A Buried Exhibition
Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition, 2014
Can you keep a secret? This is an exhibition that might only ever be virtually accessed but which could—though not without a great deal of effort and luck—be experienced first hand. Whether it should be is a different matter altogether. “Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition” hijacks the maritime dimensions of Central American history (in its pirate element) in order to compare modes of value and methods of identification in the present. At a time when many people are concerned with privacy, surveillance and data protection it also highlights secrecy as a matter of performance—subject to the rule of desire and the politics of access and exclusion. It does so by engaging the narrative and legal identity of Isla del Coco, contrasting historical legends of buried treasure with the island’s real status a natural treasure worthy of protection, embellishing the ‘treasure island’ imaginary while venturing the question ‘How can an exhibition create its own legend?’

The digital era has ushered in a profound intensification of mankind’s representational capabilities. But emerging languages and technologies shape and extend the ‘real’ world as much as they do reflect it—creating new terrain. Jean Baudrillard’s introduction to Simulations makes this plain. Redeploying an image from Borges, he envisages the condition of mediation as a map of such size and detail that it comes to cover the whole world. What do we make of this? Is it merely a case of buried essentials; an occluded truth? Why not view it as a revelation?: A collapse of map and territory that constitutes a new ground. This new ground—the map-territory nexus—is wild and ripe with possibility.

As with human conquest of far-flung islands and the moon, novel geographies rarely go unclaimed. Like so many flagpoles driven into Antarctica’s ice crust, our new ground is being incrementally subdivided. What might have been, at the birth of the information age, a huge common has since been declared the field of intellectual property. Across this plane legal tools structure the assertion of ownership rights and penalties for infraction. But in practical terms subdivision cannot be easily maintained. Try as the entertainment industry might, through warnings and show trials, trespassers occupy the sunny vales of the map-territory nexus, plucking Hollywood’s fruits. Who doesn’t have an illegally downloaded film or two on their hard drive? Further control mechanisms are required if rule is to be concentrated in particular hands: data protection systems and methods of encryption—correlates of the fences and border stations erected in physical space.

Pirates represent a threat to legal-political definitions of identity and ownership. Today, the Spanish gold of intellectual property is declared free by the Pirate Bay and the first international political party of the internet age, The Pirate Party. There are certainly worthwhile reasons for advocating free data, not least the achievements of open-source software initiatives. However, the relationship between this new ground and ourselves is problematic. In fact, the former entails our new figure. Like Borges’ map, digital representation of my personhood wraps itself around me. This new figure (a digital skin) is not merely composed of photographs or status updates. It is a cluster of technical representations with the potential to render my physical body its own avatar. Witness: The NSA algorithm that recognized trigger words in an innocent man’s correspondence—a phantom, terrorist limb!—and placed him on a criminal watch list. According to Edward Snowden the only effective defense against having our new figure expropriated is making state of the art encryption tools available to every man, woman and child. If we do not control and collect our new selves then someone or something else will. There are pirates everywhere.

How do these reflections upon the collapse of map and territory inform “Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition”? Clearly, they are related to Boris Groys’ observation that art documentation’s status within museum and market channels has approached near equivalence with actual artworks. Photographs of one-time only performances are now collected and exhibited as if they are co-substantive with their referents—even as some creators protest the violence done to their art. Under such conditions, (unseen) bodies of work are exploited by virtual substitution. One key aspect of our project is an attempt to exhibit this condition, and to explore its potential.

This is effected through a dramaturgy that begins with the statement of buried artworks, announced as a practical fact involving mud and shovels. Yet also by the act of denying the gathered artworks a chance to speak for themselves in direct relationship with an exhibition audience—their burial beneath the exhibition’s documentary and narrative imaging. While the participating artist’s names have been publicized, the details of their buried works are secret. In fact, with only two exceptions—Andrew Ranville and Julian Charrière—the forty participating artists were also denied a chance to install their work on Coco. Moreover, all were ignorant of each other’s contributions. The exact geographical location of the exhibition is also buried—entombed within the virtual crypt(ography) of Constant Dullaart’s Map (2014). This is a 3D printed steel cylinder emblazoned with of thousands of figures which comprise a complex code devised by the artist in collaboration with a leading security consultant, whose hidden content is a set of GPS coordinates detailing Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition’s precise whereabouts on Coco.

