Animist Museum of Lake Texcoco: Reverting its Desiccation

by Fernando Pichardo


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In 2012, Adriana Salazar (Bogotá, 1980) came to México for the first time as part of a residency set up by Fonca. During that time, she developed a research project based on the cemeteries within the capital and their function as spaces of transition where life meets death. However, during her stay she suffered a restlessness that is common among foreigners: What happened to Lake Texcoco and how is that its desiccation has been normalized by Mexicans?

The question suspended in the air for four years until Salazar returned to the country to begin her doctorate at UNAM. She knew she wanted to explore the notion of what is considered living or dead and how these concepts occur in specific places. Refusing to believe that a body of water as monumental as Lake Texcoco could simply go extinct, the artist referred to resources to further understand the founding and expansion of México City which was once a lacustrine bed, as well as the conflictive history between its inhabitants and water.

Near the end of 2016, she contacted Ernesto Carrillo, an engineer for the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) in charge of the ecological regeneration project that the institution was taking on in the area. Because of him, Salazar was able to have access to the farm lands which would later be taken over by the New International Airport of México City (NAICM), as well as the regulating vessel known as Lake Nabor Carrillo. From home in Bogota, the artist described to me what she saw then:

“The area was fully covered by birds, there were different species of ducks, green with their white collar necks coming from Canada. It was startling. Nabor Carrillo isn’t technically a lake, rather a regulating vessel. But it becomes a lake when considering its ecosystemic behavior. These forms of exchange between the fish, birds, fauna, and water make it so in the most literal sense of the word.”

From that moment, Salazar, with engineer Carrillo, began a series of excursions through the brine terrains that once formed part of the channels of Lake Texcoco; step by step stumbling upon thousands of objects that gave testimony to the diverse human occupations that this deserted pieces of land had experienced since declared federal property in 1971.

“What I found were overlapping layers, a sort of puzzle where the pieces didn’t fit together. A territory that no longer was the same territory, rather one that is many territories at once.” The glass fragments, ceramic, wire, wood and other materials that were found during her excursions had a voice of their own; capable of narrating events that did not yet have a story within the official history of México. By thinking ahead, she knew someone had to do something to archive them: “I happened to be there.”

Museo Animista del Lago de Texcoco (Animist Museum of Lake Texcoco) came about by the incongruence that Adriana Salazar found between what she saw in her fieldwork and the hegemonic discourse about the fate of the lake that was in the public sphere once again after decades. In order to develop a museological narrative, the artist opted for her particular interest in the archival. The result was a collection where the recovered evidence was interpreted by Carrillo and then contextualized through interviews, official documents and visits to the archive library.

Fishing nets, rubbish from homes that collapsed during the earthquake of 85, livestock fencing fragments, files, business cards, ladles… the selection of artifacts appeals to the positioning of Lake Texcoco as an ethnographic subject that supersedes the environmental sphere to generate a presence from other ones. It’s an example of the perpetuated colonial set of mind in contemporary México and how certain narratives are omitted or modified to favor politicians:

“It’s impressive what can fit in that piece of land, be it a lake or not. Beyond the fact that it could have been, putting together these distinct histories from one single terrain was a great labor of reconstructing.”

...the incongruence that Adriana Salazar found between what she saw in her fieldwork and the hegemonic discourse about the fate of the lake that was in the public sphere once again after decades."

In spite of being integrated by more than four hundred objects, the collection that Salazar presents is just one sample of the universe she came to face with. One of the more complicated aspects of the process was determining which objects were pertinent to generating a vehicle between the past and the present of the area without feeling rushed: “This was a problem because there were too many things I had to leave behind due to their size or complex ways of transporting. I began the project out of my pocket. A friend with a car helped me and my home became the storage place. There had to be a consideration of what I would take without being buried under objects.”

In one section of the show —currently on display at muca-Roma— a dialogue between Salazar and the social anthropologists Ariadna Ramonetti and Emiliano Zolla is projected. The conference puts in evidence that the contemporary chronicles, much like the official mass media and even oral tradition, look to set up the lake as an origin myth that by a series of unfortunate events, had to give in to the pressures of modernity.

With the demographic exploitation that México City suffered from the 1950’s and forward, Lake Texcoco functioned as a backyard for various groups of people who migrated from within the country. From then, the occupation of these lands as property of the people has come to be understood as an indigenous residual that once lived in central México.

After the civil unrest in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, the habitants became disgruntled with those living in the capital creating a polarization between the rural and urban, one that persists to this day. Under this logic, the intentional desiccation of the lake during the 20th century was a necessary evil which produced a lack of water and a need for its transportation from places farther away. Furthermore, it set up a piece of land for capitalization.

Ramonetti pointed out, contrary to the hegemonic tales, that the lake’s habitants are not opposed to progress but rather the speed at which it is promoted. The absolute infertility of the land is false; up until 2006 parts of these lands have been used as ejidos (shared lands): “How many of the people of Atenco will ever be able to travel by plane? With these kinds of initiatives, people are destined to work at an OXXO or Starbucks. I was asked by an interviewee why they would want to take away their labor tools to give them brooms so they can clean bathrooms.”

The exhibition, therefore, confronts everything between the dispossession forced upon the inhabitants of the antique lake to the perpetuation of death cycles which entail the extraction of water from places farther and farther away. More than the anthropological richness that the lands to be occupied by NAICM can contain, through the Animist Museum of Lake Texcoco Salazar shows how part of the problem stems from the relationship between México City and its surroundings.

The capital continues an imperial type of dynamic where its surroundings are used to extract raw materials and natural resources; whether it be water, food, or manual labor. But the project is also optimistic as much as it suggests a possible but partial restoration back to its original state.

From my point of view, another valuable input from the Animist Museum of Lake Texcoco is that it functions as a cognitive tool for those of us that aren’t directly involved in this situation, but are somehow paradoxically responsible for it by our decision making power and consumption as a middle class. Why should an artist have to get involved in this issue?

“One of the things that I admire about the social activism within the region adjacent to the airport is that they’ve managed to gather academics and people from within the scientific community, people who have the tools to fight, more so than with a machete. It’s the reports, the documents, the conferences and university forums which have taken seat in the forefront in this new chapter against the building of the airport.”

The Animist Museum of Lake Texcoco invites you to evaluate everything that has been said and spread about the lack of drinking water in the city; to question our own positions regarding infrastructure megaprojects which in theory bring with them social welfare. Maybe this initiative demonstrates that, regardless of the intentional destruction by generations, by the NAICM and the expansion of urban growth, Lake Texcoco remains alive. Getting close to that life is an experience which makes it impossible to stay indifferent; like when Ramonetti first submerged her feet in its swamps.

Adriana Salazar trusts in the diverse readings her project may have beyond the Valley of México. In fact, before it was exhibited in muca-Roma, it was taken to Morelia where it translated to the current state of the region of Cuitzeo. An exercise that demonstrates to citizens that the possibility of reverting damage is possible if information is used to demand respect towards their civil rights and guarantees.

The urgency to promote the survival of the lake is a recurring argument within the discourse of the Animist Museum. Destroying this vestige is to condemn what is to be of the Valley of México in future decades. By the end of our conversation I asked Salazar what she would say to people who stand by NAICM. She said: “That they should know there are people who still live in that land. The Nabor Carrillo still exists and its desiccation can easily be reverted. There is life.”

*Original text from GASTV, published in December 2018.


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Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. CP 64920