Category Archives: Writing

para-lab excursion to Allenheads

As part of a programme of wider activities, para-lab organise regular excursions where the full collective of members are invited to come together for workshops, exercises, collective endeavour or exploration. These trips aim to test methods for enhancing exchange across disciplines, disrupting unhelpful dichotomies which traditionally emerge when artists collaborate with scientists. The excursion design attends to power imbalances which can exist amongst academics and cross-disciplinary groups by operating in a sphere between work and play. Participants are encouraged to bring their children, partners, dogs or friends along with them, further removing them from their ‘professional’ lives. 

In June 2022, para-lab organised its first overnight excursion to Allenheads Contemporary Arts (ACA) in Northumberland. I’ve worked with ACA for a number of projects (Beyond, Continuum and Call Centre) and feel a strong connection to the place and the people that run it: the wonderful Helen Ratcliffe and Alan Smith. ACA specialises in delivering innovative contemporary art in their unique rural setting. They have an exciting history of engaging with science and scientists, with many of their recent projects inspired by the dark skies enjoyed in that part of the world. In 2017 they built an onsite astronomical observatory, giving artists a rare opportunity to engage directly with observational astronomy on their own terms. 

On Saturday morning, we embarked on our first adventure, a trip underground to explore Nenthead Mines. We employed the services of Ally Hetherington to guide us around the complex system of tunnels and impart his knowledge of the industrial and geological history of the area. Ally likened the experience to going to the Moon and assured us that any nervousness or claustrophobia would soon dissolve once we became absorbed in the fascinating process of journeying and discovery.

Nentheads mines operated from around 1690 when a large vein of lead was discovered. Lead continued to be mined there until the late 19th century when it was largely replaced with zinc mining, finally ceasing operations in 1961. Much of the industrial archeology remains, including cart tracks, hydraulic pipes, and the remains of wooden beams used to test for compression or expansion of cave walls (many of them worryingly warped under pressure!). There are various deep shafts off the main tunnels and macabre stories of lost children to accompany them.

At one point we stopped and turned off our head torches. Ally led a couple of perceptual experiments where we tested what we thought we could see in absolute darkness. It’s amazing how the human brain fills in the gaps when devoid of perceptual information. It made me think of Antony Hall’s perceptual illusion experiments as part of his practice-based PhD research.

After a couple of hours we arrived in the ‘Ballroom’, a vast cavern which was cut out of solid limestone by lead miners. The Ballroom gets its name from an event that took place on September the 2nd 1901 when around 30 local people travelled into the mine for a village dinner party and dance. This is the place where Alan Smith, Louise K Wilson, John Bowers and Peter Mathews spent 72 hours for the project Chthonic.

In the end, we spent over 4 hours underground (although it felt like much less) observing, discovering and collecting mineral deposits (gunk!) off the walls for our afternoon activity. Ally was right, it does feel like an alien environment: temperature, time, distance, sight and sound all take on a strange otherworldliness. It is one of those places where you are reminded, in a tactile and material way, that we exist on a very special planet, and occupy a small moment in its vast history. The cognitive dissonance created by the experience is something we’d like to explore further with different sites for future excursions.

Getting geared up ready to descend. Photo by Sophy King
Michelle Harrison
The ballroom
Wooden beams installed to monitor expansion and contraction over time

In the afternoon, material scientists Aled Deadkin Roberts, Aoife Taylor and Helen Park led a workshop where we attempted to invent new biomaterials as alternatives to concrete. The workshop was a result of a para-lab working group research project ‘BioMaterials’, which has been devising a range of bio-based composite (biocomposite) material concepts. The workshop began with a foraging expedition in the area behind ACA. The act of getting out into ‘nature’ gave us the impression of being somewhere very wild and remote, yet in reality ACA is an old school nestled into a hill behind which is a plantation forest of pine trees due to be felled at any moment. Beyond that is miles of managed moorland used for grouse shooting. This is a huge industry in the area and completely dominates the landscape and local economy, especially in hunting season. So much of what we foraged were the plants, mosses and materials which have snuck in between the gaps of this very unnatural, human-controlled landscape. A little more of that cognitive dissonance perhaps?

We came back with various natural materials to experiment with. Alongside the foraged materials were various other powders and concoctions, such as potato starch, spirulina and synthetic moon dust (and the cave gunk, of course). The basic idea is that you have an aggregate, combine it with a binder, compress using a syringe and then dry it out on a heat plate. You can then put the new material through various experiments to test its suitability as a potential building material.

