Library of Creative Sustainability

Inspiring examples of sustainability outcomes achieved through artistic collaboration. Read our introduction here

Casa Río: Building Power Lab

Casa Río: Laboratorio del Poder Hacer (River House: Building Power Lab) is a centre of research, exchange, training, and learning located between the Río de la Plata Estuary and the university city of La Plata. It is a place for research into concrete practices – an experimental lab for ‘building power’ – whose work starts with the immediate local area but extends to broader issues of land use and political ecology.

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Project Description

The Río de la Plata basin (also known as the Plate River Basin) is an area stretching from the estuary southeast of Buenos Aires to the transborder regions of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil. It is subject to severe environmental pressures, including deforestation and the draining of wetlands to create space for monocultures of grain and soybeans, extensive damming along the Paraná river, and the unregulated extraction of silica sand to be used for unconventional fossil fuel extraction such as fracking. 

This has damaging effects on biodiversity and on the livelihoods and wellbeing of resident communities, especially those living in the islands of the wetlands. Local campaign groups and artists in the area have been responding to and protesting these issues of environmental justice for many years but have struggled to reach decision makers with the power to change policy.

Territorios de Colaboración, Pedagogías de lo Anegado (Collaborative Territories, Learning from the Flooded) is a large scale initiative created by Casa Río to respond to this situation, working with local artists and communities as well as well as the Wetlands Without Borders network. The project aims to use artistic practices to develop connections between community representatives (including young people, women’s groups, and grassroots organisations), political actors, and scientists, creating regional alliances that account for a wide variety of perspectives. 

The project connects the needs and knowledge of inhabitants with scientific evidence and expertise on pushing for political reform, aiming to promote decision making that has a deep connection with local communities and geographies rather than being imposed externally without understanding of the specific needs of this territory. These connections are fostered through the medium of artistic practice, with artists finding innovative ways of building understanding between stakeholders and communicating the knowledge they produce together. The project also aims to encourage and promote social self-organisation and reveal the specific potential of art for contributing to this process. 

The project works by sending collaborative groupings, formed from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, out on ‘campaigns’ into the Paraná River delta to carry out workshops and exercises in imagination and collective production to help develop new strategies to preserve the bio-cultural heritage of the wetlands. Specific methods are not predetermined. In some cases, professional artists draw inspiration from local guides and communities to create incisive critical works. In other cases, the entire group – artists and non-artists – improvises their aesthetic approach, creating amateur or hybrid pieces that seem to spring directly from the inhabited territory. The range of approaches is generative, allowing people to collectively develop the approaches that suit their unique context rather than imposing a single normative model.

The results of these collaborations include photography, field recordings, interviews, drawing, sound art, painting, cartography and other perceptual and communicational tools. These are presented through exhibition formats that seek to stimulate further collaboration between artists and grassroots communities. Activists and local inhabitants who come together in the exhibition space don’t necessarily focus on the quality or novelty of the art, rather the works aim to help stimulate a reframing of their approaches to the territory. 

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A map of the area in which Casa Río operates. Credit: Casa Río.

This method was initially tested in local experiments, resulting in a series of small exhibitions and discussion sessions held at Casa Río itself in 2018. It was then brought to a larger scale during the following year. Five collaborative partnerships were organized on the basis of existing friendships or working relationships. Artists, activist researchers and local inhabitants went out into the estuary and island territories of the Río de la Plata basin to gather impressions and documents, and above all, to talk with whomever they might meet. These partnerships focused on five critical areas:

  • Wetlands, real estate development and public land policies
  • Wetlands, agro-economy, technology and logistics
  • Wetlands and pollution
  • Wetlands and infrastructure
  • Wetlands and sustainable initiatives

Participants used an interactive map to record the fruits of their collaborations alongside spontaneous inputs from local inhabitants. Their new artworks, translating their perceptions into visual and acoustic forms, were added to documents and works from previous engagements with the Paraná Delta reaching back over two decades, creating a diversity of creative responses that reflected and amplified the biodiversity of the environment. Further works dealing with parallel situations in the Mississippi River Watershed were added by a group of artists from Chicago, USA (home of Casa Río member Brian Holmes). 

This ‘interbasin collaboration’ gave rise to The Earth Will Not Abide / La Tierra No Resisterá, an international exhibition held in Rosario, Argentina, in February-April 2019, carried out with the co-curatorship of artist Graciela Carnevale from Rosario. The exhibition space was also used for a two-day colloquium involving 40 different organizations.

The colloquium included representatives of NGOs, environmentalists, local political figures, journalists, artists, and inhabitants of the islands. Among the participants were people expelled from their lands for fighting for the approval of a Wetland Law which would have provided a conservation framework for riverine environments in Argentina, including its human and non-human inhabitants. Casa Río and Collaborative Territories explicitly support the creation of a Wetland Law of this kind, and oriented the exhibition and colloquium towards encouraging support for the law and building grassroots pressure on political actors who could help bring it about.

Casa Río sees this model of collaboration as one that could be adopted in other parts of the world marked by similar clashes between large-scale land use policy and local communities. They have drawn explicit parallels with the Mississippi River Watershed, and the online map Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos highlights this connection by allowing users to compare the Mississippi and La Plata watersheds. Future collaborations with ecologically oriented groups in other great river basins of the world are one likely future outcome of this experimentation. 

