White square moving
Sound of tires on road
Black moving entities
String of green and white
Black moving figures
Colored line being made
Long line green and white
Brown square objects
Two black figures
White green line
Three black figures
Five brown squares
Two figures/Three figures merging
Green, clear, white line
White square blowing
Big white lumps
Two brown square boxes
Line of green and white brought in closer
Five figures on horizon
While I had gotten to know the CONSTELACIONES performers well––having spent four days together on a road trip heading north from Santiago, following Pinochet’s Caravan of Death route through the Atacama Desert, and arriving at Calama––on the day of the performance, as I entered the witnessing site set apart from the vast desert performance space, all familiarity with the performers was lost. There was what Benjamin terms an aura around them––their movements and actions. CONSTELACIONES was a singularity in time (now) and a configuration; a live performance building a performance object that in the making looks both at the witnesses and back in history, and in its desert dwelling brings past/future/present to a standstill. Just there. As a witness, it was clear to me that I was in the presence of something greater than the action of a particular collective. My task was to watch: just look and listen, documenting in any way of my choosing. My looking and listening was informed by four thinkers: Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, and contemplative photography teachers John McQuade and Miriam Hall.
Using Simone Weil’s concept of attention as prayer, Walter Benjamin’s concepts of dialectics and constellation, and the technique of contemplative photography––just seeing––I shot one film clip or still image every ten seconds (followed by a 10 second pause). First, these shots were of CONSTELACIONES’ assemblage and reassemblage in the distance; then, they were close up. I used a GoPro Hero 3+ Black edition for video shots and an iPhone 6 camera for still shots. In the pause, I scribbled down words that came to mind as I was just seeing the performers’ movement and the colors of the human and non-human landscape. Some of these scribbled words introduce this essay. In the three accompanying eight to ten second videos––‘Witness Shadow 1, 2 and 3’––one can see my shadow, the shadow of a witness, just looking. In the first of the three still images––‘Black Moving Figures’––one sees four of the five CONSTELACIONES members carrying white sacks of what turns out to be ceramic bones. In the second still image––‘Breathe’––one sees artist Monica Martinez, who crafted the bones, sitting as she contemplates the bone mound sculpture. In the third still image––‘Standstill’––one sees the bone mound dwelling with the desert and mountains.
I chose Weil because her concept of attention is extreme and complete. For Weil, there are four conditions that define the process of attention:
1) “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer….
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
2) “Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in [hu]man[s].”
3) “[A]ll that I call ‘I’ has to be passive. Attention alone—that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears—is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.”
4) “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object[.]”
Weil’s process of attention (focusing on exteriority, emptying thoughts, bracketing or making the “I” disappear) was turned toward the images, movements, and sounds of CONSTELACIONES’ Return Atacama.
For the three hour duration of the performance, I inhaled and exhaled, counted to ten and began again, all the while watching as the black figures moved closer, finally depositing––giving––the ceramic bones to the desert in which the unfound human bones of those murdered by the Pinochet regime dwell and disintegrate.
For Benjamin, the dialectics of distraction and distance, present and past, come together in the image: “Dialectics comes to a stop in the image”. Benjamin calls this “dialectics at a standstill”. Dialectics at a standstill forms a new “constellation” which “telescop[es] … the past through present”. Benjamin says: “the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal … but figural.”
With each movement, stoppage, breath, and stillness, CONSTELACIONES telegraphed a past of horror, death, and terror into the present of active memory, respect, and responsibility. “What-has-been [is] co-articulated with what-is-present” in what is seen. I looked and listened, always bringing my attention back to their movement and stillness.
Of course, in witnessing the three hours of CONSTELACIONES walking, sweating, moving objects, and building, there were distractions—the wind, sun, human voices. As these distractions came and went, I returned to the breath––my breath––and in this return, I returned to the practice of contemplative photography: the practice of just seeing. When just seeing, the eye, mind, and outside world are in the same place at the same time.
John McQuade and Miriam Hall, in their book Looking and Seeing, say: “Direct perception stops the eye and stops the mind. When the eye is held the mind is held. When the mind is held, it is still and composed. It identifies with what it sees — That’s that.”
Weil’s extreme attention and Benjamin’s dialectics at a standstill come together in the just seeing of contemplative photography: just seeing CONSTELACIONES moving, building, and breathing in the Atacama Desert.
In the witness position of just seeing, I saw color, movement, figures, emptiness, death, history, family, dictatorship, lost lives, memory, a return to life.
In just seeing, the object-images look back at the viewer: CONSTELACIONES looking back at the viewer/witness constitutes what Benjamin calls an optical aura––a two way dynamic between object and beholder.
The past horror of the Pinochet regime, the regime’s murdering and disappearing of Chilean citizens in the Atacama Desert, the Chilean people’s resistance, revitalization, and remembering––all come together in a flash. CONSTELACIONES walking, unwrapping, carrying, laying the ceramic bones to dwell on a randomly selected space of desert ground, repeating the actions again and again until completion and exhaustion. “What has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”
What has been––the Chilean Junta’s attempted eradication of resistance between 1973 and 1990––comes together in a flash with the now as five trans-hemispheric performance artists collectively remember those lost (and their families), walking along the patch of desert to deposit––on a growing mound––a ceramic bone for each and all affected by the loss of life there in Chile, here in Canada, and there/here globally.
CONSTELACIONES’ newly formed “constellation” of past-present-future knowing, memory, and action was given to the desert through the embodied actions of walking, carrying, breathing, tearing, and building. What they built was left to dwell as a new constellation of beautiful ceramic bones built as a burial mound on which the desert winds, rain, sun, sand, animals, and tumbleweeds have begun to produce a new constellation in the time since CONSTELACIONES and their witnesses gave their attention.
Works CitedBenjamin, Walter. "A page of Benjamin's manuscript from Convolute N" The Arcades Project. 461. New York: Belknap Press,, 2002. McQuade,, John, and Hall Miriam. "Looking and Seeing: Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography" .. 51. New York: Drala Publishing, 2015. Weil, Simone. "Attention and Will" Gravity and Grace. 117. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Weil, Simone. "Letter IV: Spiritual Autobiography" Waiting for God. 62. New York: HarperCollins Perennial Classics Publishers, 2001.