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Parameter writings

2009 Parameter #1 - 24 hrs in silence

Underground in Ballroom Flats

Nenthead, Cumbria


The participants:              

Emma Cummins

Ged Robinson

Alan Smith

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

Ste Walker

Tracey Warr

Andy Wilson



Parameter originates from ideas about the significance of experience and how our understanding and interpretation of that experience can take on other forms when people and their personal accounts of the same event are shared or adopted.  Parameter acts as an interface for individual and collective experience, the project creates alternative realities that explore the effects of non-verbal communication on shared events.


By creating and prescribing the parameters of unique social contexts – located in an underground mine, a Northumberland pub, a hotel in Plymouth, Smith created durational live events for  groups of people who would share the same rules of engagement.  Each Parameter event is unique, however common threads include the prohibition of entertainment devices, recording, documentation, speech or conversation.


Smith explained that, ‘participants should make every effort to independently internalise the physical, psychological and visceral reading of their experiences while remaining aware of one and another’s’ presence.’  It is only after a specified amount of time that those involved can begin to share their experience through speech and retrospective analysis.  At this point, participants will be accompanied by a new group member who, as a ‘outsider’, will listen and contribute to discussions.  Commenting through discussion, posterior dialogues and writing upon the social, physical and psychological effects of people’s release from an extreme or unusual situation, this person is always absent from the events themselves.


Relevant points of interest for Parameter include but are not restricted to: paralanguage, consciousness, site specific response to place and experience, non-verbal communication, durational performance and the problems of documentation.




  1. A: An arbitrary constant whose value characterises a member of a system (as a family of curves). Also: a quantity (as a mean or variance) that describes a statistical population. B: An independent variable used to express the coordinates of a variable point and functions of them.


  1. Any of a set of physical properties whose values determine the characteristics or behavior of something. (E.g. Parameters of the atmosphere such as temperature, pressure and density).

Parameter #1 grew from my many years of travelling into the lead mines at Nenthead, Cumbria. Over time curiosity took me further and further into the hill and for longer periods. As time went on and confidence grew I began taking myself in and alone, this intensified my experience and it became hard to separate emotions and feelings with my nerve endings tingling in awe, excitement, tranquillity and fear, all delivered in equal measure via visual limitations and magical sounds that would dance from fleetingly identifiable to the fantastic. I would invite others into the labyrinth and witnessing their response to the chthonic environs inspired me to recognise ‘sharing’ as an essential and influential part of my practice I was fed by their responses which became was the catalyst behind a desire for a durational event.

The Plan:

7 people X 24hrs in silence at Ballroom Flats, a disused lead mine in Nenthead Cumbria. A tight schedule and strict rules were essential for the delivery of this project. Six of us would travel below ground while the seventh, ‘Emma Cummins’ would remain at ACA in Allenheads. Emma’s position above surface was crucial for her role as the person responsible to steer productive conversation and analysis of our collective response when we came out of the mine. For the duration of our time underground Emma would imagine our underground situation and location through following our written schedule, (I should also say that Emma had never experienced the subterranean lead mine). On our return to Allenheads Emma witnessed our demeanour, listened to our often conflicting stories to eventually convey back her thoughts.

Becoming ritual:

It was after writing the schedule that I realised how each stage was a significant episode, shifting the timetable into the realm of ritual.

Five days before the event we abstained from drinking alcohol or taking any recreational drugs. The intention was to bring everyone to the event with a related headset.  On reflection; five days before going underground it had also brought us together. While still physically apart, we simultaneously took note that Parameter had began.

On the Friday I was teaching at Newcastle University, somewhat distracted by the approaching event. Tracey Elpida and Ste would be arriving into Newcastle Station at 2:00pm I picked them up and drove to Allenheads, as we were leaving Andy and Emma also left for Allenheads but from another part of town.

We arrived in Allenheads, followed soon after by Andy and Emma. We entered the clean white studio in the Schoolhouse and soft but animated introductions ensued. We hadn’t all met before. There was a palatable buzz; smiles that would drift into uncontrollable grins, tentative handshakes, gentle embraces punctuated by an occasional macho backslap.  For the first time we were all in the same room; we had started a physical sharing of time and space.

My first task was to talk a bit about the project and its origins and cover safety matters. In particular let everyone know that Jim our mine guide had been taken into hospital earlier that week and was therefore out of the picture. So I would have to lead the project myself.

This meant that there would be no back up should anything happen to me and also would shift the nature of my experience into a very different place, now the burden of the groups’ safety was dropped heavily onto my shoulders. Regardless of the changes, we unanimously agreed to continue with the event and prepared ourselves for the next 14hrs.

The happening

At 7:30pm a tangible change of mood came over us as we checked our gear; food, drink, sleeping bag, bedroll, candles etc. Before getting into our underground clothing; helmet, belt and battery pack, wellies and waterproofs.


Our preparation initiated a condition of interdependence.  To put on the belt and heavy battery pack we looked to one and other for assistance, some of us concerned about keeping our feet dry required someone from the party to kneel at their feet and tape their boots to the waterproof trousers. My memory of those proceedings is of the deliberate body positions of those receiving help from those giving it, while others quietly concentrated on their baggage; their survival pack. We were ready to set off.

