which considers disposable products acceptable, and values newness over durability, urgently needs to be reassessed. We hardly need climate models to recognize that an economic system driven solely by growth is not sustainable.
Climate change is not an issue that can be resolved; it is not a problem that has a single solution or one that can even be fixed. However, it is something that we must come to terms with and adapt to. While it may seem far-fetched, I believe that art can play a significant role in this process. It is my hope that the texts and works created through this project might serve as examples of how to approach, rethink, adapt, transform and ultimately collaborate in order to face the challenges that climate change will inevitably put in our paths.
At the end of the day HAWAPI 2014 was an experiment in why the human condition interferes with our attempts to understand problems such as climatechange, and why it so often ends up being an obstacle to reaching significant resolutions. What the whole experience revealed for me was, that the creative process, especially when done in a thoughtful and concerned manner, can raise important questions and lead to significant insights about our way of understanding complex global issues.
Maxim Holland is a self taught curator, producer and cultural entrepreneur. He is the founder and director of HAWAPI, an independent arts organization that each year takes a group of local and international artists to a remote and challenging location to produce public interventions focusing on social, political and environmental issues specific to the area. Holland was born in the UK but spent most of his childhood in Peru and Australia. He is currently based in Lima.