Only a few meters separate the house of Alberto Baeriswyl Pittet from the Magellan Strait, and twice this again separates it from the sub-Antarctic forest. This proximity creates a perfect triangulation, where the apex on which the house is built touches exactly the fifty-fourth latitude of the Southern Hemisphere, if we think of the world as a sphere.

In the 19th century, millions of Europeans emigrated to the Americas. Marie Pittet and Joseph Baeriswyl citizens of Switzerland, were two of them. Both were from the 143 fribourgeoises that between 1871 and 1891 decided to try their luck in the far south of America at the rising Punta Arenas. The Chilean government, seeking to populate Patagonia, offered ideal conditions to Swiss colonizers.[1] They were offered a free journey and the option to acquire many hectares of land at low prices. At the beginning of the 1900´s when Alberto Baeriswyl Pittet, an industrial pioneer came of age he set about exploiting the densely forested wilderness of the southern east cost of Tierra del Fuego. The large territory Alberto occupied was formerly inhabited[2] by native communities (Selk'man, Kawesqar and Yamanas) who were cruelly displaced and broken up by the country's redevelopment and colonizing plan implemented by the Chilean state and the religious missions. The remote place where he would build his house, is a small bay at the east riviera of Tierra del Fuego in front of the Whiteside Channel from Magellan Straight, it would later name and become a little village, founded by Alberto around 115 years ago as Puerto Yartou´s Timber Factory with a complex of sawmill factories, timber mill and farms. Today, apart from the restored administration house, only traces of this industry remain. The primary material for building houses was wood, most of which has slowly been eroded by strong winds over time. All that remains, like a skeleton of a large mammal, are heavy metal pieces laying on ground, too weighty for the winds to carry away.

Alberto's house, as I mentioned, is located in a kind of limbo between the sea and the forest, and, if thought of in a more symbolic way, between water and fire. These two elements are crucial in Puerto Yartou; they are the key elements that made me realize how much we depend on nature. Water is pumped from a river twice a day and collected in a large capacity container, then transported and distributed by the water system through the house. Wood is a ubiquitous local obsession: it must be perpetually chopped, stored and burned. This natural resource and its transformative process reminds me of didactic visual diagrams from my primary school biology lessons. These illustrations explained in a very simplified way the well-known food pyramid and the combustion of energy in the form of Kcal in the human body. In the house, where the only way to heat food is a wood stove, I picture myself a closed circuit: the human energy used to cut and carry the wood is directly proportional to the energy released by the fire (wood combustion).

During my stay on the fifty-fourth latitude, living in Alberto's house was like stepping into his past. The house was first built in a primitive way around 1906 and enlarged around 1920. Only in 2010 was it subjected to a patrimonial restoration, which rescued aspects of its original construction and tried to replicate its 1945 interior design. The interior restoration followed an inventory made at the time that was kept in the family archives. Today, only the infrastructure and some of the wallpapers are original. Slipping from one room to another, the walls exude a smell reminiscent of spaces that have been closed for too long, overlaid with burnt wood and humid tapestry. When the front door is fully open, a little gust of wind enters, bringing with it the scent of the sea. Just a few meters away, it licks the shore and brings with it creatures. Motionless small crabs hiding in their homes, wafer-thin shells eaten away by salt, and garlands of twisted algae. The intertwined giant kelp will wait for another high tide to maybe take it home, or instead dry, blacken, crumble and probably die under the glare of sun.[3]

The huiro (phonetically pronounced weero, easily confused by non-native Spanish speakers with the English expression weirdo), is a seaweed baptized by the Chileans. Its scientific name is Macrocystis pyrifera. Slimy, wrapped in a gelatin membrane from which round blades filled with gas and liquid sprout like tentacles, the huiro leaves behind liquid traces. This morphological plasticity brings to mind the movement of alien creatures in science fiction films. Scientific studies state that giant kelp, with sufficient nutrients, can grow in the order of 15cm a day, almost twice as much as Gremlins. Intrigued, I decided to keep some in a bucket of water to observe this living being more closely. The water, day after day, was absorbed by the critter and became more and more thick and viscous, like a green jelly cake from the 70s. I was not surprised when I learnt that huiros are used for food production. The alginate is extracted and employed for thickening, gelling, and film forming. Another curious aspect is that seaweeds appear prominently in the traditional corpus of local myths and folk-tales, as well in the practice of witchcraft, especially in the island of Chiloé. One story narrates the existence of a magical creature, a seahorse the size of a horse and with the same shape, but with a long snout, fin-like legs and a firm propelling tail, similar to that of a fish. This seahorse has the power to transport witchdoctors, who are the only ones able to see the mythical creatures. Fed on seaweed, this gives them a dark greenish-yellowish tone. After dying, their bodies are transformed into a jelly mass which quickly dissolves in the brackish waters of the sea, thus integrating with other aquatic beings.