We were already speaking less; there was the occasional excitable laughter as we shuffled towards the defining moment of imposed silence which would be defined by entering the cars. I remember finding it increasingly difficult to focus on all around me I already had to look harder to ensure all were ready to leave with their overnight bags placed in the car. I was entering the next level of shared silence, aware of our efforts to sustain the early, unnatural lack of verbal communication. What was it like for the others? They knew they were going to a place called ballroom but no one knew the route there but me. 

We climbed into our cars, it was a beautiful night, we drove in tandem over the fells into Cumbria our paths lit by the directional beam of the headlights that swept across the fells as we wound our way through the tight bends.

Eventually we came to a T junction; ahead of us, illuminated by a harvest moon was the empty expanse of the post industrial and presently heritage site that was Nenthead Lead mine.

We parked up and in silence we left our cars put on our backpacks to start the 15 minute walk to the mine entrance. I entered first and made a feeble attempt to communicate without speaking how to negate the horizontally hinged gate. Moments later we stood below ground in darkness, up to our ankles in water.

I have spent a great deal of time in this mine. Exploring most of it while making work, sometimes with a mine guide other times alone. I know the potential dangers and have always treated them with a great deal of respect. This trip already felt different, the groups silence forced me to submit to sensory intensification while the lack of dialogue between us imposed feelings of being suppressed or constrained. Like the others I would see things that would fill me with awe, see and hear things that would stop me and compel me to listen or look harder; to check my initial understanding of what it was or might have been - this condition would allow my observations to morph.

Mine explorers that I have worked with recognise that while underground, conversation or ‘a bit crack’ can reduce tension, convey and sustain a sense of safety and confidence. It is the norm to rationalise a hazardous situation with logical information but in addition it is likely that people will joke or blag their way through, almost camouflaging their fears.

This makes me think about the imaginative or creative capacity of the miners to substitute any rational understanding of a physical occurrence for a spiritual or mythical explanation. I have little doubt that this would be enhanced by long periods of labour in an evocatively alien environment and augmented by physical and mental exhaustion.

In the first mining manual, ‘De Re Metallica’ by Georgius Agricola first printed in Latin in 1556, Agricola writes, ‘Neither the sea nor the forest so lends itself to the substantiation of the supernatural as does the mine. The dead darkness, in which the miners’ lamps serve only to distort every shape, the uncanny noises of restless rocks whose support has been undermined, the approach of danger and death without warning , the sudden vanishing or discovery of good fortune, all yield a thousand corroborations to minds long steeped in ignorance and prepared for the miraculous through religious teaching’.

Disappointingly, it became clear that I would have to verbalize in order to pass on essential safety information; matter-of-factly delivered and with no response from the others. This accentuated the disparity between my new responsible position as guide and sole communicator of safety instructions and their part as recipient.


But then central to the project was on return to the schoolhouse, an exploration of the diverse, collective memory of our small group. By listening to individual responses to personal concerns and observations I anticipated a richer understanding of what had taken place between us and individually, from the extreme environment of Smallcleugh mine.


We took our first cautious steps into the mine, our eyes still getting use to the darkness. When entering the mine we step into the oldest part then as time goes on we travel deeper, forward in time with the water in the first tunnel gradually getting deeper, reaching the top of our wellies, after approximately 200 meters we pass the first shaft on our right, I pass back the information and Ged behind me passes the warning back and so on till the information is finally delivered to Tracey who has taken up the rear.


At the first junction we take a left into a long tunnel cut out of solid limestone, we pass the shot-holes cut by hand for the destructive power of explosives and ingenious control of the miners. Below our feet are rails that carried the trucks one’s pulled by horses for transporting minerals and construction materials.  We carefully squeeze through a couple of collapses tightly passing now fragile wooden hoppers and then come to Wheel Flats. From here it is more labyrinthian; a wrong turn could easily get us lost. The environment is more architectural, the surrounding passageways are increasingly becoming man made the stone around us is of a different quality to the earlier tunnel, these are made from stone brought into the mine from quarries above ground. These walls are of sandstone shaped to link up to form dry stone walls and arches that would permit a way through the deads, useless hewn limestone many bigger than a man, that had been piled up to back fill the caverns excavated while in search of galena (the primary ore mineral of lead). 



Making contact. Homesteading  Inevitable perhaps when all involved are player and audience.



Moving on

‘In some of our mines, however, though in very few, there are other pernicious pests. These are demons of ferocious aspect, about which I have spoken in my book Animantibus Subterraneis. Demons of this kind are expelled and put to flight by prayer and fasting.’

Then there the gentle kind which the Germans as well as the Greeks call Cabalos, because they mimic men. They appear to laugh with glee and pretend to do much, but really do nothing. They are called little miners because of their dwarfish stature. Which is about two feet. They are venerable looking and are clothed like miners in a filleted garment with a leather apron around the loins. This kind does not often trouble the miners, but they idle about the shafts and tunnels and really do nothing, although they pretend to be busy in all kinds of labour, sometimes digging ore, and sometimes putting into buckets that which has been dug. Sometimes they will throw pebbles at the workmen, but they rarely injure them unless the workmen first ridicule or curse them.

Silent Running - Tracey Warr


Six of us walked towards the dry stone walled arch of the old lead mine entrance at 8pm. We were leaving behind a clear night lit by a near-full moon haloed in rings of brown and yellow. The smaller bright white circle of Venus hung to the right of the moon. Moonlight and starlight picked out the uneven roll of the Allendale Valley. The roiling blanket of earth and bumpy moss covered miles of warren-like tunnels beneath. Preparing to go underground I gulped in the view of the sky.

