An Introduction to Elaine Shemilt’s practice

Elaine Shemilt is an academic, researcher and artist notable for her collaborative work with scientists and in environmental protection and industrial heritage legacy.

In the early 1970s however, she was a pioneer of early feminist video and multi-media installation work. She exhibited three works in the Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975. Shemilt’s contribution to this field was recognized and accessioned by two collections, REWIND (UK, 2013) and the Sammlung Verbund Collection, (Austria, 2014). Shemilt was a friend of the contemporary artist Helen Chadwick and she was selected for the Hayward Annual in 1979. Although there is a considerable archive of photographs and prints, of her early video works, only two have survived intact: Elaine Shemilt, Doppelgänger, 1979-81, video, 9′ 12” and Elaine Shemilt, Women Soldiers, 1984, video, 6′. Both were recovered and re-mastered by the REWIND video art project in 2011.

Shemilt’s work tends not to present a conventional approach. According to the art historian and theorist Alan Woods: “Her work ranges across a wide variety of media. Initially it focused on installation, the various printmaking media were used in an attempt to continue and develop the installations by other means. If the event is inevitably lost, a new artwork is launched from it, and as themes and subjects occur and re-occur, their re-generation might usefully be imagined as located within an extended family of images.”
Elaine Shemilt is a graduate of Winchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art and has exhibited internationally including Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Canada, USA, Australia, Italy and Germany including the Hayward and the Institute of Contemporary Art, London and the Edinburgh Festival. As a printmaker of international renown she pioneered safe printing methods and promoted the discipline through her exhibitions and teaching. She established the Printmaking Department of the School of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (University of Dundee) in 1988 She is currently Professor of Fine Art Printmaking and a Professional member of Society of Scottish Artists and was its President from March 2007-2010. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2000 and of the Royal Geographical Society in 2009.

A Blueprint for Bacterial Life

An important strand of Elaine Shemilt’s work involves collaboration between Art and Science. Her work with the Genome Diagram developed by Dr Ian Toth and Dr Leighton Pritchard at the Scottish Crop Research Institute resulted in a portfolio of work including installations, digital animation, prints and music. This collaborative research project started in 2004, It involves representational scientific data, visual art and sound, and whether a Science-Art fusion can move the boundaries of visual and audio interpretation. The full genome sequence of the bacterial potato plant pathogen (Erwinia) carotovora subsp. atroseptica (Eca) has been fully sequenced in a project led by the Scottish Crop Research Institute in collaboration with the Sanger Institute. Shemilt developed a series of prints in 2005 from the scientific data and subsequently animations in two and three dimensions for projection. The artistic re-interpretation of scientific data contributed to new insights. Rather than simply identifying genes unique to a pathogen, the screen prints and animations revealed the presence of other genes present in all of the bacteria, possibly representing genes essential to all forms of bacteria. The pilot stages of the project were funded by a grant from the Mylnefield Trust. Further prints, Hi-Defintion animations and music sequences are in progress. The research is currently featured in a book AHRC ICT Methods Network, Volume ‘Art Practice in a Digital Culture,’ published by Ashgate in 2009. ISSN 1743-3959 ISBN 978 -1 84150-248-9. The work is also featured in “The Hunt for Submarines in Classical Art: Mappings between scientific invention and artistic inspiration,” © AHDS Visual Arts and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, 2007. Published by AHDS Visual Arts, Farnham, Surrey. “Behind Appearance” The initial research for this work was conducted in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh where I concentrated on 18th and 19th Century anatomical drawings. Considerable experimentation and adaptation of printmaking techniques, using both water based and oil based inks, were required in order to produce imagery which could be layered on to a variety of surfaces. I developed a method of printmaking using carborundum grit, which enabled the layering of of photographic and drawn images. In this work the much larger than life sized, anatomical, drawings of the flayed figure became a new source of body imagery as well as marking the reversal of the layers of materials and the bindings of the body in earlier work.


This artwork was produced in collaboration with Stephen Partridge. It is a video and sound installation comprising of eight different films projected onto four latex screens, each of which is split down the centre and angled in space. The location of these screens is such that the viewer is partially surrounded by the work and is invited to make their own connections between its various components. The sound of the spoken word is itself a montage of poetry, fragments of which are derived from a variety of different sources – sociology, psychoanalysis and feminist theory. The research involved experimentation into the combination of traditional printmaking techniques with computer generated imagery, creating a new way to output the digital imagery and to develop digital layering techniques with an element of historical time by studying and incorporating imagery from earlier work of the 1970’s to introduce a ‘recycling’ of ideas and themes into the new collaborative output.

