Metamorphoses in Art & Science

In 2010, bio-artist Sarah Craske stumbled upon a very early English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in an East Kent junk shop. It dated from 1735, and in its nearly 300 years of existence it had passed from reader to reader, picking up layers of biological history (bacteria, viruses, skin cells). Uncovering the invisible from its pages, Metamorphoses in Art & Science develops shared ways of working in new & emerging fields, through the collaborative inter-relationships between the sciences, arts & humanities.

The 1735 copy of Ovid’s tales of transformation: Metamorphoses.

The 1735 copy of Ovid’s tales of transformation: Metamorphoses.

I have come to terms with the fact that the 1735 copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses will be destroyed.

It was not my original intention to destroy it; my intention was to collaboratively work ‘scientifically’ and ‘artistically’ to explore the book, without quite knowing what that might mean. However, I soon realised that by applying ‘scientific processes’ to the book, with the purpose of collecting material to use within an ‘artistic process’, I would also in effect be destroying it. Its destruction was a by-product of the processes I wanted to employ.

The Presence of Absence: the 3D scan of Metamorphoses.

The Presence of Absence: the 3D scan of Metamorphoses.

At the beginning of our collaborative working, I had myself found the ‘destruction realisation’ all consuming and several months into our research activity, I find this chosen path is still distressing to many other people. Scientists have consistently begun by offering non-destructive analysis techniques with an over reassurance of process. They have demonstrated great surprise when we have encouraged the destructive approach which yields more information for us to work with. Scientific enquiry is by its very nature destructive, but putting an object of perceived cultural value within this scientific context is apparently problematic; it immediately calls into question these analysis pathways.

Since October 2014, I have been working with Dr Charlotte Sleigh (a Reader in History of Science) and Dr Simon Park (a Senior Lecturer in Microbiology) to explore interdisciplinary collaboration with the intention of creating a transdisciplinary artwork.  This is intended to be a genuine art-science hybrid that does not have inscribed within itself normal disciplinary hierarchies. Therefore issues with the use of the word ‘artwork’  used within this context are fully recognised with the intention of developing new language by the end of the collaboration.

Studies in 18th century dust from Metamorphoses.

Studies in 18th century dust from Metamorphoses.

Studies in 18th century dust from Metamorphoses.

Studies in 18th century dust from Metamorphoses.

Using our copy of Metamorphoses as a catalyst for interdisciplinary enquiry, our intention is to create a biological hermeneutic of the book: an exploration of the book’s content through art and science methodologies. The ‘text’ under hermeneutic investigation includes the genetic and microbiological inscriptions of organisms accumulating on the pages of the book during its 300-year history, along with the stories that it contains: even the biological products (wood, leather, ink) that went into its making. Metamorphoses is a book that continues to yield both scientific and artistic knowledge, a perfect model for the hybrid world of real-reality and culturally-overlaid reality in which both arts and sciences must operate.

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