San Joaquin of the Yanuncay Garden

Educator: Cristina Ochoa
Children: Isabela, Juan David, Noah, Juliana, Julián Emilio, Sofía & Juan Martin

San Joaquin’s landscape presents two disparate or divergent worlds including the traditional agriculturally-based areas and the newly built modern homes often enclosed in gated communities. This is also the land of multiple generations of basket weavers and other traditional artisans who continue to make a living as their land is transformed aesthetically. San Joaquin is made out of the contrast that emerges in the encounter of these two worlds: the beautiful green farmland fields and the manicured home gardens. A short stroll brings us to the Yanuncay river which together with the Tomebamba river runs down from higher elevations in the Andes. It is commonly known as the least altered of the four rivers of Cuenca.  However, at a closer look, the river is reconstructed with endless stone borders that channel water to the local farms and artisans. Through these channels, the river provides for communities in a multitude of ways.

River Diffractions

The San Joaquin garden is adjacent to the Yanuncay river, which surrounds Cuenca. To get to the river, we, a group of children and teachers, exit the gated urban neighborhood (Villas del Rio) while observing the pristine, maintained gardens of the houses. We like to think of the exit gate as magical as the children routinely anthropomorphize it and ask for it to open when we depart the populated area. 


We are drawn to witness how the relations with stone structures, water and light contribute to the life of the Yanuncay.  In between experimentations with light, water, stones and shadows we cultivate an attentiveness towards what is fluid and changeable. Together with the children we move between multiple encounters with the river and the simulations that such encounters inspired. As we do so, we encounter river light. At the same time, we engage in processes of making light which allow us to blur the lines between magic and reality, natural and unnatural, bodies and shadows. This project brings us close to pedagogical processes that experiment with logics that are attentive to fluid properties of the river and light we are in relation with and dependent upon.

I can see the forest in the water as if it were a mirror. Isabela 

The water light on the log looks like flames. – Juan Martin 

Stones both become and create the river.  We notice the movement of water over the stones and the way the stones cause the water to swirl and play with light. 

Similarly, we see how shadows and reflections are interrelated and reliant on the movements of the sun. We can see fragments of images of eucalyptus diffract in the water and notice its pieces moving up and down. As we make the intention to view these distorted reflections and fragments of light and shadow, we are provoked by many ideas and speculations about what/how we can see and imagine. 

We see the river-stone-water-relations as assemblages that play with the striking movements of the light. The sunlight reflections on the river surface call us to slow down. We notice how the light slides through the water creating magical shapes on the stones and our bodies.

What shapes does the light create in water? What reflections can we find? – Juan Martin 

We touch the star-like distinctive rays that are plastered on top of the water and try to hold or grasp them. 

Juan Martin’s question invites us to trace the light and its movements. We are galvanized by the light that refracts from the water onto pieces of wood. We notice that when we approach the river, the formation of the water with the light becomes unstable. Our bodies enter this relation as we approach the river. Our bodies create a series of movements that are constantly altered when in motion. 

As the river moves with the light, it touches, leaves marks, and changes itself on the surfaces of our hands. This is further amplified as we find plastic bottles around the river. We wave the bottles back and forth. We see small water droplets fall off the bottles and make ripples that further interrogate the light from the plastic bottles. We identify water/light relations as relations that can be altered with plastic and that are also in our bodies. This is one way that we see ourselves with the river. 

Look how the river moves in my face. – Juliana

When we shift our attention to the stone banks along the river, once fragmented with shadow, we notice insects creeping in dark spaces, and using cracks and crevices to make their homes. With magnifying glasses, we amplify their presences. We pay attention to their busy movements, back and forth, back and forth… 
We are provoked by our ideas around light and the insects’ affinity to seek the stones as refuge in the river’s borders. As we think about how light touches the river, we see the cracks between the stones as dark shelters and homes for the insects. We also notice that the arrangement of these stones is manipulated and moved, the banks are created by humans who dwell in the river’s edge. 

Where there are stones there are insects because they live there because that is their house. Isa

They do not! They live under things because they like the dark. – Juan Martin

We build with stones and they live on stones. Sofi

River-light Simulations

On our return to the garden, we keep places of light and shadow in mind as we enact stone-water-light relations in diffractive and playful ways. As we embrace a representation of these relations, children bask in water fabrics, while insects dwell on the surfaces of the stones. 

To create pedagogical processes that enact slow intimacy with the nuances of the river, we speculate with the possibilities and divergences that enacting the river’s relationality offers. We work with the concept of simulation as a practice to re-animate the moments of light that we observe in the river.  We use paints, plastics, rocks, mosses, wood and tree pieces in the simulation. 

Plastic bags filled with water interrupt both water as pure and plastics as unnatural. Flashlights mimic the sunlight and allow us to create similar conditions to the sun’s action on water and rocks in the river. Through this simulation children encounter light anew—giving it a mysterious life. 

The mystery of the light is intensified as we bring darkness to the river simulation. 

In the dark, we notice the stone’s shadows which have a life of their own. Sometimes the shadows and the stones meet in unexpected formations. Plastic and water illuminate the sides of the stones. The children are surprised with how light and water move together creating choreographies that resemble the movements of the river.  They also notice that they can manipulate light with their flashlights shaping new choreographies.

