A two-week residency in Panama
January 4: Claire Pentecost and I arrive in Panama City. We are greeted at the airport by Ela Spalding, the founder of Estudio Nuboso, who became interested in Claire’s work at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Ela has lived in Berlin for six years and is now returning to Panama to launch a series of residencies having to do with biodiversity and the prospects for a more ecological way of living. Claire’s work with soil fits beautifully into this program. My work on contemporary capitalist development and logistics – fits in perfectly, because this is Panama, the original Zone, the last piece of the western hemisphere to emerge from the seas and the first to crack under the pressure of free trade, which literally split the continent. We are going to learn a tremendous amount here about the ground beneath our feet…
I looked out the window and saw an elegant old building dedicated to Panama Canal pilots. The question: How to steer humanity’s course through these early decades of the twenty-first century? Obviously there are immense problems. As we drove around Panama City, looking at the remains of the US Canal Zone along with the sprawl of neoliberal urbanism – and trying, pretty successfully, to catch the joyful wild Panamanian spirit through all that – our conversation returned again and again to the events of the last fifteen years, since the US military moved out in the late 1990s and the widening of the Canal was voted by referendum in the early 2000s. Panama gained full independence only to witness a giant real-estate boom in both the city and the countryside, and a huge speculative infrastructure boom around the Canal. Here, as everywhere, there is a deficit of perception, reflection, expression and action to make a more egalitarian and more ecologically sustainable world. Artists and thinkers should be able to contribute something to overcome that deficit, no?
On the first day in town we went to the Canal Museum and began to understand how important the isthmus has been to world trade since 1515, when Balboa “discovered” what the indigenous people had always known: the Pacific Ocean. Later that night we ate dinner with a fascinating group gathered around Ela’s parents, Rafa and Charlotte, who have tremendous insights into the way this place has developed over the last five or six decades. Talk flowed freely as we met many of those who will gather next week for the Suelo residency at SaLo Veraguas, on the southern side of the Isthmus, about five hour’s drive from here. Out there we won’t have electricity or Internet, but maybe it will increase the power of eyes and hearts and eras. We’ve got a lot to learn from the past, though none of us can be proud of all of it. We’ve got even more to learn from the future.