Arriving in Ecuador during the time of corn harvest, I was deeply impressed by the magnificent cornfields. I envision that was what parts of Manaháhtaan (precolonial Manhattan) used to look like. I also was delighted to learn that the companion-planting agricultural practice of the Three Sisters Garden (interplanting squash, corn and beans together to support each other) was also prevalent in Ecuador; another proof of shared knowledge across ancient Americas.
I also ate a lot of corn during the months of March and April. Between boiled, grilled, tostada, mote, and quimbolito, the best was my first humita prepared by Maria Edubijes Mendez de Jesús, aka the beloved Doña Mary. Mary, always beaming with the warmest smile, is an Afro-Ecuadorian grandmother who often works as the chef at Casa de Artes Yarina, my American Arts Incubator host partner organization. While I directed American Arts Incubator — Ecuador, I noticed that the feminine labor of Doña Mary, the woman who took care of our wellbeing, was often invisibilized. Her warmth, similar to that of Mother Earth, is often taken for granted.
In an interview, Mary expressed: “If I were to be an element of nature, I would be a medicinal plant." As I got to know her, Mary shared that she had endured a traumatic childhood and had singlehandedly raised three children. I also learned that she is a medicinal plant healer, political activist, community organizer, culture bearer of bomba music and dance, and is now becoming an authority of regional gastronomy.
For me, Mary represented not only the strength of pachamama (Mother Earth), but also the core lessons of resilience and survivorship that initially drew me to working within the context of Casa de Artes Yarina and Museo Viviente Otavalango’s past as the Antigua Fábrica San Pedro, a site of indigenous exploitation between the 1850s through 1970s.
In local marketplaces, I noticed that cornsilk, a potent herb to heal urinary tract and kidney infections, was tossed as trash. Thus, my counterpart Ana Cachimuel and Mary helped me procure cornsilk from market vendors and I braided them to frame a drawing I made of Mary adorned in medicinal plants she uses to heal people. The drawing was then activated with a video interview paired as an augmented reality feature.
In addition to weaving cornsilk to tell this story of resilience, as part of the 28-day incubator challenge, I introduced how to create augmented reality (AR) based experiences to amplify intergenerational and intercultural dialogues to address social inclusion. As we used digital art to reveal historical patterns of exploitation and intercultural strife, I was weary of replicating unbalanced power dynamics within our incubator. My participants were diverse in age and socio-economic status as well as cultural, professional, and racial backgrounds. We had heated conversations on racial and gender equity. We searched for alternative terms to social inclusion and questioned concepts such as, "who has the power to include/exclude?"
This process led to the formation of three community projects that each received small seed-grants to build project prototypes: Yuyay applies augmented reality to site-specific community murals, Mama Cuchara is an AR Spanish and Kichwa language book on medicinal plants, and Warmi Tukushka stages immersive theater with rural communities for a social tourism project in order to generate income for Indigenous communities.
There were limits on how much I, as an artist, facilitator, admin, PR and community manager, teacher, exhibition designer, and translator could contribute to a community. Despite running the program with minimal infrastructural support — internet was often nonexistent, rain seeped into our tech workshop spaces, and I nearly fainted due to sleep deprivation compounded by altitude sickness — what we had was strong community spirit and ingenious resourcefulness thanks to Ana Cachimuel, her family, as well as the participants. I also acknowledge the behind-the-scenes support of Maya Holm and Shamsher Virk of ZERO1. Each team put forth hardwork and met my tough love with grace.
As folks looked to me for leadership, I often thought of my cohort of AAI "artstronauts" who are all exploring how to adapt the art and tech incubator to a demanding foreign context. There is no formula as each incubator is different, and that is the beauty of the AAI program. I admit that I had moments of disillusionment as I became acquainted with local community politics. Randi randi (the kichwa expression for reciprocity, literally meaning give and take) was constantly preached to me as a core cultural value, yet it was not always practiced and at certain moments I was hollowed witnessing crude self-interest and nontransparent resource distribution. Yet, witnessing Mary's resilience, I knew that I had to exert myself and call out problematic circumstances. #CulturalDiplomacy.
