'Anti-documentary trilogy' at MOCA Tucson explores connection between water & colonialism

Every summer, the start of hurricane season is rightfully feared by nations bordering the Caribbean. A bad storm can break societies, as hunger, sickness and death set in after the winds and waters calm down.

At the same time, the moisture that comes from the storms that pass by Texas and into the Southwestern United States fuel the monsoons that preserve Arizona’s arid and vulnerable desert ecosystem.

The rhythms of water, then, connect the Caribbean and the Southwestern United States, and determine the future of both societies.

Spanish,and then United States colonization is a second factor that unites these regions. It shapes how water affects a society, as resources are extracted for the self-interest and the whims of the powerful at the expense of the native and local populations.

“SIN AGUA,” what artist Sofía Córdova calls an “anti-documentary trilogy,” deftly recognizes this parallel and explores the relation between time, colonialism and water — its absence, significance and excess — in Arizona and in her home, Puerto Rico, after the impact of 2017’s Hurricane María.

“A hunt for water across Time, ways of surviving here,” opens the poem outside the dark room at MOCA Tucson where her films are projected.

The film installation’s title is both Spanish for “without water” and a reference to the the colonial name, Sinagua, given by Spanish conquistadors to the Indigenous groups that built pueblos and cliff dwellings — ancestors to the Tohono O’odham, Yavapai, Zuni, Apache and Hopi — in the Southwest.

But, “no one can live without water,” says Córdova in one of her films, as she walks in Montezuma Castle National Monument. She questions the violent ignorance that led to the naming of indigenous cultures as peoples “without water.”

Through the videos, she explores these “ colonial erasures of Indigenous water systems in Arizona and its reverberations into present day water access” while confronting the onslaught of Hurricane María, the catastrophic category 4 storm that battered Puerto Rico in September 2017.

The films, though, are not as straightforward as the blurb. Instead, the narration meanders, becomes chaotic, loops in itself or simply stops, much like water itself. The videos are composed of photographs, zoom interviews, shots of the landscape and animals, with her narration holding it all together. Switching between the three screens — and title cards — suggest division and chronology.

“Even with — because — of the memory gaps this is then a diary with the revisions,” she narrates.

What follows is the artist’s journey through Arizona’s museums, parks, cities and Indigenous pueblos. In these places, she often records water’s presence where it shouldn’t naturally be in a desert, such as in sidewalk puddles, decorative fountains, swimming pools and even in the mini-ocean created in the Biosphere 2 lab by the University of Arizona.

Not limiting herself to water, she explores the animals and people who depend upon it. For example, in a museum, she inspects stuffed birds, lizards soaked in formaldehyde and plants that grow around the Salt River.

“Will we notice when they are no longer here? When we can no longer hear their songs?” she asks while handling stuffed birds that could go extinct, evidence of their physical presence only preserved inside boxes.

The lack of any predictable structure in the films emphasizes the exhibition’s goal to break with linear time. Indeed, it opens with a speech by a Native woman who points out that colonialism created modernity’s version of time: “The white man worships the god of greed, he invented the alarm clock and is now a slave to it,” the woman says.

Implicit in her criticism, and Córdova’s, is that despite their effort to recreate time to fit with capitalism, water does not easily defer to human desires.

“Aliens to space and time, a space and time not ours,” she muses, as she observes tourists walking in Papago Park in Phoenix.

Although she doesn’t mention it, Puerto Ricans know that time and weather are inherently connected. In Spanish, the word “tiempo” (time) is frequently used to refer to the weather, instead of “clima” (climate). A “temporal” then is a bad storm, usually a hurricane, but it can also mean a short passing of time.

These connections might fly over the head of a monolingual English speaker, because Córdova’s narrations on Puerto Rico and Hurricane María are mostly in Spanish without English subtitles.

Córdova’s refusal to translate signals an ambivalence on connecting with a wider American audience. To a Puerto Rican — or someone familiar with the island’s colonial situation — it might feel like a secret shared between the filmmaker and those in the audience who understand her references to time, weather and the hurricane.

“All time is one, the hurricane is coming,” she says as desiccated animals and snakes from the desert cut to a National Weather Service hurricane track prediction. Those that have lived with hurricanes know that everything in nature grinds to a halt and it is all unnaturally still as animals seek refuge and people prepare, terrified. Time appears to stretch endlessly as everyone waits for the storm to hit.

Sofía Córdova is not only a filmmaker, she’s an accomplished dancer and performer. The films are punctuated by dances in the natural landscapes that Córdova is searching for water.

Her grief and disappointment at how colonialism has ransacked the landscape is channeled into her body for a cathartic release. In “Dance for the Rattlesnake”, she superimposes herself on top of three rocks, creating a ghostly mirage in the desert. The boundaries between the natural and the personal are eroded in her movements, as she perhaps finds a way to heal and connection to the desert’s alien time.