Umbrales Atacama, Chile, 2018, by Javier Correa y Victoria Jolly.
GeoSemantics began as a conversation on Geological Writings at the Latin American Environmental Humanities Platform March 2022. On this occasion, we discussed the ways in which geological matter—rocks, minerals and fossils—was pressing into different artistic expressions and critical vocabularies. As we noted a new geological aesthetics emerging from the Global South’s socio-ecological realities, questions arose regarding the critical frameworks we use to understand established notions of matter. How are geological materials connected with art, colonial histories, and climate justice? Could these geological emergencies open a new field of cultural enquiry?
In his 2022 exhibition titled Ouvir Áterra (Listening to the Earth) at the Millan Gallery in São Paulo, indigenous artist Gustavo Caboco stresses the necessity of a “return to the earth” as a way to reconnect with the lost memories of the ancestors. Along the lines of Caboco’s exhibition, a growing body of artworks and concepts have been pointing to how living and non-living beings coexist in networks of interdependence. For Bruno Latour as for Marie-Louise Pratt, the “geological” or “terrestrial” turn should be understood alongside the notion of “planetary turn” as a way to reimagine ourselves beyond global capitalism by engaging local Indigenous, Black, and rural struggles.1 Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, too, states in his 2023 essay that in the face of the collapse “the ultimate utopia involves coming back to the Earth.”2 Here, Mbembe understands the Earth as “a [collective] We that would embrace human beings as well as objects, viruses, plants, animals, oceans, machines, and all the forces and energies with which we must now learn to live in bio-symbiosis.” These conceptualizations of the Earth are just a few examples of an ongoing effort to rethink geological semantics, thus blurring the divisions between life forms and the non-living and uprooting art’s connection with the superabundant density of the earth.3
This cluster explores GeoSemantics, which we understand as the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from artistic and critical engagements with the Earth. We have gathered a set of original contributions that deal with a broad range of expressions of geological forms, from materialistic conceptions of the territory and underground minerals as resources of capital accumulation, to ancestral and cosmological visions of the Earth as a sacred subject, with deep affective bonds with the human communities that inhabit it. Contributors deploy a multitude of media forms and sedimentary aesthetics that seek to reverse the mutism of non-human matter in postcolonial and postindustrial contexts. These pieces are an invitation to extend the limits of the perceptible in relation with the Earth, thus forcing us to “ouvir á terra” (listening to the earth). However, as Gustavo Caboco suggests in Portuguese, “ouvir áterra” also means “listening terrorizes”, as far as listening to the Earth risks also hearing the violence and horrors that could emerge with it.
At the heart of GeoSemantics is a methodology of desedimentation proposed by the material and geological approach of Cristina Rivera Garza, as outlined by Carolina Sánchez’s review essay in this cluster.4 The Mexican writer instructs us to “excavate” (“Hay que escarbar”) to uncover violent grammars of power accumulated as geological strata. She understands desedimentation as an artistic practice that brings to the surface the social life of the earth intertwined with the necropolitics of late capitalism. This cluster’s GeoSemantics highlight vocabularies, narratives, and methods that expose brutal histories in “extractive zones”.5 By digging into layers of soil and sediments, art can help us reconnect with the “earthly memories” that unlock the archives of dispossession and oppression. In this sense, the notion of desedimentation facilitates an ethical engagement in art practices that seek to expand the notions of truth and justice, as developed by Paulo Tavares or Eyal Weizman in their “forensic aesthetics.”6 These same questions are illuminated in our interview with Elizabeth Grosz included in this cluster, too, in which Grosz reflects on how extractive technologies rupture the memories of the earth below the surface, and how art can reconnect us to those memories and experiences by registering “the excess of the earth over our mere needs”.
From this desedimentation exercise deployed by authors and artists we distinguish four semantic layers that characterize their contributions: Geological Affects | Auto-Ethnographies of Extraction | Fossil and Mineral Subjectivities | Archives of Dispossession. This Cluster is released in two rounds. In this first part, we showcase the contributions to Geological Affects and Auto-Ethnographies of Extraction.
The first group of essays is concerned with the Geological Affects that (re)connect human communities and cultural productions with ancestral and spiritual realms of the Earth. Gabriel Giorgi theorizes recent aesthetic interventions from Latin America through ideas such as “mergulhar” (to immerse) and “aurality” that open up a space for a new sensoriality that turns territories into temporalities beyond human-centered narratives. Macarena Urzúa Opazo and Mateo Goycolea Toro´s audiovisual project offers a sensible bodily immersion into the eroded sediments at Parque Natural Aguas de Ramón, Chile. Nicolás Campisi reviews Ailton Krenak´s writings (from the indigenous Krenak Community in Brazil) to highlight the notion of “earthly citizenship” as an affective cosmogeology. Kiu-wai Chu engages with the geomorphic aesthetics of multi-channel video installations to expose the material conditions and affective affordances of bitcoin miners and “huminerals” (人礦 rén kuàng). Jens Andermann´s curatorial piece on Victoria Jolly’s art proposes a geological pedagogy, poetically named “learning through stones” that connects humans with a lithic and mineral density.
