“A Planetary Expenditure”: Ensayos on Learning Across a Distance

Derek Corcoran & Giorgia Graells being beavers in Tierra del Fuego, 2014. Photo: Camila Marambio.

The work of Ensayos – a strategically covert group of artists, poets, historians, biologists, lawyers, sociologists, ecologists, activists, policymakers, and local community members, around the globe – is extremely difficult to summarize. And that’s just the way they want it. Their commitment to cultural and ecological complexity often takes cover in a poetics of illegibility, utilizing tactics from feminist pedagogies and experimental theater. For the past decade, this group of loose-knit collaborators have been working at the intersections of ecology, anti-colonial politics, and speculative fiction in a number of archipelagos: beginning in the Fuegian Archipelago (Chile and Argentina) and soon spreading to sites in Norway, Australia, and New York City, building long-term relationships with specific landscapes and the people who live and work there, in ways that only occasionally become visible to the outside. In the process, Ensayos has developed its unique practice blending somatic exercises, audio-visual storytelling, and physical exhibitions, into hybrid forms they term “eco-fictions.”

An ongoing technique has been their use of quixotic “scores” enacted back and forth between artists and scientists. In Tierra del Fuego, for instance, Ensayos educated itself on the presence of beavers, which have been dubbed an “invasive species,” by giving human-scale beaver costumes to ecologists in order to film themselves in the landscape, and sending artists to do field research on scents used in territorial communication – all culminating in a project at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, in 2015.

Ensayos is currently making a rare artworld appearance as the inaugural “digital artists in residence” at the New Museum in New York. Originally planned as a physical residency on the museum’s fifth floor, the tactics Ensayos has developed enables a seamless transition into the digital space of the global pandemic. For ENSAYOS: PASSAGES, at the New Museum, the group rallied collaborators to co-write and rehearse a performative experiment, Cúcu and her Fishes, which will debut on September 1st, 2020. Crafted for the “theater” of Zoom, the livestream re-envisions Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends (1977), a play that follows a group of socialite philanthropists engaged in a fundraising scheme; their new version doubles as an actual fundraiser for peat bog conservation. Ensayos has also released three new podcasts titled “Hydrofeminist METitations,” each show led by a different group of ensayistas based in Norway, Australia, and the Americas. The collective is also premiering the second season of its fragmentary web series DISTANCIA, which follows the activists, scientists, and artists on the road in Tierra del Fuego, pursuing questions that belong in that archipelago.

In this conversation with Ensayos co-founders, theorist-curator Camila Marambio and artist-educator Christy Gast, we speak about what they’ve learned from their years of collaborating across the digital divide while staying rooted in the specifics of physical place, and well as the role – and limitations – of empathy in telling cross-cultural histories, following what they call “the ethics of the visitor.”

Søssa Jørgensen performance in Norway, 2016. Photo: Christy Gast.

Jarrett Earnest: Talking to you about Ensayos right now feels particularly acute. You have a decade of experience developing a collective research practice that takes place in person, privileging somatic experiences in particular places. At the same time, your practice is enabled by collaboration across great distances, using technology. As a research collective you’ve created techniques to work across those distances in ways that the world, especially art institutions, are currently clamoring to figure out.

Christy Gast: Ensayos definitely prepared us to work remotely. Tierra del Fuego is remote, and we can’t be there all the time. I’ve begun to question whether I should go back at all because of the impact of travel. The distance has made this particular project – our play Cúcu and her Fishes – just right for this time. We started working on it before the residency was a sure thing. The shutdown happened and we just needed it, we needed to find a time and place to be together, weaving our eco-concerns, working together on something creative and connected. When Camila and I sent an email to our larger group of potential collaborators inviting participation, we heard back right away from those who knew that, yes, they wanted to do this. As usual, we started without a clear picture of what the outcome would be.

Camila Marambio: What underlies our work is years of learning to trust each other. Our remote out-postings in Chile, Australia, Norway, and our sustained long-distance research practices gave us experience collaborating across great distances. An outcome of that is that we had plenty of archival material from our years of communicating from one archipelago to another. But trust is key to knowing we could make new work in new ways, without knowing the outcome when we started. I think that’s why we were well-placed to deal with a shift from an in-person residency to a digital one.

