Test your geomatics knowledge with this artwork

The intersection of art and science is known to be a fertile ground for creativity and innovation. If at first you can’t see much overlap between art and geomatics, I challenge you to draw a Venn diagram and think again. Cartography, visualisation, geodesign, architecture… the list goes on.

And then there is land art.

Land artists use nature as canvas and exhibition space for their artworks. From huge spirals in the desert to sun tunnels, land art is a kind of outdoor sculpture that often requires accurate positioning and alignment within the landscape – in other words, geospatial expertise.

There is one particular piece of land art that would make a perfect set of exam questions for geomatics students.

The Lightning Field is located in a remote area of New Mexico, and consists of 400 stainless-steel poles erected in a precise grid pattern covering an area of 1 mile x 1 kilometre. Designed and installed by land artist Walter de Maria, it’s been dubbed one of the most significant works of art of the late 20th century. The idea is that the poles attract lightning during thunderstorms, thereby inducing Mother Nature to put on its own show. But also without lightning, The Lightning Field is designed to convey a deep sense of space and isolation for those few people lucky enough to ever wander around it. (Yes, it’s on my bucket list.)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

But anyway, here’s the geomatics bit.

The poles are not just arranged in a precise grid of 220 feet (67.06 metres) squares, but also their tips are aligned in a horizontal plane such that they support a perfectly flat, imaginary sheet of glass:


In other words, despite the natural undulations of the desert plateau, the tip of every pole is at exactly the same elevation above mean sea level. In fact, the height of the poles varies between 5 and 8 metres.

So here’s some exam questions:

  1. What geomatics techniques would you use, and how, to ensure that all poles – and their tips – end up exactly in the right position, horizontally and vertically, within a tolerance of say, 5 cm?
  2. How would you work out the length of each pole required, knowing they all need to be buried 30 centimetres deep into the ground?
  3. What techniques would you have used in 1977 when the Lightning Field was installed? (i.e. no personal computers, no GPS, no drones, no cheap 3D modelling software, no laser or electronic distance measurement tools)
  4. Geospatially speaking, if you wanted to realise the Lightning Field in the most (unnecessarily) creative way that somehow involves all major branches of geomatics (GIS, remote sensing, photogrammetry, geodesy & surveying), how would you do it?

With today’s plethora of geospatial technology on offer, there are many ways of doing it. But mind you, not all of them would be accurate enough.

Feel free to post your answers below… or maybe you can think of further questions to ask!

P.S.  I doubt you can google the answers; I couldn’t find an online reference to how the Lightning Field was originally surveyed in the 1970s. If you find one do let me know!

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.



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