Flora is part of the constitution of the cultural landscape, as well as a fundamental contributor to the survival of the earliest humans that inhabited temperate coasts. A traditional practice of the women of the Yaghan people was to use the stalks of huiro for fishing.[4] The seaweed became excellent fishing gear to which hooks were attached with baits made from mussel remains, or leftover sea lion or bird meat. Various types of fish were caught all year round.

Around the blue hour, sitting at the table in Alberto's dining room, I observed the light above the sea. A strange experience: colours and tones never seen before, intense and sharp, oscillating from shiny gold to blue. While the light was shimmering, my finger traced the carvings of the table. I realized that I was drawing plants, following long twisted stems, petals, flowers and maybe even huiros. With my fingers stuck in a notch too small for my ring finger, I kept thinking that that table could have been manufactured from colonized wood, perhaps cut and carved from a tree from the local area. Why are ornamental motifs of nature carved into wood? The process is a bit twisted. The wood is taken from its habitat, industrialized, processed, placed in a completely foreign environment and then a ‘natural touch’ is added. Can we interpret this gesture as a restitution to nature? I don’t think so. But with my finger stuck, I started to reflect on these two elements: living nature (non-human) and dead nature (human). I shifted my focus on huiro as the embodiment of living nature and the furniture of the house as the embodiment of dead nature. They became the two main protagonist of my video project.

Inspired by science fiction narratives, I filmed sequences of still shots inside, focusing on capturing the atmosphere of the house characterized by various tapestries and dark wood furniture details: carved floret-framed paneled and inlaid table legs, with columns and sculpted paw feet capable of supporting heavy tabletops. In the video, huiro, the living critter, almost imperceptibly moves as it takes possession of the furniture. It grows, clings to the legs of a table as if he was going to strangle them and reaches for the sideboard, leaving its slobbery traces on the marble support, which gradually becomes darker. The quality of materials, the agglutination of totally dissimilar elements, and the relation among living and the inert, creates a tense and uncanny feeling. In conversation with the neuroscientist Tomás Ossandón, who also participated in the residency, we discussed the behavior of the human brain when encountering the new or unknown.[5] He explained to me that if a bizarre or surprising incident occurs (in this case seeing algae moving outside of its normal habitat) there are two responses at the brain level. The first is an immediate, unconscious response, which is processed in the primitive brain, more precisely in the insula (the Latin word for island), situated in the limbic system.[6] The second response is prediction error. Our brains rely on prediction. If our predictions do not correspond to reality, the brain has to generate a new logical structure very quickly in order to make a set of predictions with the new information available. This event is called a ‘salient experience’, which occurs in this case when an element seems to escape its environment.

I conceived this video to leave a variety of possible readings open, stimulating each brain differently. Those who like to be in control may feel disoriented or taken aback. The slimy, wobbly creature is hard to grasp, to control and to manipulate. This metaphor of possession acts as reminder of the exploitation of the forest and consequently the environmental impact caused by the Swiss settlers. Others might concentrate on the materiality of house and the seaweed, contemplating the film’s pictorial qualities, reminiscent of the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s still life painting. I personally prefer to offer a reverse colonization, where nature takes over the human.

[1] The Chilean government worked in close relation to Alberto Connus, a Swiss migrant living in Chile, who facilitated the migration agreement between Switzerland and Chile.

[2] This is the specific case of Puerto Yartou. It is important to note that at the same time, some native communities were still living in the hinterland.

[3] ‘“Kelp” originally referred to the calcined ashes resulting from burning large brown algae (…)’, Schiel, David R. & Foster, Michael S., The biology and ecology of giant kelp forest, Oakland: University of California press, 2015

[4] The Yaghan are one of the indigenous peoples who are regarded as the southernmost peoples in the world. They were traditionally nomads and hunter-gatherers and travelled by canoes between islands to collect food.

[5] Tomás Ossandón holds a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Lyon, France in the Faculty of Medicine. His main areas of interest are the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory, and neuropsychiatric conditions.

[6] The limbic system is known to influence the endocrine system (hormone-secreting organs).

Developed in the context of the CAB Art, Science and Humanities Residency Program, 2021 edition "Consciousness". In collaboration with the scientific advisor of the programme Dr.Tomás Ossandón and Dr. Pamela Santibañez. Also collaborate Dr. Erasmo Macaya Horta and Dr. Jaime Ojeda Villarroel.

This contribution is a collaboration between CAB Patagonia (Casa Museo Alberto Baeriswyl) and DNC. CAB residency programme is supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia Southamerica.