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The art world is going through a period of intense fascination with collectives. This is often combined with an enthusiastic interest in pedagogy. Curators, critics and institutions champion collectivity and pedagogy as, among other things, an alternative or corrective, if you will, to the art-star economy of the 1990s and its spectacular demise. These recent interests have benefited from the enormous influence of the French philosopher, Jacques Ranciиre. Seeking an explicitly political inflection in the terms of pedagogy and collectivity, many have turned to Ranciиre’s writings on spectatorship and the emancipatory potential in art. This appropriation in the visual art context has tended to ignore the extent to which Ranciиre’s own thinking occurs within a nexus of pedagogy and the collectivities that occur in performance. Returning to that nexus affords us the opportunity to tease out some of the implications in this shift from the image as teleology to a performative scene of reception.

As we move through yet another financial collapse, we find the focus on collectivity and pedagogy also playing out against the very real politics of a so-called “crisis in education.” This is not only about money. The changes governments are making to curriculums, staffing and financial-support programs signal fundamental shifts in understanding of the social function of education. The long-standing alliance between the art world and the education system, underscored in state policy, bureaucracy and funding mechanisms, means the crisis in education is also a crisis for the arts. Recent waves of protest against cuts to arts and education programs further underscore this alliance. The meeting point between education and art remains a site for democratic struggle. But what are the terms and methods of that struggle now? It is certainly worth taking the time to investigate whether there is something in the conjunction of collectivity and pedagogy in the art world that can help us navigate, perhaps even inform, the changes being made to this world in which we live. These brief notes are a modest contribution to that investigation.

One way to navigate through the current “crisis” is to monetize creativity. This is precisely the approach taken in Britain as part of the conservative coalition government’s “Big Society” policies. Volunteerism, concern for ones neighborhood and creativity are now incorporated into neoliberal economic policies. Everyone is invited to participate as both producers and consumers. Social services once provided by the state are being shifted to community volunteers who develop and run art programs that double as care settings for children and the elderly. Artists are also invited to forge or participate in entrepreneurial collectives that help foster creative ventures beneficial to business. And they are encouraged, and in some cases even commissioned, to create work or organize programs celebrating specific cases of volunteerism that will inspire and instruct others in how to contribute to their communities [1]. Through these initiatives, artist collectives and educators experience mounting pressure to effectively repurpose themselves to meet the needs of neoliberalism. Artists are no strangers to entrepreneurship. It is the measure of the artist’s position among the middle classes. That measure then gets distributed throughout a complex of institutions that produce subjects as artists. For example, the preparation of individual young artists for the market is a primary function of art schools. Design programs and entire courses of study continue producing workers for culture industries, particularly the rapidly expanding media, gaming and internet markets. Almost schizophrenically, just as art schools and museums participate in the production of individualized artists they espouse sincere investments in radical politics based on participation. As a way of reconciling this contradiction, the forms of participation generally promoted in academic settings and supported by state and private sponsors of the arts has a lot to do with collectivity and education. Consistently, the artist defines the terms for shared transformative experiences. The claim is then made that collective experience, to the extent that it counters the alienating fictions of the modern world and points to the possibility of new experiences, is inherently political. Of course, among the fictions to be countered, is the authority of the art world. However, at the same time that collectivity exposes the ruse of an art world hegemony over cultural terms, the terms of reception still remain safely within the expert purview of the artist.

