Brave New Alps

Department 21


Department 21 is an interdisciplinary student-led working space at the Royal College of Art in London, which we initiated in October 2009 and coordinated until July 2010. In 2010/2011 Bethany Wells and Sophie Demay coordinated D21. The website of the project is . Download the book.

Department 21 is a reaction against the state of segregation that afflicts in a more or less acute manner all the departments of the College, and that leads to a lack of communication between students of different disciplines about their work, and of spontaneous interdepartmental collaborations.
The aim of Department 21 was to gather in a single shared working environment designers, artists and theorists from the 20 different departments of the RCA.
We were interested in how such a discursive and productive space could free creative energies that are normally not valued by the education system adopted by the College, and in how this new environment could stimulate a deeper reflection about one’s practice than what is normally requested by the different departments.

After prolonged negotiations with the institution and after recruiting a consistent number of participating students we managed to occupy for seven weeks between January and February 2010 the entire second floor of the Stevens Building. This space was left vacant after the Painting department was transferred to Battersea as part of the long-term process of the RCA splitting in two distinct campuses (design and applied art here, fine art there). The lack of funds to immediately renovate this space, combined with a lack of ideas of what to do with it, made it possible for our proposal to go through.
By taking down the internal separation walls, which divided the 250 m2 wide floor into a number of small cubicles, and by transforming them into furniture, we created a new educational space – a conceptual and social one.

Besides keeping the possibility to work on their own projects inside the ‘permanent working space’, the fluctuating group of 35 participants had the possibility to exchange ideas in self-managed seminars, organise and participate in workshops, invite tutors from the College and guests from outside, and generally explore how their practice evolved inside an environment whose premises were openness and discursiveness.

Apart from documenting all the organised activities and life in Department 21 through a blog , after leaving the physical space the group of students kept on working collaboratively between March and July 2010 on a book , which is a reflection on a number of organisational and conceptual aspects that were relevant in the actualisation of the experiment. Like this, the book is complementing the more rational documentation that is still continuing through the website.

During the degree show we reactivated Department 21. For the first time an interdisciplinary group of students was given the possibility to manage a shared exhibition- and a discussion space. For this occasion we built an installation in the internal courtyard of the RCA, which was also used in this way for the first time. This installation was the result of a workshop that took place in March.
For ten days we organised workshops, discussions, talks and performances in order to explore and deepen some of the topics that came up when Department 21 was operative. Here a list of all the events that took place.

After submitting to the institution a proposal we put together in collaboration with tutors and administration in order to deepen the understanding of the different educational models proposed by Department 21 for one whole academic year (2010-2011), the Royal College of Art agreed on reserving an ‘interdepartmental studio space’ on the third floor of the Stevens Building.

Guests of Department 21 include Will Holder, Richard Wentworth, Antony Hudek, Alfredo Cramerotti, Ursula Biemann, Sophie Thomas, Michael Rakowitz, Barbara Steveni (APG), Finn Williams, Roberto Bottazzi, Mauricio Guillen and Carey Young.

Students with a strong involvement include Polly Hunter (History of Design), Callum Cooper (Animation), Prapat Jiwarangsan (Ceramics & Glass), Yesomi Umolu (Curating Contemporary Art), Bethany Wells (Architecture), Anais Tondeur (Textiles), Stephen Knott (Ph.D in History of Design + Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery), Michael Wegerer (Printmaking), Xavier Antin (Communication Art & Design), Robert Maslin (Design Products), Carmen Billows (Curating Contemporary Art), Fay Nicolson (Printmaking), Oliver Smith (Printmaking), Anna Sikorska (Sculpture) and Henrik Potter (Printmaking).