Partners & Stakeholders

Casa Río is a non-profit organization, located in the Río de la Plata basin, directed by Alejandro Meitin and made up of the following work team as of 2020: Brian Holmes, artist, critic and activist; Alicia Vandamme, curator and cultural manager; Viviana Staiani, lawyer; Eyra Jáuregui, lawyer; Dani Lorenzo, artist and communicator; Carlos Javier Diaz de la Sota, architect and teacher; Marcelo Miranda, biologist; Ulises Cura Jáuregui, computer developer. The group builds on the previous experience of the art collective Ala Plástica, of which Alejandro Meitin was a member for 25 years. Their aim is to promote grassroots development and support the incorporation of art, environmentalism, science, and local knowledge into national and international environmental policy. 

Casa Río also partners with a wider variety of organisations: Instituto Gaia y Escuela de Ativismo (Brasil), CAUCE, Taller Ecologista and FARN (Argentina), Probioma (Bolivia), Sobrevivencia, CODES, Fire and Hugo Foundation (Paraguay) and Both Ends (Netherlands). Together these organizations form a network known as Humedales Sin Fronteras (Wetlands Without Borders), devoted to the flourishing of riverine environments and of the people who live there. Within this network, Casa Río contributes its special focus on art, environmental law and communications.

Participants in the Collaborative Territories project from outside of Casa Río included: Grupo de Ecoturismo Comunitario – Escuela Gabriela Mistral de Puerto Constanza – Cuidadores de la Casa Común – Escuela de Artes Visuales – Guardianes de Victoria – Escuela Normal – Escuela N°6 Florentino Ameghino, Red Delta – Cauce – Taller Ecologista – Acuario Río Paraná – STS (Soluciones Tecnológicas Sustentables) – Mundoaparte – Programa Espacios, políticas, sociedades – Cátedra de Salud Socioambiental de la Facultad de Medicina UNR – El Paraná no se toca – Taller de comunicación ambiental – Cátedra Economía Ambiente y Sociedad UNR – Taller Flotante – CCPE (Complejo Cultural Parque de España) – El Levante – Archivo Caminante – Cooperativa Isla Esperanza – Parque Nacional Ciervo de los Pantanos – FARN – INTA Delta – Asociación Isleños Unidos II – La Quinta de Miguel – Magia Negra – Isleños de Pie – Galería Damme – Música y Audio Digital – Centro de Medicina Tradicional Madreselva – Espacio Cultural y de Capacitación Olga Mercedes Sarmiento – Casa Isleña Haroldo Conti – Biblioteca Isleña Miguel Ruscitti – Talleres de Historia, Arquitectura y Teoría de la FAU (UNLP) – Frente de Familias Productoras de Berisso – Museo Ornitológico de Berisso – Vivero Las Hortensias – Radio Isleña – Programa Elemento Vital / El Agua en el Siglo XXI.

‘How to move from away the current pattern of agrochemical exploitation, toward a new coexistence with nature? The expressions gathered in this exhibition give a foretaste of future social conflicts, when humans and non-humans will come together to resist the forces that are denying everyone’s right to residence on Earth.’ Introductory text for The Earth Will not Abide exhibition

Sustainability Issues

  • The collaborations deepened and amplified understanding of the knowledge and needs of residents of the delta, who have an intimate familiarity with the ecosystem and whose voices are usually left out of decision making.
  • The collaborations helped develop imagination and new ways of thinking, recognising that finding innovative solutions to environmental issues involves finding methods of escaping the status quo. 
  • The project developed support for a Wetland Bill that would provide better protection for the area and produced partnerships that could continue to build political pressure for the introduction of the bill.
  • The project values immaterial features of the wetlands such as native cultural heritage and practices specific to the region that are in danger of being lost. These features are at risk of being ignored in discussions of conservation. 

Lessons, Tips & Advice

  • Creative practices provide opportunities for new ways of interacting and understanding. In this context they helped to develop a shared understanding, going beyond temporarily seeing things from a different perspective or scale and towards developing a more permanent shared understanding. 
  • The arts provide an opportunity for open-ended long-term collaborations where results are not known in advance. This was useful for bringing people together from different backgrounds, providing an open unpressured space for collective exploration from where new ideas and approaches could emerge. 
  • The project emphasised the importance of a physical understanding of and empathy for places through active experience. The collaborations all involved visits to areas of the Watershed to work with communities in those locations. 
  • The involvement of local communities in decision-making is vital to protect their own interests, but also to make use of their own detailed knowledge of the places where they live. The creative methods adopted by this project, in both material and digital forms, provided a useful means of expressing this knowledge. 
  • The project provided space for thought and debate, conceiving these as the core of the work rather than as only a means to an end.

Funding

Casa Río Lab is funded by DOB ECOLOGY, CASA Socio-Environmental Fund, Both Ends, and associates.

Quotations

‘We pulled up to Casa Río as the evening was beginning to settle. A space designed to facilitate projects that intersect the realms of organizing, community empowerment, art, and environmental work, by re-conceptualizing the relationship between humans and their surroundings. My arrival to Casa Río was auspiciously timed – a celebration was to be held that evening. By midnight, I counted roughly fifty attendees, a boisterous kaleidoscope of Argentine social life, including writers, scholars, lawyers, organizers, photojournalists, artists, craftspeople, activists, and one shaman.’ Nathalie Long, first guest resident at Casa Rio
‘You just have to throw yourself into the search for these utopias, trusting in its emergence, trusting in what will happen. I don’t believe that a result can be predetermined. The challenge is to advance the things that one believes and trust in the emergence of it, while constantly strengthening more and more one’s values and distancing oneself from one’s “anti-values.” But hey, these are searches that everyone has to do in their own lives. The only thing I can say is: do good without looking unto whom, and trust the emergence.’ Alejandro Meitin, Founder & Director of Casa Rio Power to do Lab

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