Chile at the Venice Biennale: Indigenous rights and endangered ecosystems

Chile’s contribution to the upcoming 59th Venice Arts Biennale, Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol, is an immersive experience, deeply rooted in Tierra del Fuego’s indigenous culture and rapport with the natural environment. At the intersection of scientific knowledge and artistic expression, the project also aims to raise awareness of the importance of the peatlands ecosystems in the face of climate change. Chile Today spoke with architect Alfredo Thiermann about the inspirations behind the project and the message it seeks to convey.

Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol was named after the expression “Hol-Hol Tol”, meaning “heart of the peatlands,” in the language of the Selk’nam, indigenous to Tierra del Fuego. The pavilion was put together by a multidisciplinary team of Chileans composed of sound artist Ariel Bustamante, art historian Carla Macchiavello, filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor, and architect Alfredo Thiermann. These artists also collaborated narrowly with ecologist Bárbara Saavedra, Selk’nam writer Hema’ny Molina, and cultural producer and biodiversity expert Juan Pablo Vergara.

Endangered ecosystems

The experience that awaits visitors in the pavilion is defined as “a large multi-sensory installation and a scientific experiment,” that aims to teach visitors the importance of preserving the biodiversity of the peatlands. In an interview with Chile Today, Alfredo Thiermann, architect of the project, described the installation as “a field, a mat, or a big carpet made of sphagnum, which is a specific kind of moss that grows in the Patagonian Peatlands. This moss has not been transplanted from Patagonia, but is an experiment between us – the artists – and a group of scientists trying to grow this moss artificially in order to avoid the further exploitation of its natural conditions.

“On top of this field of sphagnum, a very light circular structure will be floating, almost in the way an insect does. The structure’s perimeter will be defined by a translucent membrane and will have various images projected onto it. Visitors will enter and walk over a platform to enter this circular room and, in there, will be presented with a multimedia experience of sound and images that speak about the situation of the peatlands.”

The peatlands ecosystem is considered one of the world’s most efficient CO2 absorbents, making it essential for the preservation of biodiversity. However, in recent years, it has been put under significant stress by land use change, pollution, and the adverse impacts of climate change. Despite its importance, the research and documentation around the peatlands is relatively limited, which means that its role has been widely under-appreciated. Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol aims to raise awareness and teach visitors about this very particular environment by immersing them in it. “In between the real organic matter and the imaginary realm of the images and sounds, visitors will, I hope, grasp this phenomenon that has escaped visibility for many years,” Thiermann explained. He then added that the goal was to “turn this invisibility into something that is apprehensible to the senses.”

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Indigenous Chileans sentenced to invisibility

Another key theme of this project at the Biennale is the complex entanglement of nature and culture and the way in which indigenous populations interact with the natural environment. When asked about the importance of this specific ecosystem, Thierman replied that “what makes this particular case special is precisely that entanglement. The future of sustainability on this planet depends pretty much on these peatlands remaining as they are. And on the other hand, the future of the Selk’nam people is also very tightly entangled with the past and the future of those territories.”

Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol also seeks to promote the idea of indigenous sovereignty and the rights indigenous people should have to the land that is ancestrally theirs. The Selk’nam had been freely inhabiting the peatlands of Tierra del Fuego for more than 8,000 years until the genocide that was perpetrated against them in the second half of the 19th century through the early 20th century. They were then falsely considered as extinct, which consigned them to what Thiermann described as a “process of invisibility.”

In recent years, however, a growing movement of surviving Selk’nam people have come forward to declare this extinction a myth and demand to be recognized as a living culture with its own language and customs. “The Selk’nam people today are legally invisible, because of the fact that they were declared extinct. So their first desire — and we are, let’s say, a medium for their cause so to speak — is for them to be recognized politically, but then also culturally and symbolically. Through this process of recognition, we hope to help expand their rights, whether it be to land or other kinds of rights and support, in the most expansive way possible.”

This action could be considered as one part of the larger scale Land Back movement that has been taking roots in many countries in recent years. Its goal is set in motion various initiatives seeking to provide certain forms of reparation to indigenous people whose land was colonized by returning control of ancestral territories back to them and allowing them to rebuild their connections to these territories.

As many colonialist and neo-colonialist worldviews are increasingly being challenged on the international scene, the team in charge of curating the Pavilion decided to work on a project that was both collaborative and politically committed, taking into account the needs and demands of the indigenous communities involved. The team also traveled to Tierra del Fuego in order to meet and discuss with indigenous representatives and get their take on what they expected from the project.

A pavilion at the intersection of art and science

“We as artists or cultural producers cannot dictate what the outcome of our work will be … but, having said that, culture does have the potential to influence society and politics in a very concrete way,” Thiermann explained. When asked if he believed that art can contribute to making certain scientific concepts related to climate change and conservationism more accessible to everyone, Thiermann replied that the project really taught him and his team how to collaborate with people who come from completely different fields, such as the scientists that contributed their research and knowledge to the installation.

“In this case, scientists are not our enemies, they are our collaborators, we learn a lot from them and as far as our experience has been, they do learn from us, too. And I think in a sense what we’re doing is that: learning how to create new languages to communicate and understand phenomenons that our division of labor and knowledge have often made invisible,” he explained.

When asked about his team’s hopes for the future related to the current political shifts in Chile, he responded that “in order for the seeds we plant to have an effect, there has to be some kind of fertility in the ground – to use a biological metaphor. In order to mobilize some kind of change, it cannot be against a total panorama of resistance. I think that the current political shift that has been happening in Chile in the last two to three years is a very fertile territory for new things to happen.”

He also said that, although the outcome cannot yet be predicted, he and his team are “hopeful, motivated, and optimistic about these changes because it is absolutely clear that things could no longer continue as they were. And now it’s up to us, up to this moment, to channel these energies in a positive direction.”

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