Start main page content

A WATERSHED in arts and science

- Deborah Minors

WATERSHED is a programme that enmeshes the arts and science to provoke new thinking about water.


What does a polluted river sound like? How does sand-filtered water taste? Will acid mine drainage scald your skin? Do oceans echo? 

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? This philosophical question about a natural phenomenon reflects how disciplines can merge. Similarly, acoustic ecologists map environmental sounds. Take that forest, for example. What is the impact on a local ecology if you remove not all the trees, but only a few? 

“Bernie Krause recorded the sounds of a forest continually for a year. After a year there were massive changes in the biodiversity. We tend to privilege the visual over audio, but sound is often more sensitive than the visual,” says Lenore Manderson, Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at Wits and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), Brown University, USA. 

“Shifting our perceptual field away from the visual and attending to the aural [listening] environment deepens our understanding of planetary ecology,” writes Manderson in a paper entitled Rumble filter: Sonic environments and points of listening (2017). 

“What does a river sound like? What does a polluted river sound like? It’s actually quite noisy,” says Manderson. The point is that the absence of visual evidence doesn’t mean there isn’t any impact. 

And so it is with water.


(waw-) n. 1. line of separation between waters flowing to different rivers or basins or seas. 2. (fig.) turning-point e.g. in history. 

Since April 2015 Manderson has organised an art-science programme, Earth, Itself, through IBES. The aim is to facilitate conversations and build collaborations across creative arts practice and theory, the humanities, and the social, natural and physical sciences. 

At Brown, Manderson drew on the elements earth, air, fire, and water and aligned each element with an art practice and research component. Thinking the Earth featured dancers who performed on a sprung dance floor covered with wet clay to demonstrate impact. Air was coupled with music and sound to produce Atmospheres; fire with ceramics and glass blowing to forge What fire does; and water and ice with text to transcribe Water’s edge.

Now Manderson has brought the programme to Wits where it will manifest as WATERSHED: Art, Science and Elemental Politics. This research-enmeshed celebration of water will run from 10 to 21 September 2018 and will include interactive art installations, engineering and scientific displays, and academic symposia across disciplines and faculties highlighting water on the continental divide. 

“The artwork is about getting people working outside the academy to engage with water in a way that they haven’t before. If you’re a dancer, for example, you may never go to a seminar by an earth scientist on palaeogeology, but finding ways to bring together artists and scientists opens up how you understand the world and what you understand to be the issues,” says Manderson. 

As at IBES with Water’s edge, collaboration across disciplines defines WATERSHED at Wits. Several artists participating in WATERSHED are visiting fellows in the digital arts, fine arts, and theatre and performance in the School of Arts at Wits. 

"The conceiving of the Watershed: Art, Science and Elemental Politics project and its precursors have always understood artists to be central to the ways in which knowledge production and enquiry takes place. This intersects with the University's commitment to artistic research, the Wits School of Arts' leading role in deepening understandings in and around artistic research, and the ways in which newly imagined futures are generated through inter- and cross-disciplinary practices,” says Associate Professor David Andrew, Head of the Division of Visual Arts at Wits. 

The Chamber of Mines and the Atrium of Echoes 

Any Witsie who has ventured beyond the Unknown Miner into the Chamber of Mines building knows that the Atrium within resonates with eerie acoustics. Atul Bhalla from Shiv Nadar University in India is a visiting fellow in Visual Arts at Wits. His installation You always step into the same river: Looking for lost water (Explorations at the Cradle) will take place in the Atrium. 

Bhalla has been involved in projects which highlight the use/misuse of water as well as its religious and mythical significance in his hometown of New Delhi. His work for WATERSHED will examine water as a repository of history, meaning and myth within the context of Johannesburg gold mining, taking references of land and water relations from historical (oral and non-oral) contexts. 

“I’ll also attempt to explore how people live and survive in and around the dumps, developing local language/s and words for operations and acts that may not have existed pre-mining days. I intend to use Zulu as the language of communication within the work,” says Bhalla. 