Collaborative Research Projects

Environmental protection in remote environments In 1999 Shemilt led a project for the Ministry of Defence to improve the physical environment for servicemen and women stationed in the Falkland Islands. The work in the Falklands led to the establishment of ‘Project Atlantis’ and inspired an exhibition on the Falkland’s Conflict for the Imperial War Museum in 2002, ‘Traces of Conflict’. Project Atlantis was a research and consultancy group concerned with environmental protection and education. Shemilt was the Artistic Director and, along with team leader Brigadier Nicholls raised the funding necessary for the first project, with lectures and briefings to key public bodies and companies during 1999-2001. In 2002 a comprehensive web site was completed which brings the beauty of the Island of South Georgia and its natural heritage to worldwide Internet access. In 2006 David Nicholls died and Shemilt helped to develop Project Atlantis into the Centre for Remote Environments.

Centre for Remote Environments This research concerns the environmental sustainability of the island of South Georgia for the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The work involves the representation of complex data for wide audiences, from children to scholars. The research also extends into Habitat Restoration on the Island, as well as a study of the ‘Discovery Science’ of the early 20th Century. Dissemination of the environmental issues occurs through the website The aims of CRE are committed towards developing a portfolio of research and consultancy projects and works to secure research grants and contracts from research councils, government departments and industry.
CRE works closely with The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT). The main research themes addressed are: marine and fisheries; environment, ecology and conservation; industrial and cultural heritage, with particular reference to the whaling industries; as well as related technologies within polar and sub polar regions. Stakeholders include British Antarctic Survey, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Scott Polar Institute, National Oceanographic Society. In recognition of her contribution to the environmental protection of South Georgia, Shemilt was made a Shackleton Scholar in 2001.

The Demarco Archives

In November 2004 the AHRC awarded Euan McArther, Arthur Watson, and Elaine Shemilt a Resource Enhancement Award of £312,327 for “The Demarco Archives: accessing a 40-Year Dialogue between Richard Demarco and the European Avant-Garde”. For the past four decades Demarco has contributed to Scotland’s cultural life. The archive is selected from his 250,000 photographs plus books, and documents, relevant to contemporary visual art, theatre, literature, cultural studies, history and politics. The three year project was based at the Visual Research Centre and is accessible online through

Scales of Life

In 2013 Shemilt completed a major SciArt commission for the University of Dundee, College of Life Science new Centre for Translational & Interdisciplinary Research building: The Scales of Life which embodies science and the visualisation process. She collaborated with the Regius Professor Michael Ferguson and the architect Jo White. On three facades of the CTIR building, 16 columns of large metal cladding panels incorporate her artistic abstractions which represent the 4 key scales of life: Molecular, Organellar, Cellular and Tissue. The cladding panels (1.5m wide x 3.6m high) are made from a high quality anodised aluminum and are arranged vertically into groups of 4 panels. The panels address the essence of the four main scales of Life and the intangibility of their size and dimensions. The visual abstractions reflect both an interpretive aesthetic approach, and the need to retain scientific recognition and accuracy. The main objective of the work was that the series of images reflected in a meaningful way the scientific research being undertaken within the new Discovery Building. The building with it’s final artworks was officially opened by Sir Paul Nurse on October 1st 2014.


In recent years, Shemilt has also collaborated with the video artist Stephen Partridge on a number of installations, including “Rush” first exhibited at the Fieldgate Gallery,London and “Quattro Minuti di Mezzogiorno”, a HiDefinition Video installation. Exhibited in Fuoriluogo 15 – Una Regressione Motivata, Limiti Inchiusi Arte Contemporanea, Campobasso, Molise, Italy. December 2010, January 2011. The exhibition included work by Fausto Colavecchia (IT), Douglas Gordon (GB), and was curated by Deirdre MacKenna, Director of Stills – Scotland’s Centre for photography in Edinburgh.

EWVA European Women’s Video Art in the 70s and 80s

REWINDItalia and EWVA: some notes on the methodologies and approaches to retrace the histories of early video art. In the last decade a number of research projects mapping and recovering early video art, have been undertaken in Europe, and a debate regarding archiving, recovering and retracing these practices has developed.

REWINDItalia (2011-2014), guided by Prof. Stephen Partridge, explored the histories and narratives of video art activity in Italy from the 1970s and 1980s to bring it to the attention of international scholars and practitioners for interpretative and historical assessment.

It followed the successful AHRC funded projects REWIND (2005 – ongoing), also guided by Partridge, that has recovered and re-mastered more than 300 early British video works and has become a significant resource for practitioners, curators, historians and scholars.

Both projects, based at DJCAD (University of Dundee) developed online digital archives (available at that include documents, ephemera, interviews, contributions and resources.

Following to these projects, the AHRC funded project EWVA European Women’s Video Art in the 70s and 80s (starting in March 2015), is led by Prof. Elaine Shemilt and based at DJCAD (University of Dundee), will aim to recover and reassess the contribution of women artists to early video art in Europe.

Principal Investigator Professor Elaine Shemilt,

Co- Investigator Professor Stephen Partridge

Research Fellow, Dr Laura Leuzzi

Archivist Adam Lockhart