Entrevista 05.09.2022

“The river must be understood not only as a natural entity, but also as a social, cultural, and political element”

Alejandro Alonso Díaz and Sören Meschede interview.

Since April this year, Concomitentes mediators Sören Meschede and Alejandro Alonso Díaz have been working with the community of citizen-commissioners in Llanos, Cantabria. Together, they’ve reflected on “the historical interactions between humans and water” and worked towards creating a shared space in which to come together around the river and its relationship to the environment, local traditions, and the social fabric that creates and sustains bonds in this rural area. In this interview, the two mediators talk about the early stages of the project, the context in which it arose, and the key aspect of its methodology to activate listening, participation, and exchange, which will shape the eventual commission of an artwork.

Concomitentes: Please introduce yourselves.

Sören Meschede: I’m a mediator with Concomitentes and a resident of Cantabria. I’ve been living in a village near LLanos in the Pasiegos Valleys for the last three years.

Alejandro Alonso Díaz: I’m a mediator with the Aguas Vivas Concomitancia and director of fluent, a contemporary art organisation that, in this case, contextualises and situates the project in the territory.

C: How did this project come about?

AAD: It reflects certain interests—that Sören and I share—in applying the Concomitentes methodology to a rural area, in order to explore the complexities and specificities that affect these kinds of territories. The various crises that have been taking place are reflected in the village and the community that dwells in it: a diverse population that is inseparable from the natural ecosystems and the socio-cultural heritage of the area.

C: Why did you decide to do this project here?

SM: We were looking for a committed, interested community. The number of participants has varied over time, but it has come together as a stable working group that is the core of this whole process. That’s how we decided to work with this village in Cantabria.

C: What motive or desire are you working with in this group?

AAD: Over the past few months, we’ve been brainstorming “desires and possibilities” that we could implement and bring to life through the commission. One of these desires was to generate a space to enable and encourage people to come together. Another recurring desire was to work with the environment. Finally, they converged in the idea of merging the two through the relationship with the river.

SM: In this sense, we and the citizen-commissioners are interested in working with the natural heritage, with the river and the surrounding area. The natural surroundings, but also the intangible cultural heritage such as customs and traditions, the new and forgotten uses of the river. The work will probably oscillate between the social and the environmental, and its concrete form will depend on the artists we invite.

AAD: We think of the river as the watercourse or channel that connects and passes through the Pasiegos Valleys, joining other rivers and tributaries and generating a network that flows between rural and urban areas. On a symbolic level—but also in practical terms—it means working with a mechanism that is already talking about commonality and its challenges, about a space that connects people, and about its fragility. In this sense, the river must be understood not only as a natural entity, but also as a social, cultural, and even political element, because of all the decision-making involved in generating infrastructures around it, or modifying its course, its uses and dynamics.

C: The issue of drought and water resource management is very topical at the moment…

SM: Yes, we’re going through a record dry summer, so the subject has taken on a very interesting centrality in the Cantabrian environment. There has always been abundant water here, but now it’s turning out to be a scarce resource that needs to be looked after.

AAD: This scarcity is also drawing our attention to the wealth of traditions and knowledge linked to the river itself, and also to everything that exists around it: the natural springs and fountains, as well as associated infrastructure such as bridges, damns, mills…

SM: Popular traditions...

AAD: Customs and traditions, which come with the working group, because they’re a fundamental part of its identity. Some of the members of the citizens’ group are from older generations, and they contribute to the debate on the uses of the river by talking about its changing role in society at different times in history.

C: How was this commission—or this desire that will now be worked on—chosen?

SM: We worked with debate and discussion groups that were held weekly between April and July, at 8pm every Wednesday. After these meetings and the slow process of defining what the various possibilities that had been put on the table would entail, a popular vote was organised on 26 June. It was open to everyone in the village, and the village chose the option of working with the river.

C: Where does the name of the project come from?

AAD: The name Aguas Vivas—literally “living waters”—came up informally during the sessions with the working group. It echoes, albeit unintentionally, the title of a novel by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva (sometimes translated as Stream of Life). Like the Llanos community, in this book Lispector tried to capture a sense of vitality. In our case, we want to define a space in which that vitality can be experienced.

C: What role does listening play in all of this?

AAD: We’ve come this far through an exercise in collective listening between all the people in the working group and the community. Now we have to think about opening up to other forms of listening in order to come to a deep understanding of the river, accepting that it too has a voice in this process. We must be attuned to its needs and times, to its presence and absences, and how it changes throughout the year.

C: What’s it been like to try to find common ground in a large and diverse community?

AAD: It has been wonderful to generate mutual understanding between the individual viewpoints and desires of each person in the group. There was a difficult moment that’s hard to pin down, when these individual preferences gradually gave way to a collective vision that springs from a slow process of negotiation. The initial partial subjectivity has gradually made room for a group perspective and sensibility.

SM: A key factor in this collective sensibility has been the perspective of the older women in the group, who emphasised the need for social or collective spaces, and included the river as one of these spaces. We’re now at a point where we must reclaim the river as a space for the community, recognising and respecting its value.

C: So what happens next?

SM: From September, we’re continuing a series of work residencies in which we will invite several artists to dialogue and create with the working group. We hope that this will give rise to the definitive project that we hope to launch in early 2024.