The day of the panel review was truly a highlight! The community projects were beautifully installed into a cohesive exhibition in Casa Cruz of Museo Viviente Otavalango. Each group passionately delivered their pitches to the judges and the public consisted of many community members, elders, students, and even the executive director of the Fábrica Imbabura, Edgar Flores.
Rich exchanges and insightful critiques took place during the public presentations, and each community project received additional support in the forms of mentorship, invitations to local incubators, and possible funding opportunities. Several participants traveled to Arte Actual Flasco, a social science and humanities cultural center in Quito, to share our process with a wider audience and connect rural and urban dialogues. I was full of admiration for each team sharing their aspirations.
I’ve been back in the U.S. for less than a week and am trying to prolong that enigmatic transition period between settling back into my New York City routine, digesting the lessons from my intensive incubator challenge, and brainstorming next steps for my incubator participants to really thrive for the long term.
I leave inspired that many people in rural Ecuador, despite living in poverty, are still on their ancestral land and can live off the produce yielded from their home gardens. Their food sovereignty gives me hope that a regenerative and cooperative economy is viable. I believe that my incubator participants still have the possibility to carve out a new economy centered on sustainable land-based practices with healthy communities who will continue to cultivate the resistant ancestral technology called corn, generation after generation.
The fierce equatorial rays, crackling fire, rising smoke, floating ashes, cultural protocols with community elders, taytas and mamakuna — these are the constant elements that have accompanied American Arts Incubator — Ecuador since we began in mid-March. We kicked off with an artist talk, “ACTivaciones: Art, Community and Technology,” at Quito's Arte Actual Flacso, which was followed by an early morning drive to the exchange city, Otavalo, to work with Casa de Artes Yarina housed in Museo Viviente Otavalango.
The following day I experienced my first press conference that would not start until the scent of palo santo pervaded the art center. The occasion was honored by a beautiful arrangement of wild flowers collected from the surrounding fields on a totora mat to celebrate friendship and diversity. Community life is very vibrant here. I was quickly integrated into communal lunches and invited into people’s homes. My host partner’s contemporary Kichwa music group, Yarina, is a band made up of eleven brothers and sisters that perform together with a three decade trajectory. Community is a permanent fiber in local culture.
My incubator participants vary in age, education level, class and heritage backgrounds, as several come from different native communities in the Imbabura province while many others identify as mestizo. Trying to find a way to address social inclusion through art and technology within a new cultural context and such a diverse group has required me to further explore cultural protocols, race relations and cultural specificities.
Our first day of workshops focused on exploring power dynamics and shared values within our group, getting to know the historical context of Museo Viviente Otavalango’s previous life as a factory that exploited Indigenous laborers and developing intro-level AR experiences. We also had a hands-on learning experience at Pakarinka Culture Center to learn about ancestral customs with Kichwa culture bearers. This day included healing with the sacred “cuy” (guinea pig) and medicinal plants, meeting traditional healers and midwives, and creating a pachamanka meal together as we discussed connecting to cultural roots and indigenous revitalization.
To contrast the learning experience in a rural setting, we also toured Ciudad Yachay’s (Ciudad de Conocimiento) state-of-the-art facilities including a supercomputer, fablab, technology and entrepreneurship initiatives.
All of these experiences helped us develop community projects that address social inclusion using cultural and educational methodologies. As I write, they are in full production mode as we gear up to install prototypes this week and pitch the projects to potential supporters. One of the projects, Yuyay, is an effort to create site-specific AR-activated murals in Museo Viviente Otavalango.
The project engages deeply with what it means to be an “Art, Community and Technology” incubator in a small Andean city in Ecuador. When we think of the word technology, we often think of 20th century innovations. Yet, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, this incubator accounts for ancestral technology. Otavalango’s previous life until the eighties was the Fábrica San Pedro that employed native workers under harsh conditions to produce woven textiles. This was the first factory in Ecuador and produced woven goods made from "telar callua," a pre-Incan form of backstrap weaving.
