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What Ever Happened to Cultural Democracy?

Sophie Hope

I would like to present the politics of connectivity as a form of cultural democracy. After briefly introducing the theoretical framework for the presentation, myself and five characters, played by volunteers from the audience, will have a discussion using a script of an imaginary conversation I have written based on quotes and interpretations of these characters’ writings.

In 1979, Audrey Lorde wrote “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. She was addressing the Second Sex Conference in New York (September 29, 1979) and in accusing the feminist movement of racism she called for the necessity of the interdependency of difference within the theory and practice of the movement. By recognising differences, refusing to ignore them and working with others excluded from the master’s house, women would be able to gain strength and effect change. Change, she argued, must come from the recognition of those differences and the interdependency of those differences, rather than any affiliation or reliance on the ‘master’s house’ for support. By continuing to use the tools of patriarchy, she stated, this will only strengthen the house, keep the excluded out while letting the few in who are brandishing those tools but it will never lead to the dismantling of the house itself in order to effect real change.

Lorde’s words are at the heart of the dilemma of many attempts to effect change: to what extent do you collaborate with ‘the enemy’ or create an alternative from the position of ‘outside’? Lorde took the position that there was an ‘outside’ to fight from. While this may have been the case in the 1970s, by the 1990s Thatcher’s slogan, ‘there is no alternative’ seems to have succeeded in reducing the notion of an outside. One could argue that ‘resistance’ is now either considered to be an act of terrorism or a subversive advertising campaign. Was there still a conceptual ‘outside’ to work from by the 1990s? Is dismantling the master’s house still considered an option? Or are we too occupied with the DIY and interior decoration?

For me, cultural democracy is a way of operating that reflects this ongoing dilemma and yet it is not a term that is often used in current discourse. I first came across the term in the Cultural Policy Collective’s pamphlet, ‘Beyond Social Inclusion. Towards Cultural Democracy’ (2004). Earlier references to cultural democracy can be found in Jean Battersby’s report, ‘The Arts Council Phenomenon’ (1981) ; Owen Kelly’s ‘Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels’ (1984) and ‘Culture and Democracy. The Manifesto’ by Another Standard (1986).

I understand cultural democracy as realising the right for everyone to be critical and for everyone to have the right to exercise that criticality as a form of political agency. If we take as an underlying assumption that art involves a process of self-reflection and critical inquiry, then cultural democracy is the extension of that to every person. This then leaves the question as to the role of the artist – a profession, with qualifications, daily rates and contractual obligations. How does the notion of the professional artist fit with cultural democracy or is this a contradiction in terms?

An example of this contradiction can be seen in the artists group, Friends of the Arts Council Operative (FACOP) which was set up in the late 1960s to challenge the Arts Council’s undemocratic and hierarchical approach to funding. During one of the group’s meetings, Gustav Metzger pointed out the discrepancies between the different artists in the group and offered a slogan which I think is very helpful in understanding cultural democracy. I quote Metzger:

“An objective understanding of the conflicts engendered between those artists attempting to change society, and others concerned with personal economic survival and tied to the numerous hang-ups of the art world, is basic to the functioning of groupings such as FACOP. Unless such an objectivity is established, the compromise and time wasting will become intolerable – precluding results in terms of useful social change. Yes: the slogan is ARTISTS AGAINST ARTISTS” (Metzger cited in FACOP 1969b, p.5).

In order to understand the roots of cultural democracy and the issues that have arisen through a commissioning culture, I have been developing some writing using the format of a house. Taking Lorde’s analogy, I have morphed the ‘master’s house’ into an ‘eternal squat’. An eternal squat is a contradiction in terms: While I may be getting comfortable in the squat, finding ways to pay the overheads, do the up keep and DIY, I am constantly ready to move on or be evicted. The house is a metaphor for the relationship between my ideals and survival. I have a love hate relationship with the house. It is a contradictory site that can be sociable and hostile, comfortable and precarious.

