I had pretty interesting experience at The Evacuation of the Great Learning workshops at Instal last year. I really didn’t enjoy them at the time, to such an extent that I dropped out two thirds of the way through, but I’ve thought about them a lot since. I thought I would write a little about my experiences and how I think they relate to the broader themes I’m trying to tease out in my writings here.
As you’ll have read in Barry’s responses below, the workshop organisers, mattin especially, were “interested in thinking about the social relations in groups and seeing how they play themselves out or emerge outwith any kind of dominant structure or hierarchy already set in place.” Consequently, as little as possible was done to pre-define what would happen at the workshops. Times and locations were set for 3 sessions of 4 hours, plus the performances over 3 hours, and the first session began with Mattin and Ray Brassier giving an introduction and a little context (a lot of which related to some texts that had been provided and which no one seemed to have read). After the introduction, it was basically up to us. The default format seemed to be a large discussion circle with 60 people in it. We began this way and spent an unbroken 4 hours like this on the Saturday. After it became clear that it was going to be difficult to generate a consensus, the Sunday session fragmented after it was agreed that every idea would be considered as viable for the evening performances. We each made a personal decision to get involved in some or none of the performances. In the end, we all did what we wanted. We came to an agreement to do this. It was a collective decision. But did we not collectively choose to abandon our collectivity? Why shouldn’t we? After all, we’re all individuals, free to make up our own minds and do what we want. I guess we collectively agreed to be individuals. What else could we have done?
Getting 60 people to agree to anything via a group discussion is incredibly difficult. The conversation has a habit of veering wildly from topic to topic as each contributor responds to the point made immediately before them. As a result, it’s difficult for any one idea to gain any momentum. In addition, as only one person can speak to the group at a time, progress can be painfully slow (so much so that I decided not to return after Saturday’s often excruciating session). Although everyone had an equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion, some people said a lot while others said very little or nothing at all. As a result, many people appeared to be left out of the debate. So, a group discussion involving 60 people seems to make reaching a consensus rather difficult. It’s unfocussed, slow and unfair.
It’s was rather like a group improvisation, constrained by the social norms that dictate that only one person speaks at any one time and that they try to respond to the point made immediately before them. Within those parameters, this was a completely open situation in which each of us could do as we wanted and, as a consequence, we reverted to doing what we are most used to doing. As we are most familiar with a way of living that is individualistic, we reverted to this mode and this carried through to the final decision regarding the performances.
Or, as Mattin has put it, “During the workshop, it proved impossible for the group to arrive at any consensus about what to do or not to do. So the last day it was decided that every proposal would be accepted…instead of collectively achieving something radical, we merely reproduced the paltry freedom of expression which neoliberalism accords to the individual subject, no matter how false this ‘freedom’ turns out to be. It seems that capitalism has conditioned our subjectivity to the longer willing to give up anything individually, even if this entails a bleak future for everybody.”
So where do we go from here? I believe there’s a significant difference between a situation in which a dominant structure is not provided at all (as happened in the workshops) or when it is suddenly removed and one in which the structure is removed gradually with a view to agency being transferred to a group*. As the workshops have demonstrated, absence or sudden removal is likely to result in a reversion to an improvisatory state and, as a result of the broader structure of our society, to the learned individualism of the participants. A more gradual transition is likely to facilitate a move towards another outcome. Obviously, the particular outcome achieved will be directly determined by the structure put in place by the organisers. If a desirable outcome is for there to be a transfer of power to the group and for the group to work towards becoming a collective then a particular kind of structure will need to be put in place to allow this. Here’s a suggestion for how this might be done.
[*This is more of an intuition than anything else. I don’t have any specific evidence to back this up at this stage, although I’m working on it. It seems pretty reasonable to me though; if you help people become a collective then the will be more likely to become one. If you don’t, they are less likely to.]
Goal: To decide what we are going to do (or not do) together during the last 4 hours of Instal.
I’ve tried to apply the following principles
1) Workshop organisers’ role is to define the structure of the social relations within the group.
2) Allow the group to take increasing control of the process (i.e. provide a structure only up to a certain point in time).
3) Vary the formality and size of the discussion groups to allow people to contribute in a social environment in which they are most comfortable.
4) Provide a structure for escalating and collating ideas via reps elected by small groups. (Reps status is time limited).
Meeting 1 (2 hours)
Initial meeting in advance of the festival (perhaps 1 week before) – dissemination of reading materials & encouragement to read them prior to the first full session. Initial outline of remit by workshop leaders. Group discussion (focussed on process and format) 1-2 hours total.
Meeting 2 (4 hours)
a. Initial, brief discussion in group of 60 people to outline and clarify process and format – 20 mins
b. 60 people break up into groups of 5 (randomly selected). Each group of 5 discusses the issues at hand and selects a representative. Representative to note points discussed and any conclusions reached. 90 mins
c. The 12 representatives meet in 2 groups of 6 to discuss the points raised. Key points noted. They select 2 representatives from each group (everyone else is provided with an informal area to mingle and continue their discussions informally) 60 mins
d. 4 representatives meet to discuss points raised in the two groups. Develop an initial set of conclusions, processes and ideas. Select two representatives. 40 mins. Informal discussions continue.
e. 2 Representatives feed conclusions back to all 60 people. Group discussion. 30-60 mins.
Meeting 3 (4 hours)
Same format as Meeting 2 but with different groups of 5 (i.e. re-randomise the groups). People who were reps yesterday are not allowed to be reps today. Outcome – to have developed a format for the final session.
Meeting 4 (4 hours) Final 4 hour session – format to have been decided in previous two sessions.
Performance/s (3 hours) – to be decided by the group.