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Lightness and gravity: flight and minerality

Beneath the Salinas Grandes in Jujuy province luminescent, blue-green water swirls and eddies; in these fluid depths, adamantine minerals catalyse ancient forms of life in salt, silica and brine. These are the hidden waters of the salar, the living mother’s body – Pachamama – much more than a salt-encrusted terrain. Above, buoyant clouds on atmospheric currents between the radiant sun and volcanic peaks mirror the subterranean unfurling of water below. For centuries the waterways and the wide-open skies overhead nourished the songs, plantings of potatoes, beans and salt harvest, and spiritual rites of the Andean communities who dwell here. Today, travellers from afar warm and whet their senses in this sun-blazed land, perforated with jewel-like pools. Yet the mineral residues beneath the high altitude lakes in Jujuy have also attracted miners for the rare silvery-white metal of lithium; the salt crust is now pierced by orthogonal cuts, the waters rerouted, and heavy machinery clangs in the air. To feel the bright light and dream of rising places us at an ethical crossroads between sustaining abiotic entities, biotic life and Indigenous human rights to life-fuelling water and the ecological calamity of ‘green mining’ for lithium. The people of this place say; If our grandparents and ancestors lived without lithium, we can survive as well.

In the skies over the salt flats, an emissary of fuel-free, aerosolar flight is pushed up and up again into the currents by solar heat and many companioning hands. This air-filled, weather-borne balloon releases human bodies from the ties of gravity, that weighs heavily at high altitude, lifting the spirits and imaginings of the Aerocene community of Indigenous activists, aeronauts, artists, engineers. This collective has been woven together over many decades of communing, workshops and aerosolar flight experiments initiated by artist Tomás Saraceno. The territory of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc in the north is cared for by over thirty communities including La Salina, Tres Pozos, Pozo Colorado and San Miguel del Colorado, and in the south by the community of Inti Killa de Tres Morros. Aerocene Pacha is named after a cosmological force, the space-time meeting of the subterranean, terrestrial and celestial realms of the Andean cosmos, binding the extremophile beings and mineral reserves far beneath the Earth’s surface with the birds and insects of the earth’s intimate atmosphere, then beyond to the distant reaches of the solar system.

The Aerocene Pacha balloon’s lighter-than-air fabric captures ultraviolet rays of solar radiation inside it’s dark interior, warming the balloon’s internal air temperature above the air outside. The albedo (surface reflectivity of sunlight) of the white salt flats creates warming currents that aerate the balloon, until the passenger floats aloft, as high as 300 metres in the air. While cars of plastic, metal, oil and lithium weigh heavily on the earth’s beneficence in movements reigned by roads and borders, the balloon sails a gentle pennant of resistance. The perceptual horizon of the salar creates a shimmering mirror of the floating mobile, counterweighted by gravity’s stabilizing pull back to our terrestrial origins. Like a softly feathered bird, the black balloon is an intermediary: between the earthly struggle for land and water sovereignty on the one hand – and on the other – far above the clamour of machinery, the lightness and contingency of the vagaries of the wind’s currents, and the propelling heat of our closest star. In ancient Rome, grave political decisions were governed by observations of the flight and behaviours of birds. Philosopher Michel Serres describes the fine attunement of the Roman augurs, listening carefully to the birds, widening our perceptual window to the biophysical world, where language comes undone and the senses guide us. The small bird pococho of the Salinas Grandes sings and sings in fine weather yet it lies still as death when it is about to rain, foretelling the weather. While in Māori cosmology, the appearance of birds is a tohu, a sign to take notice of the dead, a whispery medium of the ātua, the divine beings. The Aerocene Pacha balloon is a gentle cue to listen to the creatures and communities of Salinas Grandes, to adjust ourselves to the thermal currents and take heed of the new weathers, the infrequent rains, the anger of storms.