Nicola Ellis
Yvonne Peters
Our test materials drying on a heat plate

On Saturday night, I led a tour of the night sky for anyone who was still awake by the time it got dark (not until around 1am due to being so close to the solstice). I ran through the main summer constellations and methods for how to find them. We also just lay on our backs doing nothing but looking up for a while. Some shooting stars were spotted. Again, as with all of the planned activities, this gave us a sense, in a very material way, of the reality of our place in the wider universe. 

On Sunday morning we embarked on a hike to the highest Pennines summit in Northumberland, Killhope Law, led by artist Michelle Harrison. Michelle is a keen rock climber and mountaineer who has recently trained as a climbing instructor. In recent years her art practice has shifted from painting to a more experiential practice involving hiking and climbing inspired by ideas around the haptic sublime. All started well as we hiked through farmland and up onto the summit. The idea was that we would walk a triangle, taking in another nearby peak and then back down another route into the village. 

Once we got to the first summit though, we decided a circular walk, just completing one summit, would be more appropriate for our energy levels and time. Unfortunately we got a bit lost trying to find the route back and ended up marching straight across heather moorland, which was quite hard going, especially for those wearing sandals!

But we made it and the outdoor adventure served to successfully break down any sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between artists and scientists and any power imbalances were around who had worn the appropriate gear or brought enough food. There was a strong sense of collective achievement when we made it back to the village, made all the more satisfying by the physical and mental endurance we unexpectedly faced. This notion of embracing the unexpected is something we’d like to explore more, and leading groups in outdoor adventures seems a good way to do this.

Revolution I: Industrialisation

Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Artist as Archeologist

Industrialisation has become an abstract entity rooted in history. You can go to a museum and see machines as artifacts, and hear the stories of the hardships of workers, with the same distancing from reality as a child reading a ‘Horrible Histories’ book. Perhaps the current need of artists to revisit our industrial past stems from their desire to keep it current. After all, industrialisation is only a matter of history for the western world, but in other places industrialisation is happening right now. Even here in Manchester, industry didn’t start properly declining until the 1960s, so it’s solidly fixed in living memory. And of course the effects of industry will continue long after operation ceases through climate change.

Hannah Leighton-Boyce explores history and memory, leading to an inquiry into the legacy of industry in much of her work. She often works with found objects or past occurrences, unearthing things that have been lost to history. The now defunct textile manufacturing of Northern England is a recurrent theme within her most recent works. For this reason she naturally finds herself working with industrial heritage sites. These mill museums represent the antithesis to Leighton-Boyce’s work in a way – they are the very institutions responsible for burying certain memories, whilst turning others into artefacts. Her work deals with these issues in a subtle, non-confrontational way, thereby working within the constraints of these institutions while still preserving the integrity of the ideas.

The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura ©Hannah Leighton-Boyce

Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s piece The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was part of the exhibition Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in 2013. The site-specific work was housed within the walls of the Salts Mill spinning room (formerly the largest industrial room in the World). The piece consisted of 7 camera obscuras installed into the ventilation alcoves of the previously windowless room. By revealing these never-before-seen views, the piece reactivates the Victorian sense of wonder. A contemporary art audience could easily mistake the work for light boxes. However the longer contemplation time the viewer is encouraged to take by kneeling on a cushion to view the scenes, means the mechanical simplicity of the camera obscura is revealed (through a slowly moving cloud or a flying bird).

If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn

The World Said, And The Consequence Was ©Hannah Leighton Boyce

The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was the catalyst for two new works by Leighton-Boyce. One was If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn. This piece consists of a film by Mary Stark, and balls of wool. The film documents Leighton-Boyce hand spinning wool found within the walls of the room. Wool wasn’t the only thing she found in the walls though. The piece The World Said, And The Consequence Was is an archive of over 100 objects all also found in the walls. The collection contains various victorian industrial and non-industrial paraphernalia – a sewing needle, bobbins, broken machinery, cogs, brushes, trade meeting tickets, a boot, a wrist protector, cigarette packets and much much more. The sense of wonder prevails. For what reason are the walls filled with all this stuff?

Leighton-Boyce describes the piece as a “memorial to the act of finding”. Finding can be a very emotional thing. in this case it was never on the cards – she was faced with a large, clean, bare space. She says:

Within the now vast and empty space of the spinning room, these small dark rooms recessed along the outer walls were, it seems, the perfect space for discarding, hiding, loosing, and preserving not only fragments of wool but also a wide range of objects. Once I began, the event continued to unfold, object after object entangled with wool, rust, oil and dirt raging from centuries old to more recent and familiar lifetimes. It was an incredibly moving experience. Each small room contained an archive, which unlike a typical museum collection, crossed time and hierarchy; from the everyday and personal items to industrial remains, creating a unique portrait of the people who worked there and a narrative of the events around the space.

