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95% as far as the eye can see

In collaboration with Migrating Arts Academies a group of international artists, writers, curators, scientists and Zen Buddhist Monks came together in Allenheads to consider the invisible.

The Artists


Alan Smith (ACA) project author

Sally Annett (UK)

Samantha Clark (UK)

Brian Deggar (AU/UK)

Mindaugas Gapševicius (LT)

Ruth Le Gear (IR)

Saulius Leonavicius (LT)

Marija Jociute (LT)

Rosalind Mclachlan (UK)

Elizabeth McTernan (USA/DE)

Ji Hyun Park (KR/DE)

Taavi Suisalu (EE)

Zoe Sumner (UK)

Gerado Montes Valadez (MX/FI)

Andrew Wilson (UK)

In April 2013 Alan Smith left his house on a hill and thought about his observational capabilities. He was considering the 95% of stuff apparently out there but currently out of sight. He wondered if imagination and creativity might help us make sense of the inexplicable, or create the inexplicable. Is it faith that makes us believe in the intangible and if so, how can that sit comfortably with scientific thinking?



Peter Edwards (UK)

Director of Science Outreach and Science and Society officer in the Department of Physics at Durham University

Member of the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy and the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology


Reverend Wilfred (UK) and Reverend Willard(UK)

Priests at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey; a monastery and retreat centre devoted to the practice of meditation within the Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition of Buddhism (Soto Zen). They have been located in Northern England for over forty years.



Dave Pritchard (UK)

Dave Pritchard is an independent arts and environment consultant. Originally trained as an ecologist, he has worked for 25 years in national and international policy and law with bodies like the Ramsar Convention and UNESCO, and has been a non-executive Director of both Wetlands International and the UK Government’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

In Allenheads, a small ex-mining village that sits high in the North Pennines, you are always at the mercy of the elements; the rain feels wetter, the wind stronger, the winter colder and longer and the midges hungrier.


How is it for someone living in ‘England’s last wilderness’, with all its views and dynamic experiential qualities to be told that there is another 95% that you cannot feel or see?


This is the question Alan Smith, artist and Creative Director of Allenheads Contemporary Arts, pondered in April 2013. Four months later, 14 other artists from around our planet joined him to grapple with related thoughts.


In the months leading up to this weeklong Migrating Art Academies residency, Alan Smith had been in discussions with Dr. Peter Edwards, a physicist from Durham University and Professor Nicholas Owens, an oceanographer and former director of the British Antarctic Survey. It was ultimately these meetings that steered the content of the week and led to a program that included the input from Zen Buddhist monks.


Central to the week’s objectives was providing time to experience the local environment, by goingon to the moors above Allenheads and into the disused lead mines below it. Together, artists, scientists and monks used their separate, but sometimes overlapping ideas and systems of analysis, to explore questions like; can imagination and creativity help us make sense of the inexplicable, or create the inexplicable. Is it faith that will help us believe and if so how can that sit comfortably with scientific thinking?


So, the week began with a walk up nearby ‘Killhope Law’ with the weather delivering wind and rain that pierced our faces, penetrated our clothing and ran into our boots. With every one of our senses alive and jangling, it was hard to believe that we humans were only able to sense less than 5% of what surrounds and apparently goes through us.


While on the hill the original intention had been to use the grouse shooting butts (partially submerged structures or hides) as isolated spaces for the artists to individually contemplate and experience their locale. But weather conditions were so extreme that all we could do was keep moving. In retrospect, it was through the shared act of walking that we found a frame of reference for our questions and subsequent related art works in Allenheads.


Throughout the week the invisible was considered from a number of different perspectives. Guest speaker Dr. Peter Edwards told us that physicists looking out into the universe think that much of it is comprised of dark matter and dark energy. The monks, on the other hand, suggested that meditation could be understood as the act of looking inwards for the invisible 95%.


Regarding particles, dark matter and dark energy, much of what was explained to us by the physicist reminded Alan of the biblical definition of faith ‘The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen’ Hebrews 11:1 with their alien yet pictorial mathematical formulas offering as much evidence to those who don’t understand this alien math as anyone might of religion and their many stories of miracles and supreme beings.


The monks Reverend Willard and Wilfred provided a useful counterpoint to the concept of the illusive dark matter and energy. At first their response to our questions seemed evasive, with little mattering regarding the stuff of the world in front of them. But as the conversation developed it became clear that the world in front of them was a crucial point of reflection. When meditating they would keep their eyes open and then go through a reductionist process of searching inwards. This freed them of their innermost human desires and needs, as they strove for enlightenment. Again this process and objective was impossible to evidence.  


Trying to get our heads around particle physics and inner enlightenment in the space of a day was no small feat, and for the artist it was easy to fall into the trap of thinking we had to fully understand the deeper workings of particle physics before making work from it. As the week progressed it became increasingly clear that the more we tried to understand particle physics, the more we seemed to encounter questions rather than answers.


The week concluded with an exhibition and public conversation, during which the question was asked, ‘why had the physicist and the monks not asked us why we had invited them to contribute to an artists’ residency and our agenda?’ In the context of this residency we were the instigators; we had invited the guest speakers for reasons of our own, not because we wanted to understand dark matter or dark energy necessarily, but because we were curious about the intangible, mystical and the imperceptible.  Could it be that the things we don’t understand or would like to understand better leads to creativity, for artists and scientists alike? This surely is a human condition.


Art may not be able to make sense of the inexplicable, but perhaps it can indirectly shed a light by offering alternative interpretations that can be enigmatic and experiential; poetic rather than concrete.

Science might help us understand the world around us and deliver human progress within it, but contemplating what those discoveries mean to us or providing a tangible interface on a human level is something to which the arts can perhaps better contribute.


After the Cold War or Space Race it had become harder to justify the enormous expense of space exploration, it was said by Buzz Aldrin ‘that that one of the mistakes made by NASA was “that we never sent anyone who could really communicate what was happening”. As well as engineers and pilots, the Moonwalkers should have included writers, a poet perhaps, or an artist among the pilot-jocks’.

Is that our role… as communicators, illustrators or PR representatives?  Or are we better equipped to look beyond concrete facts and deliver what Werner Herzog calls ‘Ecstatic Truths’ in order to augment human engagement as some explanations can only be reached through unharnessed creativity.


During the public conversation, Alan suggested that artists might behave like parasites, feeding off other peoples’ interests and knowledge. Could this be true, are we trying to express an alternative viewpoint or are we scrabbling to make sense of other peoples’ seemingly logical representations of something that they cannot show us?


We also asked if it is right for artists to be free to follow their own lines of enquiry without being answerable to others.


Would we benefit from adopting a system of peer review as used in the sciences? Had we more time in Allenheads we might have experimented with this during the 95% residency?


It became important to state that as artists our aim is not to become scientists, but looking into the methodologies of practitioners from other fields can help us interrogate our practice.


Interestingly, one of the conclusions from the week’s activities and discussions was that although physicists, monks and artists use different methods of inquiry and points of focus we all share an interest in understanding better what it is to be human and in relation to our surrounding universe.


Here, on the 95% residency, religion, art and science were honoured for their similarities as well as their essential differences.

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