I founded para-lab in 2017, alongside Andrew Wilson, with the aim of experimenting with methods to facilitate collaboration between artists and scientists. There are currently around 30 active participants, operating in a number of working groups, which we hope will develop and evolve over many years. para-lab Report 2023 was the third annual exhibition showcasing research-in-progress and artefacts from these various ongoing long-term collaborations.
para-lab provides a structure for collaboration through discussions, excursions, making sessions, reading groups and talks, operating 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 test methods for enhancing exchange across disciplines, disrupting unhelpful dichotomies which traditionally emerge when artists collaborate with scientists. Our motto is ‘trust the process’ and thus we emphasise process over outcome, creating a platform for open-ended enquiry beyond institutional objectives. 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 run sessions in art studios, science labs, and disciplinary-neutral spaces such as the city streets, or on the moors. 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, where the instrumentalisation of art for science outreach is avoided. As a result of these sessions we now have 12 working groups, exploring an array of interdisciplinary themes.
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, without the pressure of any tangible output. 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. We have had three excursions so far, a trip to Saddleworth Moors during COVID lockdown, a trip to Northumberland in partnership with Allenheads Contemporary Arts and a recent trip to Be More Outdoors, Huddersfield (see film below).
To find out more about the sessions we’ve run and the working groups, look at our website in development here.
para-lab: Artists & Scientists in the Woods
In June 2023 I facilitated an excursion for the participants of para-lab and their families, funded by Leeds Beckett University. We immersed ourselves in some West Yorkshire woodland for 24 hours in partnership with Be More Outdoors. This is the documentary film I made to share the research.
Central Engine Maintenance Performance
First commissioned by Castlefield Gallery for their Miniature World exhibition, Central Engine Maintenance Performance went on to be further developed for KOSMICA: Ethereal Things (organised by KOSMICA Institute and Arts Catalyst). The performance involves the demonstration of a sculpture attempting to model a black hole accretion disk. It is activated when a fire extinguisher is released to produce dry ice which then pours from the orbiting vessel and curves into the spinning fan. Whilst operating the sculpture, I talk to viewers about black holes and the inherent failure involved in attempting to model them in three dimensions.
Arctic Circle Residency
In 2015, I was selected to participate in an annual expeditionary residency program to explore the high-Arctic Svalbard Archipelago and Arctic Ocean aboard a specially outfitted Barquentine sailing vessel. My place was part-funded by the Arctic Circle, and I was also awarded an Arts Council England grant for research and development in the lead up to the trip.
You can read my account of the experience here.
Stirling Engines was shown at ‘Shed Show’, ToastWillHost, Manchester, curated by Taneesha Ahmed and ‘Potential in the Ordinary‘, ROCKELMANN& Gallery, Berlin, curated by Leen Horsford.
I received an Arts Council England grant to develop new work for ‘Shed Show’ exploring the labour of hobbyists. The Stirling engine, conceived in 1816, is powered by a temperature differential. Although very efficient, Stirling engines were never able to compete with the power of steam and internal combustion engines in industry. Building Stirling engines has now become the domain of hobbyists. Thousands of people, all around the world, build these engines for pleasure. These engines, more often than not, do not power anything, they simply work for the beauty of working. The work is completed by a performance/demonstration where I operate and explain the engines to viewers.
Here’s a video of the engines working at ‘Potential in the Ordinary’ ROCKELMANN& Gallery, Berlin:
Testing the Field
Testing the Field was an experiment in interdisciplinary learning in the wild, for which I was awarded a funded scholarship from Manchester Metropolitan University. It 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. Here’s me and Rachel talking about the project for CELT’s Good Practice Exchange with some footage from the weekend:
Concept Models explores the work of scientists, and in particular the intellectual work of having to explain and simplify complicated or abstract concepts. The sculptures are representations of different scientific models, which, in themselves, represent scientific laws. For example, the theory of general relativity is often explained using the rubber-sheet model; the curvature of gravity is ‘like’ the curvature of a rubber sheet when a weight is placed on it. The very act of using an analogical model involves inherent failure. The science is compromised yet again by the artist, who takes the basics of an explanation of a principle and does what is needed to make it ‘work’.
Filmed during a residency to the Arctic Circle, this 3-channel video depicts the guides going about their work – protecting the artists from polar bears as they carry out their ‘projects’. You can watch the videos here.
Production Rings Pyramiden
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.
Art & Science Critical Forum
Between 2015 and 2017, I ran a series of informal symposiums in Manchester, supported by Arts Council England, where practitioners who critically engage in art and science could share a current project, connect with each other and discuss their work. Speakers included Nahum (KOSMICA), Alice Sharp (Invisible Dust), Dave Griffiths, Sam Illingworth, Vicky Clark, Laurence Molley (The Superposition), Manchester Astronomical Society and many more.
Work Done explores the concept of ‘work’. Each incarnation is different, with an object from the gallery used to determine the height of the work. In this case, shown at Oktogon Gallery in Dresden, 160 joules of work was put in to overcome gravity and lift the ‘block of art’ from the floor to its current position.
In 2013, I was selected to participate in a funded residency programme at I-Park, Connecticut. I developed a series of four videos, all depicting a different scene – a clearing, a pine forest, a pond and a meadow. Shot with a DSLR on a tripod, they resemble photographs, as the only action occurring is the occasional, but regular, entrance of a smoke ring, released from behind the video camera, appearing as a rhythmical timecode. You can view the videos here.