Audio, Audition, Audience

Janna Graham and Dont Rhine
Ultra-red, Material Witness Seminar, Vermont College of Fine Art, Montpelier, February 6, 2007.

Ultra-red, Material Witness Seminar, Vermont College of Fine Art, Montpelier, February 6, 2007.

On February 15, 2003, the world witnessed the largest global protest in human history. With the US corporate media declaring the inevitability of war in Iraq, an estimated one million people overwhelmed the avenues of New York and San Francisco. In Los Angeles, a procession of 500,000 war resisters stretched from Hollywood and Vine to Sunset and La Brea. When confronted with public opposition on every continent, the President of the United States responded; “I don’t listen to focus groups.” Bush’s flippant dismissal of millions of people refusing the war’s inevitability prompted a shift in the very conditions of articulating dissent. On the one hand, representation (as in representative politics) received another blow from an administration whose hold on office had been secured by wholly unrepresentative means. On the other hand, the assembly of people to express a contrary position became in a formal sense a dissident act.In an almost direct counter to Bush’s cynicism, numerous artists have made conversations their medium. Determined to break the privatization of anger, dialogue-based art approaches as formal concerns the curation, arrangement, facilitation, and documentation of public discussions. With their access to cultural institutions and the means of publicity, artists have embraced the convocation as protest art.

After attending a good number of the public events around the MOCA exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution—many of them conversations organized by artists—I have found myself asking questions. Who are the audiences for this art of conversation? If the audience provides a frame and, as we know from our art history of post-modernism, the frame constitutes the art object’s meaning, then wouldn’t the organization of the audience seem a fairly crucial component in the production of these discussions?

These questions inspired an email exchange between curator and arts educator Janna Graham and myself. As members of the sound art collective Ultrared, both Janna and I have organized and listened to a number of conversation-based art events.1 Drawing on our shared interests in participatory actionresearch, popular education, social theory and political philosophy, Janna and I reflected on our experiences organizing conversations. The following record of our conversation is a preliminary contribution to a theory on the material of audience.
—Dont Rhine

From: Dont Rhine
To: Janna Graham
Date: Apr 29, 2007 1:55 PM 

As I have attempted to formulate in my mind just how it is that we have come to understand audiences as material, a particular thought seems to throw up warning signs in this regard. As we both know, the word “audience” suggests a different kind of subject than the one who, in relation to an exhibition, we might call a viewer or a spectator. The audience is not that person.

If we follow the etymology of the word, audience derives from the present participle of the word meaning “to hear.” The audience is that subject caught in the act of hearing. From the word audience we get derivations like auditor, a hearer; audit, a hearing; and the Ecclesiastical Exaudi, “Hear, O hear!”—an appeal for a merciful ear. Add the prefix ob-, meaning toward, and we orient the audience. In other words, obedience (whose etymological means “to hear,” as in, “to pay attention to”) signifies the audience bowed toward hearing. In the space of the museum, the audience (the not-a-viewer) does not merely ambulate through the exhibition. The audience is bowed subject-like to the exhibition. Similarly, the audience takes in a performance in a pose of subjection.

It would be reassuring to assert the collective connotations within the word audience, versus the individuated spectator or viewer. However, collectivity cannot be found in the actual etymology of the word. While its status as active does suggest where we might go with this subject who is not a viewer, I think we still have to contend with this problem of orientation. Once the audience turns its attention (itself rooted in servitude), it is turned toward subjection. This voluntary act is, in fact, an act of obedience.

How do we as artists issue a call—“Hear, O hear!”—that does not at the same time subjugate in the very process of hailing an audience? If we think of our practice within the framework of movements oriented towards liberation, then we contend with the very problem cautioned by Paulo Freire: How might our cultural actions refrain from the same mechanisms of domination from which we hope to produce emancipation?2

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

From: Janna Graham
To: Dont Rhine
Date: May 10, 2007 4:00 PM

The etymology of the term “audience” does not leave much room to maneuver, it’s true. It also refers to a seating with royalty!

But “audience” does not only speak to the relationship between the performer and spectator. The conditions for the audition are also figured in the way that the performer and audience are oriented toward a broader cultural mode of organization—“the program.” A program is a packaged unit of experience, something that can be scheduled, whose temporality is known, that can be communicated through familiar language-forms (i.e. hyperbolic proclamations). It’s etymological root is to be found in the public notice, the projection of a fixed “to come” onto the citizenry.

