Ellie Harrison’s Unexpected ‘Dark Days’ – Part I #guestblog

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Exactly a month ago today, the final arrangements were underway for the Dark Days event. One hundred CAMP MANUALS ( camp-manualFINAL-print ) were printed, stapled and folded, GoMA’s gallery one space was being cleaned, Tripod were preparing their flip charts, Lock Up Your Daughters were getting ready for filming, the photographers were setting up their cameras and chairs were running out. What seemed to be on everyone’s mind was the question: What was going to happen?

As the clock struck six participants flooded through the doors. People were already forming orderly lines and mingling as participants began chatting to each other about the event and what was to be expected or unexpected! I had the fun job of registering everyone in the event and checking if people had any allergies that we needed to know about. Surprisingly a lot of people seemed to be allergic to penicillin like myself, but we reassured one another that unless someone was to randomly bring in penicillin we should be fine for the night.

The event began with a warm introduction from the camp team, as well as an overview of the evening. The first part of the evening would be structured through the facilitators, Tripod, and their planned activities with consensus decision making. While the second part of the evening would be left up to the participants and the ultimate question of “How do you want to spend the evening?” In the introduction it also became clear that there were not enough chairs for the number of participants, which would lead to many discussions about the chairs throughout the entire evening. Chairs? Yes, chairs. Apparently hierarchy can even be instilled through chairs.

To break the ice of being in a room with one hundred strangers, Tripod got us to warm up with the aptly named ‘getting to know you exercises’ where people would form a random group of three or more people and find something in common. Sometimes this was easy and sometimes not so much – but in the end you could always find something.

After the initial trepidation wore off and people became more relaxed, we came together as a whole group while Tripod ran a workshop on consensus decision making. Consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a consensus group is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports – or at least can live with. Some of the key aims that everyone would need to share to reach a consensus were commitment to reaching a consensus, an open mind, respect, a safe space, a non-hierarchical structure and allowing everyone to speak if they wished. (For more information on consensus decision making go to http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk). Before the event I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant about the consensus decision making process. For me the first example that came to mind when I thought of consensus decision making was the Occupy Movement and its ensuing dissipation and ineffectiveness. It appeared quite a utopian approach – I wondered if it didn’t work for the Occupy Movement how was it going to work for us? How would it be possible to create a complete consensus with one hundred strangers? However, I was pleasantly surprised at how it worked at the Dark Days event.

After the workshop, it was time to put the consensus decision making workshop into practice! The group was split in half and eight volunteers from each group were provided a topic from Tripod to discuss and hopefully reach a consensus, while the rest of the group observed. The topic was: A stow-away has entered GoMA during the Dark Days event but is one of the participant’s friends. Should they stay? The volunteers were allowed to discuss the topic for ten minutes and would aim to reach a consensus by the end of this time. The group I was in came to a consensus quite quickly as everyone seemed to agree that the stowaway should stay as long as they are not causing trouble. Nonetheless, the process highlighted some of the problems that arise with consensus decision making. Although the process proceeded in a very orderly manner as we went around in a circle and everyone offered their opinions on the matter, as we got nearer to the end of the circle the people at the end mentioned afterwards in our discussion that they almost felt obliged to form a consensus with everyone else before them as otherwise they would be the reason for not reaching a consensus. Furthermore, the time constraint meant that there was not enough time to explore and delve into deeper discussion. For instance, questions such as: how does the stowaway illegally coming into the space change the situation? Does it change the situation? What should be done? Who is going to interact with the stowaway and then mediate between them and the organisers? However, in reality more often than not there are time restraints and so it is better that people would be trained under these conditions. Also questions after the consensus decision making process arose about the role of the facilitator and what authority (if any) is granted to you when you are facilitator? Nevertheless, our group ultimately did reach a consensus, everyone was free to speak, everyone listened attentively and the space remained one of respect.

After this it was finally time for dinner (just as well considering my stomach had started to rumble near the end of the consensus decision making – I know I wasn’t the only one)! People brought and shared food, got to know one another and ultimately had a good old chat.

Rhona MacGuire
Modern & Contemporary Art: History, Curating & Criticism MSc at the University of Edinburgh

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