River complexity

The puppet acts as a change agent/ mediator in the project partnership and collaboration.

Rory Cruickshank, Stellenbosch

An interesting exhibition was held at the GUS gallery in Dorp Street, Stellenbosch, on Thursday October 19, organised by the Deptartment of Complex Systems in Transition of the University of Stellenbosch (SU), and supported by Wildlands.

This department studies corporate governance to help care about commerce infrastructure, for example, how to improve water quality of the river (Eerste River through Stellenbosch), and what unintended consequences occur.

The university’s Department of Graphic Arts and Design were co-sponsors. Their focus is on the idea of design as an agent of change.

This design initiative involves research, dialogue, and developing a creative agency using techniques such as stop-frame animation (at 12frames/sec) then dissemination in the public space.

Initiated by Dr Charon Buchner-Marais, a PhD student of complex systems, the third-year class of graphic arts students at SU undertook a term project in small groups, to produce a number of stop-frame videos and a puppet model as a united class presentation.

The standard of the videos was excellent, with an interesting variety of stories to illustrate what proved to be a universal conclusion from in-depth research exploring the river, taking water quality samples, meeting people involved along the river and reviewing the river and its condition through the town of Stellenbosch and beyond, through industrial and farming areas which each have their particular impact on the river quality.

Creating a single puppet model was their hardest challenge. Each individual was affected by their internal experiences during their research. Each had strong ideas and feelings to go with their own special talents.

To get a unity of ideas for the puppet design they used words from their experiences and a prior lecture on the subject.

These words were randomly pooled and selected/eliminated until “monster” was the stand-out for the majority.

The resultant puppet metaphor was a monster on the scale of a hippopotamus with trunk-like snout vacuuming up everything and anything in its path and moving like slug.

It has a beautiful cloak covering it and flowing in its path giving an exterior appearance of health and beauty, but as the river puppet goes on its way, this cloak is removed, revealing another cloak which is the reality of being deeply polluted. This coat is also removed as the puppet gradually comes to a standstill as a skeleton, spews out its bellyful of pollution and rubbish, then dies.

All the materials for the puppet were obtained from the river. The puppet thus gives an excellent metaphor of the river, showing the transitions it has gone through until nothing is left and the river becomes just a dirty canal and dies.

The “monster” appearance reflects how we treat the river and how it absorbs an awful lot from humans, industry and farming, thus becoming fouled and polluted and therefore unsafe to drink or to swim in.

The students found that this project was more than a work challenge. It opened their eyes about the serious threats to our Stellenbosch river, which is the heartflow of our town’s culture and history. It was a very moving experience for them and they feel motivated to be involved in saving the river.

A task well done.