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Learning from Fitzcarraldo

Learning from Fitzcarraldo is written by Karoline Sobecka for the V2_publication 'New Materials, New Methods'.

Learning from Fitzcarraldo

Image Karoline Sobecka

In 1893 Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, a Peruvian rubber prospector, found a way to transport rubber from a previously inaccessible piece of land. The seven-mile wide isthmus he discovered, which now bears his name, provided an over-land passage between two navigable rivers, Ucayali and Mishagua. This connection between the two rivers opened up the whole Madre de Dios region of Peru for exploration. Initially, not everyone had the insight to understand the economic impact of this discovery. To attract investors Fitzcarrald decided to prove his point by traversing the new route in his steamship, including moving the ship over the land ridge. This act of perseverance bordering on madness inspired Werner Herzog’s film ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ It is safe to assume that even in the wild-west rubber boom era Fitzcarrald’s feat of innovation distinguished itself by imaginative ambition, as evidenced by the local legends that grew around it and were eventually heard by Herzog. This all-important, real yet symbolic passage was made possible by the labor of the local indigenous population forced to work for the rubber baron under the threat of death.  

In Peru accessibility is vital, and not taken for granted. The national income is in large part composed of profits from export of natural resources, which would remain untapped without physical points of access. Most of Peru presents an accessibility challenge, with natural wealth either high in the Andes, or in the impenetrable Amazon jungle. A road becomes the key to opening up the country’s riches.  

Roads have been the symbols of access, national development and state control since the Roman times. The terminologies of transportation serve as metaphors for connectivity in today’s information society: speed, flows, mobility, connections are all terms borrowed from transportation infrastructure. However, we tend to lose sight of a road as anything but the most mundane of spaces. As my travel companions and I squeezed ourselves into a ramshackle van crammed with people, embarking on a trip to Nauta on Corridiero Iquitos-Nauta, it occurred to me that one place where the significance of a road is still very apparent might be the Peruvian Amazon. This road, paved in 2005 and 100 km long, is the only major road in the area, and the only road leading out of Iquitos (the largest city in the world with no road access). It’s one of the few roads in the Amazonian region of Peru, a lonely yellow stripe on google maps, otherwise dominated in this area by various shades of green.   

A road in Peru is not just a connection between two places but something that functions in a different capacity as well. Although traditionally a road is considered a typical ‘non-place:’ a motorway, a transition, an in-between, the Corridiero Iquitos-Nauta is a place in itself. Even though it is physically spread over a long distance, it maintains a single identity, whose essence is in movement, connectivity, and progress. It’s a place linearly distributed and bounded by dense vegatation. In many places, settlements along a road might follow a pattern of spots of population that sprout their own routes inland and develop their own identities. On this highway, the new settlers’ movement and economic activity is constrained to the road and only thickens it as a place, without transforming its identity. The population of the road shares their histories and future trajectories with it. Their addresses start with ‘Corridiero Iquitos-Nauta’, followed by the kilometer number of the road marker.

Vans and cars speed down the road swerving around dogs lounging on the asphalt. Personal cars are rare, most of the vehicles are shared rides. For a few Soles (1 Sol = 0.27 Euro) one can obtain a ride up or down the road. The space in a moving vehicle is never wasted, making them true high-occupancy vehicles. Neither the cars nor the road are in the best shape, but where there is a road there is speed. The terrifying driving habits are the enactment of the promise of the road. 

The road and its population serve various transit needs, and occupy a liminal space where the rules of the destination and departure zones do not apply. This road provides a range of services, ranging from food and accommodation to ayahuasca, prostitution, and a locus for other dark activities (for instance, after we camped at an abandoned cattle ranch at km 32, we learned that a body was dumped at km 31 the day before). But the road’s residents also make a home there, build their houses, work, raise their kids. They moved there motivated by the promise of accelerated and connected living, the promise at the base of all the sweeping narratives of globalization. A competing set of narratives, in which roads are seen as disrupting the isolation of nature and of the indigenous peoples, also has some presence here. The manner in which concerns about deforestation and ecosystem disruption are immediately volunteered in conversations with us makes them feel somewhat like products of interaction with outsiders.

Roads are Peru’s biggest infrastructure projects - and are its aspirational infrastructure as well as material one. They have the capacity to hold visions of improvement, grand expectations and hopes. Despite being mundane spaces they are the center of fundamental controversies, symbols of whichever belief system and its projections one subscribes to.  

