Ignacio Acosta, 2020
born 1976 in Chile; lives and works in London
Ignacio Acosta is a Chilean-born, London-based artist and researcher who explores places made vulnerable through the exploitation of ecologies by colonial intervention and intensive capitalisation. He works with interconnected research projects that involve extensive fieldwork, investigative analysis, audio-visual documentation, and critical writing on sites and materials of symbolic significance. Acosta focuses on resistance against the extractivist industrial impact on valuable natural environments and, through technologies of seeing, enables the generation of meaningful visual and spatial narratives. His interventions position geological and technological forms, as well as human and non-human relationships, in the same landscape. Situated within the urgent need for artistic approaches to critically address the depleting landscapes created by mining, Acosta’s work creatively negotiates the conflicts buried within our living world.
Over the last ten years, he has been devoted to understanding sites and landscapes that, although often neglected, are of global significance: places under pressure from extractive activity in South America and Europe. His most recent works explore the possibilities of drone technologies as tools of resistance within the struggle for decolonisation. Drones are best known for their role in military surveillance; by artistically appropriating these machines, Acosta offers new ways of seeing ecology and counteraction on a planetary scale. Both ideologically, and aesthetically, strategic juxtapositions are a key feature in his visually complex pieces. Yet it is the research practice that underpins his artistic work.
Through thorough, investigative, and ethical practices, his meth-odology is akin to a forensic investigator in his desire to uncover and expose highly ambivalent power dynamics. Moreover, the multiple layers that comprise his individual research process contribute to larger, dynamic collaborations with activists, artists, scientists, writers, and Indigenous Peoples. Collaboration is a particularly important, indeed essential, part of his investigation and representation of the sites on which he works. His research is distributed through exhibitions, public events, publications, and online platforms. At a time of uncertain futures, Acosta’s presentations remain open-ended and can be used as a source for education, activism, and visual culture.
In 2016, he completed a PhD at the University of Brighton as part of Traces of Nitrate, a research project he developed in collaboration with art and design historian Louise Purbrick and photographer Xavier Ribas, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). In 2018, the publication that stems from his PhD Copper Geographies was published by Editorial RM. In 2017, he received a Research and Development Award and a Project Realisation Award from the Hasselblad Foundation / Valand Academy, Sweden, as part of the Drone Vision project led by Dr Sarah Tuck. In 2019, he received an award from the Arts Council England for his exhibition Tales from the Crust at Arts Catalyst, London, and in 2020, he received the ZF Art Foundation Scholarship.
Archaeology of Sacrifice
Ellen Lapper and Ignacio Acosta
Through the discovery of a Celtic sacrificial site at Mormont Hill – a limestone and marl quarry located in the Swiss canton of Vaud – the two-channel video installation with surround sound design Archaeology of Sacrifice unveils how the notion of sacrifice has transitioned from ancient sacred rituals to its contemporary meaning within extractive capitalism.
In 2006, the quarry was ordered to undertake an archaeological survey. In doing so, previous Celtic occupation was discovered. Evidence suggests the Celts living there during the second century BCE were experiencing a moment of crisis, perhaps linked to a Germanic invasion. Thus, they buried offerings in the form of several human and animal bodies, tools, and bronze vessels in exchange for guidance through the catastrophe.
Today, sacrifice is mediated by market exchange – the well-being of humans, non-humans, and the environment have been betrayed in favour of economic growth. Sacrifice zones are proliferating in areas deemed most extractable, most exploitable – usually regions under pressure from neoliberal policies. Here, humanity and nature are believed to be expendable and replaceable.
In tracing the sacrificial shift, the video distances the notion of sacrifice from its former connection to the sacred, the divine, and the establishment of bonds of love and solidarity once known to the Celts. Like all devout sacrificers, the contemporary model favours giving without the guaranteed prospect of a return; the exchange is ironically elusive to those in close contact with the Earth, and the physicality of dirty hands holds no metaphorical significance.
Mormont Hill’s excavated objects help archaeologists to fiction a past, though almost certainly, the Celts did not intend for these remains to be uncovered. In archaeology, formulating past beliefs involves a delicate navigation between fiction and reality in which the lines are always blurred; the reconstruction will always be a representation. The project builds on this grey area in our own moment of current crisis, pushing for a more earthly understanding of prospective cohabitation whilst offering a reflective space for an unknown future.
Currently, the mining industry is seeing a growing trend in combining different types of automated technologies, from and beyond robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality. Drones are regarded as mining equipment because of their capacity to generate accurate image-based mapping and analytics that produce high-resolution maps which are deployed to build extractive infrastructure on the ground. Interactive 3D maps and spatial models are created through automated drone flights, thereby transforming the efficiency and profitability of the industry. In subverting the profitable use of drone technologies, the video highlights the negative footprint of industrial extractive activity on the valuable natural environment of Mormont Hill, offering a precise, expanded perspective of the territory.
