Alone in Peruvian the desert, a robot turns left. It drives forward for a moment before lowering a plow into the sand. This, it drags behind itself, carving a line in the landscape. Zoom up and out. From the right height the lines resolve in a one-to-one map of a fictional city made up of a mashup of Latin American urban centers. Guided by GPS, the robot traces out this place called Nazca City, created in 2010 by a team led by artist Rodrigo Derteano.
“Nazca” is a reference to the Nazca Lines UNESCO World Heritage Site, the complex of geoglyphs carved into the Peruvian desert between 400 and 650 AD and still visible today. The origins and purpose of the Nazca Lines are mysterious, and their vast scale has led some alternative theorists to claim that they prove the Nazca people had developed flight or that extraterrestrials had visited the planet.
Like its antecedent, Nazca City may only be truly appreciable from the air, however, there is no mystery of audience or purpose. The project has been documented by a camera strung on a kite, by people in a plane, and, eventually by passing satellites. Besides, we already have extraterrestrials. It’s nearly impossible to look at imagery of Derteano’s robot tracing a path and not think about Opportunity and Spirit trundling around Mars. “It’s kind of an irony to use a space-like robot to “explore” the possibility of urban life in the desert,” says Derteano.
As for purpose, Derteano grew up in Lima, Peru. Today, 60% of the city lies in the desert, the result of spectacular unplanned growth (the population jumped from 1 million to 8 million in 60 years). By carving a new city in the desert and echoing a key part of Peru’s heritage, Derteano hoped to draw attention to these conditions and to raise questions about the city’s relationship with the desert.
“Perhaps we managed to do so for a week,” he says. “But to my surprise, the project didn’t have the broad appeal I thought it would have.” Despite interest in the contemporary art scene and online, there wasn’t the broader discussion that Derteano sought. And so, unlike their antecedents, the lines of Nazca City are left to fade.
“We don’t really know how long they will last. The terrain that we were able to use didn’t have the exact characteristics of the Nazca area,” says Derteano, “So the lines over there are not forever.”
(Hat tip to Geoff Manaugh.)