A road might start as a colonial dream or a public project, an abstract territorial planning. But it quickly becomes a project of the local settlers, entwined with their individual livelihoods and particulars of existence. For a few days on our trip we camped at km 58, on the land belonging to Manuel. Manuel’s house is at the crossroads -- in a place where roads are so rare, this is a very special position. At Manuel’s house, one could turn South from the Iquitos-Nauta highway onto a new road, which was still under construction. This new road leads to what will be a new deep water port on the Amazon, in the village of San Joaquín de Omaguas. Manuel was optimistic about the new road. He told us that the community was on the way to bigger and better things thanks to this development. Soon there will be a Movistar tower nearby — and a cellphone signal. The cellphones, which will be initially powered by solar batteries, were first on his list of desires which were about to be satisfied, but electricity, sanitation, and education were also just around the corner. Being connected, having access to information, and ability to have a voice were his priorities. Listening to him one might think that the roads are the infrastructure of the twentieth century, while the twenty first is dominated by invisible wireless networks that have little material footprint, but in Peru one becomes very aware of the material realities supporting our information society. Roads are material, and material is extracted out of the rain forests and out of the ground and transported on those roads to the ports of export. The battle of conservationists is in slowing down the extraction of resources from the forests and the ground, which end up as materials for production of goods for developed countries, including minerals and metals for our wireless technologies. These imported narratives of conservation have little bearing on the minds of the people whom I met who dream of progress. A few months before we got there, before the new road construction got started, the local residents organized a protest because the work on the road wasn’t starting soon enough. The police fired petards which caught Manuel’s palm-leaf roof on fire. He pointed it out to us, a charred testimony to the impatience of the people ready to move on to bigger and better things.  

Iquitos is theoretically a deep water port, but in the dry season the water can become too shallow for boats to dock. When I asked about the new port in Nauta, I was told that a new deep water port will solve this problem, and bring more prosperity to the region. For now, the port is just the promise at the end of the road, which currently is not more than a wide trail of exposed earth. Red clay soil is visually stunning next to the deep green of the vegetation. This kind of imagery was something I first saw in Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo:’ a red track through the jungle that has lodged itself into my memory. As in the film, this track is impassable by any vehicle on its own power. Daily rains turn the clay into an unstable road surface. We set out down this road to get to where we were told the Caterpillar was working on it. We didn’t get very far, turning back at the deep stream of water running across the road. Thanks to this, my mental image of a stoic machine at the end of the road slowly chewing its way through the jungle, a technology changing the world it moves through, will go unchecked. It took a month for the caterpillar to widen the footpath that connected the river with the highway. For us on foot, in the midst of the mosquitos, heat, mud, and water, dwarfed by the size of everything around us, it was hard to imagine. But the entire process seemed very matter-of-fact to Manuel.

Taking out a strip of the rain forest today is not the impossible task it was a hundred years ago -- and indignance when this is not being done on our behalf quickly enough is a testament to taking for granted our ability to dominate any natural environment. Material reality is not seen as the obstacle anymore, but it’s rather a matter of logistics, funding, conflicting ideologies. The Caterpillar is moved by the invisible hands of political and social will in the form of engineering and territorial planning, which might stall its progress, but it has no trouble dominating the landscape. The new road already appears on Google maps, a thin grayish line. In the satellite view one can see the extent to which the jungle has given way to it. One quickly learns to hold the two contradictory aspects of the road in mind simultaneously, the extreme and the routine.

It took over two months for Fitzcarrald to move his ship over the isthmus. He had the ship taken apart and carried over land in pieces. Herzog chose to change this detail for the film and showed the ship being moved intact, which has the effect of amplifying the excess and abandon of this act, which is fitting for this environment in which everything is out of proportion. I find myself drawn to Fitzcarrald’s original approach: the network orchestration, completely uncharismatic in contrast to the man-vs-nature metaphor. In the original scenario it is not always apparent that a ship is being moved over a mountain. The mammoth task disappears into everyday tasks that would be difficult to romanticize. It is analogous to the ways in which huge infrastructure projects transform the land, the culture, and society today, while appearing mundane or completely invisible, and while often employing us in their execution. We’re all part of some socio-technological mechanization, but the dreams and ideologies behind it are not always visible. We rarely have a Werner Herzog to pull back the curtain and show us the task in all its absurdity, beauty, or sinister grandness.

Herzog chose to tell a story of a megalomaniacal character and his pursuit of a dream, but another thing to learn from Fitzcarrald is the story of infrastructure, its dreams, crowdsourced mammoth tasks and crowdsourced ideals -- a story of extreme tasks normalized. With this in mind I decided to buy a plot of land alongside the new road with the aim of investigating infrastructure and dreams. Having a stake in that terrain will permit me to participate in the transformation that this area will undergo in the next few months and years. It will perhaps enable me to enact my own dreams of excess and abandon through designing orchestrations of banal tasks. Primarily it will serve as a site of engagement with other artists, road builders, territorial planners, scientists, conservationists, loggers, hunters, tourists and passers-by.

With thanks to The Clipperton Project

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