I’ll share with you this anecdote, as it’s rather telling. I recently attended a meeting in Rome about precarity with activists from different European grassroots organizing contexts (migration, education, care labor, etc.).3 The meeting was called to discuss a lexicon of terms emerging from those organizing practices. The organizers of the meeting had invited some local people to attend. They were to be the audience. In each session, a non-verbalized debate happened. It manifested itself in the movement of chairs. Those who attended hoping for an encounter would move the chairs into a circle. Others would then re-configure the room in typical lecture-style, requesting that people sit behind a desk and address the audience when they wanted to speak. A strange translation issue amplified this problem. “Relation” translates into “presentation” in Italian. So the Roman organizers would suggest that we were having a relation and the relation always oriented itself toward an audience. On the last day, we finally had a discussion about this. The organizers said that they needed the relations to be presentations, i.e. directed toward a fixed notion (and location) of the audience as the listener, the seated, and the frontward facing, in order to create a public sphere.

Thinking about the program and this little tale together might open up a broader discussion of how an assembly operates through its modes and orientations of address, through its architectures, through unspoken desires, and its objects.

In this, I suppose that I am wondering if it is possible to look beyond the etymology of audience to the materiality of the encounters in which we are actually engaged. For example, the choice to be there (to be in the audience) is indeed an act in which we have said “yes” to being the loyal subjects of the program. It is voluntary interpellation (interpellation being more than the one who hails us from the front of the room, but the group of people nodding, moving around and their desires to do so). But, in this there is more happening than subjection via identification. What are the desires and actions of the audience—in this case audience as verb—and how do they exceed, disrupt, reinforce this subjection?

In Ultra-red’s practice, the acoustic itself plays an important role in disrupting the dynamics of the “Hear, O hear.” Even when one is put in a seat with an orientation to production that conforms to an idea of subjection (or to Freire’s banking concept of education in which the learner is an empty vessel), listening together can rarely be reduced to this. Listening is a fragmented sensory form of collective knowing.

This brings us to the issue of how we might think of the audience as material. While the inclination would be to read sound (and its associated assemblies) as the highest order of the immaterial, I think that we need a mode of description/analysis/articulation through which we can read and enact a contingent and conjunctive materialism that can include the organizational and the structural, what is institutional, what is relational, what is desired, what is said and what remains unsaid.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Vienna, Wuk | Kunsthalle Exnergasse, October 21, 2006.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Vienna, Wuk | Kunsthalle Exnergasse, October 21, 2006.

From: Dont Rhine
To: Janna Graham
Date: May 15, 2007 11:14 PM 

I want to bring into this discussion Ultra-red’s recent project in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Encuentro.4 Rattling around in my mind is the reaction of one of the community participants, David McCartney from the Rainbow Project. Remember his response to my question to the three invited guests at the beginning of the Encuentro: “What might organizing another politics sound like?” While Edie Shillue and Claire Hackett were able to formulate responses to the question in relation to their experiences as community organizers, David said that for him the question was hermetic. If the question resisted him, he was going to resist the question.

My other question has to do with our very appropriation of the term Encuentro. Clearly, in our thinking the term is an invocation of Althusser’s radical reformulation of materialism—versus the later formulation used by Badiou. But in my mind, the term “encuentro” also invokes a very specific historical practice—the Liberationist church in Latin America. Of course, I want to be careful not to bracket that history as purely historical. The political undercurrents of Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Latin America make clear that the history in which the Encuentro played a significant role continues into the present. With 80,000 base community groups in Brazil alone today, that movement remains strong and a significant threat to the reactionary political forces who rally around Benedict.

But let’s think for a moment about the Encuentro in structural terms. In the early days of the Liberationist church in 1960’s Brazil, the Religious orders (mostly women) and laity organized parishioners into small Bible studies. Utilizing Freire’s model of a literacy of social conditions, these Bible studies began developing a rubric for reading the text through the lens of social conditions caused by massive repression. Eventually, these autonomous groups came together in large assemblies, called “encuentros.” Utilizing non-hierarchical procedures, the groups began sharing their analyses of both the Biblical text and social conditions. What emerged was a common discourse produced by shared—even though autonomous—everyday experiences of life under a dictatorship. Through this process a theology, an analysis, emerged—what eventually came to be written down by others. By the time the “encuentros” gave structural support for a larger analysis and processes for developing collective action, the church hierarchy had lost their ability to control the base community movement.

I’m wondering, in light of your comments, if what is missing from so many relational practices is the organization of reflection on an object which, in the example of the base community movement, was the text? In an art context, what is the text that both commands our subjectivity but also to which we recognize the call? This is your point, if I understand you, when you mention “voluntary interpellation.” Clearly, recognition of the call is precisely the work of interpellation. Interpreting the call through collective reflection, analysis and symbolic action (as if there is any other kind of action in emancipatory politics) is the crucial work of a radical artistic practice. And yet most artists have deferred that practice to the institution. Thus, even if the local audience participates in a process of developing an analysis of the object, when and how do those discrete events enter into an encounter with others? This process must be conceptualized as inextricable from the object itself.

