Catalogue essay: With Salt And Rocks In Our Veins

Catalogue essay: With Salt And Rocks In Our Veins

With Salt And Rocks In Our Veins (Entangled desert Water project): Catalogue essay

This project centres around the rights for water, between nature and humans. In particular, poorly-understood ground water, in a remote and unique location, the oldest and driest desert in the world- the Atacama desert. The complexity of this water issue is unique but critical in the current green energy transition, and a storytelling that stands in for so many water based conflicts between environmental needs and human demands.

Water-led storytelling for the end-Holocene

The Atacama desert, largely unchanged for the last 10 million years (until now, the end of the Holocene),  contains a series of salares (salt-pans); desiccated sites of deep time paleolakes. In the Atacama salare exist scatterings of small lagoons, where the salty ground water rises up from between tens to hundreds of meters below the surface, through hydrostatic pressure from the deep aquifer system under the salt pan. These brine water bodies- undrinkable, up to ten times as salty as the ocean-  are the only natural form of free water on the salt pan and support a uniquely evolved ecosystem; a natural biodiversity laboratory.

From unique bacterial populations, small brine shrimp (Artemia), lizards, a survival-critical stopover point for long distance migratory birds heading between hemispheres, and breeding habitat for iconic South American flamingos, two species of which only breed in these territories.

The Sentinel satellite, with its automated gaze from 700 km above the desert- the remote eyes of the Copernicus Earth observation program-  is only barely able to register these water bodies, as it passes over this slice of the earth, such are their small scale. Most of the Atacama is so arid NASA has used its soils as a research analogue for Mars. A desert site of astro-microbiology.

The only other form of free water seen by satellite is the grids of lithium evaporation ponds expanding across the salt pan basin. Here the saline groundwater is pumped from the same natural aquifer system deep under the desert, to fill the shallow ponds and evaporate under the high-altitude desert sun, leaving lithium-rich salts ultimately destined for lithium battery production and a fossil fuel exit strategy. The majority of the earth’s currently available llithium is found in brine waters, and over half the worlds  lithium reserves are found in the salty groundwaters of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile; the Lithium Triangle.

Everything comes from something.

These natural salt water lagoons are evolutionary niches for unique mixed populations of extremophile halophytes- ‘salt-loving’ bacteria able to survive and thrive in salty waters at high altitudes, under some of the most fierce solar radiation on earth, that would kill others. Collaborative multi-species layers of photosynthesising bacterial communities assemble in these waters, such as cyanobacteria, proteobacteria, bacteroidetes;  symbiotically utilising one another’s chemical by-products, with different layers and species expressing different pigments to drawing on different fractions of the total spectrum of sunlight. Colour-led collaboration rather than competition to (almost magically) convert carbon monoxide and dioxide and water to energy and oxygen[i]. Sometimes sedimenting as stromatolite-type forms (the most ancient of all fossils), sometimes communities of free-floating bacterial mats- some layers purple, indicating anaerobic metabolism, others able to utilise atmospheric nitrogen or methane, red and green layers indicate oxygen producers.

Before air there was water.

In this way the first collaborative cyanobacterial communities assembled in those first shallow saline oceans, 3.5 billion years ago, in a carbon dioxide and methane rich world, before complex life, before even an oxygen-based breathable atmosphere, those early microbes harnessed sunlight in a biochemical reactions producing oxygen and The Great Oxidation Event, a bloom of oxygen from salt-water microbes, kickstarting the breathable atmosphere the planet has today. There is a biochemical lineage being re-enacted over deep time in this site- from those first bacterial communities in those first sea waters, to these, in the Atacama salare, now.

The first lungs were bacterial.

In the desert, birds feed in these salty waters, iconic pink hued flamingos feed on brine shrimp in these hyper-saline lagoons. The red/rust-coloured brine shrimp themselves feed on the complex bacterial mats in these shallow waters, absorbing the orange and red toned pigments expressed by the bacteria; pigments passing from bacteria to brine shrimp to flamingos; the most successful feeding flamingos have the pinkest plumage.

Flamingo numbers have dropped in the last decade; a 10% population decrease was recorded in the two flamingo species that only breed in the local areas; correlating with regional climate change and lithium mining, and associated changes in water surface area.

Our curses grow in layered dust.

‘White gold’, lithium is called—the new mineral boom, following in the dusty footsteps of previous mineral extractions in the desert. Saltpetre, copper, gold, now this, lithium. The wider area, taking in this corner of South America – the Atacama, the adjacent highlands, the altiplano of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina- is now called the lithium triangle. Lithium extraction (from all sources; water mining and rock mining) was 77000 tones in 2019. By 2040, the International Energy Agency predicts demand for lithium will be 42 times what it was in 2020, all needed for the power transformation currently underway in Europe and the world. Even the Sentinel 6 satellite that observes our end-Holocene planet packs a  200 amp hours lithium-ion battery to support its solar array.

Chile has been here before- the 19th century extractive rush for saltpetre (Atacama desert-rock nitrate; a natural nitrate compound once used as a fertiliser and the white gold of the 19th century), at a time underpinned 50% of Chile’s national economy, even after profit taking by the majority British owned companies. The German invention of chemically manufactured nitrate (Haber-Bosch) burst the resource boom, and by the 1930s the British had left and Chilean tax receipts from saltpetre export were in freefall, which in combination with the Great Recession left Chile as the League of Nations-declared ‘country most affected by the Great Depression.  The deserted mine towns desiccate across the desert to this day.

