With Phantom Recorder (2018), Adrián Balseca questions the materiality of the world in the age of the Anthropocene. Currently, as the influence of human activity upon the Earth has become a major geological force, capable of irreversibly transforming the planetary ecosystem, Balseca acts and gets involved as an artist to generate a symbology of these challenges on the Ecuadorian territory.
Balseca’s artistic practice is a non-modern one, in the sense of Bruno Latour (1991)1, in which the functional, the utopian, and the poetic are never clearly separated. According to Latour, modern humans have never stopped creating hybrid objects, not only belonging to the technical or scientific worlds, but also participating in the political, cultural or economic ones. As they created these objects, however, modern humans rejected any notion of their hybridness, maintaining instead a world vision that is based on the “Great Division” (Latour 1991) between nature and culture.
In opposition to this modern order, Balseca overcomes its ontological, disciplinary divisions, and challenges the extraterritorial status of art. The point of departure of Phantom Recorder is Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo (1982), which tells the story of Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald in the early 20th century.
This businessman aspires to make a fortune with rubber and, being a lover of music, dreams about building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. What catches Balseca’s attention in this excessive endeavor is the visually dislocated, out-of-place aesthetic of a gramophone on a boat that wanders through the jungle. When he reconstructs the visual aspect of the scene, however, he subverts the “colonial regimen” by modifying the acoustic dimension. In fact, the function of the gramophone in this work is inverted; instead of silencing the forest and its inhabitants by spreading the sound of an aria through the silent jungle, it records the sound of the forest, aware both of the human and the non-human.
By means of this provocative gesture, the artist denounces the bourgeois notion of the autonomy of art, this non-relation that is exemplified by the aria2 performed by Enrico Caruso. Based on this film, on its director and the main character, Balseca exposes the idea of art as a specific historical construct, belonging to a modern, colonial system of divisions. Balseca also removes the main character in his work and reuses the gramophone’s technology to “listen” to “nature”, which demonstrates that every artistic sign is charged with the forces of non-human actants, operating as a translating device for cosmic and material processes.