In a continuous interplay between fact, fiction, and scale, meditative landscapes of typically inaccessible areas are juxtaposed with archival footage, drone views, investigative close-ups, and photogrammetry-based 3D modelling. By rendering visible the impact of exploitation, Archaeology of Sacrifice offers a glimpse into a hypothetical post-human future, scattered with the remnants of the extraction industry. Is this the inevitable sacrifice?
In line with Frederic Jameson’s musings on the relationship between utopia and science fiction and seeing the latter’s strength in failing to accurately imagine a real future, Archaeology of Sacrifice similarly plays with our imagination’s incapacity. Global capitalism is once again responsible; we’re frozen within its trap, unable to seek alternatives. Instead of presenting a conclusive vision, the video offers multiple possibilities which “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” ¹ In doing so, it views the imaginary as a process of becoming, one whose function is “transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” ² Akin to reconstructing the past, imagining the future is consistently a representation.
Whilst acknowledging that the Anthropocene is built on the erasure of its racial origins and climate change has been whitewashed, Archaeology of Sacrifice reflects on the precariousness of our planet and its unsolicited submission to humanity.
Archaeology of Sacrifice was created in collaboration with film editor Lara Garcia Reyne, artists Valle Medina and Benjamin Reynolds (Pa.LaC.E), writer Carlos Fonseca, sound designer and composer Udit Duseja, and colourist Paul Willis. The work includes archival footage from the documentary Le crépuscule des Celtes (2007) by Stéphane Goël (Climage). It was produced as a result of the Scholarship 2020 of the ZF Art Foundation, Friedrichshafen, Germany, and filmed during the Principal Residency Program, La Becque Résidence d’artistes, La-Tour-de-Peilz in collaboration with the Musée cantonal d’archéologie et d’histoire, Lausanne, Switzerland. The video work was first presented by the ZF Art Foundation at the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen from 18.9. to 6.12.2020.
1 Frederic Jameson: Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, London, 2005, p. 738.
2 ibid., p. 738–741.
The Beauty of Forensics. Ignacio Acosta’s Archaeology of Sacrifice
“The rocks are bones.
In them are the traces
of a very modern crime.”
With these words, the voiceover describes the site of the quarry surrounding the Mormont Hill ¹, the focal point of Ignacio Acosta’s video installation Archaeology of Sacrifice (2020). The stones with coloured markings serve as a visual metaphor. As at a crime scene, they are both traces and witnesses of an especially changeful history. With great precision, Acosta systematically dissects the history of this site, excavating layer after layer until their complexities and ambivalences are fully exposed, however, without being fully erased. His reflections on the extremely multi-layered web of archaeological and political dimensions that define this area are based on intensive scientific research. As a scientist and artist in one, he adopts forensic practises.
Geologically the Mormont is a special area. Dating from the Cretaceous Period, the yellow-beige limestone is about 100 million years old. This region is especially interesting for palaeontology because it contains a relatively large number of fossils. The Mormont is also significant in ecological terms: Due to the calcareous soil, a unique flora and fauna have evolved on the wooded hill. The region is thus classed among the landscapes and natural monuments of national significance in Switzerland.
As a key component in cement production, limestone is also a sought-after raw material. The Holcim AG intends to quarry limestone until 2029. Arguing that local cement production is very sustainable, the company’s aim is to continuously expand the mining area.²
Acosta renders the massive impacts the quarrying has had on the natural environment visible with powerful images: Splitting the hill into two parts, the quarry has produced a gaping chasm. Obviously, the limestone extraction is a fundamental intrusion into the ecological balance that must realign itself. Acosta meticulously documents the damages, demolitions, holes, removals, diggings, and paths the excavators produce as they burrow their way deeper and deeper into the mountain.
In 2006, however, the quarrying brought extraordinary archaeological finds to light. Thousands of objects from the Iron Age were found in over 250 pits with a depth of up to five metres. The finds included ceramic and bronze vessels, iron tools, jewellery, grindstones, plant remnants, and coins. Complete horse skeletons, collections of skulls, parts of skeletons and complete human skeletons in extreme positions were also uncovered. A settlement can be ruled out since there are no traces of houses or streets. Between 120 and 80 BC, the Mormont was in fact a cult site, a sanctuary of the Celtic tribe of the Helvetians, who settled in what is known as Switzerland and Southwest Germany today. The finds point to the practice of cultic rituals at this location. Due to its form and dimensions, which encompass several hectares, as well as its state of preservation and abundance, this cult site is unique in Europe. The uncovered traces helped to correct the image of the Celts’ religion. Evidently, their ritualistic practices were highly evolved and complex.³
Ignacio Acosta’s video shows that the archaeological reconstruction of historical events is not devoid of speculation. All excavations are only parts of a puzzle that must be pieced together. The missing elements remain blank spaces and provide room for different narratives. For the excavations at the Mormont, an illustrator was hired to translate fictional reflections into a kind of “phantom image of the cult site” ⁴ to establish how it might have looked 2000 years ago. “It’s about imagining. It’s about imagining other places”, the voiceover explains. Revived with the help of 3D renderings, the imagined minerals in the video represent this fictional moment. Revitalised by their visual presence and proportions, they seem to have become a quarry in themselves.
