Conjuring creativity from the darkness

Published May 29, 2015


The Endemic Project is an immersive installation experience situated on Rhodes Drive by award winning film maker Bryan Little with a sound track by Sylvan Aztok (aka Simon Kohler) Ongoing. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews.

“For a lot of people, nature is abstract”, says film-maker Bryan Little. Many endeavours, whether psychic or practical, begin as a journey into the unknown. In the case of Little’s The Endemic Project– an immersive installation experience – it’s a journey that begins and ends with the dark.

Creativity too, begins in the dark. Both in the sense of it happening in the closed circuit and unlit interior of the mind, and also taking into account that the outcome is never entirely predictable or even in the control of the creator.

Interestingly, recent research has suggested that while creativity flourishes in the dark, precise reasoning needs light for optimal performance. But darkness also has the ability to reveal. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the once golden boy and then permanently exiled Florentine poet writes about finding himself middle aged in a “selva oscura” or dark wood. It is this metaphorical dark wood that forces him to recognise his loss and through his expression of it, precipitates finding his authentic poets voice.

Little’s The Endemic Project too uses the dark to reveal. The project takes place at night on the stretch of unlit road, part of Rhodes Drive, just past upper Kirstenbosch Rycroft Gate on the way to Hout Bay. Even in the daylight this mountain road has a magical quality. Part of the fynbos biosphere, once home to now endangered species, it is almost completely enclosed in a vegetative canopy formed from the remains of van Riebeeck’s dense almond hedge, glossy leaved European chestnut trees, indigenous silver trees and cork. Driving this stretch at night guided only by the narrow beam of your car lights requires concentrating on negotiating the sharp bends and curves. The reflective road sign warnings pop up and are gone with each shift of your headlights and then you begin to register a visual shift. Instead of yet another a road sign, a different one rises up from the darkness – the bright reflective outline of a leopard toad flares momentarily before dying back into the night, then an orange breasted sun bird with its delicate beak dipped in a flowers throat, followed by a long tongued dwarf chameleon snatching an insect, a geometric tortoise, and a shoal of fish until you reach the Constantia Nek circle. You’ve stumbled across The Endemic Project in the way the uninitiated have, by chance. And as one Facebook respondent wrote “it’s as if your heart opens and you have discovered a magical world”. It also has the stamp of approval from teens, the arbiters of cool.

But this momentary visibility of the creatures caught in your headlights that opens the heart is only a brief virtual recall of extinct creatures that were once endemic to this particular fynbos biosphere from the Cape gruysbok to the Table Mountain pride butterflies who pollinate the Disa. Little points out that endemic means found only in a particular area in the world. The “once upon a time” phrase of traditional fairy tales that opens this project has arrived. Sadly there is no turning back. Little explains, these creatures could still exist here if the alien trees on which their pictures are nailed weren’t there.

It was this particular stretch of road that grounded the idea for the project after Little was inspired by a conversation with legendary film maker Peter Greenaway. Greenaway has been exploring the outer edges of film making by projecting and mapping film onto paintings. Little points out that the “essential dynamic of film hasn’t really changed” over the last 100 years whether projected on a large scale wall as in a cinema or looking at the laptop screen. Little considers The Endemic Project to be his “first test and exploration in rearranging the cinema experience” where he is “trying to find new ways to tell stories. For instance, in this project the “car’s motion is the element of time and narrative”.

But the roots of the project’s magical atmosphere go back even further than the inspiration from the seminal conversation with Greenaway to when Little’s father, Dr Rob Little a conservation biologist from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute at UCT, did something his son will never forget – using a tape recording his father called all the owls in the forest to gather around creating what Little refers to as “communion between kingdoms”.

Little’s approach to the project was specific but simple: “remove the camera, place the audience in the experience and make it site specific”. The use of reflective tape was endorsed when by mistake he took a pic of it in a hardware shop using a flash and saw how it popped.

Little wants people to “bring themselves to the experience” rather than engaging passively. The capsule of the car becomes a camera and the occupants engage interactively with the images making nature seem less abstract.

In the same way NASA attempted to personalise space by putting a man in a rocket, Little said that he “wanted to turn people’s cars into spaceships to take them on a journey to explore their back garden”.

This self-funded project has two parts and is best experienced when both are functioning. There’s the visual experience of the reflective tape creatures and then its complementary audio component Simon Kohler’s, geo-tagged soundtrack which includes the chirps and chatterings of these creatures and is triggered as you drive past each one. The geotag is downloadable as an app from VoiceMap.

The Endemic Project comes full circle when the car headlights fade returning the reflective creatures to the darkness and the sound track falls silent, to be recaptured only in memory or on a return journey.

Mimicking the extinction of the creatures, the project has a built in obsolescence and will end once all the boards bearing the reflective outlines of creatures are no more. Already three single creatures, a fish, a butterfly and a buck from three groups have been nicked.

The Endemic Project is brilliant in its conceptual simplicity and efficacy – conservation at its creative best. Full of magic and wonder, with no finger pointing.

l Project

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