The Andean Information Age — Oscar Santillán and Alessandra Troncone
by Karina Roman Justo
There are so many things that can be exalted in the name of modern science, but perhaps many more continue to be shadowed in its name. It is precisely this type of Western science that artist Oscar Santillán intends to counterbalance, using his idea of Antimundo (“Anti-world”) wherein “[s]cience, fiction, and indigenous terraforming articulate together a matrix.” According to his website, Antimundo is “a way of identifying or generating realities that do not fit in our current world,” “a critical set of tools for spotting the edges of the world” that “[compel] us to act sensually, to contaminate narratives, to exceed ruling conventions, [and] to participate within intricate ecologies of selves.” Among the diverse projects emerging from those intersections is The Andean Information Age (2021), a publication created by Santillán and the art historian and curator Alessandra Troncone, with support of the Organizzazione Internazionale Italo-Latino Americana.
As the most recent episode of Santillán’s Antimundo series (comprising now two books), this publication focuses on the quipu, an Andean device predating Incan times that is based on a system of strings and knots to record information. The quipu was mostly known for its accounting functions, but its narrative qualities have also caught the attention of scholars, mostly anthropologists, who fancy “cracking” its code. The aura of the quipu is endowed with mystery by the outsider’s gaze, but for many Andean communities, it carries cultural meanings while embodying the presence of lost knowledge. The history of the quipu is tied to that of colonization in the Americas, and this, and other aspects of its trajectory, is what Santillán and Troncone map and knot within the book.
The publication’s content is divided in three sections that include an email exchange between both authors as they start their collaboration on this topic, as well as prose combining facts and reflections about the quipu. In Santillán’s email to Troncone, he starts mapping connections between Troncone’s hometown of Napoli and the Andean mountains. Santillán introduces the quipu as well as the famous Prince of Sansevero, whose actual name was Raimondo di Sangro, a Neapolitan nobleman who in the book becomes the connecting point between the authors. Sansevero’s proposed method to decipher the quipu’s content is what impelled Santillán and Troscone to pull more threads from the quipu’s story, while remaining critical of the exoticizing and linguistic burden put on the Andean device from a European perspective. The inclusion of such an email recalls the layering of the historical and anecdotal details in the next section; its friendly tone is a reminder that the purpose of the book is not an academic one; rather, it tries to convey stories of the quipu in a way that makes room for a variety of voices and perspectives. Santillán then puts into practice a “cartography of shadows”—a cartography, he writes, that includes different forms of knowledge production that are often overlooked or not understood.
The most extensive section in the book—written by the artist—is titled “Knot,” which compiles blackand-white images, historical information, reflections, other miscellaneous facts, and a song: a weaving of archival material that Santillán managed to fluidly narrate in prose. This information broadens out from the quipu’s origins and its official colonial banning in 1582 to include Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), Sansevero’s Lettera Apologetica (1750), and the Harvard Khipu Database Project. “Knot” as a chapter brings together the mapping and knotting components in the text, not only by making international connections, but also by tracing historical continuities across different time periods. The book seems to follow a “quipu logic,” which can only be a speculative collection of entanglements given what we know about these objects. Nevertheless, on an intuitive level, it is possible to approach the repeated tying and untying of the knot, and the back-and-forth movement between past and present, that the counting, accounting, and recounting functions of the quipu allow.
In their non-linear nature, quipus contain information that was passed along time-space by the quipucamayocs (quipu experts with years of formal training in reading and creating quipus). The book embodies a similar kind of non-linearity. For example, Troncone’s email reply is placed as the final chapter despite that “Knot” was written afterwards, which brings the reader back to a stage of curiosity and exploration in the text’s conclusion. Similarly, the information provided in The Andean Information Age does not follow a rigorous chronology, and even sneaks in glimpses of the future by signalling to the ways quipus intersect with information technologies. The book’s design employs a vertical alignment for many of its titles, including the cover, perhaps as a mimicking of the vertical quipu strings. One might even say that the horizontal texts are the knots in quipus, for it is there where the most substantial content is found.
Santillán is not the first artist to make work about quipus. The practices of artists Jorge Eduardo Eielson (Peru, 1924–2006) and Cecilia Vicuña (Chile, 1948) include explorations about their own relationship with quipus. But unlike this personal and poetic approach, Santillán and Troncone’s publication tends toward the informative and the collective—expanding notions of the quipu to that of the information age, even making connections to binary code, and thus reasserting its validity as a technology. The Andean Information Age goes beyond the advocacy for Andean knowledge recognition. It places Indigenous epistemologies as key contributions to the functioning of past, current, and future science—turning a cartography of shadows into one of light—and making the anti-world a visible reality.