When the Roots Start Moving
People of Flour, Salt, and Water (8/9)

When the Roots Start Moving

An introduction to the book and learning process: Chto Delat and Free Home University in resonance with Zapatismo

In the aftermath of the Free Home University session, back in pre-pandemic 2019, while the Russian artistic collective Chto Delat realized the “learning film” People of Flour, Salt, and Water—Nikolay Oleynikov and I started to imagine a book as a segue to the polyphonic, beautiful, and challenging process of collectively learning to unlearn while making a film, sharing a home, and exploring many questions. 

What seemed to have brought together and held a group with different knowledge systems, languages, backgrounds, and sets of privilege during our session was a sense of, and a need for, radical belonging; an experience (differently enlivened) of displacement; an insistence to stay, and the fact that, despite our very diverse, if not divergent, experiences, we all dug the Zapatistas!

In trying to open space for the issues that had emerged while making the film, the book When the Roots Start Moving. To Navigate Backward. Resonating with Zapatismo became the place where we could keep gathering our thoughts and hearts, in a moment of separation due to Covid restrictions. Our “pedagogy of the encounter” had to be articulated differently, activating other forms of affective resonance.

Arranged in multiple mouvements (as in a musical composition), the book is a conversation on our artistic, pedagogical, and political practices and how conditions of belonging to (or with), and conditions of displacement, are shaping and shifting our identities, desires, and positions. These practices simultaneously attach us to certain bodies, cultures, languages, territories and legacies, while at the same time displacing us from, within, and with(out) our own locations. 

As I write, more people in our collective are experiencing both physical and existential exile, due to the invasion of Russia in Ukraine; the violent repression and persecution by Putin and his establishment of any forms of dissent. The predicaments of rootedness and rootlessness (and the possibility of being rooted as we move, or of moving our roots)—appear to need to be articulated, within the confines constantly reproduced by state, patriarchy, modernity, coloniality, capitalism, and the ongoing war that these entities produce.

We could even imagine an extension of the film People of Flour, Salt, and Water since Chto Delat is in the habit of keeping the editing of their works open and ongoing: the camera could be easily repositioned to capture their own stories of refusal, refuge, exit, or exile, and their own songs of struggle in a distant motherland. 

The question of how to heal together from a constant bordering (external or internalized, imposed or chosen), and from the existential condition of earthlessness, as Rolando Vasquez calls it —a sense of being orphaned, captured, excluded, or evicted—feels even more urgent as current events are forcing millions of people to migrate, with ripple effects far beyond even those countries directly involved in the conflict. 

How do we translate Zapatismo into our own contexts and enable knowledge from those in struggle to circulate for the wellbeing of our communities?

Indeed, for us When the Roots start Moving. To Navigate Backward/Resonating with Zapatismo is another way to connect, to learn from, and circulate knowledge about struggles, as many authors underline. In particular, Manuel Callaghan’s “Zapatista Civic Pedagogy in Times of War” offers a deep analysis of the embedded learning process that subsumes the Zapatista conjuncture and their praxis in building autonomy. He also asks: How do we make Zapatismo travel? How do we translate it into our own contexts and enable knowledge from those in struggle to circulate for the wellbeing of our communities?

To this extent, Marco Baravalle’s “The Zapatismo of the Operaismo: Altermodernity’s New Weapon in the Climate Crisis” connects two revolutionary moments, and the legacy of militant and philosophical traditions, to put in historical perspective the influence of both Operaismo and Zapatismo on “No Global” alter-modernity movements. He contextualizes these perspectives with what is emerging from more contemporary stances, especially within decolonial propositions and the Indigenous Resurgence, vis à vis the ecological crisis, climate change, and current social uprisings. 

The relation of being in resonance with Zapatismo and learning from it that Chto Delat practice—a reflecting-with, a call-and-response, a reverberation of questions across completely different contexts and geographies—is clarified in Dmitry Vilensky’s text “Unlearning in Order to Learn (With a Little Help from the Zapatistas).” Here, it is clear that the group does not seek to imitate, replicate, or appropriate Zapatista art and lexicon, but rather to open conversations with it, using it as a lens to self-reflect and to instigate a dialogue with other people fighting against various forms of oppression. This is evident in the visual supplements of the book, with documentation of works such as When We Thought We Had All the Answers, Life Changed the Questions; The New Dead End #17: Summer School of Slow Orientation in Zapatismo; People of Flour, Salt, and Water; and What We Hide in Our Pockets and Other Shadows of Hope, reiterated in the commentaries of Alejandra Labastida, Christina Hijar, and Natalia Arcos, who offer useful insights from the Mexican context. 

