Educator: Rocío (Goti) Brito
Children: Isabella, Tomas, Amalia, Luciana & Elian

Situated where Cuenca’s city valley ends and the highland mountains begin, Challuabamba is a meeting place of temporalities and existences. Here, Cuenca’s expanding contemporary suburbia meets longstanding Andean farmlands. The Pan-American highway moves through Challuabamba, edging both ultra modern concrete housing developments and traditional adobe homes made of clay soil and grasses. Challuabamba is figured by the meetings of these contradictory, coexisting Andean realities.

In the garden, the children notice insects and creatures whose pathways gesture toward an ‘underneath side’ of Challuabamba. Speculating together about what exists below, we meet an already living world on the undersides of the garden. Storying this world alive through artistic languages such as drawing and painting, together with the children we create new ways of being in a place that is shaped by shadows and the unseen. As educators listen for particular stories over others, the garden’s underneath world becomes a meeting place of complex heterogeneity, where peculiar creatures rely on the bodies of each other for survival.   

The underneath world

The Challuabamba garden is situated in a beautifully manicured landscape that surrounds a newly remodeled, contemporary hacienda on the outskirting mountains of Cuenca. The original home was once built with ‘adobe’, a traditional form of construction using a composition of clay soil and natural grasses, and has been recently updated with a modern concrete build.

Out in the yard with a small group of children, Elián flips over a large stone. In the damp soil beneath, small round bugs with tiny legs and a grey, armored shell are in abundance. The children call them ‘roll ups’. When roll ups are exposed from beneath the stones, they curl frantically into small balls. The children say rolls ups need to hide because they live in the shadows.

The roll ups are not the only creatures in the garden.  We also encounter a discarded plastic energy drink that is bustling with ants travelling in many directions, eventually flowing into a unified line that leads to a deep hole in the soil.

Tomás tells us, “the bugs move easily downstairs because they are small and the ants go out to work, and then come back downstairs.”

We are pulled into the children’s proposition that “living things live underneath things.”

We see the children’s interest in the ‘undersides’ of things

as a possible figure that might help us to undo the ‘upside’

of this beautiful yard that lies behind the modern house.

The children’s proposition to consider an already living world on the undersides of the modern garden opens us up to encounter the garden as a site of contradiction – a place that holds immense possibility for experiencing a radically different world.

Without creating a divide between upsides and undersides, we set out with questions to think with in our inquiry alongside the children:

Who lives in underneath worlds?
What is it like to live there?
Does the underside rely on the upside in order to exist? What dependencies might be here?

We draw together below the trampoline as a way of working through emerging ideas that might story life in the underneath world. However, the light is a problem as the underneath world is ‘only made of darkness and shadows.’

We move our work inside, cover all the windows, and draw beneath dark, hanging fabrics and a single candlelight.

For the children, the underneath world is a place with no sun, only small fires. Darkness, doubt, and distortion are the conditions of this place.

Interested in what the underneath world might open up, we  attune to the peculiar sensitivities that move beyond anything we already know.

As the children continue painting, the idea of ‘the normal human’ is undone. 

They notice a large handprint on the paper, a trace of what Luciana suggests is “the formless human who has no arms or legs.”

In the underneath world, “humans can only feel with their formless bodies; they do not have eyes.” These prints on the earth are traces of humans finding their way around without vision. Elián asks, “How does the man build a fire without arms?”

As we paint, intertwined conversations emerge. 

“A big man appears to break the branches of the tree, but the branch grew again. He could not see anything and he kept tripping over everything, holding onto branches to avoid falling into the river.” – Luciana

“A butterfly lands in the underneath world … and when it tries to fly away it becomes a big wolf.” – Tomás

“The man began to collect stones so that he could light a fire and be able to eat at night. Because he did not see anything and was hungry, he collected many leaves from the trees and gathered them all together. He heard many sounds, the river, the butterfly, the bugs, but he did not know where to go.” – Elián

With an attention to the dominant figure of the conquesting human who uses mind over matter to master uncertainty, we set out to stay with the troubles of the underneath world and its potential as a place of intense disturbance, distortion, and mutation in order to unsettle the conceptual categories we use to imagine ourselves and our bodies. We seek to stay in the possibilities of the underneath world, and to take seriously the children’s speculations as invitations to think. We set out to make strange the space for other ways of living.

To intensify strange forms and mutations, we project the paintings on the wall and create stories from the shadows.

“Where I go my shadow always goes with me and I see many more things,” Amalia says.

Noticing that Amalia’s body is intersecting with and through other things, we think more about what it might be like to become a formless body in the underneath world. The possibility of shared bodies emerges.

Shadows work at the sites of contrast, the meeting place of oppositions.

“To make shadows we need light and we will always find light in the dark.” Tomás

Shadows help us to dissolve the human as the sole protagonist of the underneath world, and to refigure how we conceptualize a body. The shadows make visible correspondences between things, inter-dependencies, flows, and formation as a shared movement. In the shadows one thing is always the ‘between’ of something else.

