“I am convinced that memory has a gravitational force. It is constantly attracting us. Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moments. Those who don’t, don’t have anywhere.”
— Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia de la Luz / Nostalgia for the Light
Whereas violence and its traumatic effects traverse diasporic routes and generational timespans, the institutional and archival structures designed to document and address its harmful effects are often contained within disciplinary, temporal, and national boundaries. In the process, trauma risks becoming dislocated from the larger “affective economies”  through which it is produced and circulates. Within human rights discourse, trauma associated with political violence is most often contained within isolated historical events and geographic locations. Those whose bodies are not intimately impacted are thereby situated as bystanders—empathetic or apathetic—not as participants in either the day-to-day affective economies through which these traumas are brought into being or the multiple labours of attention and care needed to facilitate their healing and transmission into social memory.
Like the estimated 200,000 who fled the violence of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, when Chilean-Canadian artist Monica Mercedes Martinez’s twenty-year old mother escaped carrying her infant daughter across the mountains to Argentina, she carried her traumatic memories with her. When Monica’s twenty-three year old father joined them after his release from one of Pinochet’s detention camps, he too carried his memories. Together, Monica’s parents brought their memories with them when they migrated to Edmonton, Canada where they raised Monica and her siblings. These inherited memories of political violence and traumatic loss became the seeds of everyone is fallen except for us fallen…, a sculptural installation Monica created in order to honour the lives affected by the 1973 coup. This familial, generational, and lived experience also laid the foundation for the performance work of the project-based artist collective CONSTELACIONES.
CONSTELACIONES was born of the gravitational weight of Monica’s inherited memories and her dream to return the hundreds of vibrant forms she sculpted from stratified layers of Chilean history and her own diasporic trajectories to Chile’s Northern Atacama Desert. Drawing from interdisciplinary practices that include sculpture, performance, theatre, ritual, installation, sound, and video, CONSTELACIONES—Roewan Crowe, Doris Difarnecio, Christina Hajjar, Monica Martinez, and Helene Vosters—came together through possibility, friendship, focused collective labour, and a commitment to artistic process. CONSTELACIONES formed out of connections that were created through the University of Winnipeg, the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Gathering ourselves around Monica’s story and her sculptural work, our artistic journey began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty One Territory and homeland of the Métis. We engaged in a process-based trans–hemispheric collaboration that sought to embody collective healing through kinship and vulnerability and to reject isolation, silence, and disconnection in the face of diasporic trauma. CONSTELACIONES created four performances: Lake Winnipeg, Wrapping Atacama, Return Atacama and Echoes: North…North. Our studio process first led us to the frozen expanse of Lake Winnipeg, where we began to develop our movement vocabularies in a series of performance vignettes entitled Lake Winnipeg. Further work in the studio led us to the use of scoring as an interdisciplinary process-based methodology for collaborative creation. To send off Monica’s sculptures to Chile, we created the event Wrapping Atacama where we gathered with others to wrap the sculptures, box them, and ship them from Winnipeg to Santiago de Chile. We continued to work together for months to generate scores for Return Atacama and Echoes: North…North, which were to be performed in Chile.
Return Atacama and Durational Witnessing
Conceptual, affective, and experiential distances exist between artists and their audiences. In academe, the paradigmatic distance between artistic and scholarly work can be particularly pronounced even though both groups engage in primary and secondary research; conceptual, affective, and intellectual labours; and knowledge production and mobilization. To explore this distance, CONSTELACIONES imagined ways of creating generative encounters between artists and scholars. By following our artistic process, we came to understand that it would be productive and compelling to expand our understanding and use of the words spectator, audience, and witness. Though it is unusual for artists to make their artistic process visible to others before the work is ready to be exhibited or performed, we opened parts of our process to scholars from the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. We invited our colleagues to travel with us by van from the airport in Santiago to the site of our performance in the Northern part of the Atacama Desert, thus expanding the performance to include the time we traveled together.
