Professors create wind house at American Anthropological Association meeting

Rice anthropologists Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe had their National Science Foundation-funded research project on the political culture of wind power development in Southern Mexico featured in a unique experiential installation at the annual gathering of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in Denver Nov. 17-22.

The entrance to Boyer and Howe's exhibit

The entrance to Boyer and Howe’s exhibit, “Aeolian Politics.”

The installation, titled “Aeolian Politics” (aeolian refers to things related to Aeolus, the Greek god of wind), highlights the political struggle over wind power development in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico. The AAA has hosted similar artistic installations based on anthropological research over the past several years as a way to educate its members about new research and to experiment with immersive and interactive models for sharing social scientific research.

While Mexico is heavily dependent on both fossil-fuel production and consumption, it has set one of the most ambitious targets for clean-electricity generation — 35 percent by 2024.

“With its world-class wind resources, Oaxaca has recently emerged as a pivotal site of renewable energy development,” Howe said. “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec now represents the densest concentration of on-shore wind parks anywhere in the world.”

Howe also noted that in 2008 there were two parks producing 84.9 megawatts of wind-generated electricity; just four years later there were 15 parks producing over 1,300 megawatts, a 1,467 percent increase that made Mexico the second largest wind power producer in Latin America after Brazil. Howe and Boyer started researching Mexican wind power development in 2009 and completed 16 months of field research in the isthmus in 2012 and 2013.

A visitor experiencing the exhibit

A visitor experiencing the exhibit, “Aeolian Politics.”

“We found that the proliferation of wind parks has been contentious at every stage of their installation,” Boyer said. People who support wind power “speak of global climatological good and local economic development,” he said. “Meanwhile, those opposed to wind parks see economic imperialism by foreign capitalists coming, once again, to colonize the region through extractive methods that threaten local ecosystems and food sustainability while returning little in the way of social benefits.”

Boyer and Howe wanted the interactive installation to represent different viewpoints in the struggle over wind power development. They built a wind house within Denver’s  Emmanuel Gallery rigged with special-effects fans to recreate the power of the isthmus wind. As conference participants moved through the exhibit, they saw videos of activists opposed to the wind parks and videos by government agencies and renewable energy companies promoting wind parks in the region. They encountered two different types of wind that blow across the isthmus – the soft, gentle southern wind, known as “Bi Niza,” which provides relief from the subtropical heat, and the more powerful wind of the north, “the Devil’s Wind,” which in Howe’s words, “irritates, assails and invades,” but which local indigenous communities also associate with a world-generating life force.

“The rationale for this installation was to help visitors see, feel and hear the same things that we experienced in this area of Mexico,” Howe said. “The situation of wind power development in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec demands appreciation of seemingly incommensurable ecologies and the relentless pressure of air. We feel like there is something lost when one only reads about the complex wind of the isthmus without feeling that wind and understanding how its intensity is an essential part of aeolian politics.”

A video of the installation is online at The installation was also featured in a recent article in the Huffington Post. More information on the installation is available at

For more information on Boyer and Howe’s research project, click here.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.