The ‘taxonomy’ of nature cinema and popularising science

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Image from ‘Watching Wildlife‘ by Cynthia Chris, Uni. Minnesota Press, 2006.

This is a diagram I came across a few months ago in a book called Watching Wildlife by Cynthia Chris.  I know the work of one of the artists who created the diagram – Mark Dion. I looked at Dion’s work closely for my undergraduate thesis and later article on Science and the Eclipse of the Earth (2001). Dion’s art works and installations are particularly useful to examine when thinking about how our significant cultural institutions have presented ‘nature’ to modern Western audiences. In many of Dion’s art works he creates images that deconstruct and question scientific authority. His artworks often visually reveal the conventions of scientific representations of nature, for e.g., how the officially accepted ‘story of nature’ is presented in a certain style in our natural history museums. I was however, unaware that he had looked and thought about nature documentary film-making.

This diagram captures many of the aspects of nature cinema that I’m interested in. For e.g above the ‘safari’ branch you see mentioned ‘Martin and Osa Johnson‘, the early travel filmmakers who travelled to exotic locations in Africa to film wildlife that I mentioned in my recent post about American nature cinema (see link below).

I couldn’t find any further information about the context of this diagram so if anyone knows, please let me know.  I’m sorry the image is not a bit clearer too, it is slightly fuzzy on the version I have too. Nevertheless it is a useful visualisation of how filmmakers have long projected all too human characteristics and concerns onto films that have been created of the natural world. 

Dion and McDougall have obviously thought carefully about nature cinema and its conventions. If we look for e.g at the ‘branch’ that holds Disney’s nature animations, Dion and McDougall show, along with other theorists (Mitman, Tobias etc), that such cinema  often reflects more on the moral concerns of middle class suburban America of its time. And I like their term  ‘science safari’ cinema to classify the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau  and the ever popular David Attenborough. Its worth remembering too, one of the main conclusions that Derek Bouse makes about nature cinema in his book Wildlife Films (2000). Bouse points out that for all their acclaimed educational qualities, what wildlife films have been most successful at, has been popularising science.

And popularising science for its own sake, is not nearly the same as improving ecological literacy.


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The Shivering Sands – notes on defining an artistic practice PhD

“It looks as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it—all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!”  The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins, 1868, (

The Shivering Sands
In September 2011, I was asked to more clearly define my artistic practice and the methodologies I intended to employ to undertake my research enquiry for my PhD studies.

 While vaguely aware from comments heard at various post-graduate seminars that there were difficulties still, with the definition, criteria and evaluation of art-practice PhDs, even though arts practice PhD’s had been around since 1997 (but only since 2006 in Ireland), I felt relatively comfortable with this requirement (which contrasts the many uncertainties I often face with the direction of own artistic practice). After all, no doubt the quality of the enquiry would ultimately rest on the clarity and framework of the aims set out and methodologies employed.  My general ease with this proposition was that I have a considerable background in my early working life in scientific research and writing so I imagined that defining the research and outlining the methodologies shouldn’t be too difficult. However, as I was to find, almost most each word in the first sentence that I began this article with now seems uncertain; as shifting, and shivering as Wilkie Collin’s deadly and mysterious quicksand.

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