A Conversation Between Edgardo Aragón and Heidi Ballet

Heidi Ballet (HB):
Your new work Mesoamerica: The Hurricane Effect has been commissioned by Jeu de Paume as part of the exhibition series Our Ocean Your Horizon, which elaborates on the idea of an identity that is based on unfixed grounds. In your work, you concentrate on the area of the ancient civilization of Mesoamerica (Middle America) and offer a reading of the different layers of power lines that are implicitly present in all maps.

Edgardo Aragon (EA): There is on the one hand the new video and on the other hand the maps, which I see as an important part of the work. The maps form a timeline of the idea of Mesoamerica and the parties that are exerting an influence in the area. In the project there is a juxtaposition between the ancient Mesoamerican civilization and the contemporary US-initiated multibillion-dollar development project that operates under the same name and also loosely covers the same territory. For the maps in the publication I took as a basis an old map from 1857. Interestingly, the author of this particular map had included the territory of Mexico in his map of the United States. Today the influence of the United States in Mexico is so important that in the contemporary world this map is in a certain sense accurate, but in the 19th century it was an absurd thought, much like a future claim by the United States, an attitude similar to the attitude of conquerors setting out into the ocean.

HB: In the video we travel from the centre of Oaxaca past a landscape of wind tur­­­bines, witnesses of the investments of the Mesoamerica Project, to the community of Cachimbo, situated on a peninsula at the southern end of Oaxaca, on the border with the state of Chiapas. The protagonist carries a battery and brings electricity to Cachimbo, back to where it came from.

EA: The goal of this trip was to bring electricity to the place where it should have gone to. The wind turbines were installed just a few kilometres from Cachimbo, but the electricity that is generated goes directly to the centre of Oaxaca. Cachimbo is a place that is hit by hurricanes every year, and every year the local population has to rebuild the infrastructure without electricity and without any government aid. My point is to illustrate that the people who should be benefitting from the development project are not receiving any support and that the real goal of the infrastructure is to ensure that the products manufactured by American-owned companies in the south are transported north. Recently Cachimbo obtained a precarious solar energy system that had been donated by a foundation from India, and a group of women was taught how to use solar cells for power generation, but the electricity that is generated is insufficient to allow people to watch television at home, for example. The inhabitants of the peninsula, referred to as chatinos, have been historically subjugated: first by Zapotecs, later by Aztecs, then by Europeans and now by Mexicans. Due to the community’s position on the limits between the two states, the body of water between the continent and the peninsula, Cachimbo Lake, has turned into a black market for all kinds of illegal trade and corruption is rampant at all levels in society. As a consequence of the poverty and violence, many people try to migrate to the United States and pursue the American Dream. There is a tragic route by a goods train that is known as “The Beast,” because many passengers become victims to the drug cartels or the police forces during the trip.

HB: The fact that Cachimbo Lake became a lawless zone fits into the political ontology of water space that Philip E. Steinberg and Kimberley Peters talk about in their text “Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces,” in which they claim that land can be governed since it is fixed and can be contained with borders, but water cannot due to its fluidity and movement. Ocean and water space become places of free passage dictated by the principles of a liberal economy while there is no sovereignty. The situation created by the Mesoamerica Project seems to show that a nation-state’s sovereignty and democracy can be at risk when there is a significant economic interest for an external party, leading to international corruption and complicity. One of your maps shows the involvement of foreign mining companies in the disappearance of 43 activist students in 2014, an incident that was similar in set-up to the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, during which up to 200 students were killed in a campaign to suppress political opposition at the outset of the United States presence in Mexico. The fact that Mexico plays an important role in the distribution of drugs worldwide makes its borders and security more fragile, a situation that is not unlike the situation of India and China during the 19th-century Opium War. Against the backdrop of this history that seems to repeat itself, do you believe in progress?

EA: There is, of course, scientific and technological progress, but I think humanity is running in circles. The worst thing that could happen would be that we forget what we have learned from atrocities like the Holocaust. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called “A Tired Man’s Utopia” in which a man travels into the future and sees people commit suicide in a furnace in Auschwitz. When the protagonist asks about the furnace, someone tells him that it was built in the past by a philanthropist.

HB: At the end of your video, there is a beautiful moment when you reinsert the local cultural heritage into the setting as one of the people trained to generate solar energy reads an excerpt from an orally transmitted Zapotec legend that had been collected and written down by Andrés Henestrosa. In the story, the different forces of nature are fighting each other, and man is located in the centre of it.

EA: Andrés Henestrosa grew up in the very region where my video is shot and played an important role in the conservation of the Zapotec culture that was threatened with disappearance. I find this legend important since it breaks with the idea of destiny in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, which forces people to accept fatal events as ordered by God, in a similar way that neoliberalism is accepted as a dynamic that governs the world and is unavoidable. A part of the process of making this new work is to reintroduce the idea of renewal after catastrophe in the Cachimbo community through this story. Currently there is a religious transformation taking place in the region and people are switching from the Catholic religion to several variations of contemporary Christianity, introduced by agricultural workers who returned from the United States. As books are normally destined for an elite intellectual class, even the ones like the collected legends by Henestrosa, along with the electricity I wanted to return this Zapotec legend to the place and the people it came from, the working class, in its original oral form.

This interview was initially published in the catalogue of the Edgardo Aragón exhibition Mésoamérique : l'effet ouragan, Paris, Jeu de Paume et Bordeaux/capc musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, 2016, and was edited for the release of this piece at Sala10.