”Ensayos” are rehearsals, and what we’ve been rehearsing is acceptance of difference over time. Translating feelings from one discipline to another, from one language to another, from one ideology to another is a careful, repetitive task that requires nuanced forms of lovemaking. Love, as an ethic of collaboration, is a way to surrender personal opinions and express care for the process, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel quite right – not quite timely, not quite radical enough. There is a liminal zone with collective work that requires we trust the process. If the trust isn’t there, or someone isn’t feeling it, then that’s okay. Not everyone takes part in every Ensayo; we opt for confluence rather than conflict. Thanks to this, our collective fieldwork has been able to grow beyond the limits of “the field.” We each record differently, each one has unique tools and sensibilities. Ultimately, we each take our experiences home with us and elaborate on them locally. We look for the media that allow us to share our post-fieldwork reflection with each other and broader audiences from a distance. This is why when it became clear that we were not going to be able to gather in New York, we were able to instantly refocus our physical collective practice with ways of co-creating remotely and sharing new work online. We felt it was important to do so because New York is very dear to us – it’s the place where Christy and I met in our early twenties as grad students, and where some of us in Ensayos have “grown up” in terms of our understanding of art’s potential as a global language.

Ensayos fieldwork on Canaipa Island, Australia, 2019. Photo: Christy Gast.

Earnest: You work in both the near and far, which offer different things. As people are looking to find means of connection and art experiences across digital space – in the “far” space – what have you found that can inhabit that place meaningfully, that is not just a diminished approximation of being physically together?

Marambio: It’s a huge investment to travel to Tierra del Fuego, to get across the Oceans to Australia, to migrate to the polar circle. It’s a venture for each body, it’s a complicated undertaking for the collective body, and it’s a planetary expenditure. The costs – emotional, monetary, and ethical – of working in places that are hard to reach has always meant that we don’t often get to be there. We’re there in small numbers whenever possible. To be honest, we’re a precarious group of cultural workers. Most of us are independent. And though this may mean we have some “freedom” in our schedules, we often have to postpone our fieldwork plans numerous times before the conditions are right. Appropriate conditions usually come about once every two years and have to do with weather, time, the ripening of our research questions, invitations, and money. Rarely do we get grants. We’re either too many scientists for an art grant, or too many artists for a science grant, or too many non-experts (locals) for an international grant, or too many foreigners for a local grant, etc. That’s why when we do spend time together in the places we love and care for, we know how valuable it is. It’s our treasure, a source of tremendous joy. To get to practice knowing the world differently is tremendously nourishing and sustains the labor of attempting to change the systems that deplete the biodiversity of the planet. Fieldwork is also physically taxing, but I’d say that we do it again and again because it produces a certain ecstatic experience of being in the world together.

This new field, a composite of bodies and places projected into the virtual sphere, presents its own new challenges. We work across languages and have always had to factor in translation, but when we are in each other’s presence there is time to translate. When working across timezones translation is strained. When I say translation, I don’t just mean word-for-word conversion from Spanish to English, etc. I’m referring to the cultural nuances, to the knowledge that is generated when you observe another body adapting to a place, to the desires that exceed what can be expressed orally, to all that is read when you can lose yourself in time. In the digital sphere, this form of translation is flattened out; translation becomes a “simple” task, something to be sorted rather than slowly learned from. Communication is supposedly “leveled,” and this creates blips and glitches in the beautiful matrix that Ensayos weaves. Those blips are harder to resolve when you aren’t physically there to sense, observe, and hold the problems of miscommunication. You don’t get that kind of sit-down space where you can be fully vulnerable together and then take a breather and come back to the conversation and then make yourself a cup of tea, share a tent, etc. Hours and hours of being together get thinned down to a couple hours a week of FaceTime, too many emails, countless WhatsApp voice messages, joint Google docs, and Dropbox files that are no replacement for the awesome ways that each is moved to tears by the enormity of Tierra del Fuego. Luckily, we’ve been there together and there is physical memory that holds us together, but the danger that we’re facing is that we have little downtime together and some of our better ideas have emerged out of leisurely lying together in the peat bogs.

Earnest: In addition to the ecological focus of your work, in all of your locations you’re also engaging the cultural politics. The histories and the discourse of colonialism and racialized violence is as different in each of these as their specific ecological conditions. How have you consciously engaged these dynamics in your work, and what solutions you found for moving through them.