I would like now to share a fragment of that writing with you. I am hosting a dinner in the eternal squat with five critical friends who have tested, supported and helped to renegotiate my art practice as research. This section records some of the conversations at the dinner table, although I am still getting to know my friends and so this conversation will evolve and be re-edited as my research develops. The interior of the house is where ideologies and practicalities come together over the dinner table and is a site where we can re-position ourselves in relation to the arguments and propositions being made around us. The dinner table is where theory and practice collide through talking, eating and drinking.

INTRODUCE YOURSELF (your own name and occupation)
I am playing the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire (1921-1997). I published my first book, ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’ in 1967 followed by ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in 1968. I am here because of my work on the relationship between student and teacher, which might be useful in order to reflect on the artist and participant relationship.

INTRODUCE YOURSELF (your own name and occupation)
Today I am Trinh T. Minh-ha (born 1952), a feminist filmmaker and post-colonial theorist whose films combine theory, narrative, activism and poetry. I am here today because of the work I have done to problematise the relationship between researcher and subject, issues of translation and the role of narrative, poetry and fictions in re-thinking cultural politics and theories.

INTRODUCE YOURSELF (your own name and occupation)
I am now Ivan Illich (1926-2002), an Austrian born philosopher who developed a critique of institutions of health and education in my publications ‘Deschooling Society’ (1971) and ‘Tools for Conviviality’ (1973). I think Sophie has invited me because of the relevance of my writings on conviviality to rethinking the possibilities of cultural democracy.

INTRODUCE YOURSELF (your own name and occupation)
I am playing the role of Jacques Ranciere (born 1940), a post-Marxist theorist who has written extensively on the relationship between politics and aesthetics. I hope my writings on the ‘emancipated spectator’ and the distribution of the sensible might help us to understand the tensions between the impulse to effect change whilst clinging on to critical integrity. I understand my writings have been helpful to Sophie in furthering her awareness of cultural democracy as a practice of working with the tensions between political ‘commitment’ and ‘useless’ performativity.

I am Sheila Rowbotham (born 1943), a British socialist feminist who has worked as a campaigner, theorist and teacher. I have written on the differences and contradictions among the socialist, left wing movements and the issues of communication and organisation within the various campaigns. In ‘Beyond the Fragments’ (1979), for example, I drew attention to the tensions between acknowledging the individual’s motivation for justice and the need to think beyond that and to unite and work together. I try and advocate for change through grass-roots activism and a clear, accessible and hands-on approach to change relating to the everyday in a way that theorises the movement but does not make it inaccessible or exclusive. While Sophie is far too young to have read my books when they came out first time round, I hope they still hold some relevance in understanding what cultural democracy means today.

My guests have all arrived, the wine is flowing and we are already stuck into Jacques’ homemade soup he brought along. Sat around a large wooden table, our faces lit by candlelight, the conversation is fast and furious. There are arguments and agreements all running parallel at different speeds. The smell of fresh bread still lingers but cigarette smoke is beginning to fill the room. The curtains are closed as a nod to privacy. On the wall there is a poster that was here when I arrived. Covering up cracks in the plaster it shows three Roman statues embracing and over them some text reads: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”

19:30 We are sat around the table in the kitchen warming up the soup that Jacques has brought. The conversation turns to our motivations and methods.

PAULO FRIERE: “Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ or submerged in the ‘culture of silence’ he may be, is capable of looking critically at his world in a dialogical encounter with others” (Freire 1972, p.12).

SOPHIE: Do we believe we are living through a ‘culture of silence’ today? Has this become such a normalised phenomenon that it is a silence we do not recognise? A dialogical encounter connects to praxis intervention and an awakening from an oppressed situation and do something about it. But you’ve got to agree there is a state of oppression or alienation in the first place, surely. Is it not patronising to assume some people need ‘waking up’? It implies they’re asleep in blissful ignorance until then, and if so, they may be happier that way!

PAULO FREIRE: There has to be an acknowledgment of the situation of oppression, it cannot be denied. Injustices must be recognised and mechanisms must be found for addressing our lost humanity (ibid, p.20). By not admitting these realities we are destined to skirt around the issues, making excuses for them.

