As part of our ongoing partnership with the University of Kent, Whitstable Biennale has been working with artist Sarah Craske on a project which studies a 300-year-old copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, discovering and making visible the microbial life that has accrued through the centuries upon its pages.
The book dates from 1735, and Craske became fascinated by the age of the volume and the physical data it might hold. For over almost three centuries the book had passed from reader to reader, picking up layers of biological history (bacteria, viruses, skin cells) just as surely as the gods of the stories in the volume themselves changed from one thing to another.
Craske worked closely with Professor Charlotte Sleigh from University of Kent, and Dr Simon Park from University of Surrey to find ways to use the contemporary tools of science to study the book. It was taken apart in the lab, and scientific processes were applied to study the book as the repository of physical data – the data people’s hands and clothes and bodies have left.
Molten blood agar was poured into dishes and set. Pages from the found copy of Metamorphoses were impressed onto the agar’s surface. The dishes were incubated at 25 degrees over a number of weeks to encourage the bacteria held within the pages to grow. Images of the results have been turned into prints.
“Biological Hermeneutics is a branch of knowledge that develops the concept of books as centres of microbial data & data transfer by discovering, identifying and re-presenting the biological information contained by the physical page. Through artistic, historical & scientific enquiry, Biological Hermeneutic scholars believe that we should move from the traditional practice of collection & taxonomy of the physical archive & propose a new system of knowledge & understanding.” Sarah Craske, 2017
Craske’s work challenges the relationship between science and art, and highlights the rich materiality of texts that can be lost in the rush to digitisation. Over the last decade, libraries and archives have been through a huge process of change. As technology develops at an increasing speed, so does our relationship with knowledge. Knowledge itself is continually being redefined and accessed more immediately whilst acquisition and storage of knowledge is moving from the real to the virtual world.
Libraries act as both an archive of knowledge-based objects and as a porthole to a digital highway of information. Both are expanding, and are also slowly merging as archival material is digitised. The expansion of digital material prompts the question of how our relationship with the physical archive will change in the future, and whether it will still hold value for us.
We might predict a future digital world that discards physical objects, perceiving them to have no value once they are digitally copied and stored. However, the physical archive is not just a text. The objects not only hold data within the text printed on its pages; there is also knowledge and data embedded into them.
Biological Hermeneutics explores the relationship between digital and physical, and reflects on the tension between them. It develops the concept of books as physical objects that holds not just text, but layer upon layer of microbial data and data transfer.
Through enquiry, it asks whether we move from the traditional practice of collection and taxonomy of the physical archive to a newly proposed system of knowledge and understanding, which can possibly be stored virtually or in ways we cannot conceive at present.
At the same time, biological hermeneutics acknowledges society’s imperative need to move from an object based, commercial and material use culture to a sustainable, ecologically concerned, object-less culture. It reflects on the ‘death of the object’ in art history, museology and quite literally the actual process of physical and digital object decay.
The work is being shown at Chetham’s Library in Manchester from 29 July until 26 August 2017. Chetham’s Library is the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom, housed in a medieval college building dating from 1421. The library was founded by Humphrey Chetham in 1653 and holds more than 100,000 volumes of printed books, of which 60,000 were published before 1851. Its collections are of national importance.