I can create that light and move the light. –​ Juan Martin

We work with the transformative properties of plastic, tapping into its capacity to diffract and manipulate light in the dark setting. As we bend the plastic, the light creates very vivid sun rays. We recognize plastic as an intensifying medium with light and water. 

This is our light. – Julian 

We trace and paint the light movements and diffractions that plastic made visible. Our tracings move beyond the plastic boundaries. We follow some of the nuances of how light introduces itself and shifts in relation to different surfaces.  The emerging shapes that are recorded from the light are divergent- no two light rays and shapes are ever the same. 

The children describe these new rays as ‘magical’ – differing from, yet inspired by the Yanuncay’s lights. 

See how the light crosses the stones. –Sofi

The water is doing the same thing. – Juan Martin

In the children’s efforts to create light shapes, glimpses of uncontrollable rays make their way onto the middle of the simulated river.  The children are perplexed with the many ways the light diverges, and the spectrum of intensity it delivers. These many intensities invite us to question the ways in which we perceive the categories of lightness and darkness as they start to spill over into each other.

The porosity in the rocks and contained bags teaches us that light has the capacity to move through unforeseen gaps. As we think with the leakiness of light through the plastic and stones, we wonder how lightness and darkness bring contrasts and divisions.
We pay attention to the tensions that emerge in children’s storytelling. On one hand, children make light; on the other hand, light leaks, reshapes and fragments on its own terms.

Painting with light as a speculative practice

In our experimentation with plastic, flashlights and rocks, we encounter another surprise in the light’s ability to interrupt and provoke our speculations. As we move one of our flashlights back and forth, we notice the colours changing in between light spectrums. We envision the colours as entry ways to other places, worlds or perceptions.  

It feels like heat with the yellow and orange. – Juan Martin 

Brown is like the river when it rains a lot and it grows. – Sofi

Green feels like forest and plants. – Isa

We are inspired by Sofi and Isa’s visualizations of how these fabricated colours remind of a growing plant covered river and Juan Martin’s idea that these colours have a relationship with heat.

To amplify the light’s action on colour – and the stories they create – we use plastic cellophane paper, which when touched by the light from the flashlights envelops the entire area with its colour. We continue to imagine colour’s presence and influence. 

Green feels like forest and plants. – Isa

This colour burns, it’s like it’s very hot. – Noah

It is this leakiness that enables us to further co-create stories. As we notice how light and colour permeates through plastic, we also notice how our shadows disrupt its flow, as our bodies are both illuminated by colour and light, and block the light from moving forward.

Shadow Choreographies

We work with the tension that emerged by amplifying the leakiness of light through projections on the wall. 

Sofía places a bag of water in front of her flashlight and begins to observe how the light refracts and creates a fluid condition for shadowing. As she notices how her hands are fluidly moving with the light refraction, Sofía comments, “Look at the lights on the ceiling.”

Inspired by the images on the wall, Noah mimics Sofia’s gestures and phrases, and repeats, “Look at the lights on the ceiling!”

Intrigued by the lights, Juan Martin and Juliana start to follow the other children’s gestures. “These are like the trunk and the stones of the river- it is as if the flashlight is the sun of our river,” Juan Martin responds. 

Meanwhile Juliana calls the children’s attention and shouts, “Look my hand is a crocodile.” 

This narrative continues as the children’s formations fluidly move from a butterfly to a spider and from snake-dogs to crocodile-snakes. 

Juliana transforms her entire body into “the monster”.

Our newly developed shadow characters invite us to storytelling. 

Fragmented group storytellings

There was once a girl who saw a shadow on the wall of her house. It was the shadow of a monster. The girl approached a tree and thought to go to see what else is outside. She found a cat and a dog that looked like ghosts because their feet were not seen. The girl approached and saw that they were only shadows of darkness. In the end, she found a friend who was her neighbour and they played with the shadows. Her friend’s name was Juan. They both played together at night in the shadows. The clouds had many shapes and turned green because it was a very dark and a special night.

As the light on Sofi moves back and forth, it is difficult to keep a still line. Juli explains, “The light is what moves and moves my shadow.”

With the intention to mesh our bodies and those of the shadows, we draw ourselves with charcoal as we enact our created story of light and the shadows. Tracing our shadows is tricky, they are difficult to capture, and the light playfully humbles us to experiment. 

The further I move my hand away from the shadow, the bigger it will be, but the closer I get the smaller it is. – J. Martin

When you light me from behind, I can see the shadow of my head and I can draw it. – Sofi

We look a little strange when we are shadows, but we are all together. – J. Martin

We layer a tree found on the banks of the river onto our portraits. 

The charcoaled tree gives our silhouettes new forms. We also notice how our shadows change. 

Now we are the monsters of the story. – Juliana and Noah

Back to the river

As we continue the exploration within the garden we also continue our visits to the Yanuncay.

Juliana and Noah stop to observe how the shade of these large trees sways in the wind creating strange shapes. “They look like our hands when we play with the shadows,” says Juliana. “They look like the monsters we make with our fingers,” Noah replies as he tries to make shadows with his hands. 

The indomitable characteristics of light inspire us to think and enact relations that are always fluid and lack containment. These relations are unpredictable and not easy to be mastered. Yet, they are hospitable, far-reaching and open to unexpected configurations.