The Pyramid Used to Be a Mountain
How to find yourself in the history written by others? How to trace what is known to have existed but is not documented? And perhaps most importantly, how to imagine a future that comes from the past and makes possible alternative models of socialization and territoriality? Colonialism is a deep wound still in the process of development that affects those who suffer the consequences of its perverse mercantile adventure every day in their flesh. It is not enough to ask for forgiveness, or to recognize civil rights, the process needs to be profound and most importantly real. A paradigm shift is needed to allow for the coexistence of different ways of understanding el territorio beyond private property, and to contemplate the State beyond an institutional and sovereign political organization.
Opening the vaults of the archive offers a point of entry to the ongoing experience of colonialism, revealing the voids and silences hidden underneath their carefully crafted network of decontextualized documents. But only regression and recomposition are not enough; the archive as an institution also needs to be questioned as does any mechanism of control and power. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay points out in her book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019), archival technologies are not neutral tools, they are the theoretical basis of the State that legitimizes official history by isolating the present from the past, history, and politics. In order to act, it is necessary to reconfigure and sharpen the spatial and material sensitivity to glimpse the residual violence and let ancestrality emerge. The objects from another time contain the epistemologies to which they belong; landscapes are silent witnesses to the crimes of the past, and the body bears the horrors of another time.
Colectivo los Ingrávidos is an audiovisual collective from Tehuacán founded in 2012 during an intense moment of protests in opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. They started directly reporting during the mass demonstrations against the Mexican government through an anonymous YouTube channel. Working collaboratively was a necessity—Mexico together with Haiti are the deadliest countries in the world for journalists according to Reporters Without Borders—but also a political decision aligned with the collective authorship as viewed by the Third Cinema movement in Latin America. From the beginning Colectivo los Ingrávidos has always been concerned with how history is written and how images and sounds are used to serve the logic of the government. To confront the use of cinema by the state as a technology of ideology and control, the collective’s members have often found themselves filming during protests or reactivating archival materials in their work. Their cinema delves into the technologies of history and representation with particular attention to the continuity of colonial extraction processes, including museums, television, and archives. But most importantly they have developed an understanding of cinema as a ritual process that links the ancestral with the material. Their living cinematographic practice, nurtured by the collective spirit of the American avant-garde, is a form of aesthetic resistance that captures the emergency, spontaneity, and energy of direct political action as spaces that are both lived and conceptual. They combine the militant spirit of third cinema with structuralist experimental film practices and their own ancestral epistemology. The result is a radical filmmaking invested in the cinematic apparatus and its possibilities within their own cultural context. They deal directly with the institution of the archive and by doing so they also offer their own alternative understanding of what an archive can be.
In their film Transmisión/Archivo de Indias (2014) they include images of the Sevillian archive that protects the documents, maps, and objects from the time of the Spanish invasion, as well as portraits of the conquerors, without recording anything about the cultural, demographic, and natural devastation that resulted. The film speaks directly of the environmental terror of the archive. Instead of focusing on the documents, the camera observes the space through fisheye lenses, creating a claustrophobic sense of anxiety [Fig. 1]. The soundtrack is an increasingly accelerated breathing that feels asphyxiated by the horror of the packaging and the consequences of the barbarity of the conquest. The space of the archive is itself the source of a kind of terror, the spatial anguish of what colonial extraction implies: an archive of barbarism.
Pirámide erosionada (2019) is a radically different way of thinking about archives and documents if we compare it with the Sevillian archive of the conquest. The film documents a Mesoamerican settlement in the region of La Cañada, a pyramid. The camera rapidly navigates the landscape capturing glimpses of its different textures. It maneuvers through the grass, looks at the corn plants from below, and places itself at ground level to see up close the rocks, the sand, and the soil [Fig. 2]. These images flicker nervously on the screen at the rhythm of a drum jazz improvisational soundtrack by percussionist Gustavo Nandayapa. Instead of focusing on the archeological and the forensic aspects of the ruin, the camera develops an animistic relationship with the environment, capturing the emotional powers that are still present in the site. The film in itself is a ritual that induces a filmic trance through a landscape that exists in a space between two worlds: “a hypnotic landscape that it is also a gaze or point of view of the stones, the minerals, the moss, the water, the river …, erasing and dissolving [the pyramid’s] defined forms and giving it another kind of life, another psychic rhythm, thus producing a horizontalization of the pyramid, allowing us to perceive how [it] used to be a mountain” (Escobar López and Colectivo los Ingrávidos, 2020). The powerful music and the treatment of the images as a political force with multiple layers makes it impossible to see Pirámide erosionada as a documentary about the Mesoamerican ruins in La Cañada. Instead, this film needs to be understood as a ritual that takes a leap at the moment of the semiotic collision of the so-called “conquest,” counteracting the violence of that moment with the recovery of ancestral practices through cinema. The film proposes a double-cinematic and colonial-ritualistic trance that deals with 500 years of irreconcilable excess. I argue that the film experience of the ruin proposed by Ingrávidos “accidentally” becomes a living archive that provides space for the ancestral. By connecting the forensic and the empirical with the spiritual, the shamanic, and the poetic the collective propose a new concept of archive outside western epistemology.
