Image: ‘Observing Extraction’. Photograph of Xavier Ribas and Ignacio Acosta at work, which gives a glimpse of the scale of lithium mining (photo: Louise Purbrick)

by Louise Purbrick

Frozen Future is the shortened title of Solid Water, Frozen Time, Future Justice, a three-year UK Arts and Humanities Research funded project devoted to documenting extractivism in the Andean Glaciers and the Salar de Atacama. Its researchers, Ignacio Acosta, Xavier Ribas and myself have been working together for ten years. Frozen Future is their second large scale project and is an extension of their collective work in Traces of Nitrate.Both projects experiment with the spatial and temporal collisions that can be created by photography to expose the global relationships, legacies and inequalities of capitalism, colonialism and extractivism. The historical and colonial relation we continue to explore is that between Chile and Britain; nineteenth-century London and Liverpool merchant houses controlled the trade in natural sodium nitrate, desired as a quickening fertilizer for industrialising agriculture and as an explosive propellant for industrialising war, and established the neoliberal model of extraction that is evident in the substances that we are currently documenting: copper and lithium. Mining for all these materials has reshaped the living spaces of earthly landscapes and altered the course of waterways.

The global struggle over water distribution is particularly acute in Chile where water was privatised in 1981 under General Pinochet’s dictatorship and became a commodity detached from land rights. Mining corporations have become the ‘New Conquistadors’ that sequestrate vast volumes of water: evaporating fossil water in vast lithium pools, diverting glacial waters for copper mining operations, contaminating them and creating tailings ponds, confiscating water from natural cycles.

The power of global corporations that shape the economic patterns of everyday life often appear invincible but, in Chile, once the testing ground for US monetarism, is re-writing its constitution to become law through the government of youthful socialist President Gabriel Boric. Both local control of natural resources and rights of nature have become constitutional issues. Frozen Future researchers completed three months of fieldwork in Chile earlier this year during this interesting time of political transformation. We documented three key sites of extractivism: the Juncal Glacier in the central Andes undermined by copper extraction, then followed the changing conditions of its waters through the Aconcagua Valley before locating ourselves in the Salar de Atacama, its unique ecology transformed by lithium extraction and processing.

The liveliness of water and earth is recognised in forms of indigenous knowledge and through theories of political ecology that have de-centred the human subject. Both question the separation of humans and environment to offer a perception of agency as distributed. Our project considers how arts methodologies can represent the life and the systems of water. We document using ariel and ‘submerged’ perspectives and use still photography as a form of enquiry rather than objectification. We are also experimenting with sound recording. Most importantly, we are collaborating with artists and activists immediately affected by mining operations.

Image of action we recently undertook in East London, “Desierto Herido in Silvertown” (photo: Xavier Ribas).

Frozen Future has already undertaken a simultaneous transnational action with Laboratorio de Artes Gráficas del Desierto de Atacama. On Sunday 12 June 2022, we installed Laboratorio de Artes Gráficas del Desierto de Atacama’s texile artwork DESIERTO HERIDO (see image above), which translates as Wounded Desert, in the docklands of East London, close to Silvertown. Silvertown has been connected to the Atacama for over a hundred years. Sodium nitrate from the north of Chile was processed as TNT at Silvertown during the First World War until the terrible explosion of 1917. DESIERTO HERIDO is an expression of the effects of extractivism in the Atacama. Laboratorio de Artes Gráficas del Desierto de Atacama also created a new textile work, SCORTCHED EARTH, to coincide with our action. SCORTCHED EARTH was displayed in the Atacama Desert at the same moment as DESIERTO HERIDO was installed in East London, drawing the separated political economy of accumulation and political ecology of extraction into the same space and time. We are hoping to bring both textiles together later this year, in October. We have Laboratorio de Artes Gráficas del Desierto de Atacama to Brighton and London and look forward to discussions between us and with any interested members of the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics.


For more information on our 12 June action @_lagda and @tracesofnitrate on Instagram

For more information of Traces of Nitrate go to and Frozen Future is detailed here