ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIVING AND DEAD THINGS:
To the east of Mexico City there is a lake which lost all of its water more than forty years ago, yet it is still called “lake.” Its name is mistakenly enunciated when mentioned in Mexican news, as when written on signs displayed by the road that now crosses it. It is not called “territory;” it is always called “lake” even though this lake is dry, populated with an entirely different materiality. This basin, made of salt and soil, just like any deceased person we mourn, demands a time of duel, expanded over time. Amidst the departed’s “home,” now cold and covered in dust, its name is still pronounced. The sound of such name resonates, unheeded, within the concavity of the Texcoco basin, as if emitted from inside the walls of a house where someone recently died, now under the vigil of the living: calling it “lake” only emphasizes its absence, rendering its ghost present.
Lake Texcoco was the largest body of water in the entire central Mexican region by the time Hernán Cortés descried its shores in the distance, mistaking them for an “inner sea.” However, around 1971 its lakebed was completely desiccated. If we were to superimpose a map of today’s Mexico City upon a hydrographic map of this same region dated around 1600, water would cover almost every construction of the modern metropolis, from Lindavista on the city’s northern edge, all the way to the southern borough of Coyoacán and beyond; from where Chapultepec Woods’ end in the west, extending all the way eastbound, past the Benito Juárez Airport, flooding it all as it reaches the city of Texcoco. Salt water would cover it all, rising, expanding its shores every year, when in the months of June and August, heavy rain would fall upon the region.
Historically, ever since the early struggle between humans and land took place on this basin, Lake Texcoco has ceased to be a mere geographic location in central Mexico, to become the setting for various conflicts which derive from its colonial endeavor: social, political, economic, biological, even geological, all showing a broader spectrum of relationships between land and its inhabitants. The basin’s desiccation is perhaps the first of these conflicts.
Since its beginnings, the age-old dispute between the lake and its conquerors has been widely examined by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. Such studies have now become part of Mexico’s official historical narratives: the arrival of Spanish brigs, the destruction of the Nezahualcóyotl dam, the construction of the Nochistongo Canal and of the “Great Canal” which would displace the last liters of Lake Texcoco’s salt water, amongst others. However, events occurring over the last forty years of this dispute have made it difficult to construe a unified narrative regarding the current state of this portion of land: among such events one can name the confinement of the lake after its desiccation (as a zone under government protection), the lakebed’s recent fragmentation, and the urgency of other recent affairs in Mexico. For instance, in local and national printed news can be found press reports about protests held by the inhabitants of Lake Texcoco’s eastern border—when the government has attempted to relocate such border; however, these amount to be accounts all too fragmentary on the matter. Similarly, within the archives of the Mexican National Water Commission (Conagua) can be traced an all too scarce number of documents and reports on the basin’s recent status. Additionally, the lakebed has changed in an accelerated manner, becoming politicized and transforming in increasingly radical ways. As a result, an enormous information gap has remained.
In a nation in which “patrimony” and “archaeology” are categories captured by institutions with guidelines responding to parameters of an “official history”, the remains, traces, and accounts regarding Lake Texcoco’s recent decades, being neglected and incomplete as they are, can not be concretized into an academic object of study: they are too recent to be part of History, and at the same time, too volatile to become consolidated as patrimony. For this reason, better than being situated along the lines of inquiry of the Humanities, these accounts and fragments are susceptible of being transposed to the open terrain of artistic research.
Trying to subsume the set of experiences of this rapidly changing place, along with its documents, pieces, and dissimilar fragments of information, into an abstraction, a hierarchical organization, or even a linear, academic text, may prove to be a futile effort, keeping in mind that no academic field reclaims these matters as theirs. For this reason I have proposed the Encyclopedia of Living and Dead Things as a compendium of data, lexicon and features, inherent to the moribund Lake Texcoco: an exercise of appropriation carried out upon a knowledge-building methodology; a set of singularities framed within a container of totalities, conducted with a certain poetic license, although accurate and veracious in the contents which populate it.
The definitive demise of Lake Texoco is crossed by the spirit of a “failed modernity:” in the form of both governmental and private entrepreneurial projects, a series of contradictory initiatives pretended to delineate a “totality” within a space that, in practice, was coming apart into pieces; as these projects moved forward or failed, the terrain would fill up with debris, becoming fractured, to the point where such fragments would impose themselves over the land as a totality. Similarly, the infinite container provided by the modern encyclopedia under the promise of “total knowledge,” partitioned under the arbitrary order of the alphabet, may today seem an anachronic approach to the problem of “knowledge:” in a world order in which recent events have revealed the limitations within certain hegemonies, and in which one can witness their age-old centers of power collapse while new centers rapidly emerge, the very idea of “totality” seems every time more questionable. When acknowledging this scenario, the idea of reconquering this encyclopedic format arises, bearing a particular strategy in mind.
Traditionally, an encyclopedia is made of a series of entries, written in a language devoid of any personal tone, telling us of the world, its ways and forms; telling us of that which is cognoscible and important. A reconquest of the encyclopedia, such as the one I now propose, situated both geographically and politically within a specific place (Lake Texcoco) and in a specific time (the present), will allude to its contingencies, will describe its specificity. It will do so from a certain perspective, which manifests itself through a number of voices: literature, experimental chronicle, and writing as a practice inscribed within the domain of visual arts.
The initiative which brings forth this writing exercise is influenced by a diverse set of practices, taking some tools of the trade from archaeology and anthropology: when collecting fragments and materials from sites, or holding interviews with the few human witnesses to the recent changes in the lacustrine basin, it has been necessary to put together a diverse set of strategies that would enable approaching every site as well as every participant, according to each circumstance. Similarly, when sharing the challenges of approaching the fragmentary condition of Lake Texcoco with colleagues and other researchers, I have held conversations with individuals from the most diverse backgrounds, all of them speaking the dialects resulting from the explosion of cognitive capital, crystallized in countless linguistic specificities: this encyclopedia must then honor the language of the geographer, the engineer, the poet, the journalist, the anthropologist, the artist, the archaeologist, the philosopher, and the museum curator, so that all of them may approach it. Furthermore, the writing style here proposed engages with other languages—hybrid, unclassifiable, or “undisciplined—”as such writing comes about in an intermediate space between the art world and academia.
This collection of entries, in its experimentally encyclopedic structure, does not come to a conclusion in the way required by an academic text; neither does it develop in the form of a linear narrative, going from point A to point B, following a single direction. Modern encyclopedias are edited and updated constantly: even today, the latest editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica admit new entries—recent events, scientific discoveries, political leaders. In a changing world, things may disappear, new things emerging; some things live on and survive whilst others die. A few of these dead things, under that influx of temporality that sometimes seems to recoil upon itself, return to life, if briefly.
An encyclopedia about a lake which is not a lake, but a different place, is conceived under the premise that its “cognitive universe” is not made from that which it denotes; in assuming such premise, this encyclopedia is an extended speculation about what names do not reveal, capture, or define. An encyclopedia of this sort (along with the traditional compendiums of “general knowledge” of which it claims to be its satirical imitator, its cannibal) does not admit conclusions, although it does permit revisions, updates, multiple versions, editions.
I here offer you the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Living and Dead Things.