Utilitarian Solutions in a Cultural Environment
June 29th, 2010

Rob Phillips and Ximena Cordova

A Guiding Light: Faith, the Festive and the Mine

The weekend before Lent, the city of Oruro (Bolivia) is the setting for its most awaited celebration: a danced Carnival parade.

Carnival was imported from Spain with the conquest of the Andes and was juxtaposed over existing indigenous rituals marking the start of the potato harvest. One can still discern different cultural backgrounds present, as seen in the ritual burning of offerings, or the oath to the Virgin of Candlemas that Carnival dancers make for the parade.
Spanish authorities founded the town of Oruro in 1606 after the ‘discovery’ of silver deposits near a mountain range sacralised by local people. The city’s growth was fuelled by the mining trade. During Carnival, enslaved indigenous miners danced as a way to thank Andean deities and the Virgin Mary for the mineral.

Today, Carnival is no longer fuelled by mining practices after the traders that used to supply the mine with goods – meat, candles and coca leaves – renewed the tradition and gave it a new life. The social composition of its actors has changed radically, including the upper and middle classes, who, since the 1940s, have practically appropriated the celebration, displacing miners and others of lower means.

From this complex cultural landscape, Ximena and Rob decided to focus on making an object to serve a practical purpose. We wanted to acknowledge Carnival’s history and make something for the precarious conditions of the mine.

The concept of ‘light’ was our instigator: dancers refer to faith in the Virgin as a ‘light’ that guides them.

“Dancers look at the Virgin to get strength. On the one hand she has a candle, on the other she has God.” (Priest of Oruro)
Also, a miner’s light is paramount to their safety.
“We have spent unscheduled nights inside the mine’s total darkness.”
(Hector, professional miner)
A guiding light became a miner’s light.

Photo by Nick Ballon

Complex Cultural Issue on a Utilitarian Level

Most silver seams require underground mining. The mine inside San José mountain (Oruro) comprises old pillars and structures, creating passages. The only source of light, the primary source of work and safety, is an attachment on miners’ helmets. The technology available at the Cooperativa Multiactiva Corazón de Jesús was neither long-lasting nor reliable.

Miners descend on a lift which has a tendency to break down and frequently have to spend up to 24 hours underground in a dangerous environment, where dynamite is often used.
As a response to this context, Ximena and Rob developed two proposals for the polar opposites. The first proposal is for Bolivian silver miners, who rely on illumination for work, life and health. The mine provides financial support for the community so efficiency, safety, independence of tools and refurbishment are paramount. Conversations with Cooperativa Multiactiva Corazón de Jesús directed the detailing and function of the object. There are three important design constraints: it must operate in total darkness, be inexpensive to make and repair and give long-lasting illumination.

An illuminating object is conventionally developed to be turned on in an isolated dark environment. User considerations dictate this to be reversed; during any failure or miscomprehension, the object should remain on, illuminating this environment. The mechanical functions are enlarged for gloved workers; an internal switch also allows illuminated battery replacement. The product has been considered to allow self-repair and the notion of remote on-site manufacture has informed the detail, aesthetic and components.

The second proposal is aimed at mass production, the idea of a torch that, when disturbed, will automatically turn on, illuminating the immediate area. Taking the miners’ concept and re-appropriating it for the everyday. The language of the objects has addressed basic need with sensibilities toward orientation, functionality, product language and tactile detail. The representation of the objects reflects details that users tend to take for granted … objects that function, even in failure.

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