The World in Flames

September 3, 2020

The World in Flames:
Eruptions, Meltings, and Chromatic Phenomena


Paul Rosero Contreras, The Opening, 2015. Action documented on video, Cotopaxi volcano. 9'20" loop

Paul Rosero Contreras, The Opening, 2015. Action documented on video, Cotopaxi volcano. 9'20" loop


I. From glacier to ocean

The earth trembles in the Andes. The ground swells with a subtle and mysterious vibration. Sound hides beneath rock and ice; it is trapped. Restrained. And at times, it is voiceless yet present. But the ice is melting. It is liquefying. In the water, waves emerge and expand. What is regional becomes planetary; matter becomes force. The relationship between bodies—largely liquid—and the planet is one of equivalence and reciprocity, it is embodied. Liquid vibrations form an intimate connection with the Earth. We are material bodies floating on water.

An active volcano breaks off a glacier and the lahars flow uninhibited. Unlike other beings, a volcano is truly untameable. Upon eruption, its mudslides of ash and lava transform our understanding of reality. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia produced an ash cloud so thick that it disrupted the climate for three years. As a result, 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer. A portion of the planet plunged into darkness and low temperatures. Sun-starved plants perished, and a widespread famine killed thousands of people. Even Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus unaware then that the apocalyptic climate surrounding her near Genoa, Switzerland had been the result of the strongest documented volcanic eruption in history, halfway around the world. [1]

Volcanic eruptions simultaneously create and destroy. Dispersed by the wind, ashes rise, giving new shape to the planet. One thing disappears and another emerges in its wake. Historically, people have settled on the slopes of volcanoes seeking the arable, nutrient-rich land. Living amid the danger of seismic activity is a part of daily life in the Andes as it is in many parts of the world.

The Andes is the largest continental mountain range on the planet. It traverses six countries in South America, from Venezuela to Chile, passing through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is said that the name for this geological configuration derived from the Quechua word anti, or "east," as in Antisuyu, meaning eastern region: one of four areas that comprised the Incan empire. The Andes were created from the tectonic shifts caused by the subduction of the oceanic crust below the South American Plate. This process thrusted the terrain upwards over a great period of time. And thus were born the mythologies of the ancestral peoples who have inhabited these lands for millenia. The mountains in the Andean world represent an apu, a deity: a living being with agency and embodied spirituality. Very little of this worldview, however, has been adopted by western scientific knowledge, or developed by explorers over the centuries. [2] Yet, volcanoes continue to represent both a puzzling presence and a source of infinite inquiry.

The Andean Pavillion (2014–ongoing)

How does one explore mythologies from a transculturated geoscientific perspective? How can we write a form of history born not from books and chronicles, but from the firsthand experience of magma, sulfur, and survival in the field? Only through phenomenology can we describe the smell of gases and the type of reverberations that blur the lines between subject and object, object and medium. In this reciprocating exchange of senses, mysterious colors and sounds emerge. Alchemists from past millennia scoured the fiery craters in search of the fabled philosopher's stone. The smell of sulfur in their homes pointed to those protoscientists in search of the beyond.

In 2014, I started The Andean Pavillion as a geological-mystical research project that entailed a journey through the Andes focusing on active volcanoes from Colombia to Chile (there is no recorded volcanic activity in Venezuela). This voyage, divided into several chapters, incorporates notions of identity, perceptual psychology, experimental volcanology, and diverging habitats. These lines of inquiry are mediated by interfaces that seek to give material expression to the Earth's creative and destructive forces.

The first expedition for The Andean Pavillion took place on Cotopaxi in July 2015 during one of its last minor eruptions. We captured seismic activity using contact hydrophones and a computational program. [3] Since "the world is made of the very stuff of the body," this process joined the act of becoming sensitive with that of sensibility itself. [4]  

The second chapter focuses on the relationship between the volcano and its inhabitants. This was a specifically pertinent question given that at the time, the human communities around the Cotopaxi Volcano had undergone seventeen years of unrelenting ashfall whereby factories, and whatever lingering industrial form that existed there, had been ultimately vanquished by the power of the corrosive, acidic earth.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Hábitat, 2015. Action documented on video, Tungurahua volcano (Excerpt)

The ideas embodied through these actions elucidate the possibility for telling dissident histories.

The western tradition of landscape art has viewed nature as subservient to the gaze of the human subject. The geosciences, and scientific discourse in general, reinforce the dominant culture and social structures of the oppressors. [5] Since historically disenfranchised peoples—indigenous, latinx, black, women, and sexual minorities—continue to be excluded from decisive positions of power within these fields of study, The Andean Pavillion responds to these epistemic erasures. [6] In that sense, the project seeks to construct a counter-narrative wherein nature governs humans and determines their daily lives with utter disregard for class, gender, and color.  Under these terms, human constructs based on binaries— colonizer/subaltern—are also susceptible to collapse.