For many of us who live in cities, water spouts easily from taps, air circulates from temperature controlled units, and commuting is cosseted by cars. The thin curve of breathable atmosphere has swiftly reached an untenable limit to absorb the carbon residue of oil and coal, and the tantalising promise of the E-revolution beckons as a tech-fix for the carbonized atmosphere. Yet the dark lithium batteries wedged beneath silent cars or lining our mobile phones and laptops comes with a cost for the rights of people, land, and our more-than-human relations. This new industry thirsts for water. The drilling and the evaporation process of lithium mining requires millions of gallons of water to wrestle the lithium from magnesium and other minerals. Few will ever see the violence of open drilling of the salt crust, or the pumping machinery that drinks voraciously from the salts waters of ancestor-bodies from groundwater basins. The lithium is left after evaporation, the springs dry out, with only contaminated residue left for those who dwell in the salar. Yet, if ever city-dwellers find the water ceases from the taps at our homes, our fragile dependence on fundamental infrastructure leave us hopelessly exposed. Fossil-fuel-burning humanity habituated a fast pace of movement and consumption by wrenching up the oil of ancient forests and draining waterways. The same neo-colonial path continues with the gloss of emission-free, clean-mining, obscuring the effect of lithium mining on Indigenous lands and waters throughout the global ‘South.’

From where I write in Aotearoa New Zealand, lithium prospecting in our geothermal regions is just beginning (also from a kind of fossil water or brine) in the heartland of Indigenous Māori lands around the Ohaaki silica field. We carry much of the burden of resourcing Euro-American dependencies even while we suffer disproportionately in tropical and subtropical regions in the Pacific. We are facing surges in cyclonic weather, and often catastrophic rains that overflow the tailings from mining into fresh water-systems. Nearby Australia supplies roughly half the world’s lithium from the open-cut pegmatite deposits created in the collision of ancient landmasses. In many places, such as Cape York peninsula in Northern Queensland, the State prioritize mining venture capital’s prospecting rights over Aboriginal land rights. The parallel targeting of lithium beneath the earth by mining companies, and the governments who grant permits in the ‘lithium triangle’ across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile obscures or denies the impact of this water-intensive process in regions facing serious water scarcity. The associated mining of the Pacific ocean, around Nauru, for instance, for nickel and cobalt, on which many lithium-ion batteries depend, is also of grave concern for us. Mining the seabed as ‘mare nullius,’ or outside of any country’s jurisdiction, is no less contentious than terrestrial mining or filling the air with greenhouse gases. We have culturally imagined the Southern skies, seas, our salt lakes as untamed, unpeopled sites for commercial endeavour, while the wounded atmosphere, terrestrial and marine biome cry out against this fallacy.

Art-making often hovers at the untenable edge of energy technologies, inventing emergent models of kinetic movement, devising eccentric systems, new kinds of weather quasi-instruments and togethering moments of resistance. Energy exists in the quantifying language of neo-capitalist production as resource, however many artists engage energetic forces more openly: as spiritual, cultural catalysts for eco-social change. Saraceno and the Aerocene community offer sun-powered flight as a manifesto, a provocation, an ecopoetic movement, and a rigorous experiment in just energy transition involving an international network of scientists, artists and engineers. They create a new socio-metabolic regime, questioning the hierarchy of who has the right to exist and provide or be provided with energy. The Aerocene Manifesto asks: “What are the rights of pass, the corridors we need to open, in order to restore the right to drift and breathe? How can we overcome the paradox of decisions made by the few, simultaneously forcing and inhibiting the mobility and breathability of the multi-species many?” To attend to the tangible effects of extracting the precious metals that lie deep in the earth, to listen to Indigenous voices is critical. For the people of the salar, the piercing of the land presents manifold effects on both human and natural systems. A zone of sacrifice is created in the South, in the words of Luis Martín-Cabrera, amounting to a “terricidio” or (earthcide), and an end to a cultural way of being and knowing. The weight of resistance to mining has been left to Indigenous communities of the South for far too long; now is the time for companioning hands.

We must decarbonize, yes, but Aerocene Pacha propels us to keep searching for viable solutions other than mining for lithium-ion batteries: let’s alter our own habits of consumption and movement; let’s revisit our own detritus of phones and batteries to retrieve the lithium in e-waste instead of further carving up the earth. In free-floating aerosolar flight, we feel the kinetic energy of motion, the elevating of imagination and spirit with the birds, from the weather-forecasting pococho to the quiet strength of wings of the Kuntur (condor). This lightness and sensitivity to the atmospheric embrace, known so intimately by Indigenous communities and our avian companions, urges us to let the salar be; to let the salt flats exist, shimmer and fly into the light.