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The Aquatic City: Dundee hub

The University of Dundee's Dr Daniel Cook takes us through their 2019 festival hub inspired by a fictional aquatic civilisation lurking beneath the River Tay...

What inspired you to act as a  festival hub for Being Human 2019?

Since 2015, the Being Human festival has been the ideal platform for a smallish city like Dundee, one that is highly creative but subject to rapid, even dizzying civic regeneration. As a hub we can focus on a collective theme in any given year, drawing on a diverse range of existing projects and forging new partnerships.

'Discoveries & Secrets' in Dundee

Any large body of water doubles up as imaginative space full of hidden terrors and wonders. The eeriness of the Tay inspired a young Mary Shelley, who lived nearby as a teenager, and a number of notable writers and artists ever since. But our river is also attached to an ignoble history of bridge disasters, whaling, pirating, shipwrecks and more. For this year’s Being Human festival we imagine that the biggest surprise has yet to reach the surface – a Scottish Atlantis, an ancient civilisation that has thrived beneath the water this whole time. What can we learn from these mysterious people? What lurks beneath?

Programme highlights

We have a diverse mixture of events, from a shopping mall takeover (The Aquatic City's Well of Ideas) to a Victorian-style magic lantern show (Sails, Whales and Tails!). There will be a day of sea creatures great and small at Dundee Science Centre; two film screenings at Dundee Contemporary Arts – one a delightful family movie about Celtic selkies, the other a commissioned faux-documentary that will dive deep into a long history of aquatic cinema; an evening of poetry and chat with the Wyvern Poets, who will be giving away free copies of their commissioned poetry pamphlet, River Rhymes; a brand-new comic book, drawing on local artistry as well as showcasing entries for a festival-long competition for all ages; and an immersive session with the university’s archives in which we will help children and their parents bring local whaling stories back to life through word and image. I’m particularly excited about a 4-in-1 event, a Tay treasure hunt and beach clean (which also includes improvisatory storytelling and a bracing walk during the Scottish winter) – I won’t say too much now. But expect big, big (and tiny, tiny) treasure galore.

Research highlights

One new type of event for us this year will see us taking over a prominent shop space in one of Dundee’s central malls. Inspired by the Poet’s Box shops in which Dundonians once performed and printed their latest creations, this festival-long shopping centre hub will recover the city’s aquatic heritage through hands-on workshops, dramatic performances, film and visual art, and more. In particular, Dr Erin Farley’s doctoral research into Victorian Dundee’s working-class literary and performative culture will shape, and authenticate, the scope and content of many of these activities. People will be able to get their hands inky with a hand-operated letterpress, experiencing in real-time the hustle and bustle of creating a broadsheet for a local audience. An army of zinesters will also demonstrate the theory and practice that drives modern ground-up news outlets. Collectively, we have a team of researchers interested in early media archaeology, which includes the written and the spoken word alike. There will be no better way to bring all of this work to life – amid the daily pressures of the shopping mall experience!

Dundee - The City of Discovery

Dundee is quite literally The City of Discovery. Our nickname refers to the RRS Discovery, Captain Scott’s ship, which is now a museum on the waterfront. When putting the programme together we were struck by the sheer vastness of Dundee’s maritime connections. As a merchant (as well as a Government spy), Daniel Defoe travelled extensively by sea, and Dundee was one of the many ports he visited. Writing of a 1724 visit he described “a pleasant, large, populous city [that] well deserves the title of Bonny Dundee”. As it happens, his most influential novel, Robinson Crusoe, celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. And Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, turns 200 years old, too. Taking the Tay as a frame, we will be able to explore these and other anniversaries in a local setting. Dundee remains an aquatic city – but our relationship with the Tay is now largely contemplative. What terrors and wonders can we create together? What is, and what could be, the Tay’s relationship with Scotland and the wider world?

Why come along?

The imaginary civilisation lurking in the Tay will provide a starting point for exploring the relationship between humanity and water, taking on important issues as diverse as exploration, colonisation, pollution, animal rights and inequality. We’re hoping to raise awareness about our relationship with not only our built environment but our most iconic natural one, the Tay. Above all, we want to show that something that we take for granted, such as the river that courses by our city, can be an inexhaustible source of great creativity. It’s a watery blank page; we can’t wait to see what terrors and wonders fill it. As well as performances, hands-on demonstrations, walks, film screenings, and friendly debate, attendees will also be able to take home some surprising treasures, as well as a new comic book, a poetry pamphlet, and much more besides.