SOPHIE: In your essay ‘Problems and Transformations in Critical Art’, Jacques, you also describe the intention of critical art as raising consciousness of the “mechanisms of domination in order to turn the spectator into a conscious agent in the transformation of the world” (Ranciere in Bishop 2004, p.83).

JACQUE RANCIERE: Yes, but I have a problem with the “vicious circle of critical art” (ibid, p.83) that implies every act of resistance leads to a strengthening of the dominant oppressors. Meanings are transmitted by ‘ruptures’, not just spectacles that “lead to an ‘awareness’ of the state of the world” (Ranciere 2006, p.63). Crucially, ‘suitable political art’ presents tensions between the readability of the work as political (which threatens the artistic quality of the work) and the maintenance of the uncanny (which threatens to destroy all political meaning). Critical art needs to “negotiate the tension that pushes art towards life…It’s this negotiation between the forms of art and those of non-art that permits the formation of combinations of elements capable of speaking twice: from their readability and from their unreadability” (ibid, p.84).

TRINH T. MINH-HA: That is what I am trying to do in my work, create a layered play between political discourse and poetical language (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1999, p.219).

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: I was experiencing a similar false dichotomy in the late 1960s between different modes of organising feminism and socialism, rather I wanted to think about a feminist socialism, in other words, organising ourselves in a non-hierarchical, non-centralised way. This may seem obvious now, but at the time it was a real nightmare, both because of the inability of the feminist movement to articulate itself in a way that would be recognised and resistance from some on the Left to feminism as a middle class pursuit. “The words we use seek an openness and an honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite of most left language, which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct and covering itself with a determined objectivity…. It is very important to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Nobody knows, we need to find out’, without being dismissed as stupid” (Rowbotham 1979, p.40).

20:15 I load the fire with more logs and open another few bottles. We are trying to work out the role or position of the artist in all of this.

SOPHIE: Who has the job of activating spectators and these dialogical encounters? Is it the job of artists?

TRINH T. MINH-HA: I try to understand my position as talking nearby the voices presented in my films instead of talking about (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1999, p.218).

PAOLO FREIRE: I agree, the role of the radical is not to ‘liberate’ but rather a fight alongside. “A peasant can facilitate this process for his neighbour more effectively that a ‘teacher’ brought in from outside” (Freire 1972, p.12).

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: If we’re not careful, we become pre-occupied with liberating ourselves, inward looking and self-centered and forget why we started this ‘struggle’ in the first place. I agree there is something in the notion that change has to start within us, but “there is a problem inherent in the slogan ‘the personal is political’ for it tends to imply that all individual problems can find a short-term solution. Thus a politics which asserted subjectivity could ironically become a means of reducing human beings to the functions they perform for capital” (Rowbotham 1979, p.31).

SOPHIE: And this could lead to a cycle of oppression where the oppressed, in the process of de-alienation, become the oppressors.

PAULO FREIRE: Ah, but it is the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors (ibid, p.21).

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: It was the New Left and Libertarian Marxists in the 1960s, through the work of the tenants’ and anti-racist groups like the London Free School and Notting Hill Community Workshop in ’66 that were enacting a political movement of socialism through local grass-roots community action. It wasn’t about plotting the revolution in a secret base in some centralised, ritualized way.

21:10 SHEILA and Jacques have gone to get more supplies whilst the rest of us tackle issues of solidarity and conviviality in a world full of pseudo-participation.

SOPHIE: Artists are not necessarily oppressed but they may be trying to defend the oppressed, which might lead to ‘false generosity’ (Freire 1972, p.21). Now we have whole industries of ‘generosity’, which make a living out of being charitable.

PAULO FREIRE: But this is forever a false generosity, it is true only in the fight to reveal and destroy the causes of such false acts. This fight must come from the oppressed themselves and find a mechanism for becoming independent and no longer dependent on the oppressors.