The performance, Return Atacama–a ritual of remembrance and witness–was performed in Chile’s Northern Atacama Desert, just outside of Calama. Our sojourn to the Atacama Desert was aligned with the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ 10th Encuentro–EX-céntrico: dissidence, sovereignties, performance–held in Santiago, Chile from July 17–23, 2016. Immediately prior to the Encuentro, the core CONSTELACIONES collective were joined by Shannon Bell, Jarvis Brownlie, Smaro Kamboureli, Cassie Scott, Alexei Taylor, Dot Tuer, and Kimberley Wilde. We gathered in Santiago on July 9, where we met with our driver and soon to be friend, Marcelo Andres Valdez Perez, before embarking on a one week-long artistic journey. Marcelo brought his van with a trailer in tow carrying six cardboard shipping boxes filled with Monica’s carefully wrapped sculptures, which had been sent ahead of us several months prior. Together, we traveled along the coast of Chile to the northern mining town of Calama with several stops along the way. Known as the “Caravan of Death,” this was the route where in the wake of Pinochet’s September 11, 1973 military coup, “Puma helicopters descended from the sky like avenging gods to enact a terrifying revenge on Allende supporters who were being held in regional jails and military cuartels.”  Once we arrived in Calama, we were joined by Diana Taylor and Eric Manheimer. The site of our first performance destination was just outside of Calama. It was here that we performed Return Atacama before heading to Santiago to perform Echoes: North…North at the Encuentro.
Through the creation of an opportunity for sustained experiential engagement with artistic process, place, landscape, and history—and with the artists of CONSTELACIONES and our performances—we created a site for ‘durational witnessing.’ We understand durational witnessing as a particularly useful form of engagement with performance-based work that references traumatic histories since it productively works with the complexities and tensions created by conceptual, experiential, and geopolitical distances.
In the context of Return Atacama, witnesses were invited to join as performers, not only in the performance event itself, but also in the broader project of carrying, and carrying forth, the traumatic memory of state violence. Additionally, witnesses were invited to experience the various labours involved in the work of CONSTELACIONES.
In thinking more deeply and through writing about our artistic choices after the performances, the importance of further exploring duration in performance has become heightened for us. By extending the Return Atacama performance, we activated an “‘ethics of slowness’– what Adrian Heathfield describes as a ‘labourious commitment in a cultural context of acceleration to a different pace and understanding of creative generation.” Working to further understand how time is created through performance, Lara Shalson writes that “art might not just take our time, but might give us time [….] As the pace of life continues to accelerate, providing occasions to slow down and reflect is a vital necessity.” By extending the duration of the performance, we hoped to create a spaciousness around the encounter and to create time for deep thinking.
We also hoped that durational witnessing would both heighten the level of commitment to the process and deepen engagement with the work by creating a situation that would expand understandings of the performance beyond the frame of the performance ‘event.’ Durational witnessing troubles the very act of interpretation. We asked a lot of our witnesses: to be embedded in part of our artistic process; to engage in a collective holding of memory, history, and our varied relationships to political violence; and to explore the possibilities of connection and collaboration, in and alongside performance. As fellow travelers and co-contributors to this collection, witnesses were called upon to perform as durational witnesses before, during, and after the performance ‘event;’ There was the embodied experience of performing community through the daily rituals of travel, shared meals, and bodies held in close proximity. There were the winter walks and collective rituals performed along the beaches of the summer resort town of La Serena, and Chañaral, a small town that was heavily damaged by Northern Chile’s 2015 floods. Alongside the multiple mundane negotiations of traveling together, there was the task of individually and collectively navigating our relationships to the violently historied landscape that we spent four days traveling into and through.
The main performance ‘event,’ happened the day after our arrival in Calama. CONSTELACIONES performed Return Atacama at a desert site twenty kilometers outside of the mining town. The three-hour performance in unforgiving sun and cold high desert wind made the performance of witnessing a demanding task. The initial performance space was set far away from the witnesses. The performance opened with CONSTELACIONES approaching and swarming the cardboard boxes containing Monica’s ceramic forms set one hundred yards in the distance. The witnesses could barely see us; it was unclear what was happening. The staged distance and hours of performance strained witnesses’ senses. Attention had to be negotiated and alternated between focused intensity, conversations with other witnesses, meanderings, and the passing back and forth of binoculars. CONSTELACIONES repeatedly altered their proximity and distance to the witnesses by moving closer and then farther away, encountering the gaze and attention of the audience and then walking away into the horizon. For the duration of Return Atacama, CONSTELACIONES engaged in various performance gestures: flocking and swarming far in the distance around the boxes containing Monica’s sculptures; unpacking and unwrapping the sculptures; removing the protective bubble wrap; laying the bared sculptures out on the desert floor; creating a bubble wrap snake from the old, discarded materials; walking with the empty boxes toward and past the witnesses; pulling the snake of old materials toward and past the witnesses; repeatedly returning far into the distance to the sculptures laid out on the desert sand; repeatedly carrying sculptures from the distance to the mound that formed near the witnesses; and releasing the sculptures at the mound. Repeated gestures of walking, lifting, carrying, engaging with one another and the audience, created a feeling of laboriousness and return.