What then is the ideological assumption of this conundrum? Having learned that authority over reception remains the sole domain of the artist, the art spectator is better prepared to function politically. The neoliberal maneuvers described above, threaten to make the claims about collectivity and pedagogy nothing less than cynical shibboleths of liberalism. Only naпvely can we continue presuming something inherently radical, or anti-capitalist, about collectivity and believe that it would somehow remain immune to commodification.These latest maneuvers in participatory or relational practice join a long list of conundrums concerning the relationship between the art world and its publics. The concept of performativity, for example, once emphasized the contingent status and the unpredictable force of art regardless of discipline. The performative analysis of art objects and images meant that objecthood is actually constructed through the encounters spectators have with the work. For some, this implied that the object mediates between the intention of the artist and the experience of the spectator. For others, performativity sets the intention of the artist adrift in an ocean of signification. In this reading, the point-of-view of the audiences provides the only certain coordinate. “Relational aesthetics” proposed to carry these projects forward. Yet, the great debates about relational art have now moved from the pages of art magazines and journals to sit docilely alongside other terms in art schools (such as performance) that once threatened to dismantle the very assumptions of aesthetic judgment and its author functions [2]. Similarly, questions regarding spectatorship brought the politics of feminism, anti-racism, post-colonial struggle, class struggle and anti-fascism, and many other concerns into art schools and other art institutions. Artists and activists, often one in the same, formed strong alliances and articulated robust and influential projects for the emancipation of the oppressed. What art brought to these struggles was the recognition of the critical importance of practices of representation as sites for democratic struggle.

Among these projects of liberation, we find repeated calls and strategies for what Ranciиre (2007) terms “the emancipated spectator.” Anxious that the distance between the active performer and the passive spectator constitutes an oppressive inequality, the artist demands that the spectator participate in the action. This collaboration is proffered as a resolution to the conundrums of performativity, in that it circumvents the separation between producer and spectator resulting from the mediation of spectacle, art object or commodity. This is the great romance of collectivity. Yet, as Ranciиre observes, it is the artist who inevitably determines the terms of participation. Paradoxically, then, the project to have performer and spectator come together as a community of equals actually re-inscribes the very terms of inequality that constitute their difference. This inequality manifests the very class distinctions that often condition the artist and the others she hopes to emancipate.To proffer an alternate to the emancipation of the spectator, Ranciиre considers what art may learn from the concept of intellectual emancipation proposed by Joseph Jacotot, the 19th century pedagogue. Jacotot worked against the prevailing notion that education involved the unmediated transmission of knowledge from the mind of the master to the mind of the student. A century-and-a-half later the Brazilian pedagogue, Paulo Freire, would describe this as the “banking model” of education [3]. Jacotot suggested as an alternative, the equality of intelligences, which recognizes that teachers and students both have something to learn and something to teach. Equality is based more on procedure than content. The master does not “teach his knowledge to the students, [rather] he commands them to venture forth in the forest, to report what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to verify it, and so on” (2007: 275).Thus, the collaborative venture suggested by Ranciиre by way of Jacotot, is predicated on the differently productive labors of teachers and student, artists and spectators. It is only because of their different pathways through the forest, a metaphor of course for the world, including the world of art, that collaborative learning is possible on the part of both master and student.As we understand it, Ranciиre’s suggestion is that rather than working to change or redeem art through collectivity, collectivity is constituted in the encounters we have following our emergence from the spectacle of art. His emphasis is also not on what art has to teach but what artists might learn from those who teach, which is the shift between a kind of absorptive creativity and verification. Thus, in his distant stillness, his venture into the forest of the spectacle, the viewer is a poet. “He makes his poem with the poem that is performed in front of him.She participates in the performance if she is able to tell her own story about the story that is in front of her” (2007: 280). Participation is interpretation and creation, the weaving of what is witnessed, known and recollected into a new story of learning.Elsewhere, he describes this intertwining as, “a new fabric of common experience, a new scenery of the visible and a new dramaturgy of the intelligible.It creates new modes of individuality and new connections between those modes, new forms of perception of the given and new plots of temporality” (2010: 141). The stress on the “new” in these formulations is formidable—new stories, new individualities, new visions, new intelligence. Ranciиre’s conclusion that “words, stories and performances can help us change something in the world in which we live” (2007: 280) suggests that it is around the exchange of the new that art and politics are aligned. Is this proposition fundamentally different from the many earlier claims that art’s power is located in originality and experience, and that its politics consist of the shaking of certainty, the posing of questions?If we wish to articulate specific, collective political demands, must we leave art for activism? Refusing that dichotomy makes it possible to locate a political demand in the way in which we share, as spectators, our encounters with the world in which we live.

