Music occupies the longest period of time in the history of computer creation. Starting in 1987 as the category for Computer Music, this category has changed in keeping with digital development. It now distinguishes contemporary digital sound production from the broad spectrum of electronically generated music, works combining sound, media and music, digital compositions ranging from electro-acoustic to experimental, and sound installations.
The Golden Nica in the category “Digital Musics & Sound Art” went to the collective Atractor + Semántica Productions, for their project A Tale of Two Seeds: Sound and Silence in Latin America’s Andean Plains. A Tale of Two Seeds uses data collection technologies, recording, and sonification to create an acoustic case study of agricultural soils in Colombia. The work reflects the social engagement and activism exhibited by many artists*, particularly in countries with significant economic and social inequalities. In this interview with artist Juan Cortes, we learn more about the motivation behind the project and why Amaranth is considered a symbol of resistance.
What motivated you to undertake a sound study and sonic interrogation of the case of soy monoculture and its impact on Latin American crop eco-acoustic soundscapes?
Juan Cortes: A few years ago, I stumbled upon my father’s studies from 1995 on soil studies in Latin America. He challenged the prevailing notion of importing transgenic tomatoes, advocating for a focus on endemic plants and specific production models for our region. During this time, I also noticed a surge in land purchases in the Eastern Plains of Colombia, an area my father had studied in 1978. He explained that small farmers had initially transformed the region using indigenous Chagra models and endemic crops. Public-private institutes like Agrosavia promoted good cultivation practices, emphasizing rotational crops and understanding weeds as beneficial to soil health.
Unfortunately, local models and responsible practices have been overshadowed by market demands and multinational monopolies. Foreign land purchases and the use of unauthorized transgenic seeds have dominated the region, forcing small and intermediate farmers into problematic monoculture systems. This colonization of agro-industry neglects genetic diversity and technical plurality, leading to an increase in uncontrollable weeds. We need a new alliance that values both genetic diversity and technological innovation. To understand the extent of change and loss of biological diversity, we propose a bioacoustic approach that utilizes sound to explore the transformed soundscapes of these territories. This research aims to shed light on the situation in Colombia and its potential replication elsewhere.
Can you explain the significance of amaranth and its historical role in the lives of indigenous peoples, and how this contrasts with its classification as a parasite in the context of soy monoculture?
Juan Cortes: Amaranth, a historically significant food for indigenous communities in the Americas, has faced colonization processes. During the Spanish conquest, it was forbidden due to its association with heretical rituals. Amaranth held cultural and symbolic significance for the Aztecs and ancient Greeks, representing strength, eternal life, and immortality. However, despite its nutritional value and cultural roots, amaranth has been marginalized by the market and production systems that prioritize crops with little regard for improving nutrition or environmental sustainability. The labeling of these plants as weeds that must be eradicated is a myth that needs to be challenged. This situation represents a powerful form of techno-colonialism in the tropics, where multinational corporations promote progress without reflection, and governments adopt these ideologies. We look to amaranth as a symbol of resistance and a path to the technodiversity we desperately need.
In what ways does this project shed light on the resistance to modern forms of colonialism, such as genetic engineering, seed privatization, and the challenges to land sovereignty, particularly in the context of Latin America’s Andean Plains?
Juan Cortes: To reflect on the issue of technology in Colombia, we must examine similar situations in other countries. In India, alliances between the government and tech multinationals like Amazon and Microsoft have caused significant distress among small farmers, leading to protests and casualties. This expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops integrates all agricultural information into AI-controlled databases, managed by big tech companies.
In this geopolitical context, the tropics face questions. Historically, we have been resource extraction hubs without sustainable economies. Now, our genetic wealth and diversity are at risk due to GM crops, genetic patents, and dependence on agrochemicals. Fair competition becomes impossible when a few multinationals control resources for agrochemical synthesis, prioritizing their own profit over our agro-food sovereignty. The research also challenges our perception of weeds in agriculture. Amaranth exemplifies that if nutritional value does not dictate prices, market interests prevail over the common goal of well-fed societies.
Moreover, the research uncovers the paradoxical history of agricultural production models. While industrial monocultures replaced indigenous polyculture, institutions like Agrosavia aim to revive indigenous models to restore eroded soils. This highlights lost opportunities and inter-species alliances proposed by indigenous peoples and farmers. As creators critically reflecting on technical processes, we must understand the importance of the symbolic in addressing local and global problems. Amid the Ars Electrónica Festival, we appreciate your interest in this project and our endeavor to reclaim lost possibilities from history.
Could you elaborate on the technologies and data capture methods you employed to document the changes in Colombian agricultural soils before, during, and after soybean expansion in the eastern plains region?
Juan Cortes: In our research on Colombian agricultural soils and soybean expansion in the eastern plains region, we employ various techniques to analyze soil-plant interactions. We utilize field sound recordings and contact microphone and plant recordings to capture ambient sounds and acoustic signals emitted by the microcosm of soil and plants. These recorded sounds reveal stress signals and communication patterns in response to soybean expansion.
To expand our research, we plan to explore ultrasonic detectors and ground penetrating radar (GPR). Ultrasonic detectors can capture plant vascular system rhythms, providing insights into physiological changes and adaptations. GPR technology offers non-invasive soil probing to understand its composition and relationship with plant growth, revealing the impact of soybean expansion on the ecosystem. By integrating these techniques with established methods, we aim to deepen our understanding of soil-plant relationships and the effects of soybean expansion on our land.
Juan Cortes is an audiovisual artist and lecturer in Art and Audiovisual Media, he works in the areas of research and interdisciplinary processes. He is especially interested in the connections between art, science, and educational processes. His projects, inspired by sound and the forces of nature, have been exhibited in galleries and at film festivals and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA), the Bilbao Exhibition Centre, and Creative Tech Week in New York. He was also awarded the Eighth Bogotá Prize for Alternative Art Spaces. He is cofounder and curator of the RADAR Video Art Festival and the SATELLITE Festival of Sound Art, and regularly works with the Hyphen-Hub space for artistic and community creation. In 2016 he received an Honorary Mention in the CERN Collide International Prize, which is awarded as part of CERN’s art and science programme, Art at CERN, as well as being awarded the prestigious PRAC Prize by the Ministry of Culture of Colombia.