‘Arts-Science encounters‘ are much talked about but much less often put into practice (for their supposedly little economic benefit – not least in times of tight science budgets). Science and art are not such opposing worlds as we often see them today, as they were much less divided world in the past. As I wrote in my PhD thesis, “Cartography has always been connecting the worlds of art and science. McLuhan & Powers (1992) underline the importance of cartography by claiming that without the map ‘the world of modern science and technologies would hardly exist’ (McLuhan & Powers 1992, quoted from Thrower 1999: 1). One may not fully agree with this notion, but the importance of cartographic contributions to our understanding of the physical and social environments is hardly questionable.”
More widely, science and art remain closely intertwined. From the view of science, this link is often to be found in the field of scientific visualisation. The exhibition Places & Spaces: Mapping Science for example “is meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to best track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale” (see scimaps.org). And where both worlds actively start to meet, the outcome can be a valuable contribution to a new perspective on research, as well as research can gain inspiring ideas for its own work. As stated in the Guardian, “the results [of such collaborations] can be seismic“.
Less seismic in a literal sense but not less inspiring have been some of the collaborations that originated from the Worldmapper project. Amongst these collaborations that I was involved in were the Story Map: What I Heard About the World by Sheffield-based performing artists Third Angel and the short film Sheffield – A City in Context by (again) Sheffield-based creative agency Human where we as academic geographers learned a lot about the approach artists take to see and explain our world.
A very different example of science and art encounters are the sculptures by Bay Area-based artist Jennifer Brazelton who came across my gridded population cartograms that I created as part of my PhD research and published online in the World Population Atlas. Here is an example of her work showing a sculpture based on the shape and structure of the gridded population cartogram of Syria, a country that made the most recent but also so far most lasting headlines in the events of the still so-called Arab Spring:
As explained in a feature from the 2012 Ceramic Art Show in Fort Mason, Jennifer’s work “draws inspiration from visual patterns. […] Order and place in these structures are emphasized like links in any living chain.” That may explain how the abstract yet also organic nature of the population maps also found their way into her work in a series also inspired by the events of the Arab Spring. About the sculptures created from the maps she writes:
After years of looking at topographical maps and trying to think of ways to incorporate their line quality and movement into my sculptures I found the gridded population cartograms. I loved the abstracted, organic, insect like shapes, and the quality of the line. I work primarily in clay so I started building them and experimenting with the surfaces. My current sculptures are focused on the countries of the Middle East.
More of her work – including the sculptures made from the gridded population cartograms – can be found on the website http://www.jenniferbrazelton.com. Here is a selection of some of the works, shown alongside my original population map (the links below the maps give you a larger view of the sculpture as well as they lead to the original map on the World Population Atlas):
United Arab Emirates
(click here for a full-size picture of the sculpture – or here for the population map)
Encounters between art and science may not produce the economic benefit that is often demanded by politicians. As US president Obama said addressing the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC last year (quoted from this Nature news feature): “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” If we are to take that claim seriously, the benefits for society sometimes may go beyond measurable (economic or other) output, but something that can simply inspire people, change the way we see our world, and change the way we live our lives on this vulnerable planet.