Department 21 a student-led interdisciplinary department at the Royal College of Art


Department 21 is a project where designers, artists and architects can meet, collaborate and share working space beyond the institutional boundaries of their own disciplines.

Department 21 was set up in 2009 when a group of students at the Royal College of Art, London initiated an experimental cross-departmental studio space, thereby engendering new discussions and ways of working than had been seen in recent years at the college.

Emerging from an institutional context in which individual authorship and outcome-driven projects are the dominant frames for creative production, the project is the result of a need for new, collaborative forms of exchange between students from different disciplines: it is a means to get in touch with other peoples’ practices (and in this way question one’s own practice), as well as being a platform to support collaboration beyond specialties.

The philosophy driving Department 21 is an emancipated vision of postgraduate studentship, where all those entering a space of education have the responsibility to take a position regarding their learning process. Contrary to the commonly found format of short interdisciplinary collaboration with a secure outcome, Department 21 feels it necessary to create premises for individuals to encounter the others’ spontaneous collaborative working methods based on common interests, curiosity and critical dialogue. The ongoing research work of the project is therefore to identify, test and refine methodologies that enable this type of encounter to emerge and thrive.

Particular to Department 21 is the emphasis on a physical space within which ideas can grow and serendipitous encounters occur. With a belief that the physical and social design of a learning space has an impact on the learning that happens within it, Department 21 has sought to work with a variety of spaces, both within and outside the Royal College of Art, to encourage different forms of social interaction and dialogue and participation. For each location the project inhabits (alternatively shared common space, occupancy of the college’s galleries during exhibitions, outdoor events etc.), the question of design comes first.

Recognising the impact that structures have on how we interact and learn, and using the inter-disciplinary knowledge of the group, Department 21 has created a purpose-built moveable working space, to enable the activities of learning, teaching and collaborating to flex to fit a wide variety of spatial environments.

One of the key values of the project is the incidental. Department 21 is not interested in existing as a closed or heavily-curated project, rather the heterogeneous programming of events enable participants and the public to dip into discussions and actions, therefore privileging the notion of surprise and coincidence. A balance between clear organisation and chance is therefore sought, creating fertile ground for new collaborative working relationships to emerge.

This emphasis on collaborative process and open exploration is an approach that counters the institutional agenda of single authorship and producing industry-ready students. This underlying working method is described in the D21 book, self-published in June 2010 to coincide with the Royal College of Art’s Show 2010:

Once a physical space is occupied, almost all the participants are involved in activating it. This means inhabiting the space on a daily basis, keeping possibilities open by re-establishing ‘order’ after each activity so that it could welcome the next, taking care of the communication, documenting what is going on and supporting those who want to organise an activity. Crucially, it meant being sensitive and reactive to the dynamics of the group whilst trying not to become a closed society.
[D21 publication, page 23]

Whilst the physical format and spatial manifestation of Department 21 changes frequently in response to changing external and internal contexts, its priorities remain unchanged. It is an independent research platform, valuing the importance of individual initiative and preserving the possibility of failure. Crucially, it acts as a source of peer support, to encourage critical dialogue and open up the possibilities for new directions in working practice.

Key underlying questions at the heart of Department21 since its inception have been:
— How do critical spaces emerge within institutions and how do they sustain themselves?
— How can an institution support such innovative learning environments?
— How do we – and should we – define practice and disciplines?

These questions continue to be at the heart of our live research investigation toward the discovery of potential structures [physical, temporal, social, organisational] to facilitate collaborative work.

As a peer-led pedagogical experiment, Department 21 only exists if participants are willing to activate it. For each event, space, location or activity, the diversity of the make-up of the group is a key ingredient in enabling serendipity, chance and exchange; the experience is always richer if the range of those involved, whether students, staff, participants, guest or public is as wide as possible. By reaching outside to new contexts, forming new relationships outside the institution, and continuing lines of enquiry, Department 21 hopes to sustain a richness of critical encounter; that way, Department 21 can play its role of catalyst, in whatever context it finds itself.

Department 21 has previously collaborated with a number of individuals and organisations including Critical Practice Chelsea, Will Holder, Richard Wentworth, Antony Hudek, Alfredo Cramerotti, Ursula Biemann, Sophie Thomas, Michael Rakowitz, Barbara Steveni (APG), Finn Williams, Roberto Bottazzi, Mauricio Guillen, Manystuff and Carey Young. Some of its events are made possible with the generous support of Eurostar.

Text written by Department 21 & Pippa Koszerek

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