Neurology Meets Geomorphology: “Panarchy (2): Rivearthings”, a Performance Project

Theatre practitioner Rachel Clive discusses a performance project which explores crossovers between neurology and geomorphology.


Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed
in the first place to consider the seasons of the year, and what
each of them produces for they are not at all alike, but differ
 from themselves in regard to their changes. Then the winds, the
and the cold, especially such as are common to all countries,
then such as are peculiar to each locality. We must also
the qualities of the waters, for as they differ from one another
taste and weight, so also do they differ much in their qualities.
Hippocrates (400 B.C)

This post will share aspects of Panarchy (2): Rivearthings, a performance project undertaken as part of my practice-based interdisciplinary doctoral research at the University of Glasgow. Panarchy (2): Rivearthings explores crossovers between neurology and geomorphology, specifically in terms of how humans attempt to control both neurological and geomorphological processes (and related behaviours) which are seen as transgressive, “Other” or different. It considers environmental flooding management practices and contemporary dredging practices along with the medical and social management of “normally different” human behaviours, bringing the two into creative dialogue with each other. For example, it is interested in neurodivergent-led thinking which argues that some apparently “odd” neurodivergent behaviours such as stimming and flapping can be valuable and meaningful ways of interacting with the world (see Manning, 2012) and sometimes of managing stress, rather than behaviours to be controlled and stopped. Through engaging in “normally different,” transient and contingent performance practices with the River Severn, it connects this thinking with geomorphological  “freedom space for rivers” thinking (Biron, P.M. et al, 2014) which argues for natural ways of managing (increasing episodes of) flooding in a time of climate change.

 Panarchy (2): Rivearthings is the second of a series of four projects that explore human relationships with rivers, estuaries and their dynamic geomorphology through experimental performance practices. The project interrogates my own positioning in the wider research process, as an artist-researcher-facilitator with her own experiences of neurodiversity, who is going through her own transitions, and tests out the panarchic (adaptive) performance model identified in the first performance project, Panarchy (1): Riverings. Whereas Panarchy (1): Riverings worked in relationship with the tributary rivers of the tidal part of the River Clyde, Panarchy (2): Rivearthings works in collaboration with the River Severn and the distinctive and variable earth of the River Severn from its source in the hills of mid west Wales to the sea of the Bristol Channel.

Haraway (2016) argues that we can “reknit the order” of the Anthropocene (the geological age in which humans have begun to affect the evolution of earth’s forms and processes) and the “Capitalocene”. She suggests that we create new stories for an age of precarity, stories in which “human beings are with and of the earth, and the biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story” (p55). Panarchy (2): Rivearthings is a small experimental attempt to “reknit the order” by engaging in what I am calling a “vital materialist storying” practice with the River Severn. The earth of the Severn is the main player in this particular practice.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

The Severn, the longest river in the UK, is a particularly complex semi-circular river that borders England and Wales for much of its length. It is famous especially in the lower reaches for its shifting sinking sands, its suicides, its cross currents, its tidal bore and its dramatic flooding. Panarchy (2): Rivearthings included a series of performance interventions between the Summer Solstice of 2018 and the autumn equinox of 2018 at a variety of locations along the Severn. The interventions engaged with the generative and destructive capabilities of the Severn, focussing on its potency and agency in relationship to the earth it moves (with and) through. They were interested in the (ever-changing) materiality of the earth itself, and in how this materiality can be understood and “performed” simultaneously in intersecting personal, interpersonal, organisational and political cycles, in a variety of interconnecting human-non-human-natural assemblages. They culminated with a performance intervention at Cardiff Bay on the 1st September 2018 (near the mouth of the river, where the Severn meets the sea) and a performance presentation at Aberystwyth University on 7th September 2018 (near the source of the river in the Cambrian hills). The rest of this post will focus on the penultimate performance of the Panarchy (2): Rivearthings project, the Cardiff Bay intervention.