SOPHIE: New Labour have learnt from Thatcher the art of false generosity and have become masters in it. Artists are the prodigies of this regime and are finding it harder to recognise their solidarity with the oppressed. The route to non-oppression is still to become the oppressor; alternatives have not really materialised. The aim is still to become the boss or succeed in the competition for funding, it seems we have forgotten the underlying struggle and the politics of our actions. Most people would not admit to being oppressed or to oppressing; to suggest such as thing is brushed aside as patronising, romantic, nostalgic or outdated. I still think we’re in a situation where the oppressed aspire to have what the oppressors have, I can’t see a way out of that.

PAULO FREIRE: “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated” (ibid, p.41). “The presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation but committed involvement” (ibid, p.44)

SOPHIE: Exactly, and yet all around you see the tokenistic consultation of communities in areas of so-called regeneration. Pseudo-participation is the norm. The failure of cultural democracy and/or critical pedagogy is revealed in the fact that now the norm is for a commissioning culture which perpetuates the artist-participant divide and relies on it in order to maintain and professionalise the industry.

IVAN ILLICH: Let me interject here if I may. When I wrote ‘Tools for Conviviality’ in 1973 I was really inspired by this notion of convivial society where the tools of production are used by “politically interrelated individuals rather than managers”, it would be a society of responsibility limited by tools. “Progress should mean growing competence in self-care rather than growing dependence [on the institution of health care]” (Illich 1973, p.35). While conviviality defends liberty and is not prescriptive or compulsory, not everyone would comply with the criteria. Some “would choose greater affluence at the cost of some restrictions on creativity” (ibid, p.23)

SOPHIE: So to live convivially is to live self-sustainably.

IVAN ILLICH: Why yes. It seems we also agree on the issue of ownership. This squat for example is a rebuff to ownership. We collectively occupy this room now; tomorrow, someone else will make use of it. This is a convivial space and we are the producers of it at this moment in time. While we consume this food and drink we are also involved in the production of it by making, bringing and sharing the ingredients. Conviviality means no consumers and the impossibility of ownership (and control) of the tools of conviviality (p.25). Surely this is something we should aim for?

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: Yes, but to get there, “I think we need to clarify the different kinds of resistance we are engaged in as feminists and develop a more strategic sense of opposition and alliance and new combinations of persona and public forms depending on the nature of the political issue” (Rowbotham 1979, p.45).

21:55 We’re all sat around the table again. Jacques is frantically drawing diagrams on the paper napkin in front of him to illustrate his points as we discuss the tension between the artist and audience, actor and spectator or teacher and student.

JACQUES RANCIERE: In my essay, ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ (2007, based on a lecture given in 2004), I refer to the ‘paradox of the spectator’ and the assumption that ‘spectating’ is a passive and therefore bad thing as it does not embrace critical knowledge. I refer to my previous text, ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’ (trans. 1991) which revisited the theory of Joseph Jacotot, who in the beginning of the nineteenth century suggested that, based on the ‘equality of intelligences’, “an ignorant person could teach another ignorant person what he did not know himself”.

SOPHIE: This throws into doubt the assumed benefits of the master imparting knowledge to the ignorant students, something all of us around this table have been trying to problematise. The passive ‘spectator’ has supposedly been challenged by forms of theatre such as Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, Brecht’s epic theatre, Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. The boundaries between actors and audiences were attempting to be blurred or exchanged in a move to activate audiences into being participants in a collective performance. It was a case of both becoming more distant (gaining critical distance) and losing any distance between actor and audience.

JACQUES RANCIERE: I believe we must question the underlying basis of these assumptions. With Brecht, audiences are made to realise the “social situation on which theatre itself rests, prompting the audience to act in consequence” (Ranciere 2007, p.4) or with Artaud invite the audience to ‘abandon the position of spectator’ altogether. In both cases, however, the theatre is a ‘self-suppressing mediation’ (ibid). By attempting to reduce the gap between knowledge and ignorance (actor/spectator), you continually have to re-instate that status of knowledgeable and ignorant subjects – you are forever destined to reinstate the unequal hierarchy that you constantly try to redress. The difference between spectator and actor is made explicit and it is that difference (and distance) through which strength and change can occur.

