When CONSTELACIONES invited me to join them for their performance, Return Atacama in Chile, I immediately accepted. I was intrigued, and not just because the collective includes colleagues and performance artists whose work I deeply admire. Their project spoke directly to my own focus on the contemporary, deeply entangled, hemispheric arena of live political performance in the Americas. CONSTELACIONES, made up of Roewan Crowe, Helene Vosters, Chilean-Canadian artist Monica Martinez, Christina Hajjar, and Colombian-U.S.-Mexican artist Doris Difarnecio, were “to perform a ritual of return, remembrance and witness in Chile’s Atacama Desert.” It was not clear at first who or what was returning, but the art project included live performance in the desert by various artists from different parts of the Americas. The scarcity of details was part of the performance. Several people had been invited to accompany them on their journey as observers. Our route, the invitation stated, would follow Pinochet’s ‘Caravan of Death.’ While this was a manner of speech (Pinochet’s ‘caravan’ was actually a helicopter that flew a death squad throughout the country executing opponents in 1973), the group rented a van in Santiago de Chile and started the long drive north. It has been well-established historically that some of the bodies had been disposed of in the Atacama Desert: “Throughout the northern region, in cities such as Calama, Antofagasta and Tocopilla, the death caravan orchestrated kidnappings, murders, and mutilations. Bodies were sometimes tossed down mine shafts or left to decay in the parched Atacama Desert. The victims included lawyers, professors, journalists, doctors and labour leaders.” [1] The CONSTELACIONES van headed for Calama, an industrial and polluted town with few amenities, where I met up with them. This trajectory was clearly not on the tourist map. But this was not a touristic venture. Monica Martinez’s family had gone into exile in Canada when she was six months old, and now, she was returning to perform a ritual with her colleagues.

Observers were not privy to the conversations regarding the performance itself, but the excitement mounted and the artistic huddles intensified as we travelled farther and farther from Chile’s central green zones and toward the arid north. We were getting closer to the event.

The anticipation grew as we––the observers––got into the van one morning to attend the performance. The performers had gone ahead. We had provisions: water, food, things to protect against cold, heat, sun, and wind. There was no need to prepare for rain; the Atacama Desert is said to be the driest desert in the world.

It’s a challenge to grasp the expanse of the desert. It seems limitless in part because so few defining features interrupt the vastness. Even the colors and textures meld into each other, subtle gradations of the same.

The actors had instructed us about where to place our blankets, and we sat or moved around the sandy area that served both as the foyer and the theatre seats. We could see the actors moving around in the distance. The small figures far away were working with boxes it seemed, and plastic strips. It was hard to tell from where we were sitting. Time passed. What was there to see? What was our role as observers? We walked around, straining for a better look. One of the observers took a photograph through the lens of his binoculars, and I copied him.

Photo: Jarvis Brownlie, 2016.

The photo sums up the apparent contradiction of our predicament of trying to collapse the distance, being asked to witness, and yet impeded from doing so.

Among the challenges of writing about the performance is that the terms of the phenomenon—performance/politics and spectatorship/witnessing—are also the terms of its theorization. The words sight, spectatorship, and theory––as commentators have often noted–– all come from the Greek théā. [2] So, of course, does theatre or théātron, a “place for viewing.” The theoretical lens I employ, therefore, is deeply bound up with my object of analysis. Theatre and politics are not metaphors for each other but, rather, profoundly interrelated systems of representation and negotiation. Theatre—like politics—is simultaneously a space/place (civic space or polis or desert), a relationship (actor/spectator), a methodology (based on representation), an object of analysis (a performance, a ritual), and a theoretical lens (performance studies in my case). This lens allows us to challenge the notion that performance (theatrical or political) is ‘artificial’ because it involves highly choreographed staging. Something ‘real’ was going on in the Atacama Desert; we observers just did not know what it was.

Having trouble seeing in the theatre is one thing. We might complain that our cheap seats are too far from the stage or that the size of the head or hair of the person sitting in front of us blocks our view. But there are no cheap seats in the desert and no one blocking the view. Not seeing was an altogether different phenomenon, both epistemically and politically.

