Like a lot of people, I’m interested in what happens when we cross disciplinary boundaries, when we view differences in perspective (and differences of opinion) as opportunities for collaboration: opportunities to learn. This probably harks back to my undergraduate obsession with the power of imaginative language, which led to a research paper on self-expression as an affirmation of identity during the Holocaust and a lengthy piece arguing for the centrality of such language to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously — and ambiguously — described philosophy as “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (Philosophical Investigations §109). I think imaginative expression in the form of fiction, music, allegory, visual art, poetry (&c.) can illuminate that which we cannot state explicitly and that which loses its potency in attempts to do so. Anyone who has been moved by the truth of ‘untruth’ knows what I mean by this; imagination is our link to the inexpressible. And I think eliding ultimately arbitrary disciplinary boundaries is an effective way of allowing imagination to play a more vibrant role in the academy and in our lives.
Julia Morison, Vademecum (1986), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 1987-0006-1/ 1- 55 to 55-55
In August I attended a workshop on academic interdisciplinarity at the University of Otago that brought together postgraduates researching the medieval and early modern periods: philosophers, historians, art historians, religious studies folks and a couple of musicians. (Including a lutenist!) Established scholars spoke frankly about their own experiences, often accidental, with interdisciplinarity.
The scales were clearly tipped in favor of the humanities; as this is Ada Lovelace Day, I have confess to I would love to see the workshop repeated with science and technology better represented. But Lyn Tribble (Otago, English) and John Sutton (Macquarie, Cognitive Science) discussed their cross-disciplinary collaborative work in the field of memory, and the excellent talks given by co-organizers Peter Anstey (Otago, Philosophy) and Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, History), as well as Peter Harrison (Queensland, Centre for the History of European Discourses), all drew attention to the unique problems faced by historians and philosophers of science. I am thrilled and grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from each of them.
Barry Cleavin, Chemistry stencil (1980), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Ms Jeanette McCracken, 1982, 1982/45/10
Among the takeaways for me: (1) remembering that the disciplines in and with which we pigeonhole ourselves and our work are themselves social constructs in flux. A clear example in my research is the failure of early modern chymistry to map neatly onto our modern conception of either chemistry or alchemy, requiring those of us who would study it do justice to our subject with proper context. This is something I knew at the outset but am still struggling to achieve without getting bogged down in the many links to other fields: science, magic, religion, philosophy, gender studies. A Ph.D. is a substantial undertaking, but it must submit to time constraints or tread forever on the road of good intentions. (2) Don’t be too quick to dismiss what seems at first glance to be incomprehensible. In other words, be charitable with the material. Most of all, (3) communicate. Listen and share. Collaborate. If your work requires skills that you do not have and cannot acquire within the requisite time frame, get in touch with someone who has them, and whom you may be able to assist with your own skill-set. Be open to other perspectives.
Having spent two intense days thinking and talking about nothing but interdisciplinarity, I rather predictably feel as though I see its applications and effects everywhere now. Last weekend, for instance, Te Papa played host to performances of “These Rough Notes,” an Antarctic-inspired collaboration between poet Bill Manhire, composer Norman Meehan, singer Hannah Griffin and photographer Anne Noble. (The project also includes a more enduring book/CD package.) Noble’s images were astonishing, but I’m not a fan of soft jazz and Manhire’s often predictable words left me lukewarm instead of profoundly, glacially moved: no cracked ice crystals, just thawing sogginess. But that concept! I love the idea of people in different fields working together to create something new and different and wonderful, to learn from one another and convey that knowledge to an audience eager to catch a glimpse of a still-exotic continent in sound, image, word. The best moments were improvised: a smiling glance between Meehan and Griffin, the accidental motion of the bow against a cello’s body, the attentive hush of the crowd.
Anne Noble, William’s Field (under Erebus) number 10 (2002), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2004, 2004/32/4
The next day I met a friend at City Gallery for the final Writers on Mondays session of the year. Kerry Hines discussed the interdisciplinary work she undertook for her Ph.D. at the Institute of Modern Letters, an exquisite melding of archival research and the equally knuckle-scraping, nail-biting task of writing poetry. She used the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of one-time Wellington resident William Williams as a starting point for an investigation into his life and a series of fictional poems inspired by them, by him.
Unidentified woman, standing on the bank of the Owaka River, Catlins, Otago. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983 :Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/2-140750-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22676228
Welsh-born Williams (1859-1948) was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. After immigrating to New Zealand, he lived for a time as a bachelor with friends in a Cuba Street dwelling nicknamed The Old Shebang. He married Lydia Myrtle Devereux in 1887 and the pair moved to Napier and, later, Dunedin. They had two sons, Owen and Edgar, the latter of whom donated his father’s photographs to the Alexander Turnbull Library. Although some of his photos are widely known, he has remained a relatively shadowy figure.
In an effort not to exploit her subject, Hines focused only on public domain truths and let imagination dictate the form and content of the poems. Hines describes her work as co-medial, emphasizing that neither the photographs nor the poems should be viewed as the focus: they share her, and our, attention. Each shapes and informs our response to the project as a whole. She read a number of poems as Williams’s images were projected on a screen, large and bright in contrast to the dimmed lights shining on Hines, who didn’t want to distract from them.
Edgar Williams with a cockatoo. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983 :Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/2-140242-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23018134
Using Digital NZ, I have compiled a set of some of William Williams’s most striking photographs. In later years he held photograph-viewing parties (for lack of a better term) in his home, describing the moments they captured and weaving them into larger narratives. Sometimes music augmented these evenings, sometimes performed by Williams himself. Among the Turnbull’s holdings are several shots of William, Lydia and friends holding banjos. There’s a liveliness, a sense of joy, to his portraits and landscapes alike that makes them beautifully suited to this kind of collaboration, and I suspect he’d be delighted to know they’re inspiring poetry — really incredible poetry — more than a century later.
Hines’s work is an exciting example of new ways of interacting with New Zealand’s history, and also how this can be done at a postgraduate level, in an academic context. She has written a lovely post for the IIML’s blog that I wish everyone would read because the writing exercise she suggests is both thought-provoking and fun.
Cape Kidnappers, Hawke’s Bay. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983 :Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/1-025615-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23211114