In 2023 the Chilean government developed its National Strategy for Lithium, aiming to expand ground water pumping for lithium. 36% of ‘economically recoverable lithium reserves’ are found in the Chilean desert subterranean waters, equalling 26 percent of global production and the plan is to expand mined area across  400 square kilometres of salt plains in the nearby desert highlands, the altiplano, to maximise capture of hard currency from this white-gold, green-energy boom, before it too busts.

Gazing from the sky, measuring the invisible

Every spring meltwater from the Andes flows towards the aquifer system of the Altiplano and Atacama, offering the potential to naturally recharge the groundwater aquifer system under the salare; the recharge rate fixed by remote snow storms, regional weather systems, and potentially, climate change. The three companies that undertake this water mining; Chilean, Chinese and North American led, play their cards close to their chests and it is impossible to find published rational figures for ground water extraction. Adding to the complexity is the linguistics between ‘brine’ (saline groundwater, which is ‘free’ and loosely controlled) and non-brine ‘water’ which is controlled and privatised under the Chilean constitution. All miners share recent histories of brine over-extraction acknowledged by Chilean environmental regulators.

The local Atacamiños interviewed for this project agree that any company or government reported figures for brine extraction are a sham.

Accurately and independently measuring ground water is an emergent terrain, as ground water is increasingly and systematically overdrawn around the world. Contested used between mining, agriculture, urban and usually last, the environment, is a recurring refrain globally.

The independence of remote imaging is emerging, potentially via the recent Grace satellite- a linked pair of satellites measuring subtle gravitation changes due to water shifts, data used to detect ground water depletion in many areas globally. However the Atacama is too close to the gravitational shadow of the Andes and the deep Pacific ocean for the gemini gaze of Grace to be able to gravitationally see into the depths of the Atacama; an ongoing blackhole for data.

The eyes and veins of the sea

Local Atacamiños interviewed for this project have mixed feelings about lithium/ groundwater mining on their historical lands. Local landowner groups are paid well by mining companies for their compliance. Mining jobs pay incrementally better than tourism, itself significantly better than subsistence farming and herding. Some believe there is no environmental change yet, but worry for the future, others concerned about mining wealth fraying the cultural historic spiritual connection to Pachamama;  to the balanced connectivity between air, water and earth and the good graces of sacred places- the sacred Maico, Licancabur Volcano, the sacred Tataico. The older people still make Payments in cocoa leaves to Pachamama, to acknowledge her care of the balance.

In the Incan cosmology inherited by the Atacameños, the luminous Milky Way was/is a river of seawater, Mayu, that was/is the source of all water on Earth, reflecting the sacred connection between the earth and sky. The dark cloud areas in the star-lit path of Mayu are/were animals and spirits- such as Yacana the llama that balances water flow across the earth, with her baby, and Machacuay the serpent.


I was told that in some villages traditional seasonal rain-calling in this desert world is undertaken using llama fibre and seawater brought from the coast, but alternatively the brine water from the salare lagoons can be used, as they are considered the eyes and veins of the sea.

There is indeed only one water.  

The art-science project, The Entanglement of Desert Water, considers this water-bound complexity.  Of ground water aquifer systems which have few custodians, that cant be seen and elusive to measure, yet easy to extract. Of water and environmental needs in the face of an emergent energy transition. Of the impact of climate neutral energy polices in sites of power centres such as Brussels in over-the-horizon peripheries such as the Atacama desert. Of loss of truly unique bacterial-led ecosystems. Of human-coded economic value systems applied to remote lands, dry places and small life forms; where deserts and their ecologies are determined to be low value.

And of complexities of research funding boundaries- The JRC research nodes map surface water globally, but the mapping aquifers and ground water extraction is focused on Europe- the Atacama is too far over the horizon and the water maybe too un-cared for to be of  European concern. It was difficult during this research to find any recent, accessible and independent understanding of the state of play of the ground water system in the Atacama as nobody is looking, apart from the miners. The local custodians and civic sentinels have no access to data and can only observe with eyes and cameras, unless the world watches with them.

The final visual art work generates digital twins of two remote lagoons in Atacama, through use of drone, photogrammetry and gaming engine visualisation. One of the lagoons is in the southern end of the Atacama salare, near the currently expanding lithium mines, and the other on an Altiplano salare, near the Salare de Loyoques, in the soon-to-be lithium water mined area.

These digital twins of remote landscapes are intimately linked in real-time with automated web searches for specified terms, centring around green energy policies and lithium led energy transitions currently underway in Europe.

The landscapes are programmed to evolve and decay over time in relation to the web searches.  The work draws on art modalities to visualise a speculative near/future, in a post-human timeline.

In collapsing the distance between these remote sites and elusive waters they contain, with the centres of global north political and economic power I aim to connect the over-the-horizon; to visualise through a contemporary digital take on the Euro-historic visual art modality of ‘landscape’ a water-led storytelling of cause to effect; of a passage from complexity to complexity.

Everything comes from somewhere.

Note1: Using the lithium water footprint calculations published by Investigative journalist site, Danwatch, the lithium used in technology for this project was extracted by evaporating somewhere between 80 and 400,000 L brine water. (The range indicates how sparce is the brine water data released by mining companies).

Note 2: All participants interviewed for this project were paid by the artist for their time at a rate proposed by them.

This project was commissioned by the EU JRC SCIART for Naturarchy

Working with scientists in the fields of ground water management, global surface water imaging, microbiology.

The project received additional support from the Creative Industries Fund NL

Related video project: Before Air Their Was Water

Research and background: HERE