After the mound of sculptures was constructed, Monica laid a final sculptural ceramic form onto it and sat with the mound while CONSTELACIONES walked one last time into the distance. We returned yet again, this time each one of us pulling/carrying a heavy white sack full of shards toward the mound. Monica reached into the sack of sharp pieces and rained shards onto the mound. CONSTELACIONES joined her and then the witnesses were invited to step into the space of creation to participate in the act of ‘sounding’ the mound with the shards of porcelain. The mound–the final sculptural installation made of Monica’s vibrant forms–was transformed into an unauthorized sound sculpture. It was left there in the Atacama Desert. The hours spent witnessing Return Atacama produced an encounter with a range of experiences from discomfort, boredom, curiosity, and unknowing. In contrast with the days spent in close contact as fellow travelers, witnessing CONSTELACIONES as we performed our ritual of release facilitated a sustained visceral encounter with the tension between proximity and distance, between witness and observer.
The Atacama Desert: “Gateway to the Past”
“What is strange is that society should understand these women better than it does astronomers. But the opposite is true. Society has a greater understanding of the astronomers, in their search for the past than of these women who search for human remains. There is a certain reticence and that worries me. People say: ‘It’s in the past. Enough’s enough!’ That’s easy to say.”
— Gasper Galaz, Nostalgia de la Luz / Nostalgia for the Light
A particularly powerful guiding source for CONSTELACIONES was the complex and breathtakingly beautiful documentary film, Nostalgia de la Luz / Nostalgia for the Light (2010), created by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. The film focuses on the Atacama Desert as a site for poetic meditation on the horrific acts of torture and murder carried out by the Pinochet regime. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. One of the gifts of this extraordinarily arid nature is that the sky becomes translucent, making it one of the best places on earth to star gaze. There is nothing between the dark night sky and the naked eye. Constellations, the stars, the galaxy- all are clear and vivid. Guzmán looks to the sky, to the cosmos, and draws connections among the thinking/feeling of astronomers, archaeologists, architects, engineers, healers, and places all of this alongside the testimony of the Chacabuco concentration camp survivors, and the women who endlessly search for the remains of their disappeared loved ones in the desert sands.
“I wish the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky, but could also see through the earth so we could find them,” 70-year old Violeta Berrios tells the film’s viewers as she sits on the brittle sandscape of the Atacama Desert where she and her companions have spent decades searching. “Like this, we would sweep the desert with a telescope,” she demonstrates slowly drawing her arm in an arc from right to left in front of her, “and give thanks to the stars for helping us find them.” Dropping her arm and her imaginary handheld telescope, Berrios completes her demonstration with a slight shrug and adds, “I’m just dreaming.”
Like many dreams, Berrios’s is telling. As archeologist Lautaro Núñez explains, the Atacama Desert is a “gateway to the past” for astronomers and archeologists alike. Just as the translucency of the sky facilitates access to the stars, the arid climate preserves evidence of the past. What if we were to take Berrios’s dream as a requisition? A demand that, just as the transnational community invests heartily in gaining access to the Atacama skies, we similarly invest in scientific and economic resources to develop tools to aid us in turning our gaze toward the earth and confronting the repressive technologies of political disappearance?
The night after the performance in the Atacama Desert, and before we disperse en route to the Encuentro in Santiago, we travel to Paniri Caur Observatory just outside of the village of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu. Gathering us inside the Observatory, our guide to the stars, Silvia Lisoni, is giving us an audio-visual presentation. Her talk involves a series of translations, each translation an opportunity for slippages in meaning-making. She speaks Spanish. Only a few among us are fluent Spanish speakers. The same is true of the vocabulary of astronomy. Though all of us have gazed at the stars, none of us are students of astronomy.
Undaunted by the linguistic or astronomical limitations of her audience, our guide offers us a performatic explanation of black holes: she turns out the lights in the small auditorium, walks across the room in front of us with a bright flashlight in hand, which she suddenly turns off. From inside the darkness, she announces—“black hole”—before turning her flashlight back on. Like a Brechtian actor revealing what goes on behind the scene, she repeats her performance several times. With each repeat the message is clear: she hasn’t ceased to exist, the lights just went out.
According to scientists, 80% of the matter in the universe is dark matter, matter that exists but is not seen because it does not emit light. Like matter, memory does not disappear when it is caught in the gravitational pull of either percepticial  black holes or “the black hole […] of systemic cover-up.”  It is conserved and condensed. Is our guide telling us a story about black holes or disappearance? About that which cannot be seen, but exists—or about that which exists but is not seen?