I remember thinking when seeing her piece East Wing 1939 – 2011 that there is an unnerving sense of precariousness to a practice reliant on ‘finding’, but somehow the finds keep coming. Another interesting thing about this piece is the fact that in a way, it never existed. It was documented but never viewed directly. This is due to the fact that despite found by Leighton-Boyce, the objects of course belong to Salts Mill. The collection has been re-archived. No doubt some items have been discarded as insignificant (given the limited space of a gallery archive, they wouldn’t bother storing hundreds of cigarette packets and sweet wrappers). If any of the items are ever shown again it will be in a new context – one as an object in a museum. So the term ‘memorial’ does seem appropriate. The objects, and the piece with them, have been re-buried within the walls of an institution.

The proposed work Tenter Lines [working title] also deals directly with the historicising of industrialisation. The work will respond to the site of the tenter fields above Helmshore Mill and will explore the shifting relationships between people and place, culminating in a ‘happening’ this summer marking the sites of where the tenter frames once stood. Tenter frames were used in wool production to keep cloth under tension whilst drying so it wouldn’t shrink. These large frames and expanses of fabric would once have been a dominant feature above Helmshore Mill, as well as the constant flow of workers carrying cloth up and down the hill. But where the frames once stood is now a housing estate; built in the 1970s, the estate coincides with the decline of industry and birth of the digital revolution. Like many Mill towns, Helmshore, which once had a strong local economy, is now primarily a commuter village, and the estate shows no indication of its industrial past – not even a street name. So Leighton-Boyce is unearthing a hidden history and again creating a kind of memorial. By mapping the site with an action, the work will mimick the the fact that it was the action that marked the place previously, not any permanent structure.

Production Lines

There are many examples of artists referencing the aesthetics, repetition and persistence of production lines. But when discussing artwork in relation to production lines, it’s hard not to also think about the working methods of artists and their manufacturing practices. in this blog I have highlighted projects that reference the factory production line directly in content and also more indirectly in process – the projects chosen all rely on the work of others in some way. Cohen Van Balen employ actual factory workers to perform their piece, Paul Granjon enlists volunteers from the local community, Carlos Amorales wants the gallery visitor to manufacture the art, and István Csákány makes his artwork so delicate that it relies on constant maintenance from gallery technicians.

Many artists employ the skills of others to manufacture their art, acting as overlookers; they reside over a project, taking full intellectual authorship over it, but enlisting workers to do much of the making. With a clear distinction between physical work and intellectual work, labour can be divided into separate skill stations in order to increase production speed and quality.

But what about when artists use unskilled labour, as is usually the case when enlisting volunteers, or gallery goers? There is clearly more going on than just exploitation. Relying on others is problematic, especially when the successful completion of a project relies on the work of unskilled, unpaid workers.

The term ‘carry the can’ is thought to derive from cotton mills, as it was someone’s responsibility to physically move the partly processed cotton from one part of the mill to the next. Although basic unskilled labour, it carried a great deal of responsibility as workers relied on being supplied with product in order to do their work; if a link in the chain was broken it effected everything in front of it.

In Oriel Factory, Paul Granjon is the classic socially engaged artist, trying to give something back to the local community. He has relinquished control over the project in order to maximise the experience of others. The workers are taught skills and are free to define their own tasks and product. The artist’s responsibility has shifted from a pure making role to a managing one; he takes responsibility not only for the creation of a successful exhibition but also for providing a beneficial experience to others. If the unskilled, unpaid workers neither perform nor benefit, the project surely fails. Although, the intellectual labour is still clearly defined (the participants take authorship over their own pieces and these are displayed in a separate part of the gallery), the physical content of the final exhibition is left unknown until the worker’s labour is realised.

In the case of Flames Maquidadora by Carlos Amorales, the unskilled labourer is not an enlisted participant but the gallery goer. The artwork is the process of making in the gallery context and the gallery goer experiences the art through making it. By purposefully hinging an artwork on a potentially unwilling participant, Amorales seems to be highlighting the problems with relinquishing control to an unskilled workforce. This is played out by the fact that the visitors didn’t manage, even collectively, to produce one finished product.

In the spinning rooms of cotton mills, the person in charge was the spinner. He was the only person actually paid by the mill owner and would then enlist workers to help him, paying them out of his salary. 