Ranciиre continues with the image of a journey into the forest as analogous to Jacotot’s notion of intellectual emancipation. Just as one makes his or her way through the forest, an emancipatory encounter with art entails processes of “observing, comparing one thing with another thing, one sign with one fact, one sign with another sign . . . ” (2007: 275).The repetition of the word “one” in this case echoes his many other representations of this process as a solitary, even subjective experience. Yet, what might we make of that part of Jacotot’s parable where, as a collective, they “report what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to verify it”? We are reminded of that other allegory of adventure in the forest found in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its account of inversions and disruptions, possibilities and new selves in the Forest of Arden. In the end, the new must face the discipline of the law. The potentially liberating announcement that “all the world’s a stage” issued by the melancholic artistocrat Jaques who insists on remaining outside of the world, gets tempered by the observation that death is the punctuation to every drama. Likewise, the play with genders and sexualities found in the forest is ultimately resolved by conforming to the legal terms of marriage. Neither the institutions of nobility nor marriage suffer any alteration. Our worlds are conditioned by the particularities of this time with its particular partitions of space. How do we change this world?

Ranciиre’s critique of projects to emancipate spectators is not a defense of passivity.Rather, his adjustment draws attention to the active characteristics of spectatorship. Within the context of the theater, the site Ranciиre selects for his discussion, this adjustment distinguishes clearly between active participation and the action of the performance itself. When the two are confused, when spectators are considered active only if they are in the action, radical interventions are limited to those based on presence, on how we are together rather than what happens when we are together. Yet, as described by Ranciиre, the spectator works beyond the present time of the performance, the actors or the venue. She situates the theater within the world of memory and desire constituted by experience. What remains to be determined is how that process is organized by and what it returns to the moment of the encounter between text, action and spectatorship in the performance?

Every theater has its politics. These politics exist in the narratives of the stage as well as in the transactions that take place between performers and actors. Cultural materialist and new historicist scholarship place these domains, the world of the play and the world of the theater, in a dialectical relationship. The result is that spectatorship is historicized. The reception of a performance cannot be read from the text of the performance alone but must be related to the other social text of the moments in which it was acted. Jaques’s metaphor, “All the world’s a stage,” assumes a chiasmic reflection, “A stage is all the world.” Indeed, the configuration of spectatorship in Elizabethan theater ran parallel to that of the social order.Different social classes literally had different vantage points on the action, each of which was configured around the privileged point-of-view of the monarch. Also, theater performances were but one of many spectacles of the state available to citizens.Just a few miles from the theater, for example, in the village of Tyburn, public executions shared many of the conventions of spectacle used in the theater. The embodiment of spectatorship within the physical and social architecture of the Elizabethan theater was balanced against the address of the actors as they worked to exploit the antagonisms between these points of view and associations to wring from their lines the poetry of innuendo and paradox. The performance was an orchestration of the different spectatorships present in that moment. Contemporary accounts suggest that what has become buried in the work of the spectator was more immediate and public in these events.

Ranciиre suggestion that there may be radical possibilities in theater’s encounter with pedagogy specifies a particular pedagogical orientation. He does not address the profound differences between theatrical conventions or acknowledge the archive of such encounters that already exists as a result of bringing art and pedagogy together. The radical aesthetics in these histories teach us how we might use this moment of crisis in both education and the arts to develop practices and build institutions that subvert the neoliberal appropriations of teaching, learning and poetry or, more ambitiously, world-making. In the 1960s, for example, a broad arena of practices that extended from militant inquiry to popular education, from the pedagogy of the oppressed to the theatre of the oppressed, from Third Cinema to participatory action research, and from the Freedom Schools to experiments in participatory democracy, perceived another work as possible in both art and education.

