Dive into Sheung Yiu’s captivating journey of interdisciplinary exploration in image studies. Unveil the intricate relationship between scientific imagery and visual culture, as art and science converge. Discover how Yiu delves into the world of images, bridging disciplines to unravel the multifaceted impact of visual representation on our understanding of the world.

Which wall does your research break?

Both disciplines, art and science, are invested in images. Scientists push the limit of image technology to visualize aspects of our physical world. They develop systems to decipher information from images. Artists interact with images in ways not necessarily dissimilar to scientists’. They invent techniques and translate ideas onto an image. Both help us better grasps the world we live in. Artists are celebrated for their innovative ways of creating images. Their works get hung on museum walls for viewers to look at, ponder upon or stand pensively in front of. DaVinci, Picasso, Rothko, Agnes Martin, Susan Meiselas. But artists do not have a monopoly on image-making. Scientists have been making technical images alongside artists for centuries. Their work deserves to be studied just as meticulously for their informational value and cultural significance. My work, inspired by the discipline of image studies, applies the cultural lens of the humanities to scientific imagery. Through parallel reading, I combine the critical approach of media studies with the technological approach of sciences to create a holistic understanding of contemporary image-making and its impact on visual culture. I interview scientists to learn how they employ advanced technology to create images of our world. With this knowledge, I look back at the history of image-making. I study the similarities and differences in the conception of images across disciplines and throughout history to reveal a complex and ever-changing relationship between image, power, and knowledge. Placing these images in the same project in an Aby-Warburg-esque manner, I challenge the conventional divide between art and science in the understanding of images.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

It started around three years ago. I was on my way to a lecture when I saw a tree seedling propped up against a 2m x 2m white background in a grass field outside a university building. I got curious, so I approached two men standing next to it, taking a cigarette break. That is when I got to know Daniel and Aarne, who were conducting a laser scanning measurement. They explained to me that they are capturing the 3D structure of a tree to better understand how the clumping of leaves and branches affects how a tree reflects sunlight back to space where a satellite detects a signal. I later learned that they were doing what is called a ground truth measurement. Ground truth data is data collected through a reliable source, usually human observation, which is used to verify data collected from less reliable sources, such as satellite data with low resolution. Through years-long conversations with the scientists, I get a glimpse of how the act of seeing a tree from space is a problem that sounds deceptively easy but is indeed a complicated question. Solving this problem requires a complex visual system consisting of humans, machines, photography, and computational models and viewing the same object from different scales and heights. I have always been fascinated by scientific imagery. On the one hand, scientific imagery, such as microscopic images and high-speed photography, helps scientists produce proof of their theories. These images are created with much care and often with the most advanced technology at the time. On the other hand, the procedure through which they are produced is indicative of the attitudes towards knowledge – what is considered scientific and authentic in a culture at a particular time. I went into this project to deepen my understanding of what these values mean in our milieus and how they are translated into images.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

I explore the latest technological trend in visualizing knowledge. Emerging technology is constantly changing what kind of images can be made and what can be visualized. We are employing them in every aspect of our lives: from monitoring climate change to selfie filters. Although these images may look like photographs, each operates on a drastically different logic. The project aims to bring visual literacy to scientific imagery by looking through the images and examining the apparatuses that produce them. The project brings together the art history of landscape and the technological history of remote sensing practices. Through a parallel reading, the project highlights the importance of cultural context in the understanding of images. In order to truly understand their meaning, we must focus not only on what is seen on the pictorial surface but the technology that produces them and the cultural ideas that sustains them. As new imaging technologies shape our visual culture, they are also influencing the very meaning of seeing and knowing. The visual study on remote sensing points towards a more complex and holistic reading of images by applying the artistic and critical lens to scientific imagery.

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