Sky Knowledge: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a focus for art-science collaborations


Session Title:

  • Art – Science Relations

Presentation Title:

  • Sky Knowledge: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a focus for art-science collaborations



  • Radio astronomy is being developed globally through the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. The SKA will enable astronomers to observe the most distant objects in the Universe, measure Galaxy evolution and study the phenomenon of dark energy in a project of unprecedented scale. Currently two ‘radio quiet’ sites, one in Western Australia and the other in South Africa are being assessed for its location. The decision is expected in 2012 with construction taking place from 2014 to 2024.

    For the chosen site, the project means enormous scientific and technological investment, with potential long-term benefits reaching far beyond the immediate scientific agenda. There are already significant scientific developments with high levels of government support. How will the SKA be understood in a broader cultural context? How is the project being communicated to audiences beyond the scientific community?

    Educational projects are being run through the SKA websites of Western Australia and South Africa.  There are imaginative visualisations of the project using new technologies for conventional illustration and within realtime interactive environments. For example, in 2008, Paul Bourke modelled the proposed sites of the SKA and the ‘pilot’ Australian SKA Pathfinder Project (ASKAP), allowing the project to be more closely identified with a proposed location.

    In 2009, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, the ‘Ilgarijiri’ Project (‘things belonging to the sky’ in the Wajarri language) brought artists and scientists together in a collaborative project between Aboriginal artists from the Yamaji Country, in Mid-Western Australia, and radio astronomers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), based in Perth, Western Australia. The Wajarri Yamatji people are the traditional owners of the proposed Western Australia site.

    This paper will examine the potential of the SKA as a catalyst for art-science conversations and collaborative projects. What is the likely benefit for different communities? Will the SKA become part the popular imagination? What metaphors will be developed for the SKA, to demonstrate its capacity to excite and be understood? How will the data collected, made available, be understood visually? Can it be transformed into aesthetic experiences to be enjoyed by a broad audience?

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