Mapping the Santa Cruz River

In his 2017 book Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, the Italian theorist Franco Berardi identifies four roles that define the contemporary era — the artist, the engineer, the economist, and the designer. He positions the artist and the engineer as the two poles of a spectrum of understanding and intervening in a field of material, energy, and ideas: where the artist searches for meaning as a conjunction, a point of shared resonance for different populations and conditions, the engineer takes a determinative approach to find optimal solutions to a given problem. Yet the economist, he argues, impedes any significant interaction between the artist and the engineer, by altering the conditions under which their work can attain value. The economist uses an artificial financial logic to constrain, on one hand, the artist to the utopian realm of ideas, and on the other, the engineer to a system of maximal production of wealth. As a consequence, neither the artist nor the engineer can truly engage a social context in their work.

Parallel to these roles, the designer emerges as a key figure, although the one that remains the most enigmatic. Berardi observes that the designer is the only truly interdisciplinary practitioner, one who can operate in a double way. The designer simultaneously produces an artefact for a given understanding of the world and establishes the very understanding of the world in which that artefact is contextualised. On the last page of Futurability, Berardi claims: "Design is not only the art of designing an object in such a way that people can handle it properly and easily, but the projection of an object onto the broad prospect of historical and cultural evolution." This duality of processes and effects creates a unique opportunity for critical material practice. Through this approach, the designer's work reflects a contemporary condition and operates within it, but can also influence that condition through cultural commentary, memory, and speculation.

These multiple perspectives are essential elements of the work of Alexandra Kehayoglou, which responds to current-day environmental transformations in her surrounding context (from local phenomena in Buenos Aires to transnational South American projects) through the medium of carpet-making. Her practice, in itself, is emblematic of global migration and cross-cultural intertwining. On one hand, it is informed by a family tradition of handicraft, which her grandparents brought with them to Argentina from their home in Isparta, central Turkey. On the other hand, it is an independent mediation between the worlds of art and design, revolving around the central narrative of the Argentinean landscape in which she was born and raised.

Argentina is an extremely rich country — rich in territory, rich in resources, rich in agriculture and livestock — but one in which the financial profitability of the terrain has resulted in massive intervention by its inhabitants for at least 500 years, to devastating cumulative effect. Its emblematic cattle industry, for instance, was founded in the 16th century with the introduction of cows by European colonisers. While the native biome of pastizales, or grasslands, proved enormously hospitable to these new species and their rapid reproduction, it was nevertheless subject to aesthetic refashioning in the image of Europe with foreign trees. Even today, with a cattle inventory of more than 50 million, the national agriculture is not geared towards feeding the local human or animal population but to the production of soy for export.

Ten years ago, Kehayoglou made her first experiments with carpets in reference to the typical cow-hide floor coverings used in Argentina, but made in tufted wool rather animal skin. Since then, her creative context broadened from the cultivation of animals to the modification of the environment in which they live. In particular, her focus has gravitated towards landscapes that are rapidly disappearing, and her creative practice can be seen as an attempt to record their narrative as a reaction to their physical devastation. With her 2016 project No Longer Creek, she further developed her technique from a metaphorical evocation to a critical mapping of the territory, using geographic and ecological research to achieve a precise correspondence between the work and the territory.

In projects like No Longer Creek, Kehayoglou also co-opts the mechanisms of the design field in order to amplify the efforts of small groups of environmental activists, largely ignored by the mainstream press and by the government in Argentina. By bringing the experience of a small creek near her studio in Vicente López, Buenos Aires, to highly mediatised design events around the world, she appeals to a common unconscious among international audiences. Although viewers in other continents may not know the specific details of a given site, they can still perceive the fragility of such ecosystems, which have survived improbably in symbiosis with their surrounding human population despite increasing urbanisation, extraction, and waste production. The work fuses didactic, conceptual, aesthetic, and sensorial processes to embed the viewer within a real place, rendered in all of its ecological, political, social, and emotional complexity.

Santa Cruz River follows a similar logic as Kehayoglou's previous work, but at a much greater scale. The project investigates the ongoing efforts by a consortium of Chinese and Argentinean companies, supported by the Argentinean government and backed by Chinese banks, to construct two hydroelectric dams in the Santa Cruz River. Descending eastwards from the glacial lakes of the Patagonian Ice Fields to the Atlantic Ocean, the river is extremely significant for the protection of the existing glaciers, biodiversity, and water salinity of the delta. The dams, however, would flood more than 400 square kilometres (twice the size of the city of Buenos Aires) of grassy plateaux, destabilising the natural ecology. The flooding would also obscure a fossil record dating back more than 120 million years, as well as the archaeological remains of the indigenous Aónikenk or Tehuelche community (whose ancestors also created the famous Cueva de las Manos along the Pinturas River, 350 kilometres to the north of Santa Cruz River).

