Lucy + Jorge Orta consider problems of political and environmental justice: the plight of migrants and small farmers, the erosion of biodiversity, or the privatization of water supply, for example. These preoccupations are a pretext for questioning the relations of human beings in the world on which they rely for subsistence.
The Ortas attempt to visualize alternatives to the large-scale provision systems that sustain us, as when salvaging wasted food or constructing water purification apparatuses. A mobile cooking station contains vegetables symbolizing the discards of farmers unable to compete with cheap imports. Potable water distilled from nearby sources circumvents privately owned infrastructure: a refusal to commoditize necessities of life. It is not incidental that many of the Ortas’ assemblages reproduce the working methods of environmental activists, who perform acts of subsistence in deliberate refusal of economies of scale. In these strained attempts to trace the lines between production and use, we witness a longing for a world in which infrastructure and entitlements are visible and identifiable.
Food-Water-Life presents a particular cross-section of international material culture. The combined paraphernalia of postwar consumer society and emergency response imply the dominance of the military-industrial complex in late 20th-century life. Shopping carts and packaged goods nestle awkwardly with handcrafted baskets and boats, mythologizing modes of production and consumption displaced by industrialization. Meanwhile survival kits, drop parachutes, and life jackets evoke the mobilization of aerial warfare and the concomitant expansion of international humanitarian relief, providing a stark reminder of the threat human beings pose to their own subsistence.
In a particularly ambitious performance, Lucy + Jorge Orta constructed Antarctic Village – No Borders (2007), an in-situ installation of some fifty tents along the Antarctic Peninsula. They intended these fragile and temporary encampments to evoke the plight of people displaced by conflict worldwide. Antarctica provided the site of pilgrimage because of its privileged status under a 1959 arms control agreement designating it common territory for international scientific cooperation. Indeed, the Ortas’ hosts at the Marambio Base were heirs of a tenuous Cold War fantasy that science could liberate the world from war rather than becoming its machinery.
The Ortas explore zones that enable us to imagine the world as something other than the patchwork of militarized nation states yoked together by networks of capital we have inherited. The Métisse Flag, melding national iconographies into a single prism, is “a supranational emblem of human rights,” representing a longing for global community. The mobile Antarctica World Passport station offers the possibility of becoming a global citizen, bound by no nation and committed to social and ecological justice. It proposes an amendment to Article 13 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, vesting every human being with “the right to move freely and cross frontiers to their chosen territory.”
Yet as in the UN declaration to which it refers, individual freedoms may prove too flimsy a container for social and economic justice and responsibility to the non-human world with which we co-exist. For that matter, the Antarctic Village is a chilly and desperate utopia. Its band of flag-festooned tents perch in the environment least hospitable to them, suggesting how quickly utopian schemes become dystopian nightmares. In practice, one-world-isms have proved both noble and dismal aspirations.
Perhaps Lucy + Jorge Orta’s most powerful statement of human connection is not the hybrid flag but the never-ending meal, in which seven dinner guests in turn invite seven, ad infinitum. In this redemptive vision of the human condition, perpetual need provides the basis of sociability.
Courtney Fullilove is Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan University.