Distance in the desert carries a special valence. The only way to measure it in an unmarked vast space is relationally—the distance between us. The artists had chosen to accentuate distance between the act and its reception, to complicate easy viewing, to strain relationality. This choice was particularly noteworthy given the interrelated networks of visual, political, artistic, national, and hemispheric regimes within which the ‘seeing’ was to take place. Was the distance meant to underline our historical and personal distance from the events being represented? After all, some forty years had passed. This question burns with special urgency in the context of criminal politics, such as the disappearances and murders carried out by the ‘Caravan of Death.’ Disappearance, by definition, means “an instance or fact of someone or something ceasing to be visible.” [3] Where, in this vastness, were their bones? As opposed to murder, which might be a straightforward act of brutality, disappearance is a political project. It entails the purposeful mangling of bodies and evidence beyond recognition. The term disappearance names the black hole (or the vast expanse) of systemic cover-up. Gone are the facts, the people, and the circumstances leading to the death or capture of someone. As Mexican theorist Roberto González Villarreal makes clear, “disappearance is not an excess, not an error; it is a specific repressive technology.” Disappearance, he continues, “is not an event but a process, an assemblage of actions, omissions, confusions, in which many agents participate.” [4] How do we, as political hemispheric subjects, react to or contest disappearance? Did the distance of the performers suggest that ‘outsiders’ have no access to things that happen outside our line of vision? If outsiders can’t see, do they/we have a responsibility to know and intervene in the events taking place far away?

Theorists from Plato to the present have recognized that there is a politics to seeing, although few would agree on what those politics might be. For Plato, the skilled artist or “charlatan” can “deceive children or simple people” who can’t distinguish between “knowledge and ignorance, reality and representation.” [5] Many in Chile, then and now, could not see through Pinochet’s claims that the struggle was for a more democratic future. Aristotle affirmed the pedagogical power of representation, but argued to keep violence offstage for ethical reasons, not necessarily because spectators should not see it (i.e., because it was obscene), but because the stage was reserved for the recognition and understanding of that violence. In the Chilean case, those who could contest the violence on ethical grounds were dead or in exile. Aristophanes pointed out that spectators were sometimes the object of political machination, rather than simply learning from it. While the notion that all vision is partial and mediated goes back as far as Plato’s cave, the debates about what can and cannot be known through vision continue into the present, staged once again before our eyes in the Atacama Desert. We observers occupied an ambiguous position in this scenario that exceeded us in all ways: temporally, historically, and politically.

On one level, the aim of the performance in the desert may well have been to dis-locate us, the viewers. As observers sat in the topographical expansiveness, time expanded. Time is also relational—the now crowds out the before and after. When nothing happens, it’s hard to believe in the Western notion of time as linear and sequential. We sat in the expandable now and porous present of performance, waiting for a ‘return’ to a past that none of us knew first hand. Were we waiting for what Rebecca Schneider (building on historian Howard Zinn’s notion of “fugitive moments”) writes of as moments salvaged from the past to “present us with its own alternative futures—futures we might choose to realize differently”? Perhaps our witnessing of the return might prove a recuperative act of justice delayed. Even though Pinochet had died at home in his bed of old age, human rights activists in Chile continue to work to identify the torturers and cement the memory of the human costs of dictatorships. In performance, Schneider argues, re-enactment and other forms of repeats show the potential for time to be “malleable political material.” [6] Was the now, focused on return, about securing more democratic futures?

Gradually, after some time, the actors started approaching us one by one. Dressed in black, the women walked slowly, carrying obscured bundles. They alternated. One would approach a spot within our line of vision—the epicenter of the performance, let’s call it—put a bundle down, and head back to the distance as another approached. The reiterative, stark walking to and fro had an undecipherable and timeless ritualistic aspect to it. The reiterative nature of their labor augmented the sense that the present was a never-ending return to some past we can’t quite see or comprehend. As the performance unfolded, the solemn women would interact slightly with each other—a nod, a quick hug—and keep moving.

