This essay addresses institutional critique in relation to learning in the art museum. It aims to introduce an alternative approach to critique in which learning can better be discussed and contribute ideas to, and beyond, its field. It does so through the lens of ‘the refrain’, a concept developed by the philosophers Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze.

I recently attended a symposium about learning in the art museum in which there was much discussion about the shift in artistic practices towards educational and socially engaged practices. The debate about the changing cultural climate and the needs of audiences was led by educationalists and seen through the lens of institutional critique. Indeed, it would be fair to say that there was a tacit acceptance in the room that institutional critique was not only a viable but also a necessary (and primary) means of articulating what was going on in practice in relation to learning programmes in museums. Perhaps this debate is particular to the specifics of the environment I inhabit but, having heard it many times over, I felt a need to draw out, make explicit, as well as challenge, a few of the assumptions that might be made by employing dominant forms of institutional critique as a measure of learning in the art museum. In my experience, this debate is of far greater interest to certain areas of the academy, rather than being an exploration of what the public that engages with these institutions might be learning and how conditions for such learning may be created.

There is an established literature on learning in museums including writers such as George Hein, Viv Golding, Marsha Semmel, John H. Falk and Lynn Dierking, for example, as well as compendiums, journals and an even wider field beyond that incorporates visual culture more broadly. 1 Within the art museum a considerable amount of discourse on gallery education is framed by a range of associated disciplines, such as art history, cultural studies, critical theory etc. Gallery learning is thus often articulated in relation to, or through, other discourses, rather than defined in terms of its own practice or indeed art practices. This is not to say that such disciplines and discourses cannot help us better understand the work of learning in the art museum, but I would argue that they must give sufficient and appropriate illumination that can speak of the practice they account for, which is learning based.

The term institutional critique can be broadly defined as the interrogation of the working practices of institutions such as art galleries and museums. It can be said to have begun in the late 1960s and is often associated with artists such as Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren and Michael Asher, and was later redeveloped and reassessed in the 1980s by such artists as Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Fred Wilson, and by art historians such as Benjamin Buchloh. A comprehensive account of these pioneers, as well as the changing face of institutional critique over the last fifty years, is provided in the collection of essays Institutional Critique and After (2006). According to the book’s editor J.C Welchman, ‘Through its quite different early manifestations, Institutional Critique took on the critical analysis or ironisation of the structure and logic of museums and art galleries.’1Or as Astrid Mania wrote in the same volume, institutional critique is ‘generally understood in relation to artistic practices that seek to unmask the structures and ideological armatures of Western exhibition institutions’.2

One must remember, however, that these perspectives come with their own ideological lenses, giving particular emphasis and shape to all they view.

What is notable is that the project of institutional critique began squarely around the agency of the artist, art selection and forms of display. It did not seek to articulate other aspects of the museum such as education. It is clear, however, that debate and contention over ideas within the movement, even (or especially) between those considered central to its practice, have opened up the discussion of institutional critique to a broader field or range of fields. For example, Andrea Fraser begins her essay ‘What is Institutional Critique?’ in the 2006 volume by challenging Mania’s idea that it is ‘art that exposes the structures and logic of museums and art galleries’. She suggests instead that ‘it can only be defined as a methodology of critically reflexive site specificity … Institutional Critique engages sites above all as social sites, structured sets of relations that are fundamentally social relations … it does not aim to affirm, expand or reinforce a site or our relation to it, but to problematise and change it.’3

Fraser’s description moves much closer to debates and discussions within learning, since ‘social sites’, ‘social relations’ and ‘change’ are concepts that sit at the heart of many educational practices and learning theories.4 Fraser’s description also implicitly encompasses an approach or method for problematising the museum in its entirety, since the museum is itself the key social site under scrutiny. It is evident therefore that the many ideas of institutional critique have grown beyond their pioneers and beyond their original horizon.5

One of the most recent offshoots of institutional debate that can be associated with learning and educational activity has been ‘The Educational Turn’. This includes the shifting content and methods in curatorial and artistic practices that appear to reflect and utilise educational strategies and processes. Curating and The Educational Turn (2010) is a collection of essays that thoughtfully explores the power-play of ideas, changing artistic practice and its potential.6 Although this has expanded some debates, it has also elicited grumbling within the gallery education sector relating to who started this kind of work, raising questions surrounding the ‘ownership’ of knowledge and its execution in practice. If learning and educational practices are now the domain of artists and curators, where does it leave the education practice in art museums?

