Engaging Science, Technology, & Society

Seabed in the Andes:
Exploring “Splace” in Transnational STS



This commentary engages with the digital materials of STS in/through Turkey, Kenya, Japan, and Ecuador collected between 2018 and 2019, and with the collection of essays inspired by these materials. I use the notion of “splace” as an exploratory tool that challenges the division between space and place, and I also invite thinking about STS formations with geological formations I encountered on the Chilean Andes.


place; space; global south; geologic formations


In December 2020, my husband, son, and I ventured out for one of our first post-lockdown excursions to the Plaza San Jacinto, also known as the “Art Garden” (Jardín del Arte) of Mexico City’s San Ángel neighborhood. In one corner of the plaza, we encountered Irina Yushmanova, a “realist” painter who follows the European tradition and displays her artwork among various other entrepreneurial artists. Her thick Russian accent and business card suggest that she sells and delivers her paintings globally, far beyond the Plaza San Jacinto. Seeing in our family potential buyers, she showed my then nine-years-old son paintings of a cat. A cat beside a window. The same cat on a door landing. But my son was unmoved by the cat; instead, he was transfixed by a landscape (figure 1). A road view of the snow-covered Andes on the way to Patagonia immediately commanded his attention. He liked it so much that I had the painting framed and it now hangs in my son’s bedroom.

By bringing this image into our domestic space, which is geographically located in North America, we created a connection to a place on the South American continent. Yet the Andes, spanning the western border of South America, comprise the lengthiest mountain range on a single continent, creating an unbroken elevated region. Its own dimensions (8900 km long and up to 700 km wide) and temporal scale (ten to six million years of age) challenge the idea of the Andes as a place, fixed in space and time. Two years later, the opportunity arose for our family to see a part of the Andean mountains in person, and in their presence, the idea of the Andes as a location became further undone (figure 2).

Figure 1. Photograph of a framed watercolor of the Andes, by Irina Yushmanova. (Source Author’s own, March 8, 2023).

On a fresh spring October morning in the southern cone, my family and I hopped in a jeep with a guide and another family. We rode an hour and a half from Santiago de Chile to El Cajón del Maipo, a canyon located in the southeastern part of the metropolitan region where the Maipo River is boxed by multicolored hills, ridges, and massifs. As much as I enjoyed the views during the ride, nothing had prepared me for the emotion of standing upon fossilized seabed from 200 million years ago. Charles Darwin himself had, like us, walked over rocks cleaved and broken into large, angular fragments at an altitude of 2300 meters in this region in the 1800s. In his travel diary, Darwin noted that “The shattered and baked rocks, traversed by innumerable dikes of greenstone, showed what commotions had formerly taken place.” (Darwin [1845] 1913). Formidable indeed.

Figure 2. Photograph of the Andes. Cajón del Maipo, Chile, October 23, 2022. (Source Author’s own).

I share these vignettes of transnational journeys and geologic formations, in which a welltraveled Russian artist sells a painting of the Argentinian Andes in Mexico City, a Mexican boy transfixed by that watercolor landscape hikes the Chilean side of the mountain range he so admires, and an STS scholar evokes Darwin’s recollections of his voyage in South America while she treks over cleaved rocks and fossilized seabed in the Andes, to bring space and place (or rather, splace) into focus.

Splace, as developed by Arturo Vallejo and I, is the amalgamation of space and place into a single notion. We coined the term in May 2021, while drafting a potential contribution to this ESTS special issue (a draft that we never finished). Splaces are subject to the contingencies of time and the effects of displacement, elevation, collision, erosion, or descent, while their localization along institutional or geologic fault lines may in fact facilitate their transnational and transdisciplinary movement.

The rocky formations in the Andes boast polygonal markings that signify the area was once underwater. These shapes reveal that the water was not deep, and the polygons’ size indicates a prolonged period of desiccation that lasted years (figure 3). Meanwhile, smaller polygons found within cracks suggest shorter periods of desiccation, likely lasting days, or weeks. The environment was once a vast, flat floodplain with little variation in elevation. The inclination of the rock layers, almost vertical in some places, implies that tectonic forces, specifically the collision of the south American and Nazca Plates, folded these strata. This collision created the stunning geological formations we see today. I once thought of these formations as a place, but our interaction with them and the transnational way in which we came to know them is an important part of the story I want to tell.