Office Hours with… Santiago Acosta

In a Q&A, Yale’s Santiago Acosta discusses research connecting him to his native Venezuela — and some of the artistic “distractions” that bring him joy.
Santiago Acosta

Santiago Acosta (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Santiago Acosta left his native Venezuela in 2011 to continue his graduate studies in the United States. He started out at San Francisco State University, then headed to the opposite side of the country to do his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and then postdoc work at SUNY-Old Westbury on Long Island.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where he specializes in modern and contemporary Latin American literature and visual arts, Acosta says he returns to Venezuela most every year, even as the country has plunged into economic and social turmoil under an authoritarian regime.

My parents are there, and I don’t want to lose my connection with the country,” he said. “I stay in touch with researchers there, with writers, with cultural institutions that are working on many interesting initiatives. And I try to collaborate with them if I can.”

We caught up with Acosta for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces Yale newcomers to the broader university community.

Title Assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Research interest Latin American environmental humanities
Prior institution State University of New York in Old Westbury
Started at Yale July 2023

What is your current research focus?

Santiago Acosta: My book project examines how culture and aesthetics engage in and respond to large environmental transformations. Specifically, it studies the relation between the cultural field and the oil state in Venezuela during the 1970s. This was the period of the great oil bonanza in Venezuela. Conflicts in the Middle East led to the 1973 oil crisis and oil-producing countries benefited from that. Venezuela was rich, and the country launched a huge modernization program, taking advantage of that windfall. The government invested quite a lot of money in public art, museums, publishing houses, stipends for artists. I studied a few cases, one related to public abstract art that was incorporated into new infrastructure and urban modernization projects.

Another example has to do with urban photography and how the state financed photography books about Caracas, the capital city, which reflected the environmental and social changes of the time. The second part of the book deals with the artistic responses to the downfall of the oil boom in the 1980s.

You’re also a published poet. Does your poetry have an environmental focus?

Acosta: Yes, ecological thinking has always been present in my poetry, but especially in my most recent collection, “The Coming Desert.” It’s coming out in a bilingual edition this year. It has to do with the post-apocalyptic imagery that haunts the present and the possibility of ecological catastrophe that’s unfolding every day. I play with that sense of ecological dread— maybe trying to exorcize it through my writing — often in connection with the political crisis in Venezuela, which is an important topic for me. I make that connection between the authoritarian decay in Venezuela and the global environmental crisis.

What are you currently teaching?

Acosta: I’m teaching an undergraduate class about energy in Latin America, seen through art and literature. It’s a history of the relation between energy and capitalist development in Latin America during the 20th and 21st centuries. I start with manifestations of oil capitalism in the early 20th century. We talk a lot about how some artists and intellectuals have represented the world of oil in their work. We also look at the ecological impact of hydroelectric dams and how some artists have approached this in their work. I’m also teaching a graduate seminar that introduces students to recent scholarly, literary, and artistic works in the environmental humanities with a focus on Latin America.

What are your interests outside of work?

Acosta: Reading and writing poetry are deeply personal practices that I treasure. Also, I’m a big fan of music. I collect vinyl records. I like jazz, Latin American music, classic rock, indie rock, African music. I also spend a lot of time playing electric and acoustic guitar. I have many interests!

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