Map is both a sculpture—a unique physical object whose form has been determined by the artist—and a tool or set of instructions for disclosing an elsewhere. On the one hand its cylindrical form serves to recall antique maps or scrolls—an explicit reference to Coco’s maritime history—while staging its unreadable script as a digital-era successor to the idiosyncratic markings inscribed on the pirate charts of legend. On the other, this form is also a feature of the encryption system. Without any indication of where the code begins or ends it is exponentially harder to crack. Yet this design as resistance is contradicted by Map’s utility for the would-be code breaker, which allows the sculpture to be used as a rolling printing plate—enabling the physical transfer of data to paper by way of ink. With Map our project’s dramatization of the interconnection between the physical and the informatic is in focus. These considerations raise the following questions—must Map be used, rather than contemplated, in order for it to achieve the status of an artwork? Or, rather, does it only remain an artwork if its functional indeterminacy is maintained?

Map, too, finds itself entombed; interred within another artwork— Aranda/Lasch’s Chest (2014). This is a double of the casket that was buried on Coco whose most obvious function is—as its title indicates—that of a container. Chest’s twin was designed to maintain the physical integrity of the various artistic contributions deposited on the island. Its exterior is made of polished stainless steel—a truncated tetrahedron that opens like a geometric oyster to reveal an internal spherical container. This oversize “pearl” is a vacuum sealable glass vessel that would normally be used to protect cameras sent to the ocean floor—capable of withstanding water pressure to a depth of up to 6.7 kilometers. Set within the mud of Coco, it houses a series of aluminum boxes containing works on paper, small scale sculptures, LP records, digital video and sound files stored on a hard drive. In Chest the pearl-like sphere contains only Dullaart’s Map. In formal terms both containers are a marked departure from the treasure boxes so often depicted in woodcuts, comic books and cartoons. Rather than attempting to conform to an archaic cliché their look recalls the product design of market-leading personal computing hardware. While by no means illustrative, their hygienic surfaces and acute angles intentionally suggest a kind of oversized digital data-storage device—fitting, given Map’s installation within.

At this stage we must note the symbiotic relationship between Map and Chest on the level of both symbolism and functionality—as well as their additional interdependence with that which was buried on Coco. It seems that all the putative art objects in the exhibition are only ever partially themselves. Map, for instance, relates to at least thirty-nine other artworks. In other words, the works in this exhibition are fractured, translocated and distributed across both virtual and real space. Moreover, the boundaries between them are blurred. This is the peculiar format of curatorial gesture—a key feature of its mode of exhibiting.

We are now in a position to consider how the project’s concern for map-territory nexus pertains to Isla del Coco. Burying a contemporary treasure on the island is more than an incursion within a geographical location. It is an intervention within the narrative, legal and biological construction of a place that simultaneously exhibits this construction. Our action partakes of the site-specificity which deems “cultural debates, a theoretical concept, a social issue, a political problem, an institutional framework […] a historical condition, even particular formations of desire” as sites.1To this list we must also add economy. “Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition” plots the cultural-historic coordinates of Coco while at the same time altering them.

Isla del Coco is the historical source of many foundational legends relating to buried treasure. Stories relating to historical events on Isla del Coco have developed into myth, inspired novels and genre fantasies for more than a century. On the most basic level our project adds a new buried “treasure” to the island’s history. Already, anyone seeking information regarding the hidden hoards of Coco will find details of our enterprise online—on sites not maintained by TBA21-Academy. We have certainly instituted the island’s only buried treasure of the twenty-first century, and have done so in order to modify the definition of treasure itself in future tellings of Coco’s history.

Burying a new “treasure” on the island highlights the regulations restricting human access to this protected area on ecological grounds. As it happens, Coco is the only place in the world where treasure hunting is specifically illegal. What manner of tools have been deployed in the pursuit of wealth deemed to be buried on its beaches or under palm trees? F. D. Roosevelt’s own military issue metal detector—used in between bouts of sport fishing—is kept in the Park Ranger’s mess hall at Wafer Bay. Prussian adventurer August Gissler used a shovel to dig myriad tunnels in his search for Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito’s plunder. Yet the most destructive of all was certainly the dynamite used in various professional expeditions towards the end of the twentieth century. Happily, the statutes which render such prospecting illegal today stem from the Costa Rican government’s understanding that the island—and its surrounding waters—are themselves unparalleled (natural) riches in need of preservation. It declared the island a National Park in 1978, and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1997. The Seamounts Marine Management Area—the aquatic reserve created in 2011 that surrounds the island—is larger than the Yellowstone National Park and second only to the Galápagos National Park in terms of marine protected areas in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. It is these institutional and legal representations that, we contend, constitute the regulatory mapping of Coco’s natural treasure.

Our project exhibits the value of these regulations—indeed, the importance of their mediation between the treasure and its would-be hunters—by challenging them: In order for the exhibition to be experienced in real life access must be had. This will only be possible if the protection laws are abolished or if their enforcement fails. Under such circumstances the recovery of the buried exhibition (trash?) will mark an assault on something of greater value. In seeking the park’s permission to bury our exhibition—what real pirate would do that?—we acknowledged the current system of regulation, even as we confronted its representatives with a challenge to their management. Our intervention certainly arouses interest in the works’ potential recovery. As was to be expected, careful explaining was required in order to receive an affirmative answer—eventually granted on the condition that one of the park’s biologists be present during the burial process to ensure the well-being of endemic flora and fauna. It was then that we had to decide if we could trust this observer. We attempted to include a clause for blindfolding them in our written agreement—something that was, unsurprisingly, turned down. The exhibition as agent provocateur.

Clearly, our project borrows its title from the first Treasure of Lima. This doubling is calculated to effect a productive misfiling within the historical archive, whereby our agenda is smuggled into future analyses of ownership, exploitation and misappropriation relating to the region. Invoking the Treasure of Lima highlights the maritime and colonial history of Central America. The original treasure consisted of precious metals, stones and artifacts requisitioned by the Spanish from their Central and South American dominions, including 113 gold religious statues, one of which was a life-sized Virgin Mary; 200 chests of jewels; 273 swords with jeweled hilts; 1000 diamonds; numerous solid gold crowns; 150 chalices; and hundreds of gold and silver bars.2 This agglomeration is telling, in so far as it symbolizes the outlook and self-deceptions of Lima’s colonial rulers: capital, religion and the blade. Though “stolen” from them by Thompson, their legitimate ownership of the trove is ethically disputable. Our work consists in turning considerations of ownership, piracy and colonialism towards—notwithstanding our interest in discussing the value and ownership of art—contemporary ecological piracy in the waters around Coco. Moreover, we intend to exhibit the methods by which Coco’s natural treasure is secured. The intention is to re-draw the area’s narrative coordinates, and eventually to influence its regulatory ones.

Given the ecological mindset already evidenced in the project, it might seem contradictory to incite a collector to mount an expedition to Coco in order to dig for buried artworks—as if the money spent on marine conservation constituted a kind of contemporary indulgence for terrestrial pillage. This would be the case were it not for the resolute difficulty—indeed the near impossibility—of recovering the buried works. Indeed, beyond the encryption methodology previously outlined, the project employs the principle of design as resistance in a more holistic fashion. The buyer takes receipt of the Map without the decryption key. Purchasing it may afford them a better chance of locating the “exhibition” than other persons. However, it is by no means a practical or legal guarantee of access. There is the challenge of cracking the code. In addition, there is the issue of gaining access to the island. Given that digging for treasure is banned on Coco this is easier imagined than achieved. Finally, purchasing the map does not necessarily underwrite ownership of the buried artworks, even if they are eventually recovered. In this respect the potential ownership of the buried artworks is, itself, buried beneath a set of challenges.

There may be an auction, but the full extent of what has really been bought is—to a degree—open to interpretation. One part of our exhibition’s dramaturgy enlists the buyer of Map and Chest in a performative role in which they can either choose to ratify the power of the pirate mentality or, alternatively, respect the status of the unruly object. The pirate mentality is what might transport a certain buyer from the air-conditioned saleroom to the bluffs and jungle of Coco; by way of questionable deployment of resources and the impulse to possess, satisfied, assuming current statutes remain, through disregard for Costa Rican law. This mentality will seek to acquire, in one fell swoop, a whole collection—of forty artworks—and to hell with the paradoxical niceties of the exhibition hang. Ascertaining the GPS coordinates might allow one to drop a pin on a map of Coco, to thrust a spade into the soil and ultimately to observe the contents of the chest, but in this process something will be lost Once opened, Map is just a map; the exhibition just the things in the box buried on Coco. Allowing the unruly object to remain buried and closed is what keeps our exhibition open.