A number of extraordinary examples of the interplay between art, education and radical politics may be found in the anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles in the global south.Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed,” rooted in Paulo Freire’s pedagogical innovations, is a well-known example. Another is the work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o undertaken in the mid-1970s with the residents of Kamiruthu Village located in the forests in Kenya’s Limuru district.The residents of the village included workers from a Canadian-owned shoe factory, farm laborers from tea and coffee plantations, and those who worked in the service sector. Many had been members of the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau). The invitation for him to come and teach arose from the contradiction between the promise of the anti-colonial struggle and conditions post-independence. As recounted by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the project was an exercise in his emancipation from the role of bourgeois intellectual to participant in the post-colonial struggle: “the process … was one of continuous learning. Learning of our history. Learning of what obtains in factories.Learning of what goes on in farms and plantations. Learning our language, for the peasants were essentially the guardians of the language through years of use.And learning anew the elements of form of the African Theatre” (45). The shift in language from English to Gĩkũyũ amounted to an “epistemological break” for him and his collaborators and established the possibility for performers and spectators in the village to engage in discussions about the proletarisation of the peasantry in the area.Under these conditions, artistic considerations are not limited to the solitary process of “observing, comparing one thing with another thing, one sign with one fact, one sign with another sign.” This theater inhabits its world quite differently. To begin with, the performances function as part of a much longer encounter between performers and spectators, affording opportunities for each to share what it is that they have seen and heard. Thus, in addition to an encounter between artist and publics, a radical aesthetic attends to the choreography of reception. In these scenes spectators encounter each other and, dialogically, inhabit shared processes of reflection, analysis and action.

Over the past few years we have met many students, teachers and curators who claim collectivity and pedagogy as critical alternatives to mainstream practices. Despite those aspirations, there is the risk that both will simply function like an art medium. They will become sites for an obsessive scramble for the new. Even under the rubric of “social practice”, participation has become a venue for the production of authorships or art practices that can circulate within the conventional economies of the art world without radical consequence. The relational is easily affirmed as scored, scripted, and staged by the artist and the status quo is preserved. Sure, we can treat these spectacles of participation as yet another opportunity for the kinds of processes Ranciиre outlines, fashioning our stories from what we see of other’s lives. If we do not address our conditions of production, however, we should not be surprised that we constantly find ourselves returning to the same conundrum, which is to say, the problem of the relationship between artist and spectator [4].The problem is not the presence or absence of collectivity or relational practices. Rather, it is a question of what is at stake in that relation. Without clarifying what it is exactly that binds us in our relation, collectivity is easily repurposed for use by the status quo. Within the global north, at least, this is a status quo that believes that the entrepreneur, and not brutal monopoly, acts as the primary motor of capitalism. The artist as producer is happily accommodated as an entrepreneur and the stake in this accommodation justifies the very neoliberal revisions that are advancing within both the educational sphere and the art world. Liberal economics holds that the entrepreneur is the subject of economic competition, the creative force of capitalism. From this belief, the state claims to organize itself around the interests of the small-business owner [5]. Artists are welcome to participate in this role of small-business owners, the so-called “engines of the economy.” The various apparatus of the state convince workers that their precarity makes them dependent upon the health of the entrepreneurs. To accommodate innovations by the entrepreneurial class, workers are encouraged to learn new skills, which is the primary role assigned to the education system. Educators, in turn, are required to correlate every aspect of their curriculum with the needs of the labor market. This is a pedagogy of the market. Thus, when the neoliberal state touts the artist as an entrepreneurial innovator, they are hailing the very political subject that aligns contemporary politics under capitalism. The entrepreneur plays the part of the ideological hero in capitalism. However, it is in fact the logic of accumulation that composes the whole mise-en-scиne. Given these conditions, it is hard not to wonder at what point collectivity will be fully subsumed by the demand for (start-up) companies. As noted earlier, we can no longer assume a direct link between radical politics and working collectively. We were taught this lesson in the 1990s if we care to remember, when the early rush of new technology art co-operatives quickly cashed in their claims of a radical new creative culture to form small businesses. Echoes of this betrayal may perhaps be found in the correlation between the “over-production” of young artists with advanced degrees and the respectability of collectivity. As art school graduates expand the ranks of unemployed youth, so-called new practices in collectivity and pedagogy substitute self-sufficiency for any entitlement to public services. This is not to say that one resolves the problematic of collectivity by turning to “the political” or, by doing “political critique.” It is nothing less than ironic that when the political appears in art discourse it often signifies a considerable distance separating the art practitioner from the organization of political movements in their tumultuous collectivity. For this reason, the unsettled relationship between the two fields of practice underscores the problematic itself and, as such, a theme to be investigated rather than an argument to be settled. How one goes about such an investigation would benefit from a discipline of deliberate recounting of experience, of sharing what was heard and seen or thought to be heard or seen in the dense forests of art and political activity.

