What inspired you to act as a 'hub' and do a series of activities for Being Human 2017?
The world’s greatest satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, turns 350 in November 2017. This year I have been involved with academic commemorations of Swift’s work, mainly at conferences around the world, but the opportunity to find uniquely creative ways in which to engage with Gulliver’s Travels and other works, in a more public context, was as enticing as ever. We enjoyed hosting a festival hub last year, when we performed a Martian autopsy among other things as part of our celebrations of H. G. Well’s 150th birthday and the launch of the University of Dundee’s new Master’s degree in Science Fiction. We clamoured for more of the same!
How does your programme respond to our 'lost and found' theme?
The 'lost and found' theme is remarkably timely for us. It fits neatly with the shaping themes of Swift’s best-known work, Gulliver’s Travels, but also allows us to expand our burgeoning interest in the 'scientific imagination'. Here I mean we can focus specifically on microscopic and telescopic vision, using Swift’s irreverent take on empirical knowledge as an unusual starting point. Swift probed the moral depths of eighteenth-century society in utterly compelling prose. Who better to address that fundamental question: what does it mean to be human?
Can you tell us about a few highlights from your programme? What are you most excited about and what can people look forward to?
We have lots of new events lined up this year – still showcasing our strengths in the creative industries, from creative writing to comics. Of particular interest to me is 'Gulliver! A fantastical pantomime', which will take the audience participation expected of the genre to a whole new level. Who will Gulliver meet on his new adventures? The audience will decide! But we can’t reveal too much about that. We’re also establishing a quirky new lecture series, 'The imaginarium', in which experts in the arts and sciences will offer imaginative new insights into the world around us. In the same space, a sort of imaginative expo, we’ll be hosting a make-your-own-pop-up-book surgery, creative writing workshops for children, and a green-screen animation studio, among other things. As part of a festival-long competition in the local community, we’ll be producing another graphic anthology, 'Swift at 350', in the manner of previous rounds ('Frankenstein begins' and 'H. G. Wells at 150'). We’ll also be taking over the Dundee Science Centre, screening a rarely discussed but highly influential adaptation (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver), exhibiting dozens of unusual editions of Gulliver’s Travels at the Dundee City Library, and much more besides.
What will people in Dundee get out of coming to these events? What will the University of Dundee get out of hosting them?
The best part about being involved with the Being Human Festival is the shaping narrative it affords us. This means seemingly different research areas – even departments spread across the campus – can come together in finding a new take on ideas with which we’ve been grappling with independently. As ever, we can showcase on a larger scale the amazing creative work being undertaken not only by staff and students, but the people of the city. Communities tell stories about the world around them: we’re looking forward to where this will take us.
What do you think the legacy of your hub will be?
Many of our outputs, such as the graphic anthologies, are now used by the University at undergraduate and postgraduate fairs as it’s a striking way of demonstrating the work our community is capable of producing. We’ll also be producing videos, including a behind-the-scenes documentary by a student-led team, blogs, and other records of our ongoing activities – this will beget further creativity on the campus, in the city, and beyond.
Finally, what is the most unexpected thing that you have 'found'/discovered about research in your university, or about your local area, in the course of organising your hub programme?
Preparation for the festival has already yielded an utterly unique discovery. In checking out possible additions to the Dundee City Library exhibition specifically, I found on display at The Discovery Point (the museum attached to the RRS Discovery ship permanently docked at the Dundee Waterfront) a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Although charming, the book itself is fairly innocuous: a small nineteenth-century duodecimo edition with little marginalia. But, as Louisa the curator and I have now realised, it’s perhaps the best-travelled copy of the book around. Captain Scott took it with him to the Antarctic during his 1901-1904 expedition – an extraordinary fact! But that’s only part of the story: before giving that book to Scott, Scott’s mentor, Sir Clements Markham, had taken it on his own journey to the Arctic in search of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, decades earlier. That and other stories will now be told, and commemorated, during the Being Human festival.