How far does this debate about institutional critique and the Educational Turn help us better account for learning in museums and galleries? Does it answer questions as to how (and if) learning practice differs from artistic and curatorial practices, as well as other forms of education in the museum? I find myself more and more frequently asking what learning programmes entail in this (complex) context and am keen to find out what developments are currently taking place across the discipline in terms of what is being learned and by whom. To date within the UK, this kind of research regarding learning and education at a programmatic level and in terms of engagement with the public has been disseminated through journals and organisations such as engage, IJADE and the Museums Journal or through conferences run by education departments in cultural organisations. However, building knowledge from within learning practices, or across the many practices, is still relatively young and often limited to debate in its own field. Learning is seen as distinct from other activity, or represented by many other discourses that enter into that of gallery learning. I would argue that very little debate about learning ventures into other discourses. How from the perspective of learning itself might we better account and explain the work of learning? I wish to consider here what practices are currently being prioritised within the dominant discourse of gallery education and whom exactly this discourse seeks to serve. Is it now the case that learning and educational activity can only be discussed in relation to institutional critique? Is it simply naïve to imagine a discussion about learning that situates itself outside or beyond this debate? I seek to explore the questions raised here and consider how we might have a different conversation about learning in museums and galleries that puts learning and ideas about learning back in the frame, rather than framing them through the perspective of institutional critique.

The critique

Institutional critique sets out to challenge the power relations and ideological positions in institutions in relation to cultural production and the market. Whether content-driven or methodologically oriented, it has become a means of analysing how meaning is created and where hierarchy exists. This commentary can helpfully expose the complexities and contradictions that may not otherwise be visible about how institutions operate, what content they create, and for whom. However, I would argue that, as much as this might prove insightful, it is itself caught up in certain contradictions and complexities that Fraser’s definition above begins to challenge. She comments:

Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the every day complicities, compromises and censorship – above all, self-censorship – which are driven by our own interest in the field and the benefits we derive from it.7

My goal is to try to figure out if there is a way of understanding and articulating learning in the art museum that helps address these conditions and that can move the discipline of learning and education between or beyond given discourses to find space in which to generate different voices that may build on Fraser’s perspective and also more effectively and authentically represent the practice of learning.

As I have outlined, institutional critique has, over the years, been a key player in revealing tacit and political (small p) institutional practices. My observation is that this discourse is of particular interest to those institutions in which artists play a significant role in terms of education or learning practice. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate, presents three images of the artist as a mediator in learning: the ‘uniquely inspired individual in the “improving” gallery’; the ‘critical facilitator in the contested gallery space’; and the ‘artist as learner within a learning organisation’.8 These three types articulate different institutional perspectives on learning over the years. In relation to the second of these examples she provides some historical context to the emergence of what she calls ‘the critical facilitator in the contested gallery space’:

Toby Jackson, the first Head of Interpretation and Education at Tate Modern, saw the role of education at the turn of the twenty first century in these terms:

Much of our work is to challenge the calm face of the museum, to make complex, in defiance of the tendency of the museum to simplify the concept behind an exhibition … to bring into the museum the debates which are being rehearsed outside and to take opportunities to unveil other works of art. So the notion is of education challenging pre-conceptions, enabling plurality to happen within the gallery.

Education thus serves a critical purpose and Jackson goes on to state that visitors should be encouraged to contribute to current cultural debates and actively question the institution.9

Working for the benefit of plurality makes good sense, but Fraser’s argument for the use of the term ‘us’ implies that ultimately this kind of approach cannot move learning from the perceived margins of museum practice. Within the perspective described above, education has to stay at the margins in order to form a legitimate critique of the institution.

Of course, education is a notoriously contested idea but in terms of institutional debate and the way in which education is articulated, the experience of learning and what is being learned are pushed to the edges of thought (or is mostly absent as made clear in the volume Institutional Critique and After) because of the priority given to debates about the power relations of learning in museums and galleries over and above debate about the power of learning itself. Learning as something one does, or that the public are engaged in, becomes secondary to learning as a role, prioritising its institutional position over its philosophical, physical and educational potential. Indeed, institutional critique places education in the position of being both defiant outsider and a critic of the institution from within. John C. Welchman commented, ‘Could it be that there is something delusional in practices that are so attached to deconstructing the apparatuses of the museum – mostly from within the institution – yet still believe themselves to be “critical” according to some measure of judgement from the outside?’10

The perspective of the museum as ‘it’ rather than ‘us’ still prevails in some arenas and with it comes the notion of smuggling in resistant practices that seek to challenge who is doing what and what is getting said. This has been, and continues to be, great fodder for institutional discourses on power and a highly successful means of creating, rather than solving, institutional differences. By regularly reiterating and reasserting the hierarchies in institutions as though not ‘us’, institutional critique nourishes a dominant concept of power of the institution over the individual using the very debate that could find ways in which it might be repositioned.