The entrance to the mine was a steel gate that swung in the middle, so one held the gate and took a bag over the top, while another crouched under and in. We had agreed to stop talking at the start of the car journey to the mine. We would not resume verbal communication for 15 hours: 1 hour travelling to and from the mine entrance by car and on foot; 4 hours walking, wading, crouching, crawling in and out of the tunnels to get to the Ballroom Flat – a large void in the centre of the mine, and then 10 hours in the Ballroom itself.

I am wading knee-deep through the first tunnel, surrounded by ‘deads’ (the rocks that the miners pulled out to get at the lead). I am at the back of the group. At the front is Alan who has been going down these mines for over ten years. He is the only one who knows the way in and the way out. Some of us try to memorise the route should Alan be injured and we have to find our own way back. I know that would be pointless in my case since I am dyspraxic and can only find my way with the aid of a map. We have no maps apart from the one in Alan’s head, no time devices (apart from an alarm Alan carries for the 10 hour marker), no recording devices, no notebooks, no pens and pencils. I feel bereft without my pen prosthetic. Will I be able to retain experience if I do not write it down. I decide to use my body and my clothes as a ‘text’ that I will examine for ‘forensic’ study of my experience when I emerge.

After Alan is Ged, then Elpida, then Steve, then Andy, then me. We  are all artists and writers. We have to take care of the person behind us (no one in my case). Andy takes great care of me. I only met him a few hours ago, but 30 minutes into the tunnels and I already know a lot about him. The extremity of the experience is a short-cut to bonding. He is hyperaware of his surroundings, of his tread, of me. He has a deliberate and considered energy and way of moving and being that is very comforting. Warnings are called down the line, our only verbal communication (apart from some swearing and anxious mutterings to ourselves): ‘deep shaft to the left!’, ‘boulder under water!’, ‘rock protruding from the ceiling!’ ‘rucksacks off and pass them forward! ‘, ‘don’t touch the walls here!’

Three years of frozen shoulders and I have no musculature left in my shoulders and upper arms. Taking my heavy rucksack on and off and dragging it behind me or pushing it ahead of me through the tighter tunnels where I have to crawl becomes harder and harder. Eventually Andy takes my bag and then Ged and Steve and Alan take it from him and take it in turns to carry two bags. I know how hard this must be. These negotiations occur in silence. I am mortified to be dependent and anxious not to become a liability for the rest of the group. I realise that I am expending so much emotional energy worrying about my dependency that I am neglecting to look at the astonishing geology around me.

The lamps on our helmets light up streaks and nubs of Galena and Quartz that glitter in the dark rock. Every now and then we come across a spectacular mineral-encrusted rockface: Ankerite, Calcite, Cerussite, Chalcanthite, Hydrozincite, Ktenasite, Malachite, Melanterite, Namuwite, Sphalerite, Sulphur. Jewels in dirt. We pass the calcifying remains of the historic mine works: kibbles (iron or wooden buckets for raising ore and water), whimseys (which were winding engines powered by horse, steam or water) and hoppers (wooden shutes for moving materials). The old wood and metal of these objects are slowly, slowly being absorbed, becoming part of their wet rocky surroundings, part of the so slow flow of rocks. I try to imagine being a things that always lives in the dark like the microflora and microfauna down here. The adamantine hardness of the rock rubs against the soft fragility of our bodies. There is such a vast expense of human energy in mining. The 10 miles of these tunnels were mostly carved by hand which seems a strange relativity of value.

Footing and balance is difficult in places with the uneven ground, the shifting weight of rucksack, battery pack and helmet lamp. ‘How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.’[1] The loss of balance reminds me of what is non-visual: the vestibular, the kinaesthetic, the small bones in the inner ear that enable us to balance. ‘Experience is a temporally extended process of exploration of the environment on the part of an embodied animal.’[2] 

When we stop in a flat – an open space – and pass around water, we examine each others’ faces in silent communication. Sometimes the sounds we make become a kind of chorus - wading through water, crunching over loose rocks. It gets very hot as we squeeze with our gear through tight tunnels where we cannot stand and where we have to avoid touching the walls and ceiling for fear of a cave-in. In places, loose stones litter the floor from previous falls. Our helmets and heavy battery packs worn round our waists add to the difficulty of crawling through the tight squeezes. We arrive at an open area known as Window Flat because a window shaped opening is high up to the right side. We climb up large boulders and go through the ‘window’. At some junctions with two tunnels Alan marks off the wrong tunnel with loose pieces of wood and points this out to us. Eventually Alan indicates that we have reached the hardest part: ten minutes of very low tunnel where we must crawl and slide on our stomachs, where the air thins and is hot with the six of us grunting, pulling bags, kneeling on razor sharp stones. But then we emerge into a wet tunnel again where we can stand and wade through the water, and finally we pass through a very tall crevice and emerge into the vast cavern of the Ballroom.

