Notes from Day Two of the RSA RDI Summer School – sort of

Cumulonimbus at Dartington Hall

Storm clouds brewing at RDI Summer School

My aim for this reportage has been to tell a live story from the Summer School. This is tricky to do because, as I said in my first day post, part of the appeal – and perhaps the impact – of the Summer School is that the participants know so little about what is going to happen. Summer School co-director Chris Wise told me that this mystery intends to put participants on a level playing field without preparation, preconception or prejudice. I understand the importance of what he is saying, but this leaves me, as a storyteller, little story to tell other than descriptions of historic buildings and landscape gardening. I have decided therefore to use the hindsight of what actually happened to help judge what I can include in my reportage of this Summer School without jeopardising the experience for future participants. So, if you are sitting comfortably…

Dartington Hall is a fantastic place to hold the summer school. The ancient rooms inside and the cascading garden outside, with its wide open spaces and nooks and crannies provide endless spaces for people to stop, think, explore, assemble and create.

We gathered in one of these rooms for our first activity of the day. Having all been asked to bring a small object that represented a precious wish, we suspended our wishes from tiny threads within a giant cube structure. Our wishes floating before us (check potter Billy Lloyd’s wish here, and more pics here), we were then instructed to ask others about what they had brought, and if we felt some connection to that person’s wish, to connect our two wishes together with more string. Gradually forty-eight individuals and their wishes – many very profound and personal – became interlinked and co-supported in a fine matrix – a beautiful manifestation of the webs that were already starting to spin around and between us.

Assembled around this wish sculpture we listened to a compilation of interviews from Mike Dempsey’s RDInsights podcasts. As the collection included excerpts from interviews with many of the RDIs present, it allowed something quite personal to be revealed about these designers without anyone having to speak a word. For me this process of opening up began here, and became an important part of our stay at Dartington.

At eleven, the Co-Directors of the Summer School briefed the participants on what was to become the main activity of the Summer School. The participants were instructed to carry out a sequence of tasks, the means and mechanics of which I won’t go into, designed to set us off on a journey exploring human emotion. The journey would end on the last day of the Summer School when everyone would report back to say what they had found.

While the Directors’ briefing focused on the mechanics of the exercise, they were ambiguous about their expectations. With hindsight, this ambiguity set up an important tension that would eventually propel each of the groups to go far on their journeys of exploration. I witnessed this growing tension while I moved from group to group, interviewing participants along the way. Initially, everyone participated in good faith, but over a few hours unease grew. Two camps emerged. Some participated in the exercises placing their full faith in the mysterious programme that would somehow guide them to some sort of epiphany. Others found the exercises opaque and a barrier to meaningful discussion.

Then over dinner something snapped. The Directors stood up and effectively told everyone to stop being so polite and to take responsibility for themselves. It felt like a dressing down, but it was enough to suddenly propel everyone forwards. I think that for those who had been following instructions it was a shock: the instructions were no-longer trustworthy; the only people they could trust were themselves. And I think for those that had felt shackled, they were suddenly released. I may be wrong about those last two sentences, but I am certain by the end of day two a threshold had been crossed.

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