I would suggest that this is because the debates about power that are part of this discourse rarely or insufficiently consider the nature of critique. That is, they provide interventions, analysis and commentary on power relations but struggle to supply structural alternatives that effectively and actively disrupt the power that they describe. In light of the theoretical perspective presented in Iain MacKenzie’s The Idea of Pure Critique (2004), one might argue that critique is not the criticism of the institution from the outside (“it”), but the activity of changing processes that constitute the institution from within (the implication of Fraser’s “us”).11 Failure to change process is consistent with how learning is maintained at the margins, since if no alternative processes are created, the only way of overcoming traditional power hierarchies is to use the same power structures and processes that are under fire or, as implied above, through subversion. In these instances, there are only two ‘solutions’ on offer. The first is an invitation to subordinate institutional working processes in which, somewhere down the line, the master becomes the slave (thereby upholding the discourse by changing the characters but not the system). The second is to work under the cloak of subversion where potentially small but dynamic attacks on the traditional processes are made through interventions that do not systematically change dominant working practices. In both cases, nothing changes structurally.

I identify here five problems within this form of institutional critique when applied to learning practice:

(i) the privileging of a discourse on power relations, in which the discourse of learning practice is subordinated;

(ii) the reassertion and reiteration of the institution as ‘it’ rather than ‘us’ is maintained;

(iii) commentary without critique /creation of new ideas provides no change or alternative to the norm;

(iv) the lack of an alternative means that dominant power structures can only be overcome by replacing one type of master with another, thereby maintaining normative power structures;

(v) subversion in this model becomes the sole mode of resistance to regimes of power, a model of resistance that is readily accepted and accommodated within today’s institutions or is indeed part of some institutions’ self-reflexivity and self-critique.12

An alternative critique

There are, of course, many pitfalls in forming a critique of institutional critique. Without institutional critique, for example, how can we reasonably get purchase on the power structures that shape ideological practice within and beyond the art museum walls? How can we understand what learning is, does and can do within an organisation without attending to this issue?

These represent fair challenges, to which my response is that although I recognise the value and contribution of institutional critique, I also believe that, from the perspective of learning, we can look at them in a different way, one that enables us to get on and do our work better and with more purpose, rather than feeling disempowered by structures or systems and distracted by a discourse that talks about what we do, rather than of what is learned.

This raises the question of what I consider to be a viable alternative critique that enables the five points outlined above to be resolved and offers a platform for learning to speak for itself. My suggestion is that we should look for different perspectives that recognise their own lens and are not predicated upon power-knowledge relations. Here I wish to discuss the ideas of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, specifically their concept of ‘the refrain’.

Félix Guattari had several professional roles in his life. These ranged from psychiatrist at La Borde, a progressive psychiatric institution, to political activist and philosopher, co-authoring many books with the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.13 In The Three Ecologies (2000) Guattari discussed the complexity of the institution and practices of resistance to the institution. These were not considered as a contradiction (as implied through much institutional critique) but as a structure we have to navigate and change, rather than comment on or criticise. His experience at La Borde, where he was involved in institutional processes of iterative change, probably impacted on his approach to existing systems.

Guattari offers a positive and generous route through ideological impasses, arguing for an ethico-political articulation of ecology, which explores the interplay ‘between the three ecological registers (the environment, social relations and human subjectivity)’.14 This, he defines as ecosophy. His perspective includes the recognition that we are all part of, and responsible for: the systems, structures, environments and institutions we are within and co-create. He writes: ‘I have invoked ethical paradigms principally in order to underline the responsibility and necessary engagement required, not only of psychiatrists but also of those in the fields of education, health, culture, sport, the arts, the media and fashion, who are in a position to intervene in individual and collective physical proceedings.’15

Ecosophy usefully addresses the ‘us’ and poses a direct challenge to the perpetuation of the institutional conditions described by Fraser through rethinking contradiction as a potential for re-assemblage and invoking an always-implied individual responsibility in relation to the social and the environment.16 Ecosophy liberates our thinking about the institution from that of an oppressive externalised authority to one that implicates the individual in the constitutive processes (as identified by MacKenzie above). Indeed, the idea of the individual and how the subject is developed, shaped and regulated, is part of Guattari’s endeavour to understand and interrupt dominant forms of mass communication, with a view to creating change. Guattari’s entire enterprise is premised on the idea that capitalism or rather ‘integrated world capitalism’ (IWC), and the ideas, behaviours and attitudes that come with it, dominate our thinking and value systems.17 These, he argues, are insufficiently challenged and are so pervasive in our subjective, social and environmental domains that alternative models find little space in our lives. In The Three Ecologies we are given a glimpse of what a resistance to IWC might look like in terms of ‘the refrain’, a concept that is more fully developed with Gilles Deleuze in their chapter ‘Of The Refrain’ in A Thousand Plateaus (1987).

