The war in Peru caused an exodus of Italian organs from Lima, and thirty refugee instruments landed at Guayaquil just before our arrival. Four of these were on board the Quito, concentrated on the fore part of the upper deck, each playing a different tune. The Ecuadorians enjoyed the babel, but the alligators in the river seemed more sensitive. They came up and stared with open mouths, and plunged down again immediately, out of hearing.
Edward Whymper, Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator (1892) The exhibition The Unbalanced Land by Adrián Balseca originates from the travel report, Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator (1892), by British scientist and explorer Edward Whymper to reflect on the transformations of the capitalist and colonial systems in Latin America and the imbrication between the economical-political model and the epistemological and representative paradigm of the European hegemonic modernity. The exhibition brings together a sound installation, sculptural objects and a photographic series. In his artistic production, Balseca focuses on extractive dynamics and their environmental impacts, as well as the historic and economic processes associated with the implementation and consolidation of Modernity’s paradigm. Taking Whymper’s report as a starting point, The Unbalanced Land conforms a historic, political and cultural cartography of Santay Island, off Guayaquil, the second largest city in Ecuador, the artist’s home country, where Whymper landed in December 1879 with the intent of studying the effects of altitude in the human body. During the expedition, Whymper collects amphibians and reptiles, a collection that today integrates the British Museum, and it is the first to climb Chimborazo Volcano, the highest peak of the Ecuadorian Andes and earth’s most distant point to its centre.
The title of the exhibition refers to Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development and, particularly, to its rereading by Harvey through the concept of “uneven geographical development”. If Marx considers that space is annihilated by time in the capitalist system, The Unbalanced Land carries out a reflection on the modalities of space production and the spatio-temporal relations in late capitalism. This reflection is of a processual and relational nature. The representation of the Santay Island spaces takes into account their determination by a set of processes and internal and external relations, first of all systemic, but also of a geopolitical and historic nature, and points to the coexistence between diverse economic-political and epistemic models, which find expression in the exhibition’s formal conception. The Unbalanced Land operates a sensitive reconstitution of Whymper’s travel report, recreating and updating the sensorial descriptions of the British explorer in a temporal arch that connects the past and the present. The visual, sonorous and musical conception of the exhibition reconstitutes, in the framework of a relational and multi-perspective model, the layers of sensitive memory and the fluctuations of the perceptual and cognitive conditions between the XIX century and the present, pointing to the historical determination of the perceptual and cognitive models.
Whymper’s expedition is inserted in a series of scientific and colonial missions in Ecuadorian territory. In the first half of the XVIII century, the First Geodesic Mission of the French Academy of Sciences, led by Godin, Bouguer and La Condamine aimed to measure the arch of earth’s meridian and determine the Ecuador line, a fact that decisively marked the country’s culture and imaginary. It also establishes the decimal metric system, the mechanism that would propel the commercial trade of expanding capitalism. The Mission was followed, in the XIX century, by the expeditions of Humboldt and Darwin. The set of scientific expeditions realized in Ecuadorian territory points, right away, to the imbrication between the epistemological and the colonial projects of European modernity, as well as to the processes of imposition and universalization of the hegemonic perceptive, cognitive and representative models. In his travelogue, published in 1751, La Condamine describes the interactions between the Amazonian Amerindian peoples and the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. Even though indirectly, the report constitutes an eloquent testimony of the epistemicide perpetrated by the colonial “civilizing mission” by supressing all other epistemological models, inconceivable but as an object of study for the modern rationality.
If the Western epistemological and representative models aim to standardize the world and obliterate cultural differences, Balseca’s exhibition is inscribed in the opposite framework. Not only points to the tension between different epistemological and representative models, as well as, through a de-colonial artistic methodology, it situates itself as a practice of resistance to hegemonic cognitive and representative forms. Balseca examines certain perceptive, cognitive and representative models of modernity, particularly the narrative of travel, illustration, music and cartographical projections. The exhibition brings together three artisanal wooden compressor cylinders, traditionally used in Santay Island to flatten the land, to which synthetic rubber bands are tied. In the base of the compressor cylinders, is embedded a steel emblem that represents Goode’s Discontinuous Projection, a cylindrical type cartographic projection elaborated by the North American cartographer and geographer John Paul Goode, in opposition to Mercator’s projection, characterized by a visibly deformed map of the world due to “cuts” in oceanic areas and to attenuate the distortion of North / South surfaces. The material of the compressor cylinder’s structure, that combines wood, synthetic rubber and steel, refers to the processes of systematic extraction of natural resources. By de-territorializing aesthetically working tools and combining heterogeneous materials, the work problematizes the extractive, developmental and teleological economic-historical model, situating itself under the prism of a “pragmatics of sufficiency,” Viveiros de Castro’s expression steeped in Amerindian thought. The embedding of the representations of Goode’s map of the world reinforces the principle of non-production, outside the productive paradigm even if in a framework of artistic productivity, and questions a model of knowledge itself extractive. Composite objects, the compressor cylinders are also coupled with radio equipment of the Japanese brand Sanyo, whose insignia is a representation of Goode’s map of the world. In each of the radios, the soundscapes of Santay Island resonate, musically transferred to the piano by the composer, pianist and electronic music designer Daniel Mancero (Quito, 1983).
To this extent, The Unbalanced Land incisively questions the overlap between different extractive models - economic, cognitive, representative - and embraces a formal anti-extractive model. If, in his artistic process, Balseca collects and combines cultural elements of a diverse nature, this démarche is of an endogenous and exogenous nature, prospective and retrospective / restorative. The artistic gesture encompasses two successive yet continuous movements: from the inside out and from the outside in, from here to there and from there to here: from Santay Island to the outside, reconstructing the material, discursive, cultural and ideological itineraries of the objects exposed in assemblage mode, and from the outside in, back to Santay. In this sense, one should read the photographic series that accompanies the exhibition and which documents the installation of the three compressors on Santay Island, surrounded by crocodiles – animals that, over a hundred years ago, listened, according to Whymper’s description in epigraph, to the sound of the Italian organs from Lima – and the process of local molding of Goode’s map of the world. Balseca’s artistic process displaces and shuffles a set of perceptive, cognitive, political and representative categories (“here” and “there”, universal and local, “same” and “other”, observer and observee) and affirms a signic ecology founded in a system of dynamic interactions. One of the stages of this system is the reconstitution in Lisbon of the temporal layers and the sensitive memory of Santay Island in all its cultural and political complexity.