Category Archives: Work

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.


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.

para-lab Report 2021
para-lab Report 2021

para-lab Report 2021
para-lab Report 2021

para-lab Report 2021 Mini Symposium
para-lab Report 2021 Mini Symposium

An Exercise in Planetary Social Distancing

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?

BEYOND residency

In 2018 I was awarded one of Allenheads Contemporary ArtsBEYOND: 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.

Zink, H., Parks, S. (1991) ‘Nightwalking : Exploring the dark with Peripheral Vision’, Whole Earth Review)


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. The only action is the occasional entrance of a vortex ring released from behind the camera, an action borrowed from amateur YouTube science demonstrations.