A painting of a red mountain in the ocean with 3 masked birds and a masked dolphin moving across the scene.
Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat), Untitled (La Montaña…) (2021)
Comrades Petrels and Dolphins Accompany the Mountain Across the Ocean
Dyptich, mixed media, 29.7 x 42 cm each

In her text “Re-activating language: The work of Chto Delat and the Logos of the Revolution,” iLiana Fokianaki approaches the question of a political, aesthetic, and epistemologically situated practice of reclaiming language as an emancipatory gesture of repair, regeneration, and institution of the commons. Labastida, co-curator of the 2017 Chto Delat solo exhibition at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporanea in Mexico City, shares insights on issues of representation, and the tensions that the presence of the Zapatista’s art in the exhibition created among some visitors. Hijar’s contribution meanwhile offers a valuable framework for the interwoven elements of politics and poetics within Zapatista social structure as it is reflected and built through a corpus of textual and visual narratives, which serve a didactic function to educate younger generations. Natalia Arcos’ text, focused on Zapatistas’ audiovisual production and external communication that includes the organization of public cultural events (school sessions, seminaries, festivals, gatherings, and learning spaces for Mexican and international participants) provides helpful tools for a deeper understanding of the Zapatista constituency, strategy, vision, and their Indigenous cosmovision and cosmopolitics. We borrowed our subtitle from her text “To Navigate Backward”, as it felt emblematic: “For the Aymara people, Indigenous of the high plateau of the Andes Mountains,” she writes, “time is conceived as a canoe, where you sail with your back to the future, looking towards the past. This is how […] the Zapatistas advance.” 

Moving backwards also reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, the Angel of History: with his wings outspread, he moves with his back towards the future, unable to take his eyes off the ongoing horror, a catastrophe he witnesses on earth, as fascism and capitalism combine their deadly powers. This is what the Zapatistas call Hydra, the monster with many heads that regrow when cut off, whose poisonous breath and blood are so virulent that even its scent is deadly.

Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat), Cumbia-Jorovod (Compañero Pinchon…; Compas; Compa Violazul…; Maestra Maiz) (2021)

In her witty text “Making Films Zapatistically“, artist and film director of Chto Delat Olga Tslapya Egorova shows how profoundly the group has been influenced by Zapatismo in their own artistic methodology and approach. Their work, openly influenced by Brecht, Godard, and Russian art history, has become imbued recently with the notorious Zapatistas’ anticlimactic and ironic tone, populated by animals and other critters, by visual and lyrical elements that are not just quotations or references, but formal devices among the many visual, somatic, theatrical, political, and didactic tools that the group has developed through their nineteen years of collaboration. In their practice, these are not only artistic tools, but tools of conviviality (with Illich), instruments to build social infrastructures—comunalidad, as Callaghan argues. This aspect, and many others, are poetically captured by Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson, whose text “The Fate of an Insect that Struggles Between Life and Death Somewhere in a Nook Sheltered from Humanity is as Important as the Fate and the Future of the Revolution“, is a technical and lyrical account of People of Flour, Salt, and Water. They unfold on the many dimensions that the film opens and the different levels deployed in it. Revealing the dispositif of the film in its very tactile, sonic, and visual texture, the text evokes both the stories and their telling, through a detailed commentary in the form of a conversation. Their writing flows as a meditation on cinema and a deep reflection on political film-making.

The film People of Flour, Salt, and Water, its context, and trajectory within the Free Home University’s convivial research commitment to communities of practices and struggles, is also considered by two participants in the session: Sidd Joag, Journalist and Managing Editor of ArtsEverywhere, and Christian Peverieri, an activist from Venice who spent time in the Zapatista communities and built solidarity networks. In his “Dispatch from Puglia“, Joag reports on the relational premises and activist ethos bringing together a diverse group and building community across different urgencies: an “ad-hoc community gathered to explore the possibilities of collectively imagining and enacting alternative ways of being and living.” Giving voice to specific issues brought by those on the front lines of protecting land and human rights, he speaks of a constellation that “embodies the politics of transnational solidarity evoked in a steady learning process—community resilience and transformation through deep listening and active kindness.” 

Three paintings: in the centre is a masked head, and on each side is a form in the shape of a moose antler.
Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat), Untitled (Compañero Los…) (2021)
Comrade Moose is Listening Towards the Futures
Triptych, mixed media, 42 x 29.7 cm each

In “Travel to Salento Zapatista“, Peverieri also describes the process of sharing space with those seeking asylum and the farmers and activists of Casa delle Agriculture, as he identifies seeds of Zapatismo in Southern Italy. His text retraces how the fables of Marcos were weaved together with our multilingual translations of the Zapatistas’ demands, and with the stories of those traversing the Mediterranean Sea today. Peverieri has contributed to another important part of the book, “A Brief History of Zapatismo“, an annotated timeline we felt useful to add in order to recount the seminal events of their almost 30-year trajectory of Resistance and Re-existence. 

