Silent desert images interspersed with eerie chimes. White patches that look like snow, but are actually salt. California’s Indigenous tribes come to life on-screen. This was what audiences were presented with at UC Santa Cruz’s Leonardo Art & Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) Talks.

LASER Talks are a series of discussions allowing artists and scientists to share their ideas and encourage audiences to think about new topics. They began in 2008 when Pietro Scaruffi started them so Bay Area artists could talk about and showcase their work to the community. They have since grown and expanded into a decentralized collective of artists and scientists spanning over 50 cities around the world. 

“It really depends who you ask because there are, as I said, the 50 [cities] and each organizer has their own philosophy,” Scarrufi said when asked about the mission of LASER Talks. “[My philosophy] is just that I want you to be aware that there’s more than what you specialize in… there’s so many interesting things.”

Anna Friz, John Jota Leaños, and Irene Lusztig, all of whom have roles at UCSC, were present at LASER Talks to showcase their work. While each artist focused on different areas, all had overarching themes of how colonialism impacts the world. 

Music of the Atacama: Anna Friz

The event began with Friz, an assistant professor of Film and Digital Media, presenting her work which focuses on sound. In the past, she’s hosted feminist and queer radio talk shows, built her own FM radio transmitters, and created experimental music to fully explore what sound has to offer. 

For her LASER Talk, however, Friz showed attendees a trailer for “Salar: Evaporation,” a short film containing still images of the Atacama Desert’s eerie salt flats and machines piling on what appeared to be snow. But what seemed to be snow was, in fact, lithium. The images were superimposed over sounds that she recorded in the desert, to show viewers the effects of mining there.  

Friz explained that the Atacama Desert has been at the center of colonization for centuries. In a more traditional sense the region was first colonized by the Spanish in the 1500s. Later, the British and Germans flocked to the region for saltpeter (used for gunpowder and fertilizer). Currently, large companies are looking for copper and lithium there. 

This is not Friz’s first work in the area. In fact, she first visited the region in 2017 and went back in 2019 to work on another project, “Overburden.” While “Overburden” focused on the mines, “Salar: Evaporation” focuses on the salt flats of the desert, and the landscapes the mines have created. 

Removing Colonial Blindspots: John Jota Leaños

Professor of Film and Digital Media John Jota Leaños focuses his animations, short films, and artwork on both Indigenous and Chicano culture. 

During the event, he spoke about his work on ¡Eureka! — an unfinished animated documentary on the history of California’s Native people. 

“I started to use animation as a reaction or response to this basic lack of knowledge,” Leaños said. “It allows for the imagination to be attached to the documentary […] I find documentary animation to unlock that imagination as well.” 

Leaños’s work focuses on getting viewers to unlearn the often romanticized myths of American history. Frontera! is one of his more recent films, and it focuses on the Pueblo People and their history, tracing from the first Spanish Conquistadors to the Pueblo Revolts of 1860. 

¡Eureka! takes the same form and style as Frontera!, but will focus on California. While Frontera! highlighted the history of a specific group of people, ¡Eureka! will focus heavily on California’s mission system and some of the darker sides of this often glossed-over portion of history. It will explore the stories of California’s Indigenous peoples rather than the Spanish Missionaries.

One thing made crystal clear by both Friz and Leaños’s pieces is that colonialism still has a strong hold on our world, even centuries later. Friz herself acknowledges this.

“The three presentations were really nicely interwoven from one another,” Friz said. “They had a lot to say to each other […] in terms of when the industrialization of the [Atacama] desert took place, it’s not far off some of the things that John was talking about happening in California.” 

This program also featured professor of film and digital media studies Irene Lusztig, who has requested that her work and talk be omitted from official recordings and publications.

This article was published on Dec. 6 as a part of City on a Hill Press’s backlog. It was originally written during the week of Nov. 7 and the event was held on Nov. 2.