By the mid-19th century, the factory imported mechanical weaving looms from Boston to maximize production. Fast forward to 2018, and we are engaging digital media in an arts incubator to retrace the social history of the site through the impacts of the industrial revolution and the persistent threads of ancestral technology.
While I teach augmented reality workshops, I am also taking weaving classes in the old factory and getting an inkling of how contemporary machinery evolved from this ancient practice. Weaving is coding in binary motions, performing mathematical calculations, enacting geometry and executing precision. It is also about transmitting oral history, ancestral knowledge and following the movements of those who came before us in the social fabric.
As a daughter of immigrants in Turtle Island (aka North America), I strive to be in allyship to the original peoples and the land and waters that nourish me by activating multisensory storytelling and interdisciplinary art, including sculptural installations, performances, lectures, community engagement, writing, olfactory art and experiential technology collaborations with Native culture bearers, creative technologists and scholars. This trajectory shapes my approach to the American Arts Incubator (AAI) exchange where I will be supporting social inclusion of Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian populations in Otavalo, Ecuador through sharing how new media storytelling may shift dominant narratives.
I will be working with Centro Intercultural Comunitario Yawar Wawki Casa de Artes that is housed in Museo Viviente Otavalango, which previously was a textile factory that exploited Indigenous labor for two centuries until it was taken over by workers in 2011. Within this context, Casa de Artes counteracts marginalization and historization of Indigeneity through revitalizing Kichwa language, music and weaving. I am humbled to work with resilient people that embody self-determination. With my workshop participants, I hope to develop site-specific extended reality content to support spreading the story of self-empowerment. Our process will be a co-inquiry on how new media can amplify voices critical to futurity and challenge the notion that indigeneity and modernity are incompatible.
I want to take this opportunity to broaden general conceptions of technology to include ancestral technologies such as weaving, agriculture, plant medicine and wayfinding. I credit my AAI mentor Cristóbal Martínez (read his writing on Tecno-Sovereignty: An Indigenous Theory and Praxis of Media Articulated Through Art, Technology, and Learning) who pointed out that weaving was the first computer and that we must always question the ideologies embedded within the technologies we use, and how they may occlude other forms of literacy and perpetuate power structures. This resonates in an age where we rush to embrace new technological trends without contemplating how often they are derived from military initiatives that were once instrumentalized against certain marginalized communities. Navigating these power dynamics will be one of the first challenges I will face as the Incubator’s lead artist and I hope to find a balance between emerging and traditional media throughout our workshop.
Drone VS. Fort, Rhunhattan Project, April 2017. Image by Beatrice Glow and Highway101, etc. Exploring the embedded ideologies of technology, we used a drone to photograph Fort Belgica that was built by the Dutch East India Company on the original Spice Islands of Indonesia. By using 20th century military-derived technology (drone) to document 17th century military technology (fort), I reinterpret and subvert the ideology belying the drone and use it to support decolonizing perspectives.
Gearing up for the exchange, I have been rereading Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith. I am also learning about Andean culture and cosmovision through learning the Kichwa language. For example, the word for “person” is runa, and the full definition is “a being of nature that acts with force and wisdom.” My teacher gave me a Kichwa name that realigned me on the path of runificación, which urges me to act in my full potential while being conscious of my relationship to the ecosystem and the cosmos.
During my stay, I hope to learn more about how Indigenous communities in Ecuador have been at the forefront of environmental stewardship, most recently evidenced by the Yasuni resistance against the pipeline construction in the Amazon Rainforest as well as the 2008 constitutional enshrinement of the values of sumak kawsay (buen vivir), whose vision for environmental health is critical to a sustainable and socially-just future. I am curious to learn how this is implemented on a day-to-day level, the challenges, and how these takeaways may guide and strengthen parallel North American efforts. My time in Otavalo will undoubtedly expand my understanding about the ramifications of colonialism, environmental racism and Indigenous revitalization.