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Copper Geographies (2012-2016)

Copper is a miraculous and paradoxical metal characterised by high electrical and thermal conductivity. It is an essential element for nearly every human enterprise. Hidden in plastic, behind walls, bound into cables, carried as loose change; copper is everywhere yet rarely seen. Although the metal plays a key role in worldwide information and communication technologies and in the transition to a "green economy", very little attention has been paid to the industry’s impacts on the ecologies in which it operates.

Due to its unique geological configuration in the Andean subduction zone, Chile contains the world’s largest deposits of copper: 27.5 percent of global reserves, mainly located in the Atacama Desert. Around 40% of the world’s copper is produced in Chile. The resulting ecology of extraction in the Atacama has come to be at the centre of a series of political and environmental disputes. Seven of the twenty largest copper mines are in Chile, including the very largest, Escondida, in the Atacama Desert. Chile has one of the highest numbers of recorded conflicts related to mining in Latin America. Amongst the many conflicts that have arisen are protracted legal battles involving, on the one hand, the big multinational corporations that control 70 percent of Chilean copper output, and on the other, the indigenous agricultural communities struggling with growing desertification, water contamination and land expropriation.

Chile has a long history of exploitation from foreign nationals that goes back to colonial times. British capital played a key role in the development of the Chilean economy as a whole, and particularly in the management of its copper and nitrate resources in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, U.S. investors, such as the Guggenheim brothers, took over the extraction of Chilean minerals. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries a mix of multinational corporations together with the state-owned mining corporation Codelco have been responsible for roughly one third of global copper production.

The corporate town of Chuquicamata, which has the same name as the mine, was designed in the New York offices of the Guggenheim brothers in the early decades of the twentieth century as a model town. More than thirty architects were hired to work out its urban plan. The town was established next to the mine, following the pattern of mining settlements in the U.S. such as Butte, Bisbee and Tyrone. Due to the capitalist nature of mining endeavours, corporate towns are designed ‘to fulfil basic social necessities by maximising profits’. Functionality and profitability were the driving forces behind the growth of corporate towns. While substantially reducing costs by increasing efficiency, the typological standardisation and mass production of modular mining towns also reflects the mechanisation of the mining industry. The production of copper at Chuquicamata increased over time and it grew to become the world’s biggest open-cast copper mine. The town was evacuated in 2007. High levels of pollution, caused by the relentless expansion of the mine, threatened public health. At the time of closure, the 25,000 workers were relocated to the nearby city of Calama where new neighbourhoods were built, following the same corporate strategies of social segmentation and urban fragmentation.


The Los Pelambres copper mine is controlled by Antofagasta Plc., a Chilean-based mining corporation listed in the London Stock Exchange. The open-pit mine is located 3,800 metres above sea level in the Andes mountains. The mine stores its tailings (fine waste) in the El Mauro tailings dam, the biggest in Latin America, and third biggest in the world. The dam currently holds around 1,700 million tonnes of tailings. A wall of 1,000 metres of compressed sand holds 2,060 million tonnes of toxic waste material just 470 metres above the town of Caimanes. The tailings are located in an earthquake prone zone, which in the event of collapse would only leave the 1,600 inhabitants of Caimanes five minutes to escape before being buried. Residents of Caimanes have for many years expressed concerns over the pollution of the local water supply since the installation of the El Mauro dam. Minera Los Pelambres currently has plans to expand their mine, despite public resistance and the drought.

After copper is ground in the Andes, it is transformed into copper concentrate (raw material for all copper smelters). This black powder is transported to the Port of Pacific, through a pipeline. For this mode of transportation, the company uses large quantities of water as well as gravity to create flows. At the Port of Pacific, the concentrate is dried. The excess water contains high doses of toxins, particularly molybdenum and sulphate that cannot be used in the food chain. To dispose of these toxic liquid residues, a water-intensive monoculture of Eucalyptus specimens from Australia has been planted.

Copper is then transported from the Pacific as copper concentrate, mainly to Asian markets. It travels and is transformed through a global network of production and exchange that involve diverse geographies of copper.

While mining is a global industry, Britain has a particular place in its networks of extraction; London is home to the head offices of the wealthiest corporations which trade in its stock markets. London is the world’s biggest centre for investment in the minerals industry. Most of the world’s biggest mining companies, and many smaller mining companies, are listed on the London Stock Exchange, including its Alternative Investment Market (AIM). British high street and investment banks, pension funds and insurance companies invest hundreds of millions of pounds a year in scores of mining projects across the globe, connecting working people’s earnings in Britain with the fate of mining-affected communities around the world (London Mining Network).

Copper returns to the territories where it originated from but with added value and in the form of technology.


The publication Copper Geographies by Editorial RM (2018) invites the viewer on the journey of copper from raw material through stock market exchange value, smelted commodity, capital wealth and recycled material. From the transformed landscapes of the Atacama Desert through a re-imagined voyage to Wales and the City of London, the book documents spaces of circulation, environmental disruption, protest and trade, and makes visible the return of the copper hidden within technological devices to its geographical origins.

The publication presents documentary research in the form of maps, photographs and texts, and offers a critical spatial imaginary for re-thinking the geographies of copper. It includes six written contributions by curators, historians and poets: Andrés Anwandter, Marta Dahó, Tehmina Goskar, Tony Lopez, Louise Purbrick and Frank Vicencio López.

Copper Geographies stems from the practice-based PhD thesis The Copper Geographies of Chile and Britain: A photographic study of mining, carried out between 2012-2016 as part of Traces of Nitrate, a research project developed in collaboration with Art and Design historian Louise Purbrick and photographer Xavier Ribas, based at the University of Brighton and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Intersectional Geographies, Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol, UK, 2022
En Paisaje | Experiencia | Producción, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Santiago, Chile 2022
The Climate Emergency in 50 Rounds, Fotobokfestival Oslo, 2020


Maja Fowkes, Reuben Fowkes Art and Climate Change (World of Art), Thames & Hudson, London, 2022
Arts contemporains et anthropocène, Edited by Méaux D. and Tichit J. Hernann, Editions Hermann, France, 2022
Photographie contemporaine & anthropocène, Ed. by Méaux D. and Tichit, J. Filigranes Edition, France, 2022
Ignacio Acosta, Copper Geographies , Editorial RM, 2018
Ignacio Acosta The Copper Geographies of Chile and Britain: A Photographic Study of Mining. Phd Thesis, University of Brighton, 2016
Beyond Gated Communities, Edited by Samer Bagaeen, Ola Uduku 2015


Lur Magazinne by Chiara Sgaramella, 2020
Lur Magazinne by Ruber Arias, 2020
De Correspondent by Jan van Poppel, The Netherlands, 2020
Panorama, 2020
Tank Magazine, 2019
Transfer: Global Architecture Platform, 2019


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Im a Chilean born, London based visual artist and researcher.

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