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Spongy Aquifers, Messy Publics

Speaker: Andrea Ballestero (University of Southern California)
Chair: Alejandro Ponce de León (UC Davis/CLACS, University of London)

Analytics are matters that matter. As a continental shockwave, emergent extractivism formations—from Chile's lithium brine to El Salvador's bitcoin rush— compromise access to potable water at scales and intensities that muddle the organizing principles of what is possible, visible and utterable about water bodies in the Americas. Redressing what Yusoff (2018) refers to as 'White Geology'—a capacious division of materiality deployed as a tool of governance—activists and researchers in the region are fostering amphibious modes of analysis to suspend geopolitical idioms (figure/ground, water/earth, life/non-life, being/non-being) while enabling new modes of awareness and engagement with the contradictory forces shaping common hydro-geo-social existence. We could refer to these modes of attending, borrowing from Cristina Rivera-Garza, as de-sedimenting analytics: the uncovering of the social life of geology—both as language and practice of accumulation— by attending to its inhuman, anti-human, and more-than-human dimensions and producing a distinct mode of accounting that exceeds the objectivity of geological formations. 

In this presentation, anthropologist Andrea Ballestero will discuss her ongoing ethnographic work on modes of accounting for the unknown and changing conditions of aquifers in Costa Rica —a country grappling with water scarcity, contamination, and uneven distribution. Neither land nor water, aquifers are formations with blurred borders between rock, water, and air. Rather than seen or felt, they are imagined. To geologists and activists alike, these hydrolithic structures challenge the easy separation between content and container that is intrinsic to extractive ways of managing underground waters. But how can this indeterminacy be analytically addressed? What are the politics mobilized around such modes of attending to this materiality? The talk will reflect on technoscientific tools and practices —imaginative or otherwise— that engage with indeterminacy as a way to challenge, provoke and carefully think about grounding analytics that animate work and research in the environmental humanities. Thinking with aquifers may offer amphibious tools to challenge the extractivist frameworks relentlessly reducing complex liquid ecologies to their utility and economic value.

Suggested readings
Ballestero, Andrea. “Casual Planetarities: Choreographies, Resonance, and the Geologic Presence of People and Aquifers.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 15, no. 3, Nov. 2023, pp. 266–83. Silverchair,
---. “Sensing from above via Transitional Concepts (Aquifer, Porosities, Image).” Writing with Light: Photography, Ethnography, Design, no. Issue 2, Nov. 2023, pp. 43–44.
---. “Spongy Aquifers, Messy Publics.” Limn, no. Issue 7 Public Infrastructures/Infrastructural Publics, 18 Aug. 2016,

Andrea Ballestero is an anthropologist whose interests span political and legal anthropology, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and the social studies of finance and economics. She serves as a faculty member in the Anthropology Department at the University of Southern California (USC). Ballestero's research illuminates the unexpected ethical and technical entanglements through which experts understand water in Latin America, with a keen focus on spaces where the law, economics, and techno-science merge so seamlessly that they begin to mirror each other. Her first book, A Future History of Water, investigates how the distinctions between a human right and a commodity emerge within regulatory and governance spaces that claim to be receptive to various forms of knowledge and promote flexibility and experimentation. Ballestero's current research examines the "re-discovery" of subterranean space via remote sensing and legal technologies, transforming it into a new planetary frontier—a project she conceptualizes as "Expanding the Social World Downwards." Her early publications from this project have explored the concepts of "spongy imaginaries" and dissolution as the political and material conditions of aquifers. In her talks, Ballestero shares insights from her ongoing work on aquifers, models, and volumetric awareness. 

All are welcome to attend this free seminar, which will be held online via Zoom at 17:00 BST (UK time). You will need to register in advance to receive the online joining link. Please click on the Book Now button at the top of the page to register.

Thursday 2 May
Nature isn’t Binary, Land isn’t Dry 

Sara Granados (The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit, UCL) 
Jorge Díaz (Cell & Developmental Biology, UCL) 
Chair: Lisa Blackmore (University of Essex)
*Note: This event will be in Spanish

Thursday 23 May 
Spongy Aquifers, Messy Publics

Speaker: Andrea Ballestero (USC)
Chair: Alejandro Ponce de León (UC Davis/CLACS, University of London)

Thursday 30 May
Amphibious Gazes

Fernando Segtowick (Filmmaker)
Maeve Jinkings (Actress)
Chair: Jamille Pinheiro Dias (ILCS/CLACS, University of London)
Note: This conversation will be in Portuguese

GERMINATIONS 2024: Amphibious Practice and Research

Zones of emergence in the Environmental Humanities take form in the crossings of disciplines, knowledges and territories. These confluences can make practice and research amphibious in the thematic concerns they probe in liquid ecologies and in their tendency toward non-binary, transdisciplinary methods. In discussions surrounding ecosystems in art, ecology, and the social sciences, such adaptive approaches are particularly generative to think through and care for a world marked not by its fixity but by its flows. Attending to practices that flourish in fluid territories, GERMINATIONS is convening three conversations with researcher-practitioners working across theoretical approaches, arts-science intersections, technolegal landscapes, and cultural production that deal with amphibious modes of being and doing. 

These encounters are an invitation to consider how amphibious practices draw on ecological knowledge, adaptive strategies, and creative resilience to enable ways of living in shifting and indeterminate environments. In the face of pressing issues such as climate change, attacks on diversity and resource scarcity, GERMINATIONS will highlight the ways in which communities resist, safeguarding their distinctive coexistence across amphibious realms as they intersect with evolving legal and technological paradigms emerging in water governance and sociopolitical frameworks. The series also seeks to engage with practices where art and science are interwoven and mutually imbricated, probing forms of life that resist definable categorisation, such as species and gender.

In 2024, the GERMINATIONS series welcomes speakers Jorge Díaz (UCL), Sara Granados (UCL), Andrea Ballestero (University of Southern California), Maeve Jinkings (actress), and Fernando Segtowick (filmmaker, Marahu Filmes). This initiative is hosted and supported by CLACS and is a cross-institutional collaboration convened by Lisa Blackmore (University of Essex), Paul Merchant (University of Bristol), Ainhoa Montoya (CLACS, University of London/CSIC), and Jamille Pinheiro Dias (CLACS, University of London). This year, GERMINATIONS also has the support of Alejandro Ponce de León (UC Davis/CLACS, University of London).

Image: Sara Granados, Coral de río, 2022.

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