István Csákány is also handing over responsibility in Ghost Keeping, but this time to his advantage. The art world, like a factory, involves different people taking responsibility for different aspects of a project, and the different parts having different pockets of money. Artists often get commissioning fees which cover both payment for time and manufacturing cost. What so often happens is that artists have to sacrifice part of their payment in order to put more money into the manufacturing costs, therefore essentially working for a minimal wage. In Ghost Keeping, Csákány is capitalising from this system by manufacturing the work using very cheap materials that are easy to shape quickly. This then transfers the major cost of the project onto the artwork’s upkeep. This maintenance cost would come from an entirely different budget, and would be the responsibility of the gallery, not the artist.

The Owl Project do a similar thing with their iLog Workshops, by taking the responsibility of making from themselves and giving it to the collector. Instead of just paying for a piece of artwork, the collectors have to come to the artists’ studio and make it for themselves. They go away with an Owl Project artwork, but the Owl Project haven’t made it, they have. This model bypasses the problems with enlisting unskilled labour faced by artists such as Granjon. If the artwork doesn’t get made properly, or even completed, the consequences lie on the maker/collector, not the artists.

In 75 Watt by Cohen Van Balen it is not the artist’s but the labourer’s responsibility that has completely shifted. Instead of acting as ‘man-machines’, they are now performers. Just like the actual machines discussed in my last blog, by not accomplishing anything, the act of working becomes exposed. Although any artwork referencing production lines is clearly commenting on issues surrounding capitalism, workers rights, distribution of wealth and the general socioeconomic situation, it seems questions around the labour of artists also emerge. The factory worker and the artist seem immediately completely at odds, with artists generally being from more educated, affluent backgrounds, and not having to work to a strict pattern or production speed. But unlike an office worker, or indeed most other jobs outside the manufacturing sector, artists are actually involved in the production of a finished object (in the loosest sense of the word). In 75 Watt similarities to the work of artists are clear; the worker/performer carries out the action of making, produces a useless item, only to begin the unavailing activity again.

Aversion Management

Essay for Aversion Management, Rogue Project Space, September 2013

Aversion Management looks at productivity from the side of the manager. The work of artists is more often than not self-directed unpaid work. The pressure to produce is, for most artists, strong but there is often no external source of this impulse. As Adorno says, the artist “embodies the social forces of production without necessarily being bound by the censorship dictated by the relations of production” 1. For Aversion Management we want to bind the artists to the relations of production and see how they perform. We are exposing ‘work’ – both the work of artists, and the work involved in running a space.

Artists have to fit art-making around the demands and deadlines of other aspects of their lives. Will artists be more productive by subjecting art to the same strict structure and deadlines as other aspects of life? As OTCOP 2 say in ‘A Living Body Performing its own Autopsy…’, “Individually, we can be better or worse at managing time, prioritising processes and planning production. These are key capacities required to make any post-Fordist collaboration function efficiently and without apparent conflicts”3. The work of an artist is not just the production of artwork, but all of the meetings,  networking, emails, applications and marketing that goes along with it. The exhibition aims to highlight this work by making it the object of critique – an artist is paid in relation to their work efficiency, not on how established they are, or how large the work is. The exhibition is a classic ‘project exhibition’, a term coined by Marion von Osten  4, in that the ‘what’ becomes secondary to the ‘how’, as opposed to a thematically curated exhibition. As Liam Gillick says: “Art production and work methods are not temporally linked or balanced because the idea of managing time is not a key component of making art, nor is it a personal or objective profit motive for artists. Unless they decide that such behavior is actually part of the work itself” 5. The ‘what’ in this case is the control of the artists’ working methods.

Quite surprisingly we found this method very successful. Just by making artists aware that they were being scrutinised seemed enough to spur them on to become high-achievers. They went above and beyond to produce labour intensive, ambitious artworks. Under normal circumstances this is all that is asked of artists, and would be more than enough to secure them a full artists fee. But despite all of this extra labour, they still managed to slip up on their basic targets – Thomas Yeoman’s artist bio is now three weeks overdue, and Adam Renshaw’s tarmac is still wet (being dyslectic is no excuse!). As charming and hard-working as they are, we have no choice but to reduce their fee accordingly.

