The Scales of Life | A case study on an Art-Science Visualisation

Elaine Shemilt (Lead / Corresponding author)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


    A paper discussing the research and challenges of an large-scale physical artwork, ‘The Scales of Life” – a collaboration between artist Elaine Shemilt (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee), Mike Ferguson, Regius professor of Life Sciences (University of Dundee) and Jo White of BMJ architects.

    The façade of the new Discovery Centre for translational Research is an artwork entitled “The Scales of Life” that aims to communicate key areas of Life Sciences research carried out within the building utilising printmaking techniques combined with digital visualisation and engineering in metal. The artwork depicts each of the four physical scales – Molecular, Organellar, Cellular and Tissue, which provide the basic understanding, and inform the treatment of many diseases.

    Through discussions and collaborative workshops with scientists in the College of Life Sciences, a series of prototype images were developed. Architecturally, different materials and building techniques were considered in order to create ‘a breathable skin’ for the building which led to the idea of using perforated custom-made anodised aluminium panels rather than solid etched or engraved surfaces. The scientific images were considered and reworked by the artist using a variety of traditional techniques and subsequently translated into the digital domain. Cardboard prototypes were made using a laser cutter to make sure that the images would be legible and would appear three-dimensional. Too many perforations and the material would not be structurally sound, too few and the image would not be legible. This artwork had to be an integral part of the building and it had to embody science within the visualisation.

    In this paper I will discuss the perception that Public Art often sits uncomfortably within the host environment. The art is often ‘imposed’. My aim was to overcome that challenge and ensure that as the passer by walks past the building there is a clear impression of the purpose of the building and for the scientist recognisable iconic representations of the shape and form of a molecular, cellular, organellar or tissue structures.

    I am a printmaker. I experiment with material, colour and processes. The production of Scales of Life was an opportunity to reflect both my interpretive aesthetic approach and also the need to retain scientific recognition and accuracy in image making. Employing digital technology alongside traditional printmaking methods the different scale magnification in each source image was a reference to the different scales of life under scrutiny: molecules make up the organelles, which make up the cells, which make up the tissues.

    Our collaboration worked because the scientists were open minded and willing to look at my particular visualisations – my version of their science – and in turn I was willing to be steered on to the ‘correct’ scientific pathway. Both scientist and artist then faced the challenge of translating this vision in collaboration with the architect and the engineering company who were tasked with the precision cutting of the aluminium panels at a scale not previously attempted. The Paper will discuss each aspect of the research and production of the completed work.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationElectronic Visualisation & the Arts (EVA) Conference 2015
    Subtitle of host publication7-9 July 2015, London
    PublisherBCS, The Chartered Institute for IT
    Number of pages7
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015
    EventElectronic Visualisation and the Arts - BCS, The Davidson Building, London, London, United Kingdom
    Duration: 7 Jul 20159 Jul 2015

    Publication series

    NameElectronic Workshops in Computing (eWiC)
    PublisherThe Chartered Institute for IT
    ISSN (Electronic)1477-9358


    ConferenceElectronic Visualisation and the Arts
    Abbreviated titleEVA 2015
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    Internet address


    • Artwork
    • Translational Research
    • Printmaking
    • Digital Visualisation


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    • Scales of Life

      Shemilt, E. (Participant)

      1 Oct 201411 Jan 2015

      Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesFestival/Exhibition


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