Visual cultures of ecological research

Our focus in this project is on the strategies of visualisation used in ecological research and on the transformations that images undergo when they are transferred from science to society – and back again. A range of different visual images of nature are constantly being generated and defended depending on the historical, cultural and methodological context in which they occur. These images represent different metaphysical ideas and epistemic models, and they differ in terms of the techniques, strategies and settings involved in their production. Ecological research, as we see it, can be read as a mapping programme that presents different ideas of nature as they occur in different scientific, national, philosophical and geographical cultures. Whether a particular piece of nature is considered worthy of protection, is regarded as a commodifiable resource, as unreliable and dangerous, or as accessible to the contemplative mind depends crucially on its cultural environment – and thus, in our knowledge society, on science’s visual and conceptual representations.

The disciplinary coupling of scientific research and media studies represents for us one of the important innovative aspects of the project, especially since it is a combination that has received little attention to date. From a media studies perspective, the use of photographic and film media is interesting in two respects. It is interesting in the context of ecology in particular, because photography and film have had a major influence on the development of practices and theories in the field. But it is also interesting in terms of media history, given that new kinds of media techniques have been developed in the context of certain research practices. The transfer of images is also pivotal to the popularisation of ecological knowledge, especially its dissemination through the mass media. In this project we want to get a sense of both the genesis and mode of technical production of images and of their epistemological status – this being the immediate point of linkage to issues in the philosophy of science.

The aim of the project, then, is to map the visual cultures of ecological research, meaning quite literally the linking of geographical data with images. “Images” may mean drawings or diagrams, but especially photographs of research objects, locations, individuals or institutions. The idea is that the prototype of a web-based information system that emerges from this should be used as a heuristic tool for developing research questions from the perspective of science and media studies respectively and placing them in dialogue with one another.

The data gathered will be digitalised and made available systematically via a database. All project partners will be working together closely to develop high quality forms of research and representation, providing the basis for further research activities. This will involve the use of innovative web techniques and mapping technologies.

The project is being scientifically supported by Astrid Schwarz (Technical University Darmstadt) and Angela Krewani (University of Marburg). The website and database have been set up by Jutta Weisel, Stefan Aumann and Johanna Bolkart. The project has received funding from the Hessen State Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts.