by Raewyn Whyte
A report from NZ International Festival Writers & Readers Week, Wellington 13 March 2008
The Big Questions was chaired by Kim Hill in the splendidly refurbished if rather cavernous Embassy Theatre. The panel provided a lively, passionate and often intriguing series of observations by three recently published New Zealand science writers. Each has made particular efforts to present scientific understandings in ways that will even make sense to the reader who lacks a science education.
The three panellists — novelist and science teacher Bernard Beckett (Falling for Science – Asking the Big Questions), zoologist and filmmaker Lloyd Spencer Davis (Looking for Darwin), and palaeontologist Hamish Campbell (In Search of Ancient New Zealand) — proved to be engaging talkers. Each began with a reference to Darwin’s work, gave some idea of what their recent book focuses on, and went on to discuss “big questions” which underly their writing. And in closing, each also addressed the central question posed by Kim Hill — “whether science and story can co-exist”?
Their observations were peppered with personal examples and asides which animated their discussion and helped us to see how “writing science” is very similar to “writing stories”.
Communicating significant ideas in any field is almost always a matter of telling “a really cool story” that people can relate to, and science is no stranger to stories even if they come wrapped as theories. What is different about “science stories”, they suggested, is that ultimately they are useful, they provide a clear explanation for some “thing” that has been observed and measured, and found to be purposeful or meaningful in some way. And when we understand the “science story”, it has value — we can use it to validate our experience or predict what we will experience in future.
Art & Text, chaired by Roger Horrocks at Downstage amidst Michael Tuffery’s set for the ATC production of Where We Once Belonged, was a more relaxed and less cohesive series of presentations. Here the topic was recently completed projects in which image and text have significant roles. Horrocks gave us some things to consider during the session — one being to identify the commonalities between what you take away with you after reading a poem and after viewing art works, another to be aware of the traffic in ideas exchanged between images and text during this session.
Avant garde writer/poet/artist Leigh Davis (Station of Earth-bound Ghosts and The Book of Hours) began by discussing emergent forms in which extravagant visuality is a key factor. He reflected on his recent installation and digital works (virtual books which can only be read or viewed onscreen) with on-screen examples from www.jackbooks.com. The first part of his recent series Anarchy was the primary example.
Visual artist John Reynolds placed in front of himself an array of small block paintings similar to those which constitute well-known Cloud (2006). These are small white squares approximately 10cm x 10cm with large block lettering which he sees as “situating a way of thinking”. He rearranged several blocks during the session — THINGS THAT TALK, FREE-HOLD; ACTUALLY QUITE FUNNY, TXT/URB/ATION — noting the irony of talking about writing and images. He challenged us to read and make sense in a an object-ive way, visualising the re-arrangement of his word blocks as an exercise in meaning-making.
Poet Paula Green (Crosswind, Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins) reflected on her motivations and recent experiences, the pleasure that writing poetry provides, and some parallels she finds between poetry and painting. She showed images from the Lounge Suite section of Crosswind in which poems and the images which inspired them offer a dialogue between poet and painters, and read several of her texts. .
Although there was a lack of cohesion in the session, with its examples and discourses heading in divergent directions and tangents, real value lay in these reminders that images and texts have their own distinctive ways of involving the viewer/reader in the poetic moment.