Gast: “Solutions” seems like a very finite point. I think that saturation is maybe a better place to start in terms of the time that we spend in the places that we spend time and who we spend time with. And who we are – Ensayos is not just me and Camila. It includes collaborators who have 50,000-year-long cultural relationships with archipelagos. There’s a real ethic of listening, and that’s what I mean by saturation.

Marambio: It’s an active approach. It’s a reiterative approach. What we do aims to be serial, episodic, long-form. I took inspiration for this way of thinking about art and its local impacts from Sørfinnset Skole in Norway. That’s a summer program in the north of Norway founded by Geir Tore Holm and Sossa Jorgensen, who are part of the Norweigan Ensayistas. They describe the work that they do in Sørfinnset as “infinite.” From the get-go, I understood that perfection is the enemy of complex thinking and if we were going to really stay with the complicated environmental issues being faced by Tierra del Fuego we were going to need to understand our involvement in the problem over time. We’re really on a winding road to a culture of repair, to relearn the world by dislodging it from colonial visions – and this does not just happen in discourse; it is a consistent continuous commitment. It was Geir Tore Holm, a Sami artist, who, back in 2010, first seriously put the question of cultural history on the table for Ensayos to deal with. He suggested that to think about environmental questions without thinking of human cultures was anthropocentric. We were sitting with a group of scientists who were pointing to the largest, biggest, most pressing environmental threats to the well-being of this archipelago – invasive species, microplastics, management. And he said, I would add to that the well-being of nature depends not solely on scientific understanding but that the cultural invisibility of oppressed histories hidden in landscapes is just as problematic for the well-being of “nature.

Gast: Geir Tore’s question was really pointed and specific: He said, surely what you’re saying can’t be true –  the Indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego are not extinct. This had been presented to us as common knowledge. And attending to that question has really changed the relationship between the conservationists, ecological organizations, and the Indigenous communities who have ancestral relationships with Tierra del Fuego. Ensayos is engaged in work that makes connections between organizations, communities, and archives that are important to communities but haven’t been accessible previously. Sometimes through art channels and art-funding channels, we have been able to facilitate travel and access to cultural artifacts that have been removed from the archipelago and are stored half a world away. In some ways, we’re privileged to witness and be a part of such reconnections, but it’s not our story to tell at this time. It is up to other members of the collective to decide when those stories are ready to be foregrounded.

Earnest: Because Ensayos is made up of a lot of different people living in different places, how do you determine the parameters of what the stories that you can tell are?

Marambio: There are situated and mobile parameters, in that the parameters are different in every place. That’s an important and vital part of the curatorial work involved, say, in deciding and shaping what aspects or what facet of Ensayos research is going to be seen when and where. A couple of years ago, during the prep work for the first official filmshoot for the making of the first season of the web series DISTANCIA, Ariel Bustamante, Carolina Saquel, and I wrote something like a manifesto that we called “the ethics of the visitor.” Though we may have residency periods [allover], we’re adamant about staying vigilant to our condition as visitors. We are currently invited visitors – guests – at the New Museum. As a guest, I’m not going to tell you all of my intimate thoughts, nor will I expose the thoughts of others I am intimate with, unless there’s consent. In Kawéskar language, there is a very powerful concept, Kucelakso. José Tonko explained to us while shooting DISTANCIA that in Spanish the closest idea would be that of friendship but, in contrast with the Western sense of the word, Kucelakso as friendship does not mean I am intimate with you or that I tell you my secrets, rather it is that I observe your behavior and mine in a reserved way for a duration of time, out of which may emerge friendship. That kind of assessment of the behavior that’s suited both outwardly and inwardly is really the groundwork of what we do every time when we decide to make Ensayos public. We have a set of recipes we can share, cakes that we bake, that we have been baking consciously but there are many stories, experiences, and images that are not yet in a recipe and may never be.

Camila Marambio, 2018. Photo: Jacqui Shelton.