Ultra-red members Robert Sember (New York) and Dont Rhine (Los Angeles) prepared this text in consultation with other members of Ultra-red.Ultra-red (founded 1994) is an art collaboration consisting of various members who are also involved in activist movements. The group sets up exchanges between art and political organizing around constituencies involved in migrant rights, the AIDS crisis, fair housing, and anti-racism. Their work consists mainly of sound art, presented in workshops, installations, broadcasts, performances, and via their online record label Public Record.


Bingham, C. and Biesta, G. (2010) Jacques Ranciиre: Education, Truth, Emancipation. London: Continuum Books.Bourriaud, N. (1998) Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presse du Reel.Foster, J.B., McChesney, R.W. and Jonna, R.J. (2011) “Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-First Century Capitalism.” Monthly Review 62, no. 11 (April 2011): 1 – 39.

Freire, P. (2007[1968]) Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (translated by Myra Bergman Ramos). New York: Continuum Press.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986) “The Language of African Theatre.” Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Oxford: Heinemann Educational, 34-62.

Ranciиre, J. (2007) “The Emancipated Spectator.” Artforum, 273-280.Ranciиre, J. (2010) “The Paradoxes of Political Art.” Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (edited and translated by Steven Corcoran). London: Continuum Books, 134-151.


1. The unabashed instrumentalizing of artists in the service of politics and business is clearly apparent in this description of “The Creative Challenge,” one of the project highlighted on the Big Society website:

The project aims to involve Britain’s finest creative minds, from the arts, advertising, design, music, film and digital to help people tell their Big Society stories. We think that the best way to get people excited and involved in the Big Society is to help the countless amazing people and communities around the UK tell their own stories, rather than publicise it through a big marketing campaign.  To do that, we wanted to involve Britain’s finest creative minds, from the arts, advertising, design, music, film and digital. We started by bringing together an amazing group of people to think about how we do that in practice. We’re going to be developing some of the ideas that emerged from the session into what we’re calling ‘creative ventures’.  We’d like to connect those ideas to sources of funding, where we can see benefit to both businesses and the ventures in doing so. It’s a great opportunity to build the Business society.  We really hope that those ventures will go a long way to building a stronger, more creative big society. (accessed May 22, 2011)

2. The cannon on relationality to which students are exposed — most likely texts by Nicolas Bourriaud, Claire Bishop or Grant Kester—mostly preserves or, rather, conserves, the stability of the positions of the artist and the audience. Writing in the 1990s amidst the early boom of artist entrepreneurship, Bourriaud talks about the convivial relation between audience members as mediated by the artist-authored object. By the time of the years of George Bush and Tony Blair, Bishop introduces the slightest adjustment by replacing conviviality with antagonism. Both writers leave intact a linear trajectory that begins with the artist and ends with (and, among) the audience. In other words, there is never any danger of a reversed flow along the same channel, from audience to artist. One of the most striking instances of this conserving of the status quo appears in Bourriaud’s collection of exhibition essays, Relational Aesthetics. In the first essay, titled “Relational Form”, Bourriaud claims to attribute relational aesthetics to Althusser’s notion of Aleatory Materialism, a formulation that appears in the posthumously published text, “The Underground Current of the Philosophy of the Encounter.” The encounter of interest for Althusser is that political conjunction around an investment or demand that endures to constitute a movement. Some might call this political organizing. Bourriaud transforms the encounter into an open field without stakes and purged of investments. He outlines a series of relational forms that serve as a neutral field on which the desires of the artist has the potential to meet those of the public. For Althusser, of course, the concept of the encounter had a very determined stake. Namely, it served as a final attempt on his part to explain a materialism for a communist movement soon to slip into the historical irrelevance of Eurocommunism and Democratic Socialism.

3. We are by no means the first to comment on the similarity between the notion of “intellectual emancipation” and the “banking model” of education. We have noted with some curiosity, however, the efforts to which commentators like Bingham and Biesta (2010) have gone to distinguish between the terms of emancipation proposed by Ranciere and Freire respectively. Their claim is that Freire proposed a psychological emancipation of the pupil whereas Ranciere’s emancipation is political. It is an interesting dichotomy that even Ranciere’s writings on pedagogy resist. In the process of making this argument Bingham and Biesta repeat the very de-politicizing of Freire that made his work palatable in North America. This de-politicizing is accomplished, in part, by de-historicizing Freire’s work.Freire was writing at the point when many anti-colonial and national struggles in the global south had shifted to wrestling with the ideological conditions of development. The phrase, “banking model” underscores the significance of discussions regarding the terms by which social and economic evaluations of education and other social institutions would be determined. These discussions were connected to bass organizing across the continent around the issues of the poor, exemplified in movements informed by liberation theology, which drew clear lines of antagonism between the struggles of the poor and the development agendas of governments sympathetic too or held hostage by the U.S. its European partners. At the very least, Freire deserves recognition for placing the so-called “psychological” emancipation in a dialectical relation with political projects of emancipation Much like the refusal to engage with the resonances between Ranciere and Althusser’s work as a result of Ranciere’s early critique of early Althusser, so we stand to lose many significant lessons from a sincere engagement between the work of Freire and Ranciere.

4. The process by which the art work mediates the encounters between spectators is central to Freire’s procedure of “thematic investigation.” The political poetics of this mediation as a form of world-making carries through the political possibilities of art identified by Ranciere. In contract to Ranciere’s emphasis on the solitary spectators wandering through the play of ideas produced from the meeting of spectacle and memory, Freire focuses on the encounter between spectators. At every point in the four stages of co-investigation outlined by Freire, the investigatory team (an interdisciplinary collective including the full-participation of members of the very population whose practices are being investigated) return the analysis to the collective, not to inform the population what they think (or, worse, what they should think), but to present lived contractions in object form. Riddled with irresolution and discursive complexity, the object ignites further problematics generative of further reflection and the refinement of terms. Thus, the object of the investigation is not what the population thinks but the very mechanisms of thought. This presents knowledge at the level of dialogical epistemology rather than as some ontological idealist category. If the dialogic becomes a condition of both the form and the content of the investigation, then an analysis is not the function of producing a single author but is the process by which a collective constitutes itself. The discursive site of the investigation shifts from a given to an effect of the investigation.

5. Liberal bourgeois economics holds that the entrepreneur is the creative force of capital and the subject of economic competition. Thus, bourgeois economics will claim to organize the entire state apparatus around the interests of the small-business owner. Liberal politicians on both the left and the right argue that current high rates of unemployment will only be solved by growth in small businesses. To underscore the dependency of workers on small businesses, this rhetoric is accompanied by aggressive attacks on organized labor, particularly public sector workers, and the poor, immigrant working class. As discussed by Foster, J.B., McChesney, R.W. and Jonna, R.J. (2011), however, competition is a fiction and the small entrepreneur is a capitalist fantasy, like a superhero the saves the day only in comic books and Hollywood movies produced by a handful of global media conglomerates. The state, in fact, is organized around and by monopoly. Here monopoly means simply the power of a few corporate giants to control the state apparatus.