The institution, either university or museum, too often subverts this process when the form or structure is stripped of its durational aspect—in other words, through all manner of mechanisms the object is stripped of the processes that condition the encounter and the encounter loses it materiality. Appreciating this as an artist, let alone a sound artist whose medium is very much time, is an enormous challenge. A relation to an institution has come to define sound art. We cannot “see” sound art except for its dependence upon the institution for access to a space, to a context, and to an audience. Is this any different from the relationship between the original base communities and the granddaddy of institutions, the Catholic Church? Here, the artist, most especially the relational artist, is written into a social relation that reproduces the Ecclesiastical within the aesthetic regime. I don’t think this is in any way either a mixing of metaphors or hyperbole on my part. The point is not to insist on the object’s absent immanence. That project has run its course. Rather, how might a process of collective reflection, the act of reading the object, perform its radical profanation?

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

Ultra-red, Encuentro Plymouth, Plymouth Art Centre, June 23, 2007.

From: Janna Graham
To: Dont Rhine
Date: May 31, 2007 5:23 AM

Yes, the question of participation, as a call to an audience, is always a kind of hailing. One orients oneself in relation to it, especially when the question is articulated from a recognizable position like that of an artist, and through a recognizable language. On one hand, we could say that a question reiterates the structure of performer/audience, or from/to. Within this grammar, one always limits the number of orientations and answers. However, a question can also call into being a community that identifies or dis-identifies or one that is merely interested. But there are other questioning formats that attempt to de-stabilize the centrality of a single question. I am thinking here of the workshop that you will be conducting with Taisha around Women and AIDS in L.A.,5 in which everyone will be asked to bring a question for discussion, or the kind of collective questioning used in the Zapatista movement: “in walking we ask,” in which questions oriented towards power develop through collective ambulation. These formats suspend the distinction between audience and initiator and make it difficult to identify a common goal at the outset, beyond participation itself.

In our Encuentro in Belfast we talked a lot about identification in the context of organizing. Many seemed to agree that participation framed by identity was often a responsive position, one forced by exclusion. So, if not (or not only) a sense of identifying with, what are the other enabling contexts for participation?

Claire Hackett relayed a particularly interesting experience of feminist organizing around a women’s event. During discussions, those who identified as “republican” and “lesbian” were told explicitly that this was to be an event that would speak to the “middle ground.” This led her to an analysis of the significance of the direction of the event, what it is oriented toward, and how it articulates its form of speech.

Having worked through the process of inviting people to an Encuentro, I think that it is often the opportunity to speak outside of the grammars of everyday modes of articulation (and their respective orientations—to funders, to clients, to regulators, the “middle ground”) to which people are attracted.

A series of desires that exceed the specific political stake in a question can be read in the attraction to speaking “outside” of one’s condition—the formulation of new languages, other collectivities, friendships.

I think that this was what Paulo Freire was indicating when he made the transition from a pedagogy of the oppressed to the pedagogy of hope at the end of his life. The enabling condition for group reflection shifted here from identification (“I am here because I am oppressed”), to hope, described by Freire as an “ontological need.” Or as Hannah Arendt might suggest as the pre-cursor to political action; “I am here because I am drawn to be here by a desire for something beyond my every day experience of the world.”

The ontological need described by Freire relates to what you were saying about the Encuentro in the context of the Latin American church and your question about the possible parallels to be made with the aesthetic regime. I would agree with you that this example is not altogether irrelevant to our interrogation. The aesthetic regime and its symbolic framing in institutions is, in addition to the issues of language and affective conditions discussed above, part of the “why” of participation. The aesthetic regime contributes to the framing of participation as “other to” or “beyond” that of say, a community space or a conference, each of which order and orient constituencies within systems of control (or at least habit) in their own ways.

The truth claim offered by the aesthetic is incredibly compelling and secures art institutions as spaces of reflection that are indeed akin to the ecclesiastical. I think that it goes beyond this. Cultural institutions, both in the people and processes that control the production and distribution of art, still claim to enact or at least represent our capacity for the production and actualization of desires that do not easily fit into the governmentalized regimes of our everyday lives. To deny the desires for such processes of reflection and production that underpin our attraction to conventional art spaces will not serve an emancipatory politics ultimately. Similarly, the denial of the role of faith has blinded the Left to such phenomena as the current backlash of right-wing “values” spreading through storefront churches across the US and the UK.

Cultural institutions are both contexts for emancipatory reflection and oppressive devices, threatening to capture, hierarchize and reify whatever takes place within earshot. Both in terms of their obliteration of aleatory temporalities and their capacity to reduce oppositional forms of enunciation into the grammars of hegemonic power, whether these be the homogenized forms of the program, their seemingly uninterrupted support for the upper class’ generation of creative capital, or the proto-production of new lifestyle/experience models for capital (the latter a process that Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik describes as “pimping”). Thus, inventing general rules or patterned behaviors around how we orient ourselves toward them is not particularly useful at this point. Finding tools for understanding how the desire for Truth in art or politics comes to be a material entity within the context of an art encounter becomes the greater challenge.