The Ballroom is a void left when the miners struck a particularly rich and enormous vein of lead. In 1901 the Nenthead Masons held a ball down here. An orchestra, candles and chandeliers were lowered on ropes down the shafts (the quick way in and out as opposed to the route that we have taken). Inside the Ballroom we turn off our bouncing, glaring helmet lamps and light candles. We set up sleeping bags and mats. I feel exhausted after the journey in. The exhaustion is more emotional than physical. I need to lie down for some time and regroup myself. Slowly I still and retract my senses that have had to function on full adrenalin for the journey in. Now that we are in this vast space the sweat on our bodies dries rapidly and our body temperatures plummet. We can see our breath. I spend some time making shapes with my breath in candle light. I try to imagine the many metres of rock above the ceiling over my head. I try to imagine the shape of the route in. I would like to envisage the earth above but that seems too much of an imaginative feat at this point.

I have carried down provisional research questions and methods but many of these I have to quickly jettison. It is necessary to be totally in the present, to focus on what is happening here and now. We have journeyed into the mine, into the materiality around us, but also into our own interiors, the immateriality of our consciousnesses. Our bodies come into sharp focus as we are intensely confronted with our dependency on them. Our bodies are our only reference points and our vulnerability. Our attention is directed to the complexity of our embodied experience. In darkness I conduct a study of what seeing consists of. What perceptions of volume are possible. There is only ‘paltry information about the environment projected onto the retina’ writes Alva Noe[3]. But my plans to study are foiled by my emotional turmoil. I find it difficult to still my senses, to coalesce them to a point where I have enough in control to use them for study. I am overwhelmed and disoriented.

The parameters, the arbitrary constants of the experiment are silence, time, darkness, the dimensions and specificity of the underground space we are in, the group of six people.

I think of incarcerations: medieval prisoners in dungeons for years; Quaker conscientious objectors in dark solitary confinement during the Korean war; anchorites sealed up in walls. There is so much you can do with the mind. It has so much to play with.

There are no markers of time. No sunrise. No birdsong. Other markers come in to play. The rhythms of the body. Hunger, fatigue, the bladder, the pulse, pain, counting.

Yesterday I went up 90 steps to the top of an Observatory, taking a 360 degree view of light. Now I am down here. I think of the things we use to reassure ourselves about our experience and our environment. Maths, mapping, measuring, orienting, knowing.

The cold and the warmth of my sleeping bag and layers of clothes are sucking me into sleep but I want to stay awake to see how dark dark is. Several times I sit up and rock to keep myself awake. I am aware of my bound shape in the candle-light, my enormous shadow on the wall, my arms pinned like a mummy in my shaped sleeping bag and the smooth oval of my wool hat. We have agreed that we will burn candles or not according to individual preference. Eventually only Andy’s candle at the end of the space and Elpida’s candle next to me are still alight. Elpida is afraid of the dark. Later she reveals that she feared snakes, rats, ghosts. There is nothing living down here apart from us.


The air is totally still and silent. Every tiny noise that we make reverberates in the clear acoustics of the space. Someone shifts in their sleeping bag, a sniff, a cough, a fart, a nervous hum, a throat clearing, a tapping of rocks together. Some of these noises are involuntary ulalia and some of them seem to be attempts at communication. I try to respond to other noises, to make tentative conversation by sliding my sleeping bag on my mat, pulling my sleeping bag zip up and down. The sounds are all beautiful and reassuring. Later I walk a little around the space and slap the rock in the way I saw people in China slapping trees in the People’s Park as a kind of meditative exercise. They also wrote beautiful calligraphy on the pavement in water that evaporated as soon as the shape was completed. I smear my hands and gloves with material from the floor and walls to take some text out with me.

What is our disposition in the space? Alan is isolated at one end. Andy has set up at the other end. His candle is in a niche and looks to me to be surrounded by stalactites. Steve sets up a circular camp further down near Andy. He seems to have arranged a circle of rocks and candles around him. Later he tells us that when he arrived in the space he wept briefly. Ged, then Elpida, then I, are ranged in a line along the far wall. I thought I would like more isolation, but this is fine. We have a lot in common and how different we are.

I experience my location in the space. To my right is Elpida and her huge shadow is projected onto the opposite wall if she sits up or moves. She is wearing a lovely and strange shaped hat so that her shadow is an unknown entity, its every move close in the corner of my eye. The shadows and candlelight alter expected proximities. To my left is a short tunnel with a visitor’s book and a photograph of a grandmother that some other visitor has put here. I don’t like this. It is like a shrine and I don’t really want to be near it or look at it. Opposite and slightly to my left is the huge crevice opening. It is not a man-made shape but rather a fissure of the rock’s own making. A few inches below my feet is a mystery boulder. I measure its cube with my hands: about two small hands in each direction. Where has it come from? I cannot see a hole in the ceiling it might have fallen from. It seems to mark the very centre of the space. On the wall behind me, over my head is a black and white crystal patch in the rock, a kind of bed-head. I can see into Alan’s area to the left end of the space fairly clearly. Ged is an invisible presence beyond Elpida. I can see Steve’s circle only vaguely, further down the space to the right and Andy’s place is only discernible from his candle and sounds. I would like to move around the space and visit everybody but there are slippery loose rocks under-foot and I am afraid of slipping and being injured. Also will they be irritated with me wandering around, waking them up?

I am systematically checking in on my various sensory perceptions – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and praxia. This last is what I call my sense of orientation in a space – up, down and around. Under the water, under the sea, catching tiddlers for my tea, up (I am a small child and my dad throws me up in the air), down (he drops me between his knees just catching me) and a---rr-oo-ooun—nd! (he swings me around in a circle) and bounces me back safely on his knees. Again! I repeat the cycle for my little daughter, Lola, who is now taller than me, and lately for my friend Hester’s new-born baby, Aoife. Where am I? Do I know where I am? Do I know where is up and down and around? I can feel the cold rock beneath my body. A small rock is poking, not too hard, into the small of my back. If I move my hands outside the sleeping bag I can feel the fine grain of dirt beneath my fingers. Up above, far above my head I can just make out the rocky roof of the space: dark, grey, black, fine streaks of silver galena, pin-point sparks of glittering crystals like stars.

I see a person apparently clad in a white hooded poncho walking slowly around the Ballroom. None of us were wearing white. I am mesmerised by the slow, deliberate movement and pauses he makes. Is it Steve? Is it Andy? The candlelight has bleached the colour out of his clothing. He explores slowly, meditatively. I enjoy watching him drifting like a white ghost slowly around the space. He moves down and stands to Elpida’s right. She rolls over and gasps, catching sight of him for the first time, terrified by this white apparition. I snigger knowing by now it is Andy. I recognise something about him that is not to do with what is visible. Something about the fact that he wants to wander like this. Something to do with the pace of his wandering. Elpida recovers. Perhaps she sees his face. I am cross with myself for sniggering. I should be more sympathetic to fear. I don’t watch horror films or allow such stuff in my head.  I can’t see the use of fear. Instead I always look for what I can do in any situation. How can I deal with it. I am afraid of things I can’t do anything about – death, the happiness of my grown up daughter. Down here, entombed in sleeping bags and rocks, thoughts of death and burial are inevitable. I feel surprisingly comfortable. I fear the cessation of consciousness. I think my last words will be, ‘but I haven’t finished yet’.

Alan stands up in his sleeping bag and plays with his shadow on the wall. His arm, I hope it’s his arm, emerges comically from the bag. He goes off to wander in solitude. He knows the tunnels well. Steve is wandering in the space, in the nearby tunnels. We have agreed limits but I know that Alan is desperately worried for us all, and for each of us if we leave the space. His anxiety is palpable.

Ged and Elpida stay in their sleeping bags. I visit Alan’s space and have a look around at his disposition of things. I go out of the Ballroom, turn on my helmet lamp and walk a short distance down the tunnel to pee. I don’t go far for fear of being lost and alone but I think everyone must hear the noise of my pee. I vary the flow a little to produce a melody for them if they can hear. I enjoy being alone with the rocks and the geology briefly and knowing that I am sure of the way back.

I feel the distinctive and varying textures of things in the dark: the rock, the dirt, my sleeping bag, my clothes, my face. The air smells and tastes like cold metal. Elizabethan miners tasted the water in order to assess the mineral content of these mine sites. Saltiness on my lips. Coldness on my face. Measuring with my hands and arms, the body is a mobile laboratory. I twist my wrists to make cracking noises with my bones wondering if someone will answer in kind. Laughing. Stomach noises.

In darkness it takes 20 minutes for our eyes to adjust from rod vision (daytime) to cone vision (nighttime). We have blindsight. We have latent vision in the back of our hands, the back of our heads and our foreheads. We can feel space and proximity on our faces if we are blindfolded.

I think of hibernation and circadian rhythms. Nathaniel Kleitman and Bruce Richardson spent 32 days in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky trying to switch their body rhythms to a 28 hour cycle, a six day week. Scientists now are trying to develop human hibernation and cryogenics that we might travel to Mars, live forever, be reborn. As I child I was both fearful and awed each year at the hibernation and reawakening of my dearly loved tortoise. The Neolithic burial chambers of Maes Howe and Newgrange were built to be pierced once a year at the solstice by light. The light streamed up the passageway and bathed the disarticulated bones waiting there, waiting for rebirth.

I doze off and when I wake up only Elpida’s candle is left burning. I doze off again and wake to total blackness. No candles. Opening and closing my eyes makes no difference at all. Am I even awake? I can see hypnogogic images generated by my own eyes. Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denis studied and painted his own hypnagogic images between the state of waking and sleeping. He described ‘wheels of light, tiny revolving suns, coloured bubbles rising and falling … bright lines that cross and interlace, that roll up and make circles, lozenges and other geometric shapes’.[4] I see short yellow lines emanating from a black void. It seems to turn into an opening that I might rise up and go through. Entoptic phenomena are images generated by the eye itself: slowly drifting blobs of varying size, shape and transparency; tiny bright dots moving rapidly along squiggly lines; subtle bowtie and hourglass shaped patterns. You can see the blood vessels in your own eye appear like a tree.[5]

I can hear the gentle breathing and shuffling of the others. At one point, am I awake, asleep, in-between? I think I hear two people in conversation coming down the tunnel towards the Ballroom. How surprised they will be to find six silent people here. But then I realise their conversation is very rhythmical and then I realise that it is an auditory hallucination that I have conjured from Alan’s gentle snoring.

Time has become subjective. I guestimate, putting measurements on chunks of experience. Going in seemed fast, like 40 minutes to me, but it was near two hours. I guestimate I have spent more than an hour calming down after the journey in, another two hours observing locations of the others, my own placement in the space, shadows and sounds, half an hour deciding to get out of my sleeping bag and go and pee, balancing the demands of my bladder against my reluctance to pull my Wellingtons back on, to tool up with my battery belt and helmet; half an hour visiting Alan’s space and wandering around, slapping the rocks and so on. But I don’t really know. One hour could become one minute, one second, one nanosecond. I am floating in time without measurements. There are trajectories, needs, the reference point of the body. In darkness the boundaries between consciousness, unconsciousness, half-consciousness are entirely blurry. William James wondered if consciousness might have the capacity to move between bodies, whether we might go to sleep and wake up in the body lying next to us. Ged dreams of Alan and priests. Aborigines make maps of their Dreamtimes called churinga.[6] Artist Susan Hiller experimented with a group sleeping in a field in Hampshire and drawing their dreams.[7]

I sleep for about three hours. This is just a guess. Wafts of cold air seem to grip me and I shiver uncontrollably for minutes but there are no draughts and no movement in the air. I eat a ginger stem biscuit. Alan wanders in my direction and I give him a biscuit. He goes over to Steve and gives him half. Later I give Elpida a banana.

We are all surprised when Alan’s 10 hour alarm goes off. We all feel as if it is too soon. I would guess only 7 hours have gone by and I could stay longer.

Preparing to go out Alan and I have a brief, silent disagreement. He wants me to go in the middle and then at the front. I know this is good safety procedure but I also know that if there is someone behind me I will rush and if I rush I could slip and be injured. Now I am older I have all kinds of calcifying notions – I don’t like anyone behind me, I don’t like to rush, I hate being encumbered, I hate being an encumbrance. We are both stubborn old mules. Eventually I get my way. I know the safest way to handle my own body and will stick to it because I am in a potentially life-threatening situation. And danger to me is danger to the whole group. At one point I get left behind and come to a junction with two tunnels. ‘Hello?’ no answer. ‘Hello! Hello?’ no answer. I cannot hear them moving. They are long gone and I am alone. Then I remember the strips of wood Alan placed on the floor to mark the tunnel we should not go down. Now I know. I head up the other tunnel and Steve is on his way back to get me.

There is a difference between going in with Andy ahead of me and coming out with Steve ahead of me. I didn’t know either of them before. Andy had a considered and considerate energy and care. He was solid like the rocks around us. Steve’s energy is more volatile. He points out a fabulous rockface of white and red crystals, a deep red sediment in the wall that we dip our fingertips into, a brilliant cold tiny waterfall that he drinks from and I follow suit. He picks up a piece of wood, turns it over and finds a finely etched arrow there – a long-gone miner’s mark. He shows me all his finds. It is his way of reassuring me and I enjoy these moments of combined experience. After a while he slows down, goes at my pace, unafraid to lose contact with the rest of the group. Later he says that he thinks he could have found the way out. I can look about me more on the way out because now I know I can get out. What goes in must come out.

When we begin to wade through knee-deep water again I know that we are in the last stretch of tunnel before the exit. Steve turns and indicates to me to turn off my helmet lamp. Mine is the last light and as I turn it off we are momentarily plunged into darkness. I touch the wet wall to my right to help me keep my balance, my sense of moving in the right direction. We progress up the tunnel, splashing rhythmically and the white light of the mine entrance begins to emerge. I can see the other five each silhouetted against the light. The anticipation of emergence and the sun is enormous.

Finally I am the last one out. Alan holds the gate and takes my bag over the top. I crouch under and then hold the gate for him. We are all outside, up, in the light. The light is extraordinary. We scrabble to rapidly undo and throw off our cumbersome equipment and bags. We are standing in an irregular circle in early morning sunshine that is diffused through white mist or in fact a cloud. The low clouds are hugging the green, so green land that waves and rises and dips like the sea. We gaze in amazement and delight at each other, at the newly vivid world around us. The sound of the stream rushing is loud. Birds. It has been a frosty night. I touch the ice on the surface of a puddle and the frost on a lichened stone. I bury my face in frosted moss and smell it. Slowly we are grinning and shaking hands, hugging. Our faces are smeared with mud and sweat. Our fingers are grimed with the many materials of the mine. Our clothes and bags are covered in gray, green, black, red streaks and smears. My eyes feel stripped, clarified, pinned open. The air smells terrific.


Back at Allenheads School House I make a list of my ‘forensic’ evidence:

Slight bruise in small of back from laying on a rock in the ballroom

Dramatic display of small black circular bruises on my bottom

Severe bruising to both knees

Severe neck pain – right side

Pain and dent in lower left shin

Lips very salty

Face streaked with mud where I kept pushing my helmet and lamp back into position

Generally very tottery

Slight grazes to left hand

Very dry skin on hands from rock and on face from cold

Black trousers (worn in the Ballroom and on the way out): thoroughly muddied on bum, right side and front thighs, wet to the knee

Grey trousers (worn on the way in): black and green mud on knees and left buttock, wet to half knee

Gaiters: covered in mud

Tshirt: patches of mud on front, sweat

The rucksack Ged lent me: thoroughly muddied

Blue kagool: completely covered in mud, pale grassy thing and bits of stone and dirt in pockets

Blue gloves: mud and red sediment.


Looking back on this experience I am struck by how much of my concerns circled around issues of dependency, care and responsibility in relation to the group dynamics. I look with fear at my own inevitably increasing dependency as I get older. When was the need for articulation most urgent? When we saw something beautiful and wonderful. When we were anxious or needed help. The artist Rena Tangens says that all conversation boils down to: Call - ‘Hello, hello, do I exist?’ Response - ‘Yes you do’.

What traces have I left there? The sweep of my fingers in the dirt to either side of my camping map, a few strands of hair with my DNA, drops of sweat in the tight tunnels, ongoing resonances and vibrations of sounds I made, my energy and thoughts, still there, absorbed and stored by the rocks like a stony library.



[1] Scarry, Elaine (2000) On Beauty and Being Just, London: Duckworth, p. 15.

[2] Noe, Alva (2000) ‘Experience and Experiment in Art’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7: 8-9, p. 128.

[3] Noe, p, 127.

[4] Marquis De’Hervey de Saint-Denis cited in Coxhead, David & Hiller, Susan (1976) Dreams: Visions of the Night, London: Thames and Hudson, p. 40.

[5] Entoptic phenomenon (Accessed 26/11/09).

[6] See Coxhead & Hiller, 1976, pp. 94-5.

[7] See Hiller, Susan (19??) Susan Hiller, London: ICA, np.; Brett, Guy, 'Singular and Plural' in Hiller, Susan (1984) Susan Hiller 1973-83: The Muse My Sister, Londonderry / Glasgow / London: Orchard Gallery, Third Eye Centre, Gimpel Fils, pp. 6-7.

Some research into Parameter 2 and 3

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a seminal sociology book by Erving Goffman. It uses the imagery of the theatre in order to portray the importance of human – namely, social – action. The book was published in 1959. See dramaturgy for a detailed analysis.

In the center of the analysis lies the relationship between performance and front stage. Unlike other writers who have used this metaphor, Goffman seems to take all elements of acting into consideration: an actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage; the props at either setting direct his action; he is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers' play.

According to Goffman, the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor's main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors. To a certain extent, this imagery bridges structure and agency, enabling each, while saying that structure and agency can limit each other.

A major theme that Goffman treats throughout the work is the fundamental importance of having an agreed upon definition of the situation in a given interaction, in order to give the interaction coherency. In interactions, or performances, the involved parties may be audience members and performers simultaneously; the actors usually foster impressions that reflect well upon themselves, and encourage the others, by various means, to accept their preferred definition. Goffman acknowledges that when the accepted definition of the situation has been discredited, some or all of the actors may pretend that nothing has changed, if they find this strategy profitable to themselves or wish to keep the peace. For example, when a lady who is attending a formal dinner—and who is certainly striving to present herself positively—trips, nearby party-goers may pretend not to have seen her fumble; they assist her in maintaining face. Goffman avers that this type of artificial, willed credulity happens on every level of social organization, from top to bottom.


The first debate was effectively suspended in 1934 when Ruth Benedict published Patterns of Culture, which has continuously been in print. Although this book is well known for popularizing the Boasian principle of cultural relativism, among anthropologists it constituted both an important summary of the discoveries of Boasians, and a decisive break from Boas's emphasis on the mobility of diverse cultural traits. "Anthropological work has been overwhelmingly devoted to the analysis of cultural traits," she wrote "rather than to the study of cultures as articulated wholes."[124] Influenced by Polish-British social anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, however, she argued that "The first essential, so it seems today, is to study the living culture, to know its habits of thought and the functions of its institutions" and that "the only way in which we can know the significance of the selected detail of behavior is against the background of the motives and emotions and values that are institutionalized in that culture."[125] Influenced by German historians Wilhelm Dilthey and Oswald Spengler, as well as by gestalt psychology, she argued that "the whole determines its parts, not only their relation but their very nature,"[126] and that "cultures, likewise, are more than the sum of their traits."[127] Just as each spoken language draws very selectively from an extensive, but finite, set of sounds any human mouth (free from defect) can make, she concluded that in each society people, over time and through both conscious and unconscious processes, selected from an extensive but finite set of cultural traits which then combine to form a unique and distinctive pattern."[128]

The significance of cultural behavior is not exhausted when we have clearly understood that it is local and man-made and hugely variable. It tends to be integrated. A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action. Within each culture there come into being characteristic purposes not necessarily shared by other types of society. In obedience to their purposes, each people further and further consolidates its experience, and in proportion to the urgency of these drives the heterogeneous items of behavior take more and more congruous shape. Taken up by a well-integrated culture, the most ill-assorted acts become characteristic of its particular goals, often by the most unlikely metamorphoses.[129]

Although Benedict felt that virtually all cultures are patterned, she argued that these patterns change over time as a consequence of human creativity, and therefore different societies around the world had distinct characters. Patterns of Culture contrasts Zuňi, Dobu and Kwakiutl cultures as a way of highlighting different ways of being human. Benedict observed that many Westerners felt that this view forced them to abandon their "dreams of permanence and ideality and with the individual's illusions of autonomy" and that for many, this made existence "empty."[130] She argued however that once people accepted the results of scientific research, people would "arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence."[130]

This view of culture has had a tremendous impact outside of anthropology, and dominated American anthropology until the Cold War, when anthropologists like Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf rejected the validity and value of approaching "each culture" as "a world in itself" and "relatively stable."[131] They felt that, too often, this approach ignored the impact of imperialism, colonialism, and the world capitalist economy on the peoples Benedict and her followers studied (and thus re-opened the debate on the relationship between the universal and the particular, in the form of the relationship between the global and the local). In the meantime, its emphasis on metamorphosing patterns influenced French structuralism and made American anthropologists receptive to British structural-functionalism.

Parameter #2

Call out for artists in the vicinity of Plymouth please contact Alan Smith


Parameter 3 - The Duke of Cornwall


And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Previous Parameters

  • For Parameter 1 - ‘750’ - six of us spent 14hrs in silence traveling to and settling into the extreme underground environment of Smallclough Lead Mine, spending 10hours in a cavern known as ‘The Ballroom’.  On arrival we each found our own space and set up a bedroll.  The agreed conditions of the group’s venture underground combined to create an experience of both physical and mental intensity that was shared through circumstance and togetherness, and not through conventional modes of communication.

2010 Parameter #2

  • For Parameter 2 - ‘Het Elfde Gebod’ the Eleventh Commandment - 21 people came together for a durational live event in the social environment of a small country pub - the Allenheads Inn. The core group of 7 chose guests to join them for this event.


The Rules


1. No bar games, (pool, darts, dominoes etc.).

2. No devices for independent entertainment will be permitted (ipod, mobile phones,   

    no sound or image recording devices, no pen and paper, no books or newspapers

    etc. no watches or any time keeping devises). 

3. This event will not be recorded or documented in any way; we are the recording  


4. Participants will only speak (to the barman) while placing their order, otherwise

    absolutely no speaking.

More information on Parameter 2:

2011 Parameter 3 ‘The Duke of Cornwall’ - 4/5/6th Nov 2011

Alan Smith, Jane Dudman (Carlisle), Andrew Wilson (Newcastle), Emma Cummins (London), Fiona Flyn (London), Ged Robinson (Newcastle), Saulius Leonavicius (Oxford/Lithuania) plus others to be named.

A hotel is an establishment that is traveled to and provides paid lodging on a short-term basis.  By law, a hotel is required to serve food and drinks to all guests within certain stated hours.  Hotel rooms are usually numbered (or named in some smaller hotels and B&Bs) to allow guests to identify their room.


The provision of basic accommodation, in times past, consisting only of a room with a bed, a cupboard, a small table and a washstand has largely been replaced by rooms with modern facilities, including en-suite bathrooms and air conditioning.  Additional common features found in hotel rooms are a telephone, an alarm clock, a television, a safe, a mini-bar with snack, foods and drinks, and facilities for making tea and coffee.


Venue: The Duke of Cornwall, Plymouth

(Room to be confirmed I am trying for the tower)


The project


Parameter 3 will take place in a hotel in Plymouth for 15 participants. It will look at how shared ‘non verbal’ experience can influence our perception of reality, creating mythology through singular and collective memory. The project will be followed by a live conversation between Parameter participants and an audience.


The event


Given that each participant will travel different distances to the Duke of Cornwall, the event will begin 48hrs before our scheduled arrival at the hotel by all participants acknowledging a start to the experience.  From 12 midday on the 3rd of November, all participants must refrain from using any alcohol or recreational drugs - this will create a remote link between us before physically meeting at the Duke.

The participants will be asked to arrive at the hotel at 2pm on 4th of November. The longest likely journey will be from Newcastle - driving it will take approximately 8hrs.  Those from the North East could drive on the Thursday and stay somewhere (not the Duke) on route,

perhaps 2 or 3 hours away.

The Rules


  • Your journey to the hotel on the 4th should be made in silence. Car share will be possible, although participants can arrange their own transport.


  • On arrival at the hotel I would like all participants to book in to the hotel room (please no speaking, unless to the receptionist).


  • When we get into the room it is up to us individually to settle into the space.


  • No devices for independent entertainment will be permitted, (ipod, mobile phones,   

           no sound or image recording devices, no pen and paper, no books or newspapers

           etc. no watches or any time keeping devises).


  • This event will not be recorded or documented in any way, we are the recording   


  • Participants will only speak to the receptionist on arrival.


  • Absolutely no speaking while in the room for the 24hours.

Participants should make every effort to independently internalize the physical, psychological and visceral reading of their experiences while remaining aware of one and another’s’ presence. There will be no visual, written or audio documentation made during our time in the room. We will internalize the time; embracing our physical, psychological and illusionary reading of the experience.


We will have gone through an intense time and we deserve a period of more structured discussion in order to tease out essential elements of that time together, and to get some measure of what happened.


After our durational experience we will be joined by Emma Cummins for brunch. (During this time participants should speak only when they are ready, this is not a ready steady speak kind of scenario). This will begin our decompression as well as gently lead us into the next phase when we hold a public conversation between participants and audience.

Schedule: (to be finalised)


  • We from further afield will start our journey staying in a B&B (or somewhere cheap) a couple of hours from Plymouth.



  • Parameter participants will travel to the Duke of Cornwall in Plymouth (in silence).

  • Between 2:00pm and (very latest) 3:00pm we arrive and book in. As we arrive we should go immediately to the room; this is likely to be staggered.

  • The group stay in the hotel room for 24 hours.  We leave the room after a phone alarm from the reception at 3:00pm on Saturday. The group should then go for lunch/walkabout (decompression).

  • Returning to the Duke of Cornwall for public conversation at 4pm.

  • Accommodation for those travelling from afar is being sorted for the Saturday night.  Participants will leave sometime on Sunday.



Each individual is responsible for their participation in this project. It is a mutual curiosity that is taking us into this.

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