As a design investigation, Santa Cruz River has greatly expanded the studio's practice in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration and depth of engagement with the site. In April 2017, Kehayoglou and three members of her studio joined a group of biologists, engineers, artists, and activists to kayak down the length of the river over the course of seven days. The trip produced the visual documentation necessary to support the creation of the carpet, but it also represents an evolving sense of design that encompasses collaboration, embedded and embodied research, and an enduring commitment to a highly politicised but deeply under-reported subject. Indeed, the development of the carpet has been conducted in parallel with close monitoring of the planning process of the dams: although the construction was suspended by Argentina's Supreme Court in January 2017, a government-sponsored environmental impact study released in July defended the sustainability of the infrastructural works, making official approval more likely.

Despite the enormity of the dams, the studio's approach to Santa Cruz River demonstrates the need for precise tactics and positions within design, even as the discipline broadens in scope. While the project team includes the activist Sofia Nemenmann, Kehayoglou is careful to define herself as an artist and designer, not a political activist as such. This role implies a specific set of responsibilities in which the exploration of the traditions, craft, and expressive power of carpet-making is paramount. Furthermore, carpets also have experiential and functional qualities that draw the designer into a direct relationship with the eventual user or owner. The project must therefore strike a delicate equilibrium between these disparate concerns, including the need to keep the medium in gradual evolution in an unpredictable and changing world.

While Kehayoglou's works are experimental in their composition and technical production, they nevertheless belong to a continuous lineage of carpets that have told the stories of gardens for millennia. The carpets made by her ancestors featured the pink and red roses they grew in Turkey, and natural and cultivated landscapes have been mythologised in miniature throughout the entire "Rug Belt" (stretching from Central and South Asia into the Middle East and North Africa). Unlike planted ground, these carpets could be easily transported, carrying their narratives to foreign destinations and outliving the gardens they depict if treated carefully. Through this ability, carpets have always offered their makers a rich palette of scalar shifts and dualities to encode multiple narratives. The only real difference in her contemporary practice, according to Kehayoglou, is that the landscapes she selects are disappearing more rapidly and violently.

What has changed more drastically, perhaps, is the logistics of the design and art worlds in which speculative and specially-commissioned projects are displayed. Whereas carpets were historically encountered in domestic settings, Kehayoglou's work is more often seen in museums, biennials, and even fashion runways. While the museum environment can open up the work to larger publics, its past relationship with applied art or folk craft has been conflicted. As an institution, it has often marginalised anonymously or collectively authored works, crafts made predominantly by women, and artefacts that intertwined functionality and artistic value too closely. On the other hand, museums tend to privilege the outliers of craft production — the works that are avant-garde, overtly aestheticised, and unusually laborious. For Kehayoglou, the opportunity to make larger carpets means that she can weave landscape narratives of greater complexity, as well as create more immersive environments for the viewer. But she resists the art world's demand for works that are more spectacular or sculptural for their own sake. The maintenance of the flat ground plane is an important feature in her carpets, tying into the traditional use of the carpet as a space of social gathering and comfort rather than an object of contemplation.

To that end, Kehayoglou anticipates a variety of ways in which viewers perceive, inhabit, and read her carpets. The carpet must first invite the viewer to enter it, and through its materiality and details it must spark an unconscious curiosity to pursue the narrative of the unique site. The selection, dying, and technical manipulation of yarn create a testimony to the incredible range of biomes, species, and natural textures along the river, from intricately grooved ice sheets and pebble-strewn fields to blooms of moss, grassy clusters, and bushes. In all probability, the vast majority of those who see Santa Cruz River will not be familiar with the place it denotes; only a tiny group of indigenous people and visitors with scientific or political motivations have even seen the river in person. Yet Kehayoglou's carpets intensify the experience of such precarious landscapes, and may inspire viewers to value and actively protect similar natural conditions in their immediate vicinity. From her perspective, historically-informed yet experimental handicraft, performed in a collective setting, is essential to the passage of the river's narrative in a way that turns passive observers into active participants.

For the contemporary designer or artist, the question of agency has become paramount at a critical moment in time — at a fulcrum in which the mechanisms of industry, global capital, and information are rapidly shifting the balance of power. The act of design is unavoidably implicated in a world of commercial production, in which incessant demand for material and energy, catering to the desires of a growing world population, is a significant contributor to the transformation of climates and landscapes all over the world. But today's creative practitioner also has the potential to be a cultural commentator, using the tools of art and design to propose alternatives to the dominant system of maximal wealth extraction, which ignores all unquantifiable consequences. In particular, critical design has emerged in the past decade as a method of confronting possible (and often dystopian) futures through fictions, prop-making, performance, and other speculative techniques.

Kehayoglou's work takes advantage of these possibilities in several ways. Her personal background shows that cross-cultural exchange need not be exploitative, as in the case of foreign investments in the Santa Cruz River dams: in contrast, the Argentinean landscape has proved to be a source of deep inspiration and engagement for a carpet-making practice passed down by Greek ancestors from Turkey. Her work not only reflects a contemporary crisis but also anticipates increased infrastructural intervention into the Argentinean landscape — especially by foreign concerns — given the availability of minerals, land, and drinkable water and the willingness of the national government, thus far, to commodify those resources. Santa Cruz River is an argument for design as a radical and collective activity, one that encourages its users to develop new ways of understanding and relating to their local and global habitat.