The Work of the Non-Professional

Essay for Dead Data – Orreries and Other Objects, Rogue Project Space, Manchester, 2013

Amateur astronomers, like artists, do their work for the love of it, not financial gain. Within the field of astronomy the word ‘amateur’ is not derogatory, as it can be in other fields. Amateurs are recognised as vitally important. In astronomy, new professional research relies on the work of amateurs to provide data. With their multitude of beady eyes and instruments, it is often amateurs who make first discoveries. They are experts in their field, despite being generally self-taught.

In the field of art, even ‘professional’ artists would likely have worked unpaid for a good proportion of their career. Many of the most groundbreaking, history-making artists of recent years, have produced their best work whilst being nonprofessional (Duchamp made Large Glass whilst working as a librarian). The thing that really gives artists the raw deal is that they are not amateurs in the traditional meaning of the word, as the majority have had years of formal training. They are qualified, yet still nonprofessional.

But maybe this is the way it needs to be. Both artists and amateur astronomers need the complete freedom that only comes with work not caught up in financial gain. Getting money for making art generally requires a great deal of hoop jumping, application filling, and concept tweaking. Likewise professional scientists are restrained by the strand of research they are paid to do (Einstein devised special relativity whilst working as a clerk in a patent office). But when left free to explore, both artists and amateur astronomers develop unique reflections on their observations of the world, both pushing their disciplines forward in what is perhaps not so distinct ways.

Antony Hall’s ‘Tabletop Experiments’ involve fearlessly acting on the childlike curiosity that professional scientists have to suppress to get the job done. Hall has cleverly used the funding and opportunities available to artists to allow him the freedom to work as a kind of amateur scientist. He has found his place in the boundless sphere of art to play in a way he could never do as a professional scientist. He says: ‘Through presenting active investigative processes, the work is a continuous play on potential failure and possible solution, where failure is as important as resolution.’ Indeed, failure is an important learning tool, allowed to the amateur but rarely to the professional.

Amateur astronomers can do whatever they want – time, weather, and equipment permitting – and they do. Like art, this freedom often leads to explorations of very niche subjects. At the Godlee Observatory Kevin Kilburn andTony Cross spend a few hours almost every day observing the sun in the specific wavelength of hydrogen-alpha (very deep red). This time donated to such regular solar observations, makes them as familiar with its surface as any professional scientist. The Godlee astronomers also study the lunar surface colour, a little-explored subject in over 200 years of amateur astronomy. Mapping the surface colour of the Moon will lead to new data on its surface mineralogy, providing vital clues to the early development of the solar system.

The work of amateur astronomers can easily be related to the work of Dave Griffiths, something he is clearly fully aware of given the titles of his pieces. For instance, Griffiths Cue-Dot Observatory involved a five year ‘detection period’, where Griffiths found and catalogued 1,900 cue-dot pairs (the barely visible markers used in film to alert the projectionist to change the reel). Like the astronomers at Manchester Astronomical Society, Griffiths has spent hours simply observing, documenting and archiving. Like Kilburn and Cross, through a unique inquiry Griffiths has become a leading practitioner in a very specific field.

Безымень, by Tom Railton, highlights a tension between the professional and nonprofessional. As is often the case in science, an amateur’s discovery can be overlooked by history in favour of a more publicised professional scientist’s. The race for recognition, as employed by the professional, is another factor adding to the restraint of the professional. Railton first exhibited his piece a mere two months before Katie Paterson unveiled Campo del Cielo, Field of Sky, a work which also involved a meteorite being moulded, cast, melted and remade into a copy of its original form. Railton was a student at the time, with no professional validation. Безымень, despite being done first, is in danger of being lost in history to the bigger, shinier meteorite of Paterson.

Dead Data: Orreries and Other Objects celebrates the nonprofessional, by bringing the labour of artists and amateur astronomers together, and highlighting the job satisfaction achieved when the work of one is free to be influenced by the other.