However, the finds also manifest the ambivalent nature of these excavations. On the one hand, the site was only uncovered through the extraction of the raw materials. Many archaeological finds are discovered and explored largely through building and mining projects. But at the same time, this reveals the contradictions of archaeological excavations. In complete contrast to the original intention of keeping cult sites undetected, the objects are unearthed, cleaned, inventoried, and taken out of their original context to be preserved in a museum. The original purpose of the offerings was to nurture the earth and to appease the earth gods.
The forensic analysis manifests the violent intrusion on several levels: not only the exploitation of nature through the limestone quarrying, but also the disintegration of the cult site through the archaeological excavations and relocation of the finds to a museum. The message is especially poignant in these visual juxtapositions: the violent labouring of the excavator and the careful, delicate exposure of the cult site, actions that seem contrary at first sight, but are much the same in the finality of their extraction.
Acosta’s artistic strategy of juxtaposing is also reflected in the form of his works. He uses two-channel installations to draw connections, illustrate dichotomies and contrasts, and to reveal associations. This enables the visual articulation of multiple possibilities of similarity and difference, and proximity and distance.
The combination of different kinds of footage in the installation is intentional: Archival material, Acosta’s own shots, some of them taken with a drone, and 3D renderings merge in a distinctive narrative structure. The slow tracking shots decelerate the narrative pace: Long shots provide a detailed view of the natural surroundings and its components. Nature thus becomes an individual protagonist.
The interconnection of real and fictional elements is a key factor in the video, as manifested in the juxtaposition of real and fictional minerals. Likewise, the visual and linguistic translating processes underline the different narrative levels. While the original text was written in Spanish by Carlos Fonseca, the voiceover speaks Swiss French. The subtitles, on the other hand, appear in English and German. The visual translating process – the minerals were derived from the historical publication Minéraux ⁵ and then translated into renderings – underscores the reciprocal pervasion of fiction and reality.
This synthesis of fiction and documentation is further enhanced by the voiceover. A female voice speaks and narrates. However, it remains unclear whether she is a voice from the present or the future, and which role she plays: Is she Mother Earth personified or just a fictional substitute? In this way, Acosta links the different temporal levels – the cult of the past, the present-day frenzy for raw materials, and the archaeological objects to be. A kind of 3D rendering of the excavator can thus be interpreted as an archaeology of the future: “Future fossils, an archaic portrait of failed utopias.”
The images are embedded in an immersive, ambient sound collage: the sounds of nature, wind, detonations, and noises produced by the tools. Thereby also rendered experienceable on an acoustic level, the intrusions into nature encompass the whole body.
Acosta’s forensics are always political, in keeping with the Latin meaning of the term forensic, which can be translated as “of the forum or the marketplace”. In Ancient Rome, litigations, examinations, pronouncements of judgements as well as the implementation of punishments were carried out publicly and mostly on the marketplace or forum. Close collaboration with artists, activists, writers, translators, scientists, and Indigenous Peoples is an important aspect of Acosta’s artistic practice. Archaeology of Sacrifice was thus developed with various partners.
In the same way the Mormont served the Celts as a cult site, the minerals and the limestone have now become fetish objects. They revolve around their own axis not only in the video, but also figuratively. They are the objects of a new cult: Raw materials that represent further intrusions into nature and extensive building projects.
Acosta’s aim is always to expose and publicise highly ambivalent power dynamics. For this purpose, he adopts forensic practices that approach the site on different levels and reveal connections.
The lines of conflict permeate the whole Mormont and disrupt the original structure. Although the subsequent stages of the quarry’s expansion were already known in the 1990s, the archaeological excavations only began in 2006. Consequently, the surveying of the findspot had to be carried out during emergency excavations. Time pressure prevented an extensive examination in situ – a frequently criticised problem. Ideally the objects should have remained untampered and been examined in their surroundings at the findspot. However, it would have taken years to complete the excavations. On the other hand, an interruption of the work at the quarry for such a long period of time would have led to the loss of over 100 jobs in the region. The Swiss Confederation also failed to make use of the legal option of intervening in the case of archaeological finds of national significance. Moreover, the emergency excavations were financed by Holcim in lieu of public funds.⁶
Acosta brings the diverse elements of the quest for evidence as well as the missing pieces themselves to light and embeds them in their context. Neither an activist nor a prosecutor, he refrains from passing a final judgement. The work asks who the owner of this land might be: Is it the past that imbues it with cultic significance, the present that promotes the limestone as a new fetish object, or the future with its next human and nonhuman creatures as the owners for whom nature must be preserved? As an artist with a forensic approach, Acosta uses images to reflect on the social processes that define the history of the site.