“We must reimagine and reorient our relationship to water.”
“The river is the fluid connection between ecosystems, between the past and the coming times, between people and geographies.” This statement is uttered in a hushed voice in Carolina Caycedo’s video installation Spaniards Named Her Magdalena, But Natives Call Her Yuma (Los españoles la llamaron Magdalena, pero los indígenas la llaman Yuma). Quietly whispering over footage of dam sites in Germany and the Yuma (Magdalena) River, Caycedo tells the story of her relationship with Colombia’s largest river. Having come of age near the Yuma River’s basin, Caycedo has experienced the ways in which living near bodies of water can shape our personal, social, cultural, and political lives. In Colombia—where Indigenous and peasant communities that share close bonds with rivers often experience a disproportionate amount of violence from corporations, armed guerilla groups, and the government—bodies of water have become contested sites of resistance.
Caycedo becomes a participant and ally in this resistance through a research-based practice centered around what she calls spiritual fieldwork: “a process of developing relationships with the human and non-human entities of a particular place (or field).” By considering the spiritual as a key element in her methodologies, the artist says, she insists on “my own and others’ subjectivities, on not keeping an objective distance with my case study, but actually getting implicated in it, without losing the rigor of what it means to be doing field research work.”
The ongoing project Be Dammed (Represa/Represión) (2012–present) examines the ecological, economic, social, and psychological impacts of dams built along waterways, particularly in Latin American countries. Caycedo recognizes water as a public space, a human right, and as a spiritual and living entity with its own rights. “Be Dammed came to life when I understood that, in rural contexts, rivers function as public spaces, or common goods, that are being privatized by the construction of infrastructures such as dams,” she has said. While pursuing an MFA at the University of Southern California, she became interested in the controversies surrounding El Quimbo, the first hydroelectric dam built by an international corporation in Colombia, which required the redirection of the Yuma (Magdalena) River. The artist was struck by the fact that the river seemed to refuse to be diverted by increasing its flow. For Caycedo, this was evidence of the river’s political and social agency, as well as of its role as the thread that connects, sustains, and protects all surrounding living beings.
The Cosmotarrayas series comprises hanging sculptures that embody “stories of dispossession and resistance” of the people that Caycedo has met during her research. Constructed with nets handmade by fishing communities (atarraya means “to cast a net”), their porousness and flexibility stand in stark contrast to the impermeability of dams—immovable structures created by governments or corporations to control the flow of water. The work underscores the right of fishing communities to have access to water and a river’s fundamental right to its own course. “We must reimagine and reorient our relationship to water,” the artist has said, “to resist notions of the river as a resource to be exploited and, rather, to understand it as a living thing that has an almost endless capacity for giving and sustaining when cared for.”
The desire to change the way we conceive of territory runs through Caycedo’s work. The Blessings of the Mystery (2020–22)—a research project developed with Caycedo’s partner, artist and filmmaker David de Rozas—challenges the idea of the landscape as a flat and clearly delineated area that can be divided for profit. Commissioned by Ballroom Marfa, the works in this series highlight the philosophies of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, their knowledge of and relationship to the land, and their continuous struggle against ongoing forms of colonization. The Teaching of the Hands (2020)—narrated by Juan Mancias, the tribe’s chairman—weaves together archival footage, reenactments, and archeological artifacts, foregrounding the ways in which land surveying, mapping, and privatization have permanently altered the environment and its inhabitants’ way of life. “Though mapping has been a way to construct knowledge and to understand places better, it is not a process that is free of guilt,” Caycedo and de Rozas have said. “It has come hand in hand with other forms of violence.” The works in this series advocate for a shift in our conception of the environment that surrounds us—one that acknowledges Indigenous knowledge and centers human beings’ connection to the land and to other species.
Anna Burckhardt, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, 2022