Looking back on the invisible 95%

95% Looking back

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 here, the wind stronger, the winter longer and the midges hungrier.

How does someone living in ‘England’s last wilderness’, with its big skies and 360 degree views, make sense of the idea that there is another 95% out there that cannot be felt or seen?

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 all over the world joined him to grapple with related questions.

In the months leading up to this weeklong Migrating Art Academies residency, Alan Smith initiated discussions with Dr. Peter Edwards, a physicist from Durham University and Professor Nicholas Owens, an oceanographer and former director of the British Antarctic Survey. These meetings steered the content of the residency and led to a program that also included conversations with Zen Buddhist monks.

Central to the week’s objectives was providing time to experience the local environment; the moors above Allenheads and 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 such as: 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?

The week began with a walk up to nearby ‘Killhope Law’. The wind and rain 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 are only able to sense less than 5% of what surrounds 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%.

The description of dark matter and dark energy provided by physicists reminded Alan of the biblical definition of faith, ‘the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen’ Hebrews 11:1. For the layperson, particle physicists’ strange mathematical formulae offer little in the way of tangible evidence for dark matter and dark energy, arguably no more than a person of religious faith can give for the existence of deities.

The monks Reverend Willard and Wilfred provided a useful counterpoint to the concept of dark matter and energy. Their responses to our questions seemed evasive at first, 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.

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 theoretical particle physics before making work in response to it. As the week progressed it became 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 we discussed why Dr Peter Edwards and the monks had not asked us why we had invited them to contribute to an artists’ residency. What was 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, the mystical and the imperceptible. Could it be that what drives us, both as artists and as scientists, is an interest in the unknown?

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

Science develops our understanding of the world in a mechanistic sense, but thinking about what those discoveries might mean to us is perhaps something that the arts can better contribute towards.

After the Space Race it became 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”.

Are artists simply communicators, illustrators or PR representatives? Or, is it that we better positioned to look beyond concrete facts and deliver what Werner Herzog calls ‘Ecstatic Truths’ (deeper, poetic truths that can be reached only through subjectivity and imagination) in order to augment human experience?

During the public conversation, Alan suggested that perhaps artists behave like parasites, feeding off other peoples’ interests and knowledge.

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 honored for their similarities as well as their essential differences.

Alan Smith and Rosalind McLachlan

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