The third chapter recounts the heroic tale of the volcanologists Marta Calvache and Patty Mothes. In 1993, these women saved their fellow scientists from a shower of incandescent rocks near the Galeras volcano in Pasto, Colombia after it unexpectedly erupted. The magmatic movements that preceded these eruptions were passed undetected by the people investigating the volcano. Volcanology is not an exact science, despite the fact that monitoring systems allow us to penetrate land and ice.

In The Andean Pavillion, multiple stories vacillate, shifting the subject and object position. These perspectives allow for a study on the effects of colonization, not only on human subjects, but also in the modifications of the landscape. In fact, the investigation on the biological and ecological effects of colonization in Latin America grew as a corollary to the increased carbon footprint resulting from industrialization processes in the late twentieth century. [7]

Unique collective experiences with earth and water can conceptually transform into ways of being in the world. A subject mediated by the environment becomes a subject in the environment. This narrative does not simply pretend to grab from the Earth. Rather, it allows us to be grabbed by it, embodied. As a result, the relationship between societies and their environments can translate into scaled-down, micro-territories fostering unique eco-social experiments; like a piece of Earth that floats in water sustaining itself only by the barest minimum. This Earth is a fragment, another buoyed body, yet it is also a whole, itself an entanglement of entities: an entire island.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Cosmos: Lluvia Gris [Gray Rain], 2018. Action documented on video, Stromboli volcano

II. From surface to depth

The volano is an agent of potentiality that creates natural changes in the water. Cracks in the subaquatic rock of an active volcanic island releases acid bubbles, which orchestrate a constant cycle of transformations or becoming with. The water, now toxic, challenges the thriving capacities of some animals, in the same way that environmental pollution affects the ocean's pH levels. [8] In other words, an underwater volcano already anticipates a future fuelled by climate change. 

In 1535, Fray Tomás de Berlanga accidently discovered the Galapagos Islands on a trip to Peru. From then on, the archipelago was periodically inhabited until 1832, when it was legally annexed to the Republic of Ecuador. Pirates and whalers utilized the islands as refuge and a site for food supplies: the land tortoises were their unfortunate victims. For four centuries, anthropogenic activity in the archipelago transformed the local flora and fauna. Industrial plantations of sugarcane, coffee, and quinine trees were harvested. [9] It is known that from ancient times, humans have modified the environment by deliberately introducing and extracting species. [10] Untouched nature does not truly exist. Nevertheless, mysterious phenomena constantly bubble up from the depths of volcanoes and oceans. Life, both above and below the water's surface, is above all, an enigma.         

Paul Rosero Contreras, The Origin of Pink (detail from Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos), 2016. 4k video (Excerpt)

The work of Charles Darwin is closely tied to the Galapagos Islands, since his observations there eventually led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. However, in more recent times, the islands have been home to transdisciplinary research that has shed new perspectives on social and interspecies relationships. Since 2016, I have developed a series of projects in the archipelago that explore recombinations and emerging symbioses. These processes seek new ways of understanding, biologically-speaking, interpersonal relationships predicated on mutualisms across different species, as they are defined by the specific conditions of a bubbling volcano.

Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos (2016–2019)

Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan expand on the idea of symbiosis and claim that the most successful and abundant living beings on the planet are those that have come together: cooperation is crucial to the propagation of life on Earth. Species do not live or evolve on their own. Instead, Life is constituted by "cross-kingdom alliances." [11] Recognizing species as assemblages directly challenges the notion of individualism that has prevailed in much of evolutionary thinking since Darwin. [12]

The project Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos (2016–2019) assembles together two stories: one takes place on land, and the other traverses the depths of the ocean. The first story, The Origin of Pink, revolves around the mythical pink iguana, endemic to northern Isabela Island. It is presumed that this uniquely-colored and distinct species of iguanas has evolved precisely because of its isolation and intimate relationship with its environs around Wolf volcano. The project takes the idea of adaptation and transforms it into a metaphor, one that envisions an entirely different skin color. The second story, Purple Haze (2018), is the result of a transdisciplinary research collaboration with marine biologists Nataly Guevarra and Margarita Brandt. The research focuses on a specific species of coral that, with the aid of microbes, has become resilient in order to withstand ocean acidification. Additionally, this intimate mutualism manifests into nascent colors whose biological functions have yet to be understood. The end product is a two-channel film whose sessile and microbial protagonists are endemic species thriving in spite of their hostile environment: the dystopian world of active volcanoes. The parallel and intersecting stories in these two projects inform us about many universes: on land and in water, both human and nonhuman.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Volcán Roca Redonda, Galápagos, 2018. Photograph

Purple Haze was filmed on the underwater volcano Roca Redonda in order to develop a dual discourse. On the one hand, it questions the idea that a hostile nature inevitably leads to the survival of the fittest—the foundation of Western thought. On the other, it tries to understand the forms of cooperation that exist in nature from the perspective and knowledge of native peoples who maintain a direct link to the natural world. 

