When much of a railway intended to connect Mexico City to the Atlantic Ocean was abandoned in 1995, communities were stranded and tracks were left to decay. From 2010 to 2012, Mexican artists and brothers Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene set out to ride those nearly 9,000 kilometers of rails in a retro-future exploratory vehicle called the SEFT-1.
Their journey also took them to abandoned passenger railways in Ecuador, collecting interviews with locals along the way (the whole trek is documented online). Christening themselves “Los Ferronautas,” they modeled the SEFT-1 after a mid-20th-century vision of a spaceship and positioned themselves as explorers of this isolated world.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220, presented by the Arts Catalyst at Furtherfield Gallery, opens in London this Friday, with artifacts from the project along with the SEFT-1 itself. The silver vehicle looks not unlike a rail-ready version of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car, a small invader on the long-empty tracks in which Puig and Domene lived and slept while venturing into the unknown.
The railroad had been a late-19th-century partnership between British companies and the Mexican government. It was meant to link Mexico to Europe by bringing the Latin American nation to the ocean. But after an enthusiastic start it was deemed unprofitable, the infrastructure abandoned, and the country’s railroads privatized.
Other adventurers have made similar vehicles for use on other abandoned tracks around the world, where politics and economics rather than obsolescence have caused the end of a transportation system. Known as “draisine,” these improvised trains include the norry “bamboo train” in Cambodia made to run on the extensive tracks left over from French colonialism. There’s also the “Torure” trains in North Korea, basically carts that roll downhill, and even old VW buses that have been reconfigured for rails in South America.
Describing their time in the SEFT-1 as “retracing the routes that the train used to pass while spreading the promise of the future,” the Ferronautas found ghost towns and desolation, but also communities that they engaged in discussions about both the railroad’s potential for use and its waste, transmitting stories from one stop to the next. For the London exhibition, they collaborated with model railway experts to reproduce some of the Mexican track ruins. By visualizing these places that have been forgotten, Puig and Domene are continuing the dialogue begun with the SEFT-1’s expedition on what these modern ruins can mean for their country’s future.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220 continues at Furtherfield Gallery (Finsbury Park, London) through July 27.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.