Art and the Toxic Politics of Waste: Latin America. A roundtable discussion with filmmakers and researchers at University College London
Keywords:Buenos Aires, environmental politics, inequality, garbage work, race, Rio de Janeiro, toxicity, waste
Between December 2020 and January 2021, Hanna Baumann and I organized a twofold event around the topic of waste in contemporary cities. Back then, she was analyzing a series of artistic representations of Lebanon’s environmental crises in relation to political and spatial toxicity, and I was starting a project of ecological history at the neighborhood scale (specifically in London and Leicester), looking into how the proximity of sewage waste had been experienced by local residents across long timespans. She and I talked about the intersections of these concerns, and started asking ourselves a series of questions about the deeply grounded, yet also deeply elusive quality of these processes that seemed to transcend geographies. Experiences of toxicity are riddled with uncertainty, as ethnographers like Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun discover in a Buenos Aires shantytown (Auyero and Swistun 2009). Different temporalities coexist in toxic processes, entangling human and non-human entities into extremely complex environmental and political systems. How can we trace and make sense of these linkages? More specifically, how can different forms of knowledge production—and, in particular, artistic formats—account for the (often complex) trajectories of waste, its slow and difficult-to-trace impact, and the complexity of political forces at play?
When we talk about toxic politics, we are thinking about them in at least three different but interrelated ways. At their most basic, they can be seen as harmful systems: structures and networks which, by their very nature, damage the polity and humans. At the same time, these are processes where inequality is negotiated, perpetuated, and deepened, and which result in tangible harm, eroding subjectivities and affecting the wellbeing of bodies, human and non-human alike. Finally, and in relation to the former two, toxic inequality continues to be deeply entwined with political, economic and symbolic interests which displace harm onto some subjectivities and bodies more than others. With these concerns in mind, we met filmmakers Marcos Prado and Martín Oesterheld to discuss two of their films, Estamira (Prado, 2005), and La multitud (Oesterheld, 2012). We were joined by researchers in culture, Geoffrey Kantaris and Gisela Heffes, and anthropologist Patrick O’Hare.
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