16 Tons and Aparecidos

Artist: Seth Wulsin
Location: Caseros Prison, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Year of completion: 2008
Researcher: Laine Bergeson

For 16 Tons and Aparecidos, artist Seth Wulsin and a team spent five weeks breaking out windows in the 22-story Caseros Prison building in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His selection of windows created the images of faces (aparecidos), which appeared when sun reflected in the remaining panes. The work included 48 faces spanning 18 stories, which shined out from the prison’s window grids at varying times of day. Over the course of the next year and a half, the building was demolished floor by floor, and with it the images.

The prison’s window grids—each one 17-feet (5.2 m) tall and 9-feet (2.7 m) wide, and comprised of 209 circular, semi-opaque windows each eight inches (203 mm) in diameter—served as pixelated screens. The faces were completely a function of space and light—the dark interior space of the prison, and the light shining through the optically reflective space of the remaining windows. The images were engineered to be visible from varying positions in the street depending on time of day and according to seasonal changes in the sun’s relative position to the earth. The viewing angles change throughout the year as the sun's elevation in the sky changes.

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On a basic level, the demolition of the prison, contracted out by the city government of Buenos Aires to the Argentine military, is the seed for the artwork. The building was slated for demolition in 2001, but the process has been subject to various legal, environmental and bureaucratic roadblocks. The original plan was to implode the building in three steps. But the implosion was stopped at the last minute by a group of neighbors concerned about the possibility of damaging environmental effects, including asbestos poisoning and the possibility of driving millions of rats out of the tunnels they occupy underneath the prison. Instead, Caseros was demolished by mechanical means, floor by floor, from the top down.

The project connects to Argentinian history. Aparecido is the past participle for the Spanish verb aparecer, to appear. Its second meaning is apparition or ghost. It may also refer in an oblique way to Argentina's Dirty War, in which political prisoners were thrown out of airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. These political prisoners were known as “los desaperecidos.” “Sixteen Tons” is the name of a popular song written in the late 1940s. It referred to the amount of coal a miner was expected to load in a day, but in this context may refer to the amount of glass broken out through the installation, or de-installation, process.

By making the visibility of the aparecidos dependent on the daily, monthly, and yearly lunar and solar cycles, and the position of the viewer on the ground, Wulsin connects the ugly history of the prison to the larger cycle of cosmic movement. As the building disappeared through the demolition processes, viewers were exposed to hidden dimensions of place and physical history.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency