How do you collaborate in a pandemic?
A couple of years ago, I set up para-lab with Andrew Wilson (not this Andrew Wilson, but this one). The premise of para-lab is to facilitate collaborations between artists and scientists, creating a process where artists and scientists are equals, learning from each other and creating something new. There’s a standard model when it comes to artists collaborating with scientists, which tends to be that of art ‘illustrating’ science. Artists are often expected to enter the world of science, learn as best they can from it, and then make work ‘inspired’ by what they have learnt. We want to see if it’s possible for collaboration to take new forms, to try and establish a mutually beneficial platform for all practitioners, where the scientists are just as out-of-their-depth as the artists.
Trying is the operative word here, not because I don’t think we’ve succeeded, but because it is the trying that’s the fun part, for me anyway.
We are currently working regularly with three scientists: Michael Preuss, Philipp Frankel and Sam Hay. The artists are Nicola Ellis, Anthony Hall, Alyson Olson, Michelle Harrison, Laura Negus and David Boultbee. Before lockdown, we had orchestrated various collaborative making sessions, resulting in three separate, ongoing projects among smaller groups of participants. With lockdown came the almost complete closure of Manchester University, with laboratories closed and most practical scientific research put on hold. This has put a massive dampener on the para-lab projects, which rely on laboratory access.
So we’ve had to find new ways to keep para-lab alive. As the artists and scientists involved with para-lab have spent many hours of their lockdown locked in zoom meetings, we wanted to do something actual, not virtual. We decided to organise the ‘para-lab field trip’.
The field trip took place in the Pennines, on the border of the Marsden and Saddleworth moors on Sunday 28th June. It was great to get out of the house and see collaborators in their family units. It also gave our rusty social skills a much-needed focus. It was a truly wild day, with extremely strong winds and occasional downpours. One of the challenges of para-lab has been finding neutral territory, where neither the artists or scientists feel more at home than the other. Sometimes we do meet at art studios, but this usually feels more like ‘doing art’. We also meet at the University’s labs to ‘do science’. In order for it to feel like true collaboration, we wanted to find somewhere else.
Hence the moors! What better place to social distance?
Various activities took place, including Anthony Hall’s Meander-Delta Method, a process of walking, documenting and gathering:
We also brought along homemade equipment to test materials found in the environment:
And we did lots of playing, experimenting and exploring:
Nothing solid came from these activities, in terms of art or science. But there was something interesting happening in the process of trying. I’ve come to realise that a finished artwork can act as a self-imposed deadline, and that’s perhaps it’s most important role. We’re working together to produce a thing, but the thing is secondary to the working itself. Hopefully, one day para-lab will host another exhibition showcasing the outcomes of these collaborations, but in the meantime we will continue with the most important stuff: to meet, experiment and learn together.