Performance and Durational Witnessing as Ongoing Praxis
Our collective journey to perform and witness Return Atacama was an experiment in the performance’s potential to engender artistic and scholarly constellations that counter the larger affective economies through which geopolitical traumas and violations are brought into being. In activating the notion of durational witnessing, we sought not only to facilitate an extended encounter with artistic process and the performance event, but also to create a space for multiple reflections on Return Atacama, which would allow expanded understandings of social and political trauma to surface and be articulated. “Whether understood as a process of healing, of exchanging energy, of finding beauty in the mundane, or of creating community,” writes Shalson, “the belief that a focused engagement with a simple idea or action over a prolonged period of time can bring about transformations in perception, affect and human relations that cannot be attained otherwise has been central to conceptions of durational art.”
The role of witness shifted throughout our travels, the performance event, and now here, in the post performance reflections that are part of this collection. Just as the reflections within this collection are informed by the various disciplinary and geopolitical locations of the contributors, they also take multiple forms—visual, poetic, theoretical—thereby inviting readers to encounter the work in a range of ways. In both form and content, this collection seeks to extend the process of challenging the distance between artistic and scholarly work, while also challenging the containment of trauma associated with political violence within isolated historical events and disciplinary or geographic locations.
The collection begins, as we did, with Monica’s story. In “Seeds of Return” Monica Martinez shares her process of sculpting hundreds of ceramic forms from her inherited memories and her dream of one day returning the forms to the Atacama Desert. “Seeds” is followed by Nicolle Amyotte’s essay which looks at the labour of making visible Chile’s traumatic history of repressive political violence, dispossession, and disappearance by drawing connections between the Women of Calama and Monica’s artistic labour as a diasporic daughter of Chile.
The section that follows—”Return Atacama”—begins with an invitation for readers to experience Return Atacama through video and photographic documentary traces of the three-hour performance. The images throughout this section were taken by Jarvis Brownlie, Cassie Scott, and Alexei Taylor. This visual encounter with our desert performance is followed by contributions from seven of our durational witnesses: Jarvis Brownlie, Dot Tuer, Diana Taylor, Smaro Kamboureli, Cassie Scott and Shannon Bell. Each witness brings their own perspective and disciplinary vocabulary to their readings of the performance and their role as witness. Jarvis Brownlie’s video of witnessing Return Atacama through binoculars eerily evokes the surveillance measures of the Pinochet dictatorship. Dot Tuer’s poetic essay provides political and historical contextualization for Return Atacama as she focuses her attention on the ghosts that haunt our journey to the Northern part of the Atacama Desert. Smaro Kamboureli reflects on the incomplete and ambiguous nature of bearing witness, as well as on the challenge of shifting physical, temporal, and spatial proximities/ distances both between performers and witnesses, and between her lived memories of the Greek junta’s seven-year reign of terror and the “transnational links of regimes and resistance.” Like Kamboureli, Diana Taylor’s essay focuses on distance. Asking what it means to “see from a distance,” Taylor offers “theoretical reflections on the role of distance itself—as postmemory, as a belated demand for justice, as a hemispheric art piece, as one more link in the trans-national network of criminal political practice.” In her poem “Transmission,” Cassie Scott explores how performance can work in concert with durational witnessing to coalesce disparate memories of political violence and transnational acts of resistance. Shannon Bell’s contribution closes this section. Drawing on Simone Weil’s concept of attention as prayer and Walter Benjamin’s concepts of dialectics and constellation, Bell grounds her reflection through a technique of contemplative photography.
The next section—”Echoes”— takes its name from, and is dedicated to, CONSTELACIONES’ performance Echoes: North…North. A strange, otherworldly performance that gestures toward the operatic, Echoes: North…North was presented in the outdoor square of Santiago’s historic Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral as part of the Hemi Encuentro. Using installation, video, sculpture, performance, and soundscape, Echoes: North…North reveals a narrative of exile, a story of how we individuate when we unfurl from community and then seek to recreate connection. The section brings together a poetic reflection by Roewan Crowe, a theoretical reading by Shannon Bell, and video and photographic documentation of the performance by Melisa Cardona and Laura Levin. With her poetic sequence “ECHOES,” Roewan Crowe calls forth the voices of survivors of Pinochet’s concentration camps, the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, the radical history of the performance space, and working class and poor histories. Shannon Bell draws on Martin Heidegger’s notion of ‘presencing’ to show how, in Echoes: North…North, CONSTELACIONES gathers and re-performs material, visual and psychic remnants from two previous performances—Return Atacama (performed the previous week), and Lake Winnipeg (performed months earlier)— in order to bring together two worlds in the presence of a third.