The Cardiff Bay intervention was performed by myself, a Scottish artist and researcher in collaboration with two Welsh artist friends who live in the Cardiff area, both of whom have a lifelong and strong connection with the River Taff. The main “actor” of the piece, the transforming agent, was the silt of the River Severn. The silt of the Severn estuary is “a defining characteristic of the estuary (and other tidal spaces). It forms the mud banks and shifting channels, forms habitats, and impacts on port management, on aggregate extraction, and on tourist beaches” (Jones, 2011, p2293). We performed with silt from and on the barrage at Cardiff Bay. The barrage is a man-made flood defence, which literally stops the River Taff from joining the River Severn, interrupting the tidal flow of the estuary and changing the qualities of both water and sediment at this significant point of (interrupted) confluence. It keeps the salt and silt out of the bay completely and creates two ecosystems where previously there was one. It includes a sophisticated piece of geoengineering that controls the water flows between river and estuary and lets boats (mostly pleasure boats) in and out of Cardiff Bay.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

The Severn silt is of additional geopolitical and vital materialist relevance at this location given the current dredging of so-called “nuclear mud” from Hinkley Bay nuclear power station in Somerset and its (contested) removal to the River Severn just off Cardiff Bay.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

Panarchy (2): Rivearthings

The Cardiff Bay Intervention was interested in how humans connect with the Severn silt at this particular point in space and time. How do we touch it – or not? Do we love the velvety feel of it or fear the chemical contamination of it? How does it connect us – or separate us? How does it “move us?” The intervention was interested in performing these relationships and also in exploring reactions that public performances of these relationships might provoke.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography
Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

How do people move in relationship with the barrage and the two (previously confluent) water and earth systems that the barrage now separates?

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

People walk along the barrage day and night, left to right, right to left, from Cardiff to Penarth, from Penarth to Cardiff, in lines, moving east to west, west to east, talking, laughing, pushing, pulling, stopping, waiting.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

As they walk, and wait, the tide changes, and changes again.  Water from the Taff laps at the barrage north to south, continuously, continuously seeking the sea. Water from the Severn comes in and out, comes and goes, sometimes leaving only earth to meet the barrage, sometimes covering the earth and lapping at the barrage itself, insistently. In between them, the water in the lock system that is now the only living channel connecting them is churned and sucked and trapped and spat out by metal grinding machinery.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

An odd pair moves slowly in circles, in figures of eight, north to south, west to east, south to north, east to west, continuously, repetitively, sometimes crossing each other and touching, sometimes remaining quite separate.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

The odd pair’s arms are covered in Severn silt, which is meeting the air as they walk, as the light changes and the tide comes in. They are moving in time with the tide, out of time with the tide, in and out of time, a multiplicity of dynamic energies balanced in their slow and trancelike dance.

People pass them by, move between them, around them, some looking furtively at their difference, some looking straight ahead, or out to sea. Others stare at the earth on their arms, intrigued.

“Mucky,” a passer-by says to his family as he looks back at them. “Mucky,” his wife agrees and they frown, inviting the rest of their group to frown upon this muckiness, this strangeness, this unexpected (unwanted?) performance of earth and human difference. But the odd pair just keep on walking, the silt drying on their arms, transforming in the air and the sun. Some of it flakes off their arms and falls, along with tiny dead cells of human living skin, to the concrete ground of the barrage below them.

Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography
Image Credit: © 2018 Tracey Paddison Photography

Rachel Clive is an LKAS doctoral student at the University of Glasgow, whose practice-based PhD “Geodiversity and Human Difference” works across the disciplines of Theatre Studies, Human Geography, Geomorphology and Disability Studies. The PhD is primarily interested in the human difference of neurodiversity, and in exploring human-non-human-nature relationships through performance practices. Rachel is a theatre practitioner, teacher, arts in health facilitator and writer.



Biron, P.M., Buffin-Bélanger, T., Larocque, M. et al. (2014)  “Freedom Space for Rivers: A Sustainable Management Approach to Enhance River Resilience” Environmental Management (2014) 54: 1056.
Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press
Hippocrates (400 B.C.E)  from On Airs, Waters, and Places, trans. Francis Adams, Provided by The Internet Classics Archive. (first accessed 27th June 2018)
Jones, O. (2011), “Lunar-Solar Rhythmpatterns: Towards the Material Culture of Tides”, Environment and Planning A, vol. 43, no.10, pp. 2285 -2303
Manning, E. (2012) Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance, Duke University Press

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