SOPHIE: This challenges the idea of solidarity – the teacher / artist / actor must acknowledge their difference to the audience in order to effect change.

JACQUES RANCIERE: Emancipated spectators are active interpreters, translators and storytellers but are not always understood or acknowledged as so.

TRINH T. MINH-HA: “in both [my] filmic and written works, the attempt is to reflect on the tools and the relations of production that define us, whether as a filmmaker or artist. By doing so, what I hope for is to provide myself and others with tools not only to beat the master at his own game, but also to transform the terms of our consciousness” (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1999, p.157).

JACQUE RANCIERE: The ‘ignorant schoolmaster’, for example, ignores inequality but relies on a distance: “The same thing that links them must also separate them” (ibid, p.6) “The distance that the ‘ignorant’ person has to cover is not the gap between ignorance and the knowledge of this master; it is the distance between what he already knows and what he still doesn’t know but can learn by the same process” (ibid, p.5). “The student learns something as an effect of his master’s mastery. But he does not learn his master’s knowledge” (p.6). It’s not about turning the ignorant person into the master of his masters.

TRINH T. MINH-HA: I am using what I call ‘subjective perceptions of fragmentation’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1992, p.154). I cannot remove myself from the frame. Julia Kristeva writes that in poetical language lies the possibility of revolution. “For me, the political responsibility here is to offer meaning in such a way that each reader, going through the same statements and the same text, would find for herself (or himself) to carry on the fight in her (or his) own terms.” The process is opened up and transformation comes through the viewer’s own interpretation. This of course poses a risk – the ‘tool’ can be appropriated and used against me in a way I did not intend, but it is a risk I am willing to take (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1999, p.213).

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: And I think if we’re still thinking of a movement towards socialism one of the problems has been the difficulty in communicating what it means and its exclusive way it has been organised. Is there a way debates on socialism can be re-opened through a feminist approach based on self-critique, questioning and networked support structures?

SOPHIE: We have to acknowledge our own transformation in the process, It’s not like we’re fixed and everything moves around us. It’s important for us to reflect on the tools we are using. I mean are we getting too comfortable here in this squat? Some of us are knocking from the outside, some are surreptitiously removing foundations, others are happy to keep up the DIY and even find work to pay the utility bills so we can stay a little longer. Who are the masters or oppressors we are opposing and are they not within each of us in this room?

TRINH T. MINH-HA: “In many ways, I think it is women of colour who are often best placed to engage and also disengage with master discourses, since our entry into the ‘master’s house’ continues to be a forced entry rather than a polite invitation’” (p.155).

22:45 The fish pie is bubbling away in the oven while we continue to try and put the world to rights. This time, the discussion turns to the dilemma of commissioning art to alleviate oppression.

SOPHIE: Commissioning art to effect social change can be connected to the wish to ‘empower’, ‘give voice’ and ‘socially include’. This can be linked to critical pedagogy but the criticality of such practices has become sanctioned, expected, commissioned and thus rendered depoliticised and passive. A central concern is how acts of radical/critical pedagogy lead to re-enforcing the structures we aim to change. The artist is praised and rewarded for her good work but nothing has necessarily changed on the ground. The oppressed are used as the subjects in the artists’ performance of liberation.

PAULO FREIRE: And if the oppressors dare take on the mantle of critical pedagogy, it would be with the arrogance that they have something to impart to the poor. “It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education” (Freire 1972, p.30).

SOPHIE: And yet this is exactly what is happening with current commissioning of critical art and pedagogical projects! Here, more soup?

PAULO FREIRE: No thanks, lovely though it is, I’m getting full already, no offence, Jacques. Let me explain what I mean by pedagogy of the oppressed. Firstly, it is for the oppressed to reveal the situation of oppression and through their praxis, commit to its abolition. Only then, once transformation is successful does such pedagogy become a process of liberation for all (oppressors included) (ibid, p.31). It is not as if the oppressors are the liberated ones. If people want to work with the oppressed they have to be trusted by and trust the oppressed, otherwise there is just no point.