“Echoes” is followed by “Wrapping Atacama” and “Lake Winnipeg,” sections that offer visual reflections on two CONSTELACIONES performances that took place in Manitoba, Canada in the months leading up to the collective’s journey to Chile. Wrapping Atacama was a task-based performance event in which CONSTELACIONES invited family, friends and allies from Winnipeg communities to come and share in the necessary and care-filled labour of wrapping and packing Monica’s vibrant forms before we sent them on their precarious journey to Chile. The section closes with photographs (Lindsay Bond) and video (Roewan Crowe) taken in January on frozen Lake Winnipeg where CONSTELACIONES embarked on an environment-based embodied exploration of collective engagement through artistic process, risk-taking, and vulnerability. Only four members of the collective—Roewan, Christina, Monica, and Helene—were able to make this journey. Doris was in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. Her absence marked a challenge that was at the crux of our work: how do we create constellations of collaboration, care, and struggle across distance and difference, across geographies, under different skies?
The section “Deepening” offers readers glimpses into some the influences that informed CONSTELACIONES’ performances, as well as individual reflections on, and documentary traces of, our creative journey—devising, travel, and performance. Helene Vosters’s essay reflects on CONSTELACIONES’ use of the R.S.V.P. Cycles as a method for interdisciplinary and transnational creative collaboration. While we chose to gather around Monica’s story, each collective member carried with them the gravitational pull of their own inherited and embodied memories of social and political violence and trauma. Like Monica, Colombian-born Doris Difarnecio is a daughter of Latin American immigrants forced to flee violence. Difarnecio’s essay focuses on the challenges and tensions of negotiating difference and particularity in a transnational performance collective. With her poetic essay, Christina Hajjar combines reflections on her family’s diasporic trajectory from Lebanon to Venezuela and then to Canada with her experience of being part of the CONSTELACIONES collective. “Echoes in Process” offers a glimpse into CONSTELACIONES’ devising process as they scored Echoes North … North, a performance that was never rehearsed prior to its live performance in Santiago, Chile. Deepening also includes “Return Atacama on the Road” a section containing the video poem Winter Road and a slide-show of our collective journey from Santiago to the Atacama Desert. Co-created by Monica Martinez and Christina Hajjar Winter Road offers viewers a poetic glimpse into our road trip through the Atacama Desert by combining Martinez’s narrative reflection of her time traveling in the land of her birth with Hajjar’s video footage of the passing landscape.
This digital book concludes, as it began, with Monica’s story—“Outsider Return.” In “Outsider,” Monica reflects on what it meant for her to ‘return’ to Chile, the place of her birth, twice—the first time in her mid-twenties, and again, almost two decades later. Unable to “connect through the shared experience of living through a dictatorship or blood ties” and with “a CONSTELACIONES to support [her] to experience the trauma of homecoming to a place that isn’t home,” Monica forges new connections through the landscape, the earth beneath her feet, and her art.
While we have taken on the role of editors for this digital collection, we wish to acknowledge that the ideas and knowledge created in this introduction flow from the profound work done by the artist collective CONSTELACIONES and the generous reflections of all who joined us as durational witnesses.
We are drawing on Diana Taylor’s theorization of percepticide as a process in which a national population blinds itself to state violence. See Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
See Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004). Ahmed draws attention to the way trauma discourse uses a vocabulary of pain that focuses attention on the injured bodies in a way that simultaneously conceals the “presence or ‘work’ of other bodies” (21). Ahmed’s provocation is that emotions circulate as part of a broad affective economy, one that both presupposes and reaches beyond perpetrator(s) and victim(s), and one that is an integral, though often unreflected upon, component of the political economies that constitute social relations of power.
Lara Shalson, “On Duration and Multiplicity,” Performance Research 17, no. 5 (2012), 100.
See Diana Taylor, “Seeing from a Distance: CONSTELACIONES in the Atacama Desert” in this collection.
Ibidshalson, Lara. "On Duration and Multiplicity." Performance Research 17. no. 5: 2012. 98-106. Guzman, Patricio. Lautaro Núñez in Nostalgia de la Luz/ Nostalgia for the Light. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films, 2010. Tuer, Dot. "Ghostly Traces and the Memories of Passage: The Journey to the Atacama Desert and the Ritual of Return" Return Atacama: Engaging histories of political violence through performance and durational witnessing. 1. New York: HemiPress, 2018. http://returnatacama.tome.press/chapter/ghostly-traces-and-the-memories-of-passage-the-journey-to-the-atacama-desert-and-the-ritual-of-return/.