The Los Ingrávidos trilogy made in 2017 that speaks about gendered violence against women in Mexico also becomes a living archive that connects the current Mexican femicides to larger cultural formations. Each film is told from a different perspective: ¿Has Visto? from the point of view of the mothers, Sangre Seca from the daughters, and Coyolxauhqui from the disappeared victims. While Coyolxauhqui uses landscape and objects, the other two films use footage from protests in a public space. ¿Has Visto? shows the Mexican Mothers March that takes place annually on May 10th to protest the disappearances of civilians, and Sangre Seca the protests from International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2017. All three are filmed with expired film stock, which produces the washed-out colors in ¿Has Visto? and Coyolxauhqui and the characteristic pinkish tone of color fading, combined with a degraded flaky surface of the 1959 Kodachrome used for Sangre Seca. Working with obsolete stock at a practical level speaks directly to the scarce access to film stock in Mexico while also allowing them to play with the question of the indexicality of the photographed image. By registering the protests on film, Ingrávidos transforms them into something tangible, empirical, which could be considered part of an official archive. Colectivo los Ingrávidos is also invested in using the capacity of the film to determine the experience of the image as an entity in itself, performed in the audience’s space. Flares, fade-outs at the beginning and the end of the reels, grain, and other qualities become intrinsic parts and evidence of the film as object. The surface of the screen and the materiality of film are as important as the images and the sound. The apparatus becomes a central element that works in relation to the image instead of being a simple carrier of images. Los Ingrávidos are invested in making the viewer aware of the medium, proposing a radical empiricism in which perception and knowledge are not necessarily the same thing. Form is content and content is form. The films of this trilogy are more than a straight documentation of the protests or the space where the murders take place. The femicides are not a question of particular moments, what is at stake is the intervals between moments in time, which connect all the actions as part of larger cultural formations.
In Sangre Seca, three different temporalities collapse: the eroded celluloid is the present tense of the audience; the images are from the March 8th protests from 2017 [Fig. 3]; and in the soundtrack, the poem Oscuro, written and read in 2012 by María Rivera, documents the violent repression of female protestors carried out by the police in San Salvador Atenco (2006). Rivera’s “poesía documental” records experiential accounts of personal history. Her poetry is not an aestheticized use of language, rather a direct and sincere intervention that proposes a living archive that registers concrete situations, like the attacks in Atenco, which are denied by the government or purposefully obscured or erased. Rivera’s poetry describes the reality of what happened while simultaneously denouncing the official discourse. “Poesía documental” provides an alternative form of archiving closer to Cvetotkovich’s (2003) “archive of feelings,” because it is both personal and public. Documentary poems intertwine primary sources with poetry writing, in an attempt to incorporate stories that the mass media tend to ignore. Mark Nowak (2010) describes documentary poetry as “not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose [origins are] along a continuum from the first person auto-ethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency.” Mexican poesía documental is a form of political resistance because it constitutes an archive of erased accounts of social violence.
Coyolxauhqui recasts the dismemberment of the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui by her brother Huitzilopochtli, sun, human sacrifice, and war god. A visual poem about the cyclical nature of traditional myths and rituals, the film begins with colorful cactuses; the animistic camera meanders to the hectic rhythm of an improvised percussion ensemble, capturing blurred snapshots, images of fruits, and vast landscapes [Fig. 4]. Halfway through the film, a zoom of the rising moon with a soundtrack of ghostly female voices alludes to the violent murder of the Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, by her own brother, Huitzilopochtli. The final minutes of the film refer directly to contemporary Mexican femicides—gender-based murders of women—by showing images of sandals scattered around the ground, a pad over a patch of dry branches, underpants creased between stones, and bras hanging from the dry branches of a bush. The film takes place in the deserted area of La Mixteca, where there are numerous textile maquilas—manufacturing assembly plants of duty-free components for exportation. Here, the original femicide of Coyolxauhqui connects with the horrific wave of femicides that began in Ciudad Juárez among young women employed by the maquilas. Each piece of clothing on screen is a sensitive record of the physical presence of what happened in La Cañada. In this way the film becomes a collective archive that combines the empirical—the clothes—with the ancestral—the myth of Coyolxauhqui—and the poetic.
Ingrávidos’ work is a system of afterlives and reincarnations that suggests a broader discourse, one that surpasses the limitations of spatiotemporal coordinates, creating relational images. What happens in Juárez is connected to what happens in Mixteca—and what happened to Coyolxauhqui—because they all take place within patriarchal neoliberal capitalism. Ingrávidos’ expanded understanding of history proposes a cinema without limitations that demolishes its current architecture. A cinema that looks back at the viewers and involves them in a transcendental political visual experience that bridges the ongoing trauma of colonialism. In this way, their cinema stablishes the conditions of an anti-colonial archival practice where forensics are not at the center but rather an additional element that needs to be reexamined and juxtaposed with other forms of knowledge.
Thank you to Davani for her friendship and her trust.
Escobar López, Almudena, and Colectivo los Ingrávidos. 2020. “Shamanic Materialism: Autonomous Forms of Rememberance. Colectivo los Ingrávidos in Conversation with Almudena Escobar López.” Visual Studies Workshop, October 16. Accessed January 23, 2023. https://www.vsw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Colectivo-Los-Ingra%CC%81vidos-in-Conversation-with-Almudena-Escobar-Lo%CC%81pez-English-1.pdf.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.
Nowak, Mark. 2010. “Documentary Poetics.” Poetry Foundation, April 17. Accessed January 3, 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/documentary-poetics.
 For Cvetkovich archival materials contain “repositories of feelings and emotions, which are encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception” (Cvetkovich 2003, 7).
 Writers including Maria Rivera, Javier Sicilia, and Cristina Rivera Garza investigate and document homicidal acts of violence ignored by the Mexican government, such as the femicides from Ciudad Juarez that took place between 2009 and 2010. Theirs is a poetry that allows for public mourning and pain over spectacles of horror.