We could, for example, imagine this truth claim that art represents as something outside of the encounter, as something that we are moving toward. This is one idea of materialism, that it is produced through a dialectical movement. I am more interested, however, in considering how the material is generated through the contingent organization of the encounter itself. This would not privilege an object or institution (as you said, “a relation to an institution”—not the institution itself—“has come to define sound art”), nor the thing that we are moving toward, but rather consider expression, content, context, desires, objects and institutional devices as material only in the way that they touch one another.

The radical potential of the encounter read this way lies in the diversity of elements that are related, in the attention to bringing things, people, and affects together transversally, cutting across habituated conversations and subjectivities, across hierarchical orders and professionalized languages. The material generated by the encounter is then a kind of re-distribution of these elements along the lines of who is speaking, how we/they are speaking and to whom, what is being said, and what is present but unsaid.

But if we ended there, we’d have, as you mentioned, the problem of many projects that labor under the term “relational aesthetics.” That is, once the material of the encounter has been actualized, there is often no process of, in your words, “Interpreting the call through collective reflection, analysis and symbolic action.” The interpretive work in many such projects is rather integrated into the hierarchical professional order of the museum curator or critic. Material is handed over to the language of form and the group’s potential for radical articulation; their enunciative potential is usurped.

Interpretation, reading in the expanded notion here, is an operative term. However, I would caution that we not make the same error as Freire. Interpretation is not always a dialectical operation—moving from reflection to analysis to action. In every encounter there are, of course actions, reflections and analyses occurring. (I’m thinking here of the way that Hannah Arendt talks about the relation of thought and action as a much closer relationship.) It is the work of emancipatory interpretation to both produce collective enunciation and bring attention to each of these processes. This collective interpretation in our work is the very thing that re-organizes the composition of the encounter.

This corresponds with Freire’s continued assertion that the revelation of reality is in dynamic unity with the transformation of reality. In the configuration of the reflective encounter, one is engaged in both the recognition of its facticity (knowledge) and its transformation at the same time.

Janna Graham first collaborated with the art collective Ultra-red in 2005 and is currently a member of the group’s UK-based team developing projects in southwest England. Graham has been involved in a number of radical pedagogy projects combining popular education, action research and the arts. Originally from Toronto, Graham is working on a PhD in curatorial knowledge at Goldsmiths College in the program of Visual Culture.

Dont Rhine co-founded Ultra-red in 1994. Rhine has participated in a variety of social movements including ACT UP Los Angeles, Clean Needles Now, Pride at Work/AFL-CIO, and recently, CHAMP (Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project). In addition to being an artist, composer and writer, Rhine currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Art in Montpelier. At present, Rhine is collaborating with Ultra-red on an experimental opera.


  1. In April 2005, Graham and Rhine collaborated together for the first time on Ultra-red’s two-day conversation at Art Metropole in Toronto. Subsequent Ultra-red encounters, or Encuentros, have been staged at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (April 2006), WUK | Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna, Austria (October 2006), Catalyst Arts in Belfast, Northern Ireland (November 2006), and Plymouth Art Centre in Plymouth, UK (June 2007).
  2. Brazilian pedagogy theorist Paulo Freire has been a central figure in the history and practice of numerous political and cultural movements since the publication of his Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968. An engagement with Freire’s ideas has occupied much of the work of Ultra-red both in the context of art practice and their activism. Freire’s contribution to both pedagogical theory and the radical cultural action, have earned him recent attention among artists critically engaged with the ideas and practices of relational art and the institutions of aesthetic knowledge. For a recent art project taking up Freire in a North American context, see “Everybody is Friends With Paulo Freire” (June 2–24, 2007) part of HOMEWORK, a yearlong collaboration between artists Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen, Jeuno J.E Kim, Carlos Motta and Lize Mogel at PS122 Gallery, New York.
  3. For online information about the Precarity Webring go to www.precarity-map.net.
  4. Ultra-red’s Encuentro Belfast was part of the “I Confess That I Was There” series of events organized by Sarah Pierce and the Interface Research Centre at the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Held at Catalyst Arts on November 18, 2006, Encuentro Belfast featured a conversation on community organizing in Northern Ireland with Claire Hackett, Coordinator Dúchas Living History Project; David McCartney, Director of the Rainbow Project in Derry; and Edie Shillue, Services Organizer at the HIV Support Centre. For online information about Ultra-red’s Encuentro series of projects, go to www.ultrared.org/pso6.html.
Further Reading