One of the actors, Doris Difarnecio, became increasingly confrontational as she put the bundle down on the ground, as if demanding a response from some absent judge in the immensity of the desert. Her affect grounded me: yes, this was about Pinochet, disappearances, bones in the desert. Difarnecio, from Colombia and Mexico, knows all about disappearance as a political practice and about the mass graves scattered throughout the Americas. From Antigone to the present, women have been seeking the bones of their loved ones in remote sites, but Difarnecio reminded me that we were in the Atacama and that Pinochet had never been brought to justice. Mourning, yes, but where was the outrage? Her acts seemed unscripted, and I thought her attitude seemed disruptive to the other actors.

Again, I thought of distance, this time cultural distance. While each of the actors has had her own experience with political violence, each is different as well. I do not know this; I assume it because it’s hard to imagine it could be otherwise. This does not privilege experience as more or less true, meaningful, or urgent. But it does acknowledge cultural differences in approaching or representing the aftermaths of violence. Maybe the anger against disappearance as a state-backed political strategy for obliterating one’s opponents remains too raw in Latin America. The memory of dictatorships throughout much of the region still hurts. In countries such as Mexico, disappearance continues as a political practice on a massive scale, unabated, into the present. [7] The private and public rage has few places to go.

After some time, impossible to calculate during the event, the actors had brought all of their bundles to the designated performance epicenter. The bundles––we could now see––were bones made out of ceramic. There were many of them, all different shapes and sizes. Carefully, the actors started placing them in a pile. Towards the end of the performance, they invited the observers to add a bone to the pile. We joined in the commemorative gesture.

After the performance, we learned that Martinez had made the bones over a few years. After exhibiting them in several art spaces in Canada, she decided that she wanted to return them ‘home’ to Chile. Interestingly, Chile, though the place of her birth, is not her ‘home,’ exactly. Her artistic act of remembrance might be an example of what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory,” born of the transgenerational transmission of trauma: “‘Postmemory’ describes the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” [8] The ‘post’ entails its own process of both collapsing and re-establishing distance; it’s memory, yes, experienced in the now, but a memory mediated through the generational distance of time and place.

Returning the bones ‘home’ was not a return to the families of the disappeared who continue to search for their loved ones. The bones, through the ritualized performance, return to the space of disappearance. The return, then, was political rather than familial. This was an act of remembrance coupled with contestation. The group, I speculate, left the pile of ceramic bones as a testament to the unpunished crimes at the hands of Pinochet’s ‘Caravan of Death’ that took place in the Atacama Desert. Justice had not been served. The ‘Caravan of Death’ got away with murder. The pile became a marker in the vast expanse of unsolved crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship. Other testimonies might now be located in relation to that artistic intervention. Martinez’s bones made visible a relational network of those affected by the dictatorship that spans both generational and national boundaries.

Martinez’s “imaginative investment, projection, and creation,” in Hirsch’s words, seem clear. She is both an actor in her creation, and a witness of a larger, social trauma. The other actors in the performance no doubt had their reasons for wanting to accompany Martinez on this journey back. Being with Martinez, accompanying her, seemed a form of witnessing. Martinez, like others who work with trauma-driven performance, I wrote elsewhere, “needs others to acknowledge what happened there and demand justice.” [9]

What, then, was the role of the observers? Seeing, in performance, opens the Aristitolean arena for speculation and reflection. The observer is the antonym of the witnesses who accompanies or the person who participates in a ritual. Observation relies on distance. Théā, linking spectatorship and theory, requires it. My role was not to empathize with Martinez or accompany her act. On the contrary––I was there specifically as an observer, the one who sees from a distance. My contribution to the performance, then, are these 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 transnational network of criminal political practice. These aspects played themselves out in the performance by CONSTELACIONES in the Atacama Desert. We were all there. But we were not there in the same way. Nonetheless, each––in our way––left a ceramic bone in the pile for others to see and reflect on.



[1] Adam Bernstein, “Sergio Arellano Stark, driver of the ‘Caravan of Death’ under Pinochet, dies at 94.” Washington Post, March 10, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/sergio-arellano-stark-driver-of-the-caravan-of-death-under-pinochet-dies-at-94/2016/03/10/ad7bdd32-e6d5-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html?utm_term=.9f15a98131dc.