Valuing art and science 

Professor Craig Sheridan is Director of the Centre in Water Research and Development (CiWaRD) at Wits, Co-Founder of the Industrial and Mine Water Research Unit, and a Lecturer in the School of Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering. He says that the levers that drive change are in the societal domain. 

“If you see pictures of people up to their necks in water, it kind of makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. Or if you see people fighting for water, that’s also a very uncomfortable image. So this is where the arts have the influence that engineering doesn’t. But we’re also using the engineering space to influence the societal space,” says Sheridan, adding that art and science exert influence differently because the value systems of artists and engineers differ. 

As a process engineer who “sees systems” (which always work in complexity), Sheridan believes enmeshed research – “not just interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary” – is key to water management in future. 

“I like the idea of having engineers show their little waste water management rigs to people, and to have artists in the same space saying, ‘look at these photographs’. We’re all responding to the same thing in the ways that we know, using our own internal value systems, and what we start to see is each other’s value systems.” 

Walking forests, building water 

Sheridan’s future collaboration with Lucia Monge, a Peruvian artist now based at the Rhode Island School of Design in Rhode Island, USA, demonstrates enmeshed research. Monge will be based at CiWaRD for WATERSHED where she will present a photographic and sound installation, Mi niño, your dry spell, their waterfall in the Origins Centre. 

“Maps and tools will be my vehicles to explore difference and interconnectedness on water issues,” says Monge, who previously used people as vehicles for plants. Since 2010 she has organised ‘walking forest’ performances in Peru, the UK and USA, where people carry plants across the city in peaceful protest, culminating in a ‘plant in’. 

How heavy metal sounds in a river 

Brian House from Brown, and a Visiting Fellow in Digital Arts at Wits, works on enmeshing nature in the ditigal realm. His work Heavy Metal: Digital conversations on water and mines will coincide with the annual Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival curated by Wits Digital Arts and will take place in the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. 

House will create a digital artistic rendition of the heavy metals found in waterways, converting real-time recordings of these metals in the water into digital sounds. The metal sheets of copper, lead, aluminum, and iron, vibrate like data-driven musical fountains. House originally created this installation based on heavy metals polluting the Animas River in his hometown of Colorado. 

“I am interested in how similar ensembles of geology, industrial history, and current dynamics resulting from ecological instability are present all over the world and interrelated. Having made a piece that's local to me, the chance to work in South Africa in unfamiliar environs will be very productive,” says House. 

Manderson says the artists are all in one way or the other engaging with water. “They stimulate new ways of thinking about the issues. By people getting together from very different fields, and interacting across different academic disciplines, we begin to play with how we understand the environment, water security, and governance, identify priorities, and determine where the research might go.” 

And that might be in the direction of how forests think, if fire dances, how thunder tastes and if that tree falling solo makes a sound.

Water futures

WATERSHED will include a scholarly programme comprising symposia and student presentations.

  • Words on Water: Southern African literatures and the oceans will include academics from the Oceanic Humanities Programme in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).
  • Under the surface: justice and politics will include panellists from the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry who will engage on topics related to water governance and acid mine drainage.
  • On the watershed: urban histories of water is a seminar that will focus on the watershed of the Vaal and Limpopo rivers. Academics from the Wits City Institute will interrogate the region’s history (post) colonial geographies, swimming pools, baths, and guerilla gardens.
  • Action on water: Climate justice and people’s charters will explore activism as a way to address social inequities that distort access to water.
  • Water futures: digital imaginations is a symposium that will focus on modelling future environments in relation to water insecurity and threats. Here panellists will address the use of big data and digitally generated visuals in assisting water policy development.

Read more about the research conducted across faculties, disciplines and entities to help secure humanity’s most important resource for survival: water, in the fourth issue of Wits' new research magazine, Curiosity.