Paul Rosero Contreras, Purple Haze (detail from Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos), 2016–2019. 4k video (Video still)

This latter approach unites the idea of relationality within biology—an ancient principle that underlies the Andean concepts of sumak and alli kawsay (commonly translated as "good living" or "life in fullness"), [13] concepts rooted in the harmonious coexistence between the natural, social, and spiritual realms. The possibility that new relational paradigms in biology can reconceive alternative forms of human social and economic classification enables both the very questioning of inequality and a possible rupture of the status quo. It is also a guiding path for collaborative survival, toward a symbiosis that washes away any notion of individualism or supremacy.

Purple Haze proves, in situ, how a community of invertebrates manages to thrive in adverse conditions, the results of which are manifested in an exuberance of futuristic colors. Color is not an individual characteristic, but above all, the outcome of a vital recombination. I apply this principle to human social relationships; racial and cultural discrimination; and the historical association of pigmentation to forms. I want to believe that an emerging microbiological phenomenon obliterates hegemonic structures based on the retinal interpretation of bodies through skin color.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Purple Haze (detail from Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos), 2016–2019. 4k video (Video still)

Interpreting biological emergency and volcanic activity as access points to speculative questions, I point to the idea that an active crater is a reservoir filled with answers and alternatives. An active volcano has the potential to transform: it harnesses the energy to create, allowing the world to turn into something entirely different. In political, social, and economic terms, it is the natural embodiment of a brimming force that can explode into an unforeseeable future.

Approaching seismic activity as an acoustic phenomenon, coupled with the archaeological research of settlements on desolate islands—with their evidence of anthropogenic effects and mysterious biological phenomena—allow for a broader investigation into the origins of discrimination and othering.

Moreover, if we apply other scientific theories and principles to the humanities at large, I believe that it will trigger the advent of ontological potentialities on human thought, behavior, and memory. Again, we return to the questions of how and to what extent we allow ourselves to be touched by our environment, in such a way that we ourselves become attuned to the possible influence and resolution that may come from our surroundings.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Purple Haze (detail from Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos), 2016–2019. 4k video (Video still)

The Andean Pavillion and Dark Paradise: Humans in Galapagos are two discovery voyages that scale mountain peaks and trawl the depths of rock and water. They seek to guide human thought toward the possibility of other systems of classification that may influence our perceptions and behaviors predicated on horizontality while dismantling oppressive dichotomies.

Paul Rosero Contreras is an Ecuadorian multimedia artist and researcher working on the intersection of experimental arts and natural sciences. His body of work explores topics related to geopolitics, environmental issues, interspecies reciprocity and experimentation on future sustainable settings. Usually going out on explorations to remote places, his projects include doses of speculative realism, scientific data and fictional narratives.

Notes for a Horizon-tality: Toward the Possibility of Becoming Together as an Assemblage is a project that responds to our multiple and seemingly multiplying emergencies. Since the growing uncertainty of living in a world in crisis seems to continuously threaten the possibility of the future, this editorial initiative seeks to contribute to the growing scholarship on this topic from the perspective of Latin American contemporary art.

[1] Dehlia Hannah, ed., A Year Without a Winter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[2] Alexander von Humboldt, COSMOS: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Trans. E.C. Otte (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849).

[3] Paul Rosero Contreras, From Light to Light, Audiopoiesis (Quito: Ministerio de Cultura y Patrimonio del Ecuador, 2013).

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed.  G. Johnson and M. Smith (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 121–149.

[5] Elisa Sevilla Pérez, Imperios informales y naciones poscoloniales: La autoridad de la ciencia (Doctoral thesis, FLACSO Ecuador, November 2011).

[6] Mark Maslim and Simon Lewis, “Why the Anthropocene began with European colonisation, mass slavery and the ‘great dying’ of the 16th century,” The Conversation (25 June, 2020). [Last visited 07/27/2020].

[7] Fernando J. Astudillo, Environmental Historical Archaeology of the Galápagos Islands: Paleoethnobotany of Hacienda El Progreso, 1870-1904 (Tesis doctoral, Simon Fraser University, 2017).

[8] Nataly Guevara, Margarita Brandt, and Paul Rosero Contreras, “The Beauty of Micro-Interactions: Microbes and Corals Under an Acidic Ocean,” Paper presented at the IV Simposio Anual sobre Investigación y Conservación en Galápagos (August 24–29, 2019).

[9] Fernando J. Astudillo, Environmental Historical Archaeology of the Galápagos Islands, 14.

[10] Atholl Anderson, Karen Stothert, and Helene Martinsson-Wallin, et al. “Reconsidering Precolumbian Human Colonization in the Galápagos Islands, Republic of Ecuador,” Latin American Antiquity, 27, no. 2: (2016): 169–183.

[11] Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “Sentient Symphony,” in The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science, eds. M. Bedau and C. Cleland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 340-354.

[12] Joanna Page, “Planetary Art beyond the Human: Rethinking Agency in the Anthropocene,” The Anthropocene Review (May 2020).

[13] Javier Cuestas-Caza, “Sumak Kawsay is not Buen Vivir”, ALTERNAUTAS (Re)Searching Development: The Abya Yala Chapter (2 April 2018) [Last visited 31/7/2020].