Interview: Ignacio Acosta

Pupio Valley before El Mauro tailings dam (from Los Pelambres copper mine). El Mauro is the largest tailings dam in Latin America holding more that 2,000 tons of toxic waste material. Located directly on the tectonic fault in an earthquake prone zone, the dam is located directly above the settlement of Caimanes, whose inhabitants have lost almost 85% of their water resources. Los Vilos, Province of Coquimbo, Chile, 2012.

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

Ignacio Acosta is a Chilean-born artist based in London working mainly with photography. His practice involves long-term interconnected research projects, which include archival research, extensive field-work and mapping. Acosta explores the relationship between mobility and geography, constructing an imaginary landscape that express the impact of economic imperialism. He is interested in creating frameworks to unravel the invisible network between sites and locations geographically disparate but historically connected by flows and matters.

Native copper from Bolivia. Mines ParisTech, Paris, France, 2014

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

fototazo: Tell us a little about your background and how you became a photographer.

Ignacio Acosta: I was born in Valparaíso in Chile in 1976. Although I have been taking photographs since I was a teenager as a way of recording my travels in Latin America, it was when I moved to Britain in 2005 that as I started using large format photography, which made a big impact on the production of my work. Since then, my artistic practice has involved interconnected long-term research projects, which comprise archival research, extensive fieldwork and mapping. I explore sites, people and environments that speak about the relationship between mobility and geography. Through photography, I connect sites and locations which are geographically disparate but historically connected by flows and matters. To this end, my work forms an imaginary landscape that can express the impact of cultural and economic imperialism.

Native copper from Chile. Liverpool World Museum, Liverpool, UK, 2014

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: Your photography works in relationship to particular histories. Can you give us the historical overview in which your projects exist and talk about how you personally were pulled into a long-term project on the exploitation of Chile's land?

IA: Indeed, my work engages particular histories that are crucial in the formation of landscape. My work emerges in the context of a new phase in history, named the "Antropocene" by Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000, in which humans are the main drivers of geological change. The product of intense environmental degradation and resource exploitation, this new age in history is marked by the devastating impacts of global warming, including high levels of carbon dioxide, desertification, deforestation, melting ice, a rising sea level and a massive extinction of species.

I have a long-standing interest in documenting the impact of capitalism on the landscape. In 2002 I became involved with the environmental struggle of Caimanes, a small town in the north of Chile which was threatened with the construction of a tailings dam from a large copper mine. Despite our efforts, the project went ahead and, today, the tailings pond is the largest in Latin America and the second largest in the world. When I moved to Britain, I became interested in business districts in terms of reflecting on how the corporation uses architecture as a tool to embody notions of power and control. Around the same time, when I was finishing my Masters in photography at the University of Brighton in 2009, photographer Xavier Ribas in collaboration with Art and Design Historian, Louise Purbrick, invited me to work on a research project called Traces of Nitrate: History of Mining and Photography between Britain and Chile. Since 2012, and as part of this project, I have developed a practice-based PhD about the Chilean copper mining industry and its global mobility, from which the photographs presented here stem.

Landmark at the edge of a forest of eucalyptus planted to dispose of liquid contaminants from Los Pelambres. Los Vilos, Province of Coquimbo, Chile. 40x50 each, 2011

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

Mineral Collection. Natural History Museum, London, UK, 2012

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

Hoarding for the mining industry. Calama, Province of Antofagasta, 2011

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: There are many threads that could be pulled out of these histories to explore photographically – from markets to shipping to machinery to the environment - how do you delineate a project like this and establish its focus?

IA: For each project there is a specific focus, which emerges from the research process. In the case of Copper Geographies, some of which has been published here on this platform, the emphasis is on the "global mobility" of the material and its agency to produce geographical and political change. I am interested in copper because it is a fundamental aspect of contemporary life yet remains hidden. Copper is a miraculous and paradoxical metal characterised by high electrical and thermal conductivity. It is obscured within plastic, behind walls, bound into cables, inside air conditioners, cars, computers, electronics, "green energy" generators, airplanes, and mobile phones, and carried as loose change. I am also fascinated by the notion of the "non-traceability" of copper. In a conversation, the historian Tehmina Goskar pointed out to me that it is not possible to trace its origin. So as copper looses its origin, it becomes global.

To shape the work, I have followed the flow of copper as it transverses the world from Chile to Britain, exploring traces of extraction, smelting, manufacture, transport and trade processes. I connect Chilean extractive ecologies with a series of locations and sites in Britain. Thus I link, for example, the harsh landscapes of the Atacama Desert with a bronze door (made of copper and tin) of a bank in Liverpool which traded Chilean copper in the nineteenth century; the first smelting site of Chile in Coquimbo, which is now in ruins, with the Lower Swansea Valley where Chilean copper was taken to be smelted between 1840 and 1880; or a series of mined surfaces in the Atacama, with Sudley House, a manor house in Liverpool with a wonderful collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, built by the shipping magnate George Holt, who made his fortune by importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods in the nineteenth century.