1 Adorno, T. (2004) Aesthetic Theory, London: Continuum, p. 55

2 OTCOP is a research group, OTCOP stands for On The Conditions of Production.

3 OTCOP, “A Living Body Performing its own Autopsy…” in Engqvist, J. et al (eds.) (2012) Work Work Work: a Reader on Art and Labour, Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 223

4 von Osten, M. (2010) “Another Criterion… or, What Is the Attitude of a Work in the Relations of Production of Its Time”, Afterall issue 25, Autumn/WInter, pp. 20 – 22

5 Gillick, L. “The Good of Work”, in e-flux journal (2011) Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 71

Performing Machines

Using machines to produce artwork is an easy concept to grasp – since Andy Warhol’s Factory we are used to the idea of art as a commodity, and artist as facilitator, not necessary the single-handed producer. But what about when it is the machines that are the artwork, and no longer work to produce, but work as a performance. It is not the artist doing the physical work (or even their assistants) but the machine. In physics the concept of work can be interpreted as the measurement of the accomplishment of a task. To do work, effort (force) is required. However effort does not necessarily mean that work is done. The effort must accomplish something… a displacement must accompany the effort. But when a machine does not accomplish anything, as is the case in the examples I’m exploring, the act of working then becomes the work. There is no end commodity except work itself. With no end goal the ‘work’ is exposed.

Architect Helena Mattsson discusses this exposure of work in terms of the relationship between public space and work space. Work is turned into a commodity: “By introducing a public space into what is normally a closed structure, the organisation is opened up and the internal parts of its machinery are laid out for public inspection. This exhibitionistic display aestheticises everyday life, as well as work, by making it into entertainment”. In Manchester, our rich industrial heritage often seeps into our art. The once private cotton industry has become aesthetised by museums, and reinterpreted by artists. The cotton industry was famously dangerous and unethical; factories were tucked away, just outside cities, with the workers housed together, also hidden. By making machines perform, artists (like museums) are exposing the beauty of industry whilst also dismissing the pressure of production (a pressure felt by both factory workers and artists alike). In this blog I have found examples of artworks that involve machines as artworks, working to no end other than to perform.

The Reversing Machine (A Theatre of Kairos and Chronos) 2012Sam Belinfante and Simon Lewandowski

The Reversing Machine is a time-setting mechanism which can be connected up to different machines, acting as a drive shaft to power them to run forwards, then backwards. First shown at Art Laboratory Berlin at part of the exhibition ‘Fantastic Time Machines’ 2012, where it powered machines such as a turntable, a drawing machine and a slide projector. The work will be shown at the new Project Space Leeds (soon to be the ‘The Tetley‘) in December 2013, for which the artists are looking for musicians to submit palindromic or bi-directional compositions.

Almost Certified (grade A noise for non-discerning consumers), 2004, Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree

This bizarre sound machine consists of a series of eggs of various unconventional varieties and sizes. The eggs are tapped by an aluminium mallet, and amplified. The process is operated by an obsolete 1993 Mac LC III. The piece was first displayed in 2004 at Machine Project Guide to Cultural History and the Natural Sciences, Pomona College Museum of Art, California.

Interesting blog article here

Physical Echoes, 2013, James Medd

This drawing machine makes marks responding to real-time sound. It initially produces drawings that echo the ambience of whatever space the machine is in, but over time these drawings become a scribbled block as the pens move back and forth over the same space. The more the machines work, the less meaning their output has. First displayed at Digital Performance Lab at the University of Salford.

video: Blog about the project here:

Homage to New York, 1960Jean Tinguely

Sometimes the most iconic artworks are the ones that fail. In 1960 Jean Tinguely undertook the hugely ambitious Homage to New York, a self-destructing artwork constructed in the sculpture garden of MOMA. The piece was enormous (27 ft wide and 23 ft high) and consisted of many intricate mechanical elements including a weather balloon which inflated until it burst, a painting machine, a player piano, a bottle smashing machine, and a recording of the artist explaining the work. It whirled, smoked, smashed and burned, performing for 27 minutes but failed to completely self-destruct.

Here’s an excerpt from D.A. Pennebaker’s film documenting the event:

Audio lecture about Homage to New York here. There’s a Tinguely museum in Basel:

When Robots Rule : The Two Minute Airplane Factory, 1999Chris Burden
Another famous mechanical failure. The Two Minute Airplane Factory was on display in Tate Britain in 1999. The machine was supposed to make a paper airplane every two minutes, launching it 20 m high so that it circled the Duveen galleries, before gently coming to rest on the floor. The planes would then be for sale in the Tate shop. The machine failed to produce one paper airplane. The viewers, instead of watching the beautiful efficiency of a completely mechanised factory line, could watch the Tate gallery technicians trying in vain to get the machine to work. The only plane on display was the one made by Burden – by hand. Many think the mechanical failure was part of the piece; it may have never meant to be a performing machine, but rather performing management. Also see David Barrett article: