Ahead of their performances at Manchester Literature Festival, we talk to writer Jane Rogers and playwright and composer Ailís Ní Ríain about their recent work and the relationship between science and art
Now more than ever, serious artists are looking to science. After all, if art can be said to have a primary goal, it's surely to explore what it means to be human; and for many of us today, to be human is to be, to an unprecedented extent, at the mercy of scientific advancement.
The Manchester Literature Festival, Creative Industries Trafford and the 24:7 theatre festival have teamed up to further encourage this artistic exploration of science. To mark the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix, writer Jane Rogers and young composer Ailís Ní Ríain have each been commissioned to create a work with DNA as its theme.
In Rogers' short story, The DNA of Bats, the narrator, Rachel, is a kind of generational anomaly, at odds with both her mother, Lucy, and her daughter, Anya, both of whom share a bond that she has with neither. It's a complex familial conflict, and Rogers uses the characters' attitude towards bats, both real and figurative, to symbolise their attitudes towards one another and towards scientific advancement in general.
"I was over in Australia visiting my family," says Rogers, explaining the origins of her story, "and there was a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about research into bat DNA. They'd found that they have this extraordinary longevity and resistance to diseases, and that it was very implausible, because they put so much energy into flying that they should be more prone to disease rather than less... It also said that the genetic key that's being unlocked might in some way be helpful for humans. I thought, god, this is really interesting – I want to write a story about DNA and here's this sudden little gift in the paper."
For the narrator, who's primitively repelled by them, bats possess an almost supernatural evil – but for her mother, a legendary costume designer, their awesome anatomical beauty is a source of artistic inspiration. And for her daughter, who's studying biology at university, the animal is a marvel of evolution and (as in Rogers' source) the holder of a genetic key that could assist humanity.
Ní Ríain, in her play A Shadow on Summer, uses the theme to rather different ends: her work is a meditation on "ageism... and whether psychologically we mutate and transform as we do physiologically." With the script and pre-recorded music written by Ní Ríain herself, and live drawing by artist Zeke Clough, the play explores these issues through its sole character, Professor Summer (played by Eithne Browne), a woman born in 1953, the year of Watson and Crick's discovery. Though a well-respected figure in the field of genetics, she's been made redundant because of her age, "at a time in her life," Ní Ríain points out, "when she's most of use.
"How do we justify a society that retires people prematurely?" asks Ní Ríain, locating her play's focus. "I'm in my mid-30s, and I'd hate to think that I'd approach 60 and be considered past it." She adds: "Especially in the area of creativity and science, because surely you only become of more worth the older you get."
When it comes to the relationship between science and literature, Rogers and Ní Ríain are in agreement. For Ní Ríain, the two disciplines aren't all that different in their approach: "Ultimately the art forms that I'm involved in [composing and writing] are completely solitary, and so is a good deal of scientific work. While discussions can be collaborative on a larger scale, individual scientists are similar in a lot of ways to individual artists, because we're both on voyages of discovery – we're both trying to figure things out."
For Rogers, literature provides a vital way of examining science from the outside: "Science is moving ahead at such an extraordinary rate that all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas are being generated by the discoveries being made. As human beings we need to think about them and talk about them and understand them. And literature is a great arena in which to do that." Ultimately, she says, "If writers don't engage with some of the scientific advances that are being made, that are changing our lives radically, then they're in danger of becoming irrelevant."