In 2017 I formed para-lab alongside Andrew Wilson, an organisation which experiments with the ‘how’ of art and science collaborations. We work with an interdisciplinary mix of natural scientists and artists who all become part of the para-lab collective.
para-lab operates in a realm which is simultaneously inside, outside, and alongside the university institution, taking methods from the idea of the ‘para-academic’. We aim to create productive discomfort, where participants are taken out of their comfort zones, both physically and mentally. We run sessions in art studios, science labs, and disciplinary-neutral spaces such as the city streets, or on the moors. All participants inevitably shift their perspectives in relation to each other, whether that be the learning of scientific or artistic principles.
In order to facilitate collaboration, we have developed our ‘Ideas Generation Sessions’ where participants learn about each others’ research and go through a series of making exercises. The structure of the sessions allows starting points for projects to emerge and collaborations to form. As a result of these sessions we now have 6 working groups, exploring an array of interdisciplinary themes. In addition, we also run field trips, workshops, reading groups and talks, which allow for shared experiences and discussion but without the pressure of any tangible output.
To find out more about the sessions we’ve run and the working groups, look at our website here.
Performed on Sunday 28th June at 12.20 BST as part of the para-lab field trip to Saddleworth Moor.
You are occupying your own space, safe from the germs of your friends. In recent weeks the space surrounding you has expanded. You’re probably more aware of it than you were before. Do you feel a sense of ownership over this space? Perhaps you’re one of those people who feels annoyance when others intrude into ‘your’ space. Or maybe you’re continuously aware of your actions in relation to others. You walk in the road so they don’t have to, thinking ‘Did I get too close?’; ’Should I have waited for them to pass?’ Or perhaps you’re one of those who makes a point of not caring. You enjoy the feeling of getting close, of breaking the rules.
On the 4th July our freedom increases but our space reduces.
Have you ever considered the scope of this space that has been allotted to us by the powers that be? Where does it begin and end? What shape is it? Let’s each consider our personal section of the planet.
First, look down at your feet, at your place on the surface of the large sphere that is our planet. Imagine your section of the surface continuing down in a very long, narrow cone-shape, all the way down to its apex at the centre of the Earth. What substances, creatures and materials might be occupying your space with you?
Now look upwards. If you are able to do so comfortably, lie on your back and look up at the sky. Let’s imagine your long, narrow cone of space extending up into Earth’s atmosphere. Those raindrops you can feel on your face. They’re your raindrops – or are they? Look up to the clouds where the raindrops are created. Try to locate the patch of sky that is yours. Form a circle with your thumb and forefinger and hold it in front of your face. Is this your patch of sky perhaps? Observe it for a moment. Watch it change with the moving clouds. Become familiar with your patch.
Put down your arm and close your eyes. Experience our planet: the weather, the wind, the sounds. Enjoy it while you can because we’re about to go beyond it and take our space into space. Imagine that your very long, very narrow cone is continuing its journey past the clouds and out of Earth’s atmosphere. Imagine it travelling from the Earth all the way out to the edge of the solar system. Really consider its path – don’t be lazy… Where is the Sun right now in relation to your cone? What route would it take out of the Solar System?
By the time the base of your cone reaches the last piece of icy rock held by the Sun’s gravity, its surface area will be around 12 times that of the Sun. Your very own piece of the Oort Cloud, too big to explore in a thousand lifetimes.
We could go further still, expanding outwards to other stars and galaxies. If the sun could switch off for a second, we would see the constellation of Orion overhead, with Taurus the bull in sight of his arrow. Could you be sharing your personal space with one of these stars? Don’t get too cosy in their company, as your space will scan the sky like a spotlight, welcoming in new bodies as the Earth turns.
Now slowly, in your own time, return to your immediate space. Focus on your body and where it interacts with the earth beneath you. Open your eyes and take in your surroundings: the landscape, the people. Stand up, if you’re not already. Has your sense of space changed? Are you more or less willing to share your space?
In 2018 I was awarded one of Allenheads Contemporary Arts ‘BEYOND: Open Doors‘ residencies. Allenheads had recently acquired an astronomical observatory for their site and so the BEYOND artists were responding to the theme of going ‘beyond’ this world.
I arrived at the residency interested in experiencing those periods where no useful observing can take place. Those moments waiting for the clouds to pass, for the Moon change phase, or the Sun to set. Twilight is a time that has particularly captured my attention during my stay at Allenheads and I spent time in the woods alone during this time, experiencing the changing light, sounds and sensations of this period.
During the weekend we were visited by astrophotographer Gary Lintern. His background is in psychology and has an interest in unconscious processing. Our discussion briefly touched on night vision and how to improve it. Gary mentioned a researcher called Nelson Zink, who developed a device for peripheral vision training. This provided an aesthetic, conceptual and experiential starting point for my exploration:
“On the bill of a baseball cap we mounted a metal rod welded to a binder clip, extending about a foot in front of our eyes. On the tip of this rod we glued a small bead of plastic resin about the size of a baby green pea. This created a fixed point on which to focus. We reasoned that with our focused vision on the bead, any physical activity would necessitate the use of peripheral vision.” (Zink, 1991)
I thought I would give it a go.
In order to train your night vision, your eyes need to focus on something straight ahead (an orange ball of epoxy putty in my case), whilst your mind concentrates on all the stuff going on in your peripheral vision. The article claimed that If you persevere through the hours of training you could reach a feeling of ‘zen’ where you would be able to run through a dark forest simply by sensing what’s underfoot.
I walked and walked. I went out again at dusk and walked until dark. I stopped wearing my glasses as this apparently only amplifies the tunnel vision of modern life. I even spent some nights sleeping in the forest overnight, allowing the darkness to engulf me fully.
Behind ACA is a pine forest, due to be felled anytime in the next ten years. Beyond the forest is miles and miles of grouse shooting moorland. There is a sense of tension. Spending time in the forest and up on the moors makes you feel away from civilisation (I walked for nine miles and didn’t see another person). The forest is populated by owls, red squirrels, dear and thousands of rabbits. But there is also the bleak reality that the trees are in neat rows and come the glorious 12th, the area will be swarming with ‘gentlemen’ paying thousands of pounds to shoot on the carefully managed land.
I never did reach this sense of zen the authors spoke of.
References Zink, H., Parks, S. (1991) ‘Nightwalking : Exploring the dark with Peripheral Vision’, Whole Earth Review)
The video ‘Production Rings Pyramiden’ was filmed in the dark basement of the swimming pool at an abandoned Russian coal mining town in the Arctic Circle. The only action is the occasional entrance of a vortex ring released from behind the camera, an action borrowed from amateur YouTube science demonstrations.
Testing the Field involved taking a combination of art students and science students on a trip to Middlewood Trust, where they lived off-grid over a long weekend and took part in a series of interdisciplinary experiences and workshops. Anthony Hall led a sensory journey through the woods where we discovered tardigrades in the moss, listened to the environment in new frequencies, searched for micrometeorites and made hydrophones.