Metamorphoses takes Ovid’s tales of hybrids and transformations as its cue. Working together on a 300-year-old copy of the book – the first full English translation, done by John Clarke – an artist and a scientist must define a joint project of research and pursue it to its conclusions. They might identify and culture bacterial spores from its pages. They might extract DNA from the book’s readers, from flakes of skin trapped in its pages. They might learn things about the chemistry of the ink, the biology of the paper, or the techniques of the printing and binding. They might create new forms of life. There are only two rules to this game: first, that they must stay in budget, and second, that they must agree all actions.
The foundational act of agreement was to study a singular, simple thing. If you were in the room with me, I could point to it right now. Look, it is this thing here. It is this book, Metamorphoses, made in 1735. But what is it?
Is it actually the same object for both researchers?
One of the most powerful acts of a scientist is to decide what object he or she will study, and to name it. To define this object is to define the terms of the problem: to define the consequent framework of thinking about the world. Different scientists could be watching the same thing: one could be studying an animal; another, an instance of game theory; a third, an ecosystem. That small choice, to name the thing under scrutiny, redounds into a whole different set of questions – a whole different path for science. Artists, on the other hand, are not pushed so soon into the realm of language. They can, if they wish represent something without knowing verbally what that thing is. They may even be pushing with a technique, with no particular end in mind.
To Simon Park, our scientist, the object is a source of biological data – and he cannot wait to get down to discovering it. He has been very generous in showing Sarah Craske, our artist, all sorts of technical kit that reveals the book’s biological residues. Under very powerful microscopes they have seen motes of early-modern dust, spores, and fragments of desiccated insect life. Photographing the book under different light frequencies they have found patterns of where it has been fingered over the years. Simon tells Sarah that they may be able to hack human DNA into a laurel tree – one of Ovid’s metamorphosed entities: this makes Sarah very excited.
Also, for Simon it seems that the book may be a vehicle to transport him to what has been called the ‘beguiling mystique’ of art. To put it another way round, the book is an artefact, a collected specimen, from the realm of ‘culture’. The historicity of the artefact is a romantic notion, in fact, for both him and Sarah. They are excited by the ion beam analysis they have done so far, revealing fingerprints made on the paper even before the inked letters were pressed into it. It is history as fetish; I cannot work out whether it is to my shame or my credit as a historian that I, too, find this exciting.
Sarah, meanwhile, sees both an artefact and a medium for her own art practice. As for the former, she is acutely aware of the artisanal skills that went into its making. She has been to the St Bride Library where she has learned about letterpress – the method by which our book was made – and tried it out for herself. Hours of labour resulted in a single type-set paragraph, and a new-found respect for the printing technicians of the past.
Although Sarah is not primarily driven by linguistic concerns, she also sees that the text is part of the book’s being. She expresses this not by reference to the stories it contains, or its poetry, but to its ‘metaphors’, and explains that she wishes to recognise and respect them in her research. She has been disappointed, and perhaps puzzled, that Simon does not have the inclination to make time to read the Metamorphoses in full. She confesses in turn that she has found it ‘tough going’.
Is the book, then, an item of nature or of culture? And if it is the latter, does that preclude it from study within the domain of ‘proper science’? After all, science is still called in some quarters ‘natural science’, to distinguish it from the moral sciences, or the social sciences, or even from theology, the ‘queen of the sciences’. A meteorite, or a fossil, or a neurone, or an atmospheric current: that’s the sort of thing we should be looking at, not a book, surely?
A conciliatory position about the possibility of the book as scientific entity might be to say that it is an object to which science can be applied, even if it is not a proper object for the discoveries of pure science.
History provides one route out of this apparent dilemma. Learned gentlemen in John Clarke’s era were typically interested in both the domains that we now call ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Hans Sloane’s eighteenth-century collection, now re-displayed in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, is a case in point. Sloane collected medicinal botanical specimens, and mummified fingers, and shields and figurines. Although historians have attempted to draw lines between natural history (knowledge based in collection and provenance) and natural philosophy (the discernment of nature’s underlying principles), the two were implicitly but promiscuously mixed in his semi-public displays.
But we can be more assertive still. If this project attempts to find common ground between science and art, then why should a proper object of study come from the realm of science, anyway? This simply makes a hierarchy of the two disciplines, suggesting that art should have a go at nature, but science need not have a go at culture. If there really are two types of object – natural and cultural – then why not confront science with the latter? If art can deal with natural objects, but science cannot deal with cultural ones, then that is an interesting and problematic asymmetry.
But somehow I think that this will not be the case. The book may be the object of study that is natural and/or cultural; or it may be a medium, like a new pigment or a new PCR technique, that inspires further study. Simon and Sarah are only just hitting their stride …
For photographs and other blogs, see http://metamorphosesinartandscience.co.uk/ To keep up with the project as it unfolds, sign up at https://www.tumblr.com/register/follow/metamorphosesinartandscience. Simon Park is Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology, University of Surrey; see more of Simon at http://exploringtheinvisible.com/ and Sarah Craske is Director of Meltdowns Studio, Ramsgate, and Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of the Sciences, University of Kent; more information about Sarah is available http://www.sarahcraske.co.uk/. Follow on Twitter: @KentCHOTS @SarahCraske (Simon is not on Twitter)
This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about ‘Metamorphoses: Gaming Art and Science with Ovid’ is available here. Follow us on Twitter @AHRCSciculture for updates from the Theme.
 Glinkowski, Paul, and Anne Bamford. Insight and Exchange: An evaluation of the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme. London: Wellcome Trust, 2009, p. 64.
 On seeing the history of science via technical development, see the previous science/art project Chain Reaction! (2013). http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/category/chain-reaction/