To offer some guidance in the Zapatista lexicon, which has the rare capacity to twist, reinvent, and reclaim a language of their own, we collectively compiled a Palabratorio, an affective, partial, non-dogmatic glossary of Zapatistas’ words wor(l)ding new worlds. Because of the potency of their language, the book is disseminated with Zapatista quotes, mottos, and excerpts from their communiqués. Nevertheless, we could not have included their voices more directly: “The Knowledge of the Struggle, and the Struggle of Knowing” is the transcription of a conversation between Subcomandante Moisés and Chto Delat, in which Sub Moisés discusses the need to bring together Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, science, and art. He explains the pedagogy of people’s governance, and responds to the question that, we believe, many of us have been posing: what does it mean to be Zapatista outside of Chiapas? “To fight! To never give up! Never surrender! Never sell out! Never corrupt! At whatever cost, to liberate this world—this is to be Zapatista.”

Painting of a bear paddling in a boat named "La Montaña."
Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat), Untitled (Mitya el Remero…) (2021)
Comrade Mitya Never Gives Up, What Are the Waves to Him = Joy and Fury
Mixed media 29.7 x 42 cm

Sub Moy also speaks of how women are the backbone of their organization, covering the most important roles in governance, education, health, communication, and in the army. The Zapatista emancipatory trajectory has centred on an effort to dismantle patriarchy, actualizing a feminist struggle, as it is inseparable from the defence of life and its reproduction. Organizing together, Zapatista women succeeded in establishing a more just foundation in their communities, their triumphs being the result of hardship, and what they call “the long path of our awakening.” “We Lit this Flame with a Candle” is how we share their voices, as an excerpt of their moving salutation to the women gathered in the Encuentro de Mujeres en Lucha [Encounter of Women in Struggle]. We also included Sub Galeano’s announcement of “La Travesía por la Vida”, as it represents for us an exciting new commencement, a translocal commitment to life, an invitation and a reminder to reclaim what is needed, not only for the Zapatistas, but for everyone, everywhere: real Democracy, Freedom, and Justice. When we heard that a Zapatista delegation was preparing to sail to Europe in the midst of a pandemic, crossing the ocean on a boat called La Montaña [The Mountain]—inverting the travel that exactly 500 years ago brought our European ancestors to colonize their lands (in 1521 the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire was accomplished)—we were moved to complete this book, our own rooted navigation. After centuries of defiance, their voyage was a call to action, another way to resist erasure and oblivion, and an invitation to share a larger struggle, one that unites the people and the lands of the Southeast mountains of Chiapas with those everywhere else on our planet.

…we wish to open another possible space of learning by listening together…

We have welcomed them and accompanied the delegations in their visit—an embrace of people in struggle, an opportunity not only to reinforce our unconditional solidarity with the Zapatistas, but also to continue learning together and reimagine how to mobilize in this moment of social and ecological catastrophe. If Zapatismo in this book emerges as a way of learning with, a form of belonging that is also a becoming—a home (or a homecoming) for our political imaginaries and an embodied politics of hope and friendship—we hold on to their teachings to find our own praxis to resist against what they have been calling the “4th World War”, an ongoing war against life that, with different intensities, is clearly affecting and threatening life across the globe. 

With these essays selected from When the Roots start Moving. To Navigate Backward. Resonating with Zapatismo for this series at ArtsEverywhere we wish to open another possible space of learning by listening together, thereby adding to the physical relation that holding a hard copy of the book in the reader’s hand can provide. In a sort of remix, or rather a re-ensembling, the selection wishes to offer a commentary and to accompany Chto Delat’s film People of Flour, Salt, and Water that is available in this series. As in the book, each essay corresponds to a visual chapter, composed with images from Chto Delat’s works across their long learning journey in Slow Orientation to Zapatismo.

Accompanying Art: Nikolay Oleynikov’s And the Embassy Sails On

Since their first visit to the Caracoles in 2016, Chto Delat had a fantasy that one day a group of Zapatista Ambassadors would arrive in Europe. Half-conspiracy, half-daydream, they imagined hosting the clandestine delegation in the Russian Taiga forest somewhere near Leningrad.

This idea developed into the score of The New Dead End #17 and in their ongoing artistic and pedagogical research Slow Orientation in Zapatismo. With the encouragement of the Zapatistas, Chto Delat dreamt their own dream.

As this book was to be finalized, the unexpected dispatch arrived! The 421 Squadron— the first delegation of Zapatistas in history, moored on European shores. Four women, two men, and one altroa, crossed the Atlantic on a sailing boat called (of course) La Montagna [Mountain]. In Oleynikov’s And the Embassy Sails On—the series of drawings of rebel doll-like characters—he portrays the Zapatista ambassadors entwining ironic interpretation of the insurgents’ iconography together with references to ОБЭРИУ [OBERIU], an early historical soviet literary movement known as a harbinger of the Theatre of the Absurd in Europe, and other Soviet and Post-Soviet avant-garde circles, such as the underground Leningrad artistic community Митьки [Mit’ki].

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Alessandra Pomarico is a curator of international and multidisciplinary residency programs at the intersection of arts, pedagogy, social issues, nano-politics, and community building. Her practice is based on research and context-based art projects, with a focus on social change.

Artwork by

Chto Delat is a renowned Russian collective of artists, philosophers, scholars, poets and activists that has existed since 2003. Their interest is the entanglement of art, political thought, and pedagogies.

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