[2] Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 23.

[3] See “disappearance,” Google, https://www.google.com/search?q=disappearance%2C+definition&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8.

[4] Roberto González Villarreal, Ayotzinapa: La rabia y la esperanza (Mexico: Editorial Terracotta, 2015) 140; 143.

[5] Plato, The Republic, translated by H.D.P. Lee (Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1955), 374-375.

[6] See Rebecca Schneider, “Protest Now and Again,” TDR: The Drama Review 54, no. 2 (2010): 7 – 11.

[7] In Mexico, some 200 000 people have been murdered and 30 000 to 120 000 or so disappeared in the broader war against drugs that President Felipe Calderón inaugurated in 2006. Rafael Mora, in A Sub National Analysis of Homicides and Disappearances in Mexico, reports that “between 2007 and 2014 138 589 people were murdered in Mexico (SNSP).” See JUSTICE IN MEXICO WORKING PAPER SERIES 14, no. 3 (February 2016),
https://justiceinmexico.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/03/sub_national_analysis_of_homicides_and_disappearances_in_mexico_rafaelmora-final.pdf. The same report cites that “Though Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, a Central American non-profit that advocates for migrant rights in North America, claims that 70 000 to 120 000 Central American foreign migrants disappeared in Mexico between 2006 and 2012 (“Comunicado De La X Caravana”)” the numbers cannot be accurately calculated due to faulty data bases. 2017, the deadliest in twenty years, has surpassed the number of homicides and disappearances.” See “Mexico murder rate reaches record high,” Al Jazeera, June 22, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mexico-murder-rate-reaches-record-high-170622052056456.html; see also David Agren, “Mexico’s monthly murder rate reaches 20-year high,” Guardian, June 21, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/21/mexicos-monthly-rate-reaches-20-year-high.

[8] Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 5.

[9] Diana Taylor, Villa Grimaldi (New York: HemiPress, 2017), https://villagrimaldi.typefold.com.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Adam. "Sergio Arellano Stark, driver of the ‘Caravan of Death’ under Pinochet, dies at 94." The Washington Post 1. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar 2016. Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. https://www.google.com/search?ie=ut&q=disappearance%2C+definition Web. 1 Sep 2018.

In Mexico, some 200,000 people have been murdered and 30,000 to 120,000 or so disappeared in the broader war against drugs that President Felipe Calderón inaugurated in 2006.Rafael Mora in A Sub National Analysis of Homicides and Disappearances in Mexico reports that“Between 2007 and 2014 138,589 people were murdered in Mexico (SNSP). JUSTICE IN MEXICO WORKING PAPER SERIES, Volume 14, Number 3, February 2016, https://justiceinmexico.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/03/sub_national_analysis_of_homicides_and_disappearances_in_mexico_rafaelmora-final.pdf The same report cites that “Though, Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, a Central American non-profit that advocates for migrant rights in North America, claims that 70,000 to 120,000 Central American foreign migrants disappeared in Mexico between 2006 and 2012 ("Comunicado De La X Caravana")”the numbers cannot be accurately calculated due to faulty data bases (p. 4). 2017, the deadliest in twenty years, has surpassed the number of homicides and disappearances. “Mexico murder rate reaches record high.”Al Jazeera, June 22, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mexico-murder-rate-reaches-record-high-170622052056456.html. See too David Agren, “Mexico's monthly murder rate reaches 20-year high.”The Guardian, June 21, 2017.

Jay, Martin. "The Noblest of the Senses: vision from Plato to Descartes" Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought.. 23. Berkeley: Berkeley University of California Press,, 1994. Plato. The Republic. Ancient Greece: Plato, 381. Rebecca, Schneider. "Protest Now and Again." TDR: The Drama Review 54:2 206. 2010. Accessed 1 Jan 1970. Taylor, Diana. Villa Grimaldi. New York: HemiPress, 2017. Villarreal, Roberto González. "Ayotzinapa: La rabia y la esperanza" Ayotzinapa: La rabia y la esperanza. 140; 143. Mexico: Editorial Terracotta, 2015.