Ensayos is deep in private work, really intimate work, that may or may not see the light of day at different points in the future of what we do. Say with DISTANCIA, it’s an evolving approach to ethical storytelling, and that’s why the web series format feels like the correct format to narrate a story serially, in fragments as a web. Initially, we were asked to tell the story of Ivette and Julio Gaston, the couple that appear as protagonists. Yet their story is connected to so many other stories, that if you begin to tell it, other parallel tales and peoples come into view. Some of those storylines may want to be heard, some may want to be sheltered, others may want to tell themselves in a different medium. We are excited about what this will do to the third season. We are always self-reflecting on who the storyteller is and who it should be. Transparency and opacity in a continuous dance. Every time we have a platform to share, we have to negotiate what story gets told, who is telling it and so with DISTANCIA each season is but a partial picture, and often the storyteller is as much a protagonist as the story, which makes for a very loopy narration. That doesn’t always make the best public impression, but it’s a choice we’ve made. We are committed for the long-haul.

Earnest: The term “eco-fiction” comes up in descriptions of your work. What is useful about fiction in this context when climate discourse is marred by political disagreements as to what constitute the scientific facts?

Marambio: We’ve started using “eco-fiction” quite recently; before we were trying on “ethno-fiction” and “ficto-criticism” as possible genres for our work. In all of these terms, fiction is the operative word. Operative because it points to the hybridization of traditional genres, more or less. To pair fiction with “eco-” or “ethno-” or “-criticism” muddies the binaries between fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and reality, nature and culture; fiction infuses eco, ethno, and criticism with imagination and invention. It acknowledges that no field of study is objective or universal, but that all are pregnant with fiction.

What we do in Ensayos is create connections between split worlds. And fiction has proven to be a wonderful tool to approach subjects that are entrenched in this truth, untruth dichotomy. Fiction allows us to say: ok, but let’s speculate. We’re going to just speculate that beavers can talk to us and tell us they’re happy in Tierra del Fuego. So we tell ourselves a different story – different from the one that is considered true – because it’s not based on “fact” or “reason.” And this way we rehearse suspending our normative ways of thinking and germinating alternatives. This has led to a new understanding of how “facts” emerge. Fiction aids us in diagnosing our blind-spots, and so it is fiction that generates knowledge which then becomes reality, and this will then surely create a new blind spot that needs fictioning …

Gast: Yeah, and this takes me back to the idea of empathy, specifically starting with the beaver work. We didn’t know how to commune with beavers, so in the exercise we did to build empathy with the costume, with becoming the beaver, we’d have to work with what we know about science and about ecology and about the social life of animals. But also, we’re making it up as you’re going along. This is something that María Irene Fornés talks about in terms of writing and making theater.

Earnest: What do you find are the limits of empathy in your work?

Marambio: Maybe not limits of empathy, but a boundary of empathy: you practice empathy for something or someone you’ve never considered, you’ve been given a score of how to do it and it sparks feelings in you, then you go home and the routine, the mental habits, the normality of language makes it weird for you to express your new sentiments, empathy dissolves, you start using the old words again – i.e. beavers are invasive – and activating the old patterns of binary thinking. Empathy is limited in its potency to generate more caring societies by routine, by normative language, by the “idea” of language itself.

Earnest: I’m mostly wondering about the aspect of empathy that is an imaginative or fictive projection, and your ability to imagine yourself into another person’s experience – which renders it somewhat specious. When you talk about parameters of the stories you can tell, that seems connected to the limitation of empathy.

Marambio: I don’t know if it’s the limitation of empathy – it might actually be a consequence of empathy, or a sub-product of practicing empathy, that you realize that not every story is yours to tell. Or that not every image is yours to use, that self-determination is a desire to be respected. You can’t write yourself into everyone’s bit of history.

I am thinking of an author and inspiring figure for us, Gloria Anzaldúa, the Chicana poet, whose book on the figure of the New Mestiza places power in the hands of those who travel between worlds without appropriating them. I recently read a text analyzing some of Gloria’s work. The author, Ana Louise Keating, described Anzaldúa as a “spiritual activist” – and I thought yeah! we do that. The word spirituality is a complicated one, it gets a bad rap, has its undertow and its severed histories, but like eco-fiction, spiritual activism links us back to important movements. It restores the political in empathy and activates speculative fiction. It opens up activism, making room not only to step forward, but stepping back. Ensayos works on many invisible planes, in that sense it is spiritual. If the spiritual is that which we cannot see, cannot grasp, or that which is and is not. That which exceeds naming.

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