These comments shed some light on how surveillance—observation—relates to our new figure. Following Snowden, it would seem that only enclosure within a cryptographic strongbox allows for paradoxical identification—to be one thing and another simultaneously. On a political level, personal data protection helps us to maintain a translocational identity that amounts to freedom itself. When we are observed and measured as one thing or another by an external gaze our paradoxical potential—to be both outlaws and good citizens, for instance—is dead in the water. We are collected, put on file—some butterflies pinned, others broken on a wheel.

Returning to the Coco—disinterring the buried works might kill our exhibition’s paradoxical quality but it will also do something else. It will announce the fact that enforcement of the statutes restricting human access to the island has failed. It may even, at some future date, be testament to these statutes being abolished altogether. In light of our pelagic research and conservation initiative, these implications are ventured as a general parallel to the ongoing assault on the park’s marine protection area. Every day fishing boats pillage its waters, taking a bounty of threatened species. Scalloped hammerheads, even tiger sharks, are pulled thrashing to the surface—only for their pectoral, dorsal and tail fins to be crudely sliced from their bodies before they are thrown back into the sea, bleeding, to sink and drown. Countless other species are scooped up in nets. Quite apart from its illegality, this is inter-species piracy. The politics of access and exclusion from the park, and the challenges that the rangers face policing it has, for too long, be unexamined.

We have already spoken about the performative role assigned to the collector within the structure of our exhibition. They will either put Map to use in an attempt to recover the works buried on Coco or enact a relation to both the superposition of art in the project and the value of restricting human access to the island. The latter is a relation of trust. Amongst other things, in law an owner who places their legal property into trust relinquishes control of its benefits. Accessing the works buried on Coco is one potential benefit of owning Map. Letting them lie performs an act of trust, in so far as she has willfully let go of this advantage. By doing so the collector also performs trust in the generic sense, asserting—through her (in)action—confidence that maintaining the map-territory nexus is more worthwhile than recovering the buried objects. She also demonstrates an exemplary commitment to the statutes limiting exploitation of Coco and its surrounding waters. This is a kind of collecting that considers proximity to the buried art objects or the island itself phenomena whose quantification does not necessarily indicate the quality of the relationship.

Trust in our map-territory nexus is of a piece with a general outlook that recognizes no operative separation between nature, culture and humanity. What appeared to be an island separated from other lands is—as the artist Andrew Ranville reminds us—merely the visible tip of a tectonic plate; just one part of a larger system. Rather than there being a yawning gap between the sharks of Coco and metropolitan modernity there is only interconnection and engagement. We cannot avoid affecting these creatures, either by focused exploitation or laissez-faire fallout. We must now choose to critically appraise the design of this relationship that spans oceans and continents.

Given the somewhat esoteric nature of our previous reflections upon the distributed nature of the exhibition format, the map-territory nexus and our new figure, it would be remiss to leave the following unsaid: “Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition” was, and remains, an adventure. Comments by one of our contributing artists, Olafur Eliasson, cut to the heart of the matter: “Art is not the only thing that is important. We must also consider the ways that it is communicated, handled, treasured, kept or not kept. Somebody has to take this responsibility and radicalize it. Going to Coco and actually burying a treasure is pretty radical—thinking about it is one thing but doing it is clearly something else. Then to follow through, to consider what type of responsibility codex you have installed and how to translate this into ideological action, is an interesting question.” It is a question that has been answered by an incredible coalition of partners. Our project has drawn together a motley crew of park rangers, bureaucrats, divers, conservationists, artists and sailors. It has taken place underwater, in the jungle, at sea, in code, and at an auction house. It has affected an alliance of hackers, apex predators and art collectors—all the while negotiating past and present histories of piracy. Throughout, our veritable ship of fools has dared to ask the question, “How can an exhibition create its own legend?” None of this could have been ventured without trust in one another—and the future of our pelagic research and conservation project relies upon it. None of us could have known that we would not be bitten by the sharks of Coco until we swam with them. We had to trust that they would do us no harm. Pirates, sharks or otherwise—trust is the real adventure.

1. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity,” in October, Vol. 80 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
2. Its value today is reckoned at £160 million. See http://www.businessinsider.com/british-explorer-closes-in-on-legendary-treasure-of-lima-2012-8#ixzz30OkhILxR , accessed July 30, 2014.