Today’s guest blog is by visual artist and wildlife biologist, Elaine Ford. Elaine has been working with Project Puffin tracking data to create works of art for a new exhibition.

The Space and Satellite Artists’ Residency kicked off in May as part of the launch of the University of Edinburgh’s new InSpace Gallery. I was commissioned to explore the rapidly-evolving world of space and satellites, alongside four other artists, working on the fusion of science and art in different areas.

With a background as a visual artist and wildlife biologist, I was intrigued to explore the power of satellite technology to help conserve wildlife. Through a collaboration with RSPB, I was fascinated to learn of the ability of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to track the movement of animals. In particular, this is a method being used by RSPB’s Project Puffin to work out where puffins are.

GPS data is fully enabled by satellites and Project Puffin are using it as a tool to help to understand why puffin populations are declining. Small GPS tags are placed on puffins to record their location and movement as they feed, swim, hunt and fly over the sea during their breeding season. In the residency I explore RSPB data from four puffin colonies in the north of Scotland: Fair Isle, Shiants, Hermaness and Foula. Collaborating with Space Intelligence, I created an animation showing the movement of individual puffins with each colony as a different colour.

Visualisation of the movement of puffins recorded from space, enabled by GPS tags placed by RSPB Project Puffin. Data collected from 4 colonies in northern Scotland: Fair Isle, Shiants, Hermaness and Foula.

These visualised Project Puffin data shows the amazing journey puffins undertake. Each individual point represents an individual bird at a particular location in the north of Scotland. Each colour represents one of four puffin colonies.

I then moved on to work with other media to explore these data. My creative process began with sketching, reading poetry, experimenting with more data visualisations, and learning from the Conservation and Data Scientists at RSPB. I was struck by how connected to the ocean puffins are: they spend most of their lives at sea, and only return to land to breed. They have the ability to navigate vast distances. Data has shown one puffin travelling as far as 400km to bring back food for its pufflings. Incredibly, puffins are able to return to their exact birthplace after years of being in the open seas.

Realising puffins’ connection with – and awareness of – their environment, I studied the interconnections between bird life and the ocean. I became fascinated with the sensuous aspects of the ocean, what we as humans can’t sense that other animals can. I explored the idea of mental maps: water having memory, layers, communication and vibration of the sea floor.

As a result I decided to begin the next phase of work using a material that comes from the earth; is necessary for life; and reflects the fragility of our ocean ecosystems - salt.

In practice, this meant collecting seawater and rainwater in large containers, transporting these home, and growing salt crystals in my kitchen and living room. This was both a creative and scientific, iterative process, requiring great experimentation with different types of salts, different solutions at different temperatures, different crystalisation seeds and structures, and different crystallisation environments. Below is a Saltworks video showing salt crystals created during experimentation and build.

Saltwork. Memory. Growth. Erosion

Multiple experiments revealed the dominance of repeating patterns in the salt crystal formations. I researched visuals of the sea, looking at publically available satellite images, photography and artistic representations. I found that most images are of the sea surface, leading us only to experience its skin. By contrast, I was intrigued by the elusive experience of the ocean beneath. I used a satellite-informed bathymetric model that revealed the depth of the ocean and the sea floor in the north of Scotland.

To represent the lives of puffins over the ocean of different depths, I grew salt crystals on strings and installed these using wire, in positions relating to the RSPB GPS tracking data with the length of the crystals relating to the depth of the ocean under the Puffins’ flightpaths. I reflected ocean depth by altering the length of the salt crystals in the final Saltworks installation.

When experimenting with the data I was surprised to see that puffins were active during day and night. Working to manipulate the growth of salt crystals, I created pathways that mapped patterns of the natural world. The position and type of white and blue crystals relate to positions of the puffin by day and night. Birds can move and catch the light like no other animal. I experimented with projecting films of the sea, rainfall and earth observational images from the European Space Agency satellite Sentinel 2. Exploring puffin flight paths, I projected the animation of the GPS tracking data onto the saltwork installation.

Salt Immersion. Salts crystals, copper, puffin movement in time as light. Height 6ft. Width 4ft. Length 6ft.

Saltworks explores the interconnection of life in the ocean and the fragility of our ecosystems.   It explores aspects of changing states, climate regulation, the perception of time, and chemistry changes in the ocean. Puffins are now a red-listed, vulnerable species, with climate change as a major threat. This means that puffins are vulnerable to global extinction. One likely factor causing population declines is changing food availability, but there is little data on puffin diet that spans the whole of the UK. RSPB Puffin Project is collecting and analysing data to help understand puffin population decline. Visit the RSPB webpage to find out more.

Full Saltworks Exhibition at Inspace Gallery

Watch Art Work in Progress Talk with RSPB Conservation Scientist Connie Tremlett presenting amazing puffin facts and more info on Project Puffin:

Scotsman Newspaper: Where Art and Science Collide

Elaine social media links:

Facebook: Elaine Ford | LinkedIN | Twitter: @ElainedFord | Instagram @elaineford


With thanks to Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) Project Puffin. Project Puffin data was part funded by National Heritage Lottery.

Inspace Gallery Exhibition with Design Informatics Team at Edinburgh University

The Space and Satellite Artists Residency was funded by Data Driven Innovation

Data Visualisation with Space Intelligence and Ray Interactive

Satellite Data: RSPB, European Space Agency and General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO)

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