23:35 The debates around the table are getting increasingly heated as we discuss the relevance of resistance or collaboration and ambiguity as a tactic. Trinh and Ivan joke that we should arm wrestle to decide whether to choose to do the DIY or just completely demolish the squat we are sitting comfortably in.

SOPHIE: What about engaging and disengaging with the power structures; can we do both? This seems to tie into the idea of wanting at times to find clarity through communication and negotiation with the ‘master’s house’ and at others a rejection of these systems through resistance to participation as a way of reclaiming autonomy.

IVAN ILLICH: “The principle source of injustice in our epoch is political approval for the existence of tools that by their very nature restrict to a very few the liberty to use them in an autonomous way" (ibid, p.43). That is why I believe compulsory schooling should be abolished, as it is a system of exclusion that privileges those who adhere to it. The rest are doomed to fail in a society that makes school necessary. There is an assumption that more not less education is needed. “The corruption of the balance of learning makes people into puppets of their tools” (ibid). I am making a call for informal, self-initiated, self-chosen learning. People have to voluntarily choose their own tools – they cannot become compulsory or enforced.

JACQUES RANCIERE: Pass the cheese will you? Merci. In my book, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ (2004), I explore how art is predicated on the contradiction between autonomy and heteronomy and how the aesthetic is the ability to think contradiction Critical art is that “which plays on the union and tension of different aesthetic politics”, (p.85). I am concerned with the general ethical turn in politics and philosophy. Why should art be about emancipation (and awakening from the alienating effects of capitalism)? Instead I would argue it is the inevitable contradiction of wanting political clarity and adopting the uncanny as a tactic to maintain some critical distance within the process of attempting this that is significant.

SOPHIE: I’d like to relate this to the contract of the art commission. For me it is important to understand that contract as a site of subversion and a starting point or referral point to reveal the contradictions in the commissioning process in relation to the missed opportunity of cultural democracy. How can the commission incorporate appearances of usefulness and futility; finding useful ways of being useless and vice versa. How can we in this squat give off the appearance of both DIY and demolition?

SHEILA ROWBOTHAM: Why not put up some scaffolding and leave it there for the sake of it? By erecting scaffolding anything could be happening – it looks like it’s in a constant state of anticipated DIY and/or demolition, depending on how you look at it – it will buy you some time too. I know some guys who can do it for you for hardly any money. It’ll keep people guessing as to your state of affairs – a constant state of ambiguity that allows others to make up their own minds whilst letting you get on with it!


There is banging at the door and the room falls silent. People start piling into the house unannounced. This is a squat after all, and one renowned for its parties. They bring news from the outside world, words of warning, encouragement and despair. They are loud and boisterous but while I am annoyed that they have disturbed a perfectly cozy evening with my friends, I am glad to see our gatecrashers. I am eager to hear what stories they will tell. The house continues to rock to the rhythm of the discussions until dawn. Every so often there are outbreaks of screams and groans above the hum of voices and music. The neighbours continue to ignore us as they turn up the volume of their TVs.

During the Networked Cultures: Politics of Connectivity session as part of Intersections, Association of Art Historians Conference on 4 April 2009, Alex Hodby played Paulo Friere; Lee Rodney played Jacques Ranciere, Helge Mooshammer played Ivan Illich, Rachel Ashcroft played Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Fanthome played Trinh T. Minh-ha.



+ Ana Dzokic and Marc Neelen
+ Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri
+ atelier d'architecture autogérée (aaa)
+ Asya Filippova
+ Sophie Hope and Sarah Carrington
+ Branca Curcic
+ Christoph Schaefer
+ Campement Urbain
+ Claudia Zanfi
+ Despoina Sevasti and Poka-Yio
+ Erden Kosova
+ Helmut Batista


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