Dark Days at Glasgow’s GoMA

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Dark Days review by blogger Carol Anne Grady (Rock Salt)

I first heard about Dark Days from a friend at work.

‘This is a weird thing,’ she said. ‘I think you’ll like it’. I’m paraphrasing, but she was completely right. I like adventures, and signed up on the spot.

The concept behind the event was, at first glance, simple: artist Ellie Harrison invited 100 strangers to come and spend the night in Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. The event was described as follows:

A unique opportunity to stay the night in GoMA’s great hall with up to a hundred other participants. As part of this new, pop-up community you will explore ways to negotiate the politics of communal living with help from trained facilitators in order to decide how best to set up and run your camp.

Borrowing its title from a phrase used in theatre to refer to the period in-between shows, Dark Days hints towards a time in the future when our big municipal buildings may need to be re-imagined / re-used for alternative purposes.

Hmm. Perhaps the concept wasn’t as simple as it seemed. There was the practical matter of communal politics, something I knew nothing about. There was also the more esoteric idea of imagining what might happen to society that would mean having to use public spaces as living quarters. The description is delightfully vague, though of course the phrase ‘zombie apocalypse’ wasn’t far from my mind. It rarely is. Indeed, in answer to the one true question on the application form, ‘Tell us why you want to take part in Dark Days’, my answer was:

Why not? It’ll be good practise for the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a one-of event, I love the curiosity behind it. Watching people react in situations where the rules are all called off is fascinating, and I’d love to be part of the group while that happens.

As it turned out, Ellie received over 800 applications for the 100 available places. She narrowed the numbers down based on gender and age – the only other information the application form recorded – and with reference to how we answered the above question. Not an enviable task.

Two weeks before the event, we chosen bunch had our applications confirmed. Now we had some time to wonder what exactly we’d gotten ourselves into. I was looking forward to the night, but I’d be lying if I said I had no concerns. A sleepover with that many strangers, surely there was bound to be some drama? Or maybe everyone else would be somehow connected to the arts scene in Glasgow, and I’d be the philistine in the room. The camp manual we were sent didn’t do much to assuage my fears, with its unfamiliar phrases such as ‘consensus based decision making’ and ‘affinity groups’, and its instructions not to bring old blankets or pyjamas. I didn’t know why I wasn’t allowed to bring my pyjamas. I didn’t know what I was in for at all.

As it turned out, nobody did. We all arrived with varying degrees of anxiety, but a uniformly high level of anticipation and excitement. The fact that most people were there alone made it easy to get talking to one another, and there was plenty of chatter as we filed inside, dropped our rucksacks and sleeping bags round the edges of the GoMA’s main hall, and waited for things to begin.

We were together in the museum for sixteen hours. The first five hours were spent in learning the basics of the aforementioned consensus-based decision making – a tool used in activist groups and intentional communities – and then using our new-found skills to decide how we were going to engage ourselves for the rest of the evening.

There was a lot of talking. Personally, I quite enjoyed the talking. The whole process was an eye-opener for me, having only ever known the ‘majority rule’ method of decision making. That said, reaching a consensus, especially with that many people, does give rise to a certain amount of circular conversation, and it takes a long time to get things done. In the real world, when you use these techniques, you’re applying them to big decisions which are worth investing time in. For our purposes, it was overkill, and I know that many people were frustrated by how much we were discussing our plans, and how little we were acting them out. In the end, as it grew close to 11pm, a vote was taken to just get started, and organise ourselves as we went along. Consensus was reached. The group dispersed – but not for long.

Photo credit: Clyde Jones

There were a few group activities proposed, for all to take part in should they wish to. The stand out one for me was the crowdsurfing pit: about twenty people, shoes off, sitting in two rows, wedged far closer together than you would have imagined twenty strangers could be convinced to sit. Everyone in the pit held up their hands, and one by one, people jumped on, and were safely conveyed to the back, where two or three people waited to lift them back down again. Once finished, those people joined the back of the row, and the person at the front stood up and took their turn. Crowdsurfing was the most meaningful part of Dark Days for me. Being caught and held by this group of people was utterly uplifting – literally, of course, but also emotionally. It felt like a chance to set aside all those body worries that we humans carry around – this was no time for ‘I’m too heavy’, or ‘I’m sweating too much’. When I leaped forward on to those welcoming hands, I felt weightless.

Even as I was having this profound moment, other groups were forming around the hall. Some people played games (including a particularly noisy and dramatic Murder in the Dark). Some built a fort out of chairs and sleeping bags. I joined a group of aspiring music makers. A silent disco struck up next to us for a while. There were too many things happening for me to see them all, and if you asked any other member of the group at large, they would have a unique story to tell you about what happened that night.

Dark Days 2

Photo credit: Clyde Jones

The lights went out at 3am. We lay in our sleeping bags under the arches and cornices of the GoMA. Some people slept, but I think many found it difficult to drop off. In a way, I appreciated the wakefulness – it let me experience more of what will almost certainly be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some groups looked more deeply into the concept of Dark Days and one had chosen the task of writing a dadaist manifesto. Some lines from the manifesto have stuck in my mind, though I may be taking liberties with exact wording:

  • Always bring gaffer tape.
  • Crowd surfing takes a lot of hands, but it smelled a lot like feet.
  • We’re the art, aren’t we?

That last one resonated particularly strongly, and it’s come to mind a few times in the six weeks since the event. We were the art, a unique work that could never be exactly replicated, that was inherently subjective in its nature, and that could only really be experienced through participation. Reading descriptions, looking at photos, even watching footage of the night can’t really convey the truth of it.

Was there some kind of lasting meaning to Dark Days? There are a lot of answers to that question – at least a hundred. Some people might suggest that the project expressed hope that the human race can be trusted to cooperate, should the aforementioned apocalypse occur. Some might be more interested in the deep attraction for play that many of the participants exhibited. Others may wish to expound on the utter lack of conflict or rule-breaking in the room: even though we were in a unique environment where behaving contrary to the social norm would have been accepted, we conformed. Still others might contend that there was no meaning at all. As with any artwork, Dark Days is open to interpretation.

When asked about the project, Ellie didn’t seem to have had many preconceptions or hopes for what would happen on the night. This seems a sensible approach, given that any course of action involving a group of people is inherently unpredictable and complex. In her opening few words to us, she said she felt like she’d already done all the work of bringing us together – and I can only agree. Once she’d set us in motion, I think it was her turn to sit back and see what happened in the space she’d created.

We were the art.

Dark Days happened on February 13th, 2015. To see photos and read more about it, check out the Facebook page.

You can also see a short film about the Dark Days project, made by Lock Up Your Daughters, here: https://vimeo.com/121878202

Authored by my creative chum Carol Anne Grady – check out her foodie blog, Rock Salt.

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