Toxic forest of Australian eucalyptus trees. Los Vilos, Province of Coquimbo, Chile, 2011

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

I am also interested in exploring the impact of the large-scale mining industry on the fragile ecologies of Chile, for example, a forest of Australian eucalyptus created to absorb liquid contaminants from a copper mine of Los Pelambres. Again, these landscapes are contrasted with British territories. In this case, the contrast is with a protest in Westminster by inhabitants of the Caimanes community, who have lost 85% of their water resources due to overexploitation and contamination by Los Pelambres. Additionally, I have worked on the mining settlement of Chuquicamata and recently published an academic paper about the urban structure of model mining towns in relation to photographic representation. This year, I photographed a high-technology factory in Wales which produces copper cables for the telecommunication industries, using copper from Chile as one of its key supplies, and a series of mining museums in both Chile and Europe, and, most recently, the warehouse of Computer Aid International, containing thousands of refurbished computers that are sent to places like Africa and Latin America. If you take into account the fact that 41,536 of these computers have been sent to Chile, and that each computer uses around one and a half pounds of copper, that's a lot of copper. I would like to think a great proportion of the copper contained within those computers was mined in Chile.

Chile produces roughly 5.8 million of tons of copper per year (around one third of global copper production). Each ton of refined copper generates around one hundred tons of toxic residue. These billions of tons of waste form artificial geographies of unwanted material, containing arsenic, lead and other hazardous heavy metals. Chuquicamata mining town, Calama, Chile, 2012

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: Does being a Chilean based in England factor into this work? Does the physical distance from Chile, for example, give you a perspective on it that you wouldn't have being based there?

IA: Absolutely. The places I inhabit shape the production of my work. In the case of the copper work, the distance makes me to look at Chile in a different light. On the one hand, I am more aware of the environmental and political struggles going on, which pushes me to do more work. On the other, I pay attention to sites that I might have overlooked while living there. For example, Chuquicamata may be considered an archetypical mining town yet holds tremendous economic and political significance.

Disrupted topographies from a large-scale copper mining operation. Province of Tarapacá, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2012

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: You lead into your portfolios online with historical descriptive text. What role does text play in your photography?

IA: Indeed, exploring the historical narratives of sites is a fundamental aspect of my practice. I carefully examine the hidden power structures that shape the sites and try by various means, including writing, photography and mapping, to make them visible.

Chilean ores and copper products were a major source of raw materials for the Welsh smelting industry in the mid-19th century. Traces of the industry have been almost completely erased as result of revolutionary conservation work carried out from the 1960s to the 1980s to reclaim the toxic land. River Tawe estuary, Lower Swansea

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: As you edit your images, what are the criteria that you use to select an image for use?

IA: It really depends on each work. How I edit the images/series depends on many factors, including aesthetic qualities and visible elements. However, as much as the visible, I am interested in what is not shown, the hidden and obscured. As such, I acknowledge that photography is not able to reveal the underlying power structures behind the images, which is the reason why they might be accompanied by long captions.

Manufacturing of telecom cables. South Wales, UK, 2015

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: What, ultimately, are your goals with this work: documentation of a past? Education? To create a polemic?

IA: Photography is used as part of my research and methodology. I explore how photography can be used to form the meanings of sites. I hope the work becomes a point of departure for a series of questions about the relationship between humans, and non-human forms of life. While my work is presented within research-led institutions and galleries, it also aims to open a series of debates regarding the role of photography in the relation between the metaphoric and the reflective. Although I have strong views on the environmental impact of mining industries, my photography does not impose a "way of looking" but it is much more engaged with opening discussions regarding the way in which mining impacts ecology.

Bronze doors (bronze is an alloy consisting primary of copper). Former Martins Bank, Water Street, Liverpool, UK

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: What projects are you working on a the moment?

IA: I have two other projects in progress. These depart from the notion of the political landscape and enter the imaginary realm. The first, Mapping Domeyko, has been developed by my partner Jakub Bojczuk and I. We are preparing for an exhibition at the Laznia, Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 in Gdansk, Poland. This project is inspired by the journeys of the Polish mineralogist, Ignacy Domeyko (1802-1889), who lived most of his life in his adopted Chile. Domeyko's achievements earned him the status of hero of Chile and father of the Chilean mining industry and reformer of the educational system. Using as a starting point Domeyko's memoirs My Travels (Diaries in Exile), we are connecting four mineral collections in Chile, France and Poland, where Domeyko had shared rare mineral specimens. As part of this project, we are facilitating a cultural exchange of ore specimens between two of these museums, creating a series of drawings, maps and photographs of Domeyko's global movements and our own travels searching for material traces of his life.

The second, Intuitive Projects is developed in collaboration with curator Federica Chiocchetti, director of The Photocaptionist – a platform focused on the exploration of the relationship between image and text. Intuitive Projects is a platform dedicated to exploring the work of my ancestor, the Chilean-born, painter, poet, playboy and boxer, Álvaro Guevara (1894–1951). The name of the project is loosely inspired by Guevara's prose poetry book, Dictionnaire Intituif, published posthumously by his wife, the painter Meraud Guinnes, in 1954. I am currently building a constellation of archival materials, found images and new photographic works exploring objects and sites related to his elusive life. A sneak preview of this project written by Federica was recently featured in Unseen Photo Fair Magazine, Amsterdam. As part of this work I am also inviting artists and curators to respond to the work of Guevara.

The London Metal Exchange is the world’s principal centre for trading non-ferrous commodities and from where the global price of copper is fixed. City of London, UK, 2012

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta

f: One of my goals with fototazo is to promote photography made in Latin America. What other artists from or working in Chile would you recommend to readers?

IAAlejandro Cartagena and Rosell Meseguer. The curator Rodolfo Andaur has just produced a wonderful publication called Paisajes Taracapeños, of which I am part, with a thorough essay about the Tarapacá Region in Chile and challenging images.

f: Is there anything else you would like to add, Ignacio?

IA: I would like to thank very much fototazo for creating a network for sharing Latin American photography.

Copper residues. South Wales, UK, 2015

From the series "Copper Geographies" © Ignacio Acosta