If human agency has become entangled with the Earth’s, how does this impact the political notion of the “common”? The next series of interventions explore this question from a personal perspective deploying an Auto-Ethnographies of Extraction which emphasizes the immersive experience of the “I” in the materiality of the Earth to recover senses of communitary healing. Paula Serafini’s essay deals with the experience of ecofeminist mobilization from the body-territory of the Latin-American diaspora in the Global North. Placed in the Middle East, Antranik Cassem delves into the embodied poetics of the Rain Song, by Badr Shaker al-Sayyab “anshudat al-matar” (أنشودة المطر, بدر شاكر السياب) to uncover the geosemantics of oil extraction in Iraq, thus shedding new light on the desertification of the land. Kenneth Nsa´s personal meditation seeks to reconnect with his native Congo from his position in the diaspora, by reviving his childhood memories marked by contaminated soil and extinction of ndehse bangnese and ndehse fingnese (bees in Mbessa language). Alejandro Ponce de León and Dayana Camacho Rodríguez offer an art-based essay that speculates on sedimentary practices of water flows in Sonso and Agua Blanca in the Cauca basin, Colombia as recovery of a communal well-being. Leila Gómez´s critical reportage on Moira Millán, Mapuche weychafe (“protective warrior” in Mapudungun), takes us on a journey through indigenous land struggles where the emergence of the notion of “terricide” testifies of the intersections of feminist movements with indigenous claims in Patagonia. Candela de Vega´s activist manifesto redefines the meaning of sacrifice zones from the body-territory of feminist activisms that fight to foreground a dimension of resistance. These are not silent territories: “they are noisy and complaining.” In her piece, Gabriella Nugent reflects on the work by three contemporary South African artists, Inga Somdyala, Lerato Shadi and Moshekwa Langa, who create a different kind of abstract painting produced by the materiality of soil with earth traces and mineral imprints of their native territories, historically extracted and colonized. By incorporating the geological material into the canvas, they reinvent abstraction as a site of contestation and projection for political and cultural identities.
The aim of this cluster is not to offer an exhaustive analysis of the concepts and definitions that surround the geological object, but to foreground the forms and meanings that the “geological turn” takes in the Global South’s cultures. Our aim is to create a dialogical space to dynamize collective and multimedial archives that link geology’s deep time with the entangled histories of political, social, and embodied experiences of regions affected by colonial and extractivist practices. These contributions take Earth both as a tool and as a medium to undo the nature-culture divide, and in so doing, they invite us to an immersive collective experience of uncanny listening to the earth, as Caboco urges, to reclaim our soil constitution.
1. Gabriel Giorgi: “Turning Territories into Temporalities: Three Aesthetic Methodologies”
2. Macarena Urzúa Opazo & Mateo Goycolea Toro: “Letters to the Landscape. Audiovisual Recording from Parque Natural Aguas de Ramón, Chile.”
3. Nicolás Campisi: “Geological Affect: Ailton Krenak’s Earth Citizenship”
4. Kiu-wai Chu: “Mining Guano and Bitcoin on Multiple Screens: A Geontocritical Reading of Video Installations by Dinh Q. Lê and Liu Chuang”
5. Jens Andermann: “Learning through stones (On Victoria Jolly, Marga: Cavar adentro)”
Auto-Ethnographies of Extraction
6. Paula Serafini: “Repensando el cuerpo-territorio: (Re)Territorializing the Self”
7. Antranik Cassem: “Geo Semantics of the 21st Century Oil Encounter”
8. Kenneth Nsah: “Vanishing Insects & Dying Earth: Reflecting on Insects & Soil in Mbessa (Cameroon)”
9. Alejandro Ponce de León and Diana Camacho Rodriguez: “Soft Sedimentation: An Artistic Ethnography of the Cauca Valley”
10. Leila Gómez: “Moira Millán on Land Struggle and Terricidio”
11. Candela de la Vega: “I Fight, Therefore I Am. Sacrifice Zones and the Geo-Social Dimension of Environmental Studies”
12. Gabriela Nugent: “Soil, Land and Abstraction in South African Contemporary Art”
13. Interview: Geopower, Inhuman Memories, and Extractivism: An Interview with Elizabeth Grosz
This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here.
- Mary Louise Pratt (2022). Planetary Longings. Duke University Press.
- Achille Mbembe “The Earthly Community”. E-flux: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/coloniality-infrastructure/410015/the-earthly-community/
- Povinelli, Elizabeth (2016). Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP; Grosz, Elizabeth (2008). Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth: New York: Columbia UP.
- Rivera Garza, Cristina (2022). Escrituras geológicas. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert.
- Gómez-Barris, Macarena (2017). The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Tavares, Paulo and Eyal Weizman articles included in: (2013). Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, Edited by Etienne Turpin. Michigan Publishing, Open Humanities.