With images of the interdependent bodies rendered through our shadow work, we return to Elián’s question about the formless human: “How does the man make a fire without arms?”

Throughout several weeks, the children use drawing and painting to consider how the formless human might make a fire without arms. The children suppose that a spider with hundreds of legs and arms helps the man by giving him its eyes and legs. A centipede also arrives in the underneath world to assist with “thin and very long” arms, as Elián says. Isa adds that the centipede has no eyes, rather it has “antennae to detect where to go.” 

Referencing the children’s drawings and paintings, we make life size figurines of the spider and the centipede so that we can better study the mechanisms and details of their bodies – what they do, and how they move with each other in the underneath world.

The children muscle together through large sheets of craft paper, thick tape and murky meetings of black and white paint. There is a contagious energy in making these creatures ‘real’ with felt bodies that move beyond the flat dimensions of the children’s illustrations.

With the figurines, we return to the shadows to animate movement and intersections of the emerging bodies. Large limbs of the spider’s legs walk across the wall as we flash a light behind a lanky paper body. Elián holds the spider high in the air and slowly walks around the room; he moves closer to the wall in response to dark growing legs that overcome the space. There is an essence of vulnerability amongst the children as the spider’s presence becomes more profound. Luciana teeters on her toes so the centipede’s shadowy pincers meet the spider’s crawling legs.

Attuning to the children’s proposition that bodies in the underneath world are interdependent, we seek out drawings from artists whose illustrations speak with human-animal anatomical hybridities or other co-dependent figurations.

In our search, we encounter distorted figurations of human-animal-tech others emerging from the 80s sci-fi arts movement and feminist contemporary artists.  We gather art pieces from artists such as Louis Bourgeois and Luboš Plný to enhance the children’s attention to the shared qualities of bodies that might exist in the underneath world.

Energized by the liveliness of the shadow spider-centipede and the artists’ drawings, we think more about how these creatures respond to each other in the underneath world. We draw shared bodies and their stories with charcoal, shifting lines and movement between the borders of things.

As the children draw, the underneath world and its inhabitants are complexified. 

“The formless man was sailing the river in the underneath world and met the centipedes and guided him with their antennae to his house.”  Isa

“The spider and the centipede were together because the spider lent his eyes so that the centipedes could walk and look for food.” Julián

“The scorpion was walking downstairs to look for his friend the spider and asked the centipede for the legs to be able to run faster and make bigger steps.” Tomás

“The butterfly lent its wings to the centipedes. They were able to change parts, because they took the water from the river of the shadow world that nobody knew was haunted.” Tomás

We notice that in the underneath world limbs are not static or sedimented on an individual body, but rather they move across multiple bodies in differential and responsive ways.

How do shared bodies move in the underneath world?
What does a ‘formless’ body do?
Along with drawings by the children, artists, and others, these questions are carried to the families in errant baskets to provoke thinking into how these creatures might move in strange and unfamiliar ways.
With their families, children think, draw and design the shared limbs, muscles, organs, tissues and other bodily features they believe might be necessary to live well in the underneath world.

Elián shares his drawings with all the children.  We think together about what it might have been like in the underneath world during the earthquake.

As we continue drawing, the story of an earthquake in the underneath world that caused many problems and re-figurations of the creatures emerges.

“The spider and the butterfly were together, the butterfly had to give her friends her wings so she could fly and help them out of the earthquake. The spider had many eyes and could see its way in the shadows … The human could not see or take his food, so he had the spider’s legs that helped him walk well. The roll-polly [wood-bug] helped the spider with its strong legs climb the wall so he could return home.” Elián

We remember that this spider also helps the formless human move in the underneath world without vision.

“When there’s an earthquake all the creatures get trapped. The butterfly flies with its wings and can feel the danger with them. But he has no eyes, so the spider helps him see and the butterfly helps the spider feel the danger with its wings. The ants feel with their whole body, they were trapped in their paths and so the spider helped them with their legs to dig and to enter again in their house below, they all went to sleep and the next day the sun came out.”- Elián

Other children intensify the earthquake story:

“…luckily all the creatures were able to follow the path of the ants and found the butterfly and the spider … there was a butterfly that was alone in the forest, he came across a cricket and she wanted to show him the world below, he guided him down the path of the ants. They came across the scorpion and since the cricket had not eaten, the scorpion lent him his pincers so he could collect his own food and eat.” – Isa

The children continue by speculating that the ants create staircases so that others can enter the underneath world from above.

As we wrap up the school year, we hope to continue nourishing the many details of the stories, and to pay attention to what conditions might sustain the otherwise ways of living in an underneath world that allowed children to lean into distortion and mutation.

As we open ourselves up to uncanny relations forged in dark, uncertain places, we are holding on to these questions:

What knowledges must we betray in order to nourish the liveliness of a peculiar, underneath world?

What assumptions about bodies and subjectivity are we actively interrupting in engaging with this place?

What is the culture of the underneath world, and how might we sustain its mystery as we encounter it more intimately?