The refrain

The refrain is described as a series of transmissions that are received or pass through the individual, with each subject considered a ‘transit station for changes, crossings and switches’.18 We receive transmissions from our environment, mass media and social realms, and have the capacity to recommunicate these refrains as heard (generating the same frequency) or interrupt these through our own active interventions/constructed thoughts (altering the frequency). The refrain therefore holds a dual role as both dominant and alternative transmitter. Deleuze and Guattari ascribe three aspects to the refrain. These could be defined as the song, territories of the song, and breaking open the song, but are best described in their words.

(i) The song

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his song as best he can. The song is a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, centre in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.19

The song is a creative act and one that is both constructed by the individual and also something that takes on its own life as it is develops. It is the fragile, yet stabilising, intervention developed by an individual to respond to and create order over the chaos of the world.

(ii) Territories of the song

Now we are at home. But home does not pre-exist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile centre, to organise a limited space … A child hums to summon the strength for the schoolwork she has to hand in. A housewife sings to herself, or listens to the radio, as she marshals the anti-chaos forces of her work. Radio and television sets are like sound walls around every household and mark territories (the neighbours complain when it gets too loud) … A break in speed, rhythm, or harmony would be catastrophic because it would bring back the forces of chaos, destroying both creator and creation.20

Deleuze and Guattari reveal how the song extends into wider environments, social boundaries and systems through repetition. Such repetitions become normalised into behaviours or as they describe it, ‘as conditions of qualitative homogeneity we set for ourselves.21 As readers, we recognise these behaviours in terms of practised routines by the housewife and activities in the home. They suggest that patterns become regulated to form ‘territories’ in order to maintain and sustain a sense of order. This becomes embedded within the individual, as well as the social and environmental registers, that the repeated song creates.

iii. Breaking open the song

Finally, one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region … As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join the World or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.22

In this final stage we are invited to imagine how the song might be interrupted or changed, for the song to break open and connect to other songs, for new songs and new ventures to occur. In this way, we understand that the song is contingent in its repetition; in opening it up away from the pressures of ‘old forces’, it has potential to become a different refrain through ‘launching forth’ and improvising – an opening onto a different future.

In these three processes the idea of the refrain is presented as a means to understand how transmissions are formed and how they can be altered. Repetition is used to maintain order as well as create difference. The concept of the refrain demands that we ask questions of the systems, structures, signs and conventions we have come to accept within the song and in its repetitions that have come to dominate the way we think. Guattari frames this process in terms of the ways in which the individual receives but has agency to alter dominant refrains, and thus transmit a different refrain back into the world. He argues that this is required to challenge dominant and habituated refrains. He also implies a potential for difference as well as repetition, a difference in thinking that challenges preconceptions and the normative values that are manifest in dominant songs that tacitly regulate thought.

On a recent train journey I observed a young boy of about four years old, staring out of the window and making sudden and strange noises, often repeated. He was ‘shushed’ by his mother and there was much tutting by other passengers who considered this behaviour beyond the norm. But as I caught his eye in the reflection of the window I began to notice that these sounds were not abstract or arbitrary, a signal of something strange and ‘other’. They were, in fact, an embodiment of the song and its territories in process. The child was using different landmarks (trees, trampolines in back gardens, passing trains and stations), giving them sounds and shaping his place in the curious (and long) experience of the train ride. As the journey progressed, he did not need landmarks any more, but used the sounds to form a different sound – the song was becoming itself, tied to the symbols first seen and then increasingly distinct. His improvisation to build his territory – calming and stabilising, creating order out of chaos – was his ‘venture from home on a thread of a tune’, quite literally. In catching the child’s eye, the song had broken open and I had moved into his song and the symbols and systems he had created. It challenged my habituated behaviours, attitudes and understanding as well as my own territory of the journey. I, and my journey, had been changed by his small song.

Of course, the refrain need not be an actual song: this is simply Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the creation and development of ideas, ideas that form territories which turn into refrains in their repetition and reiteration. Dominant refrains are those that become habituated into our thinking as though the song were always there, natural, obvious, unquestionable. These become our own songs, the songs we are so used to hearing and singing that we think we have always sung them. Guattari, in The Three Ecologies, calls this process ‘machinic brainwashing’, a regulation of individuated thinking through the reiteration of dominant transmissions. If we extend this idea across all thinking, then we can begin to see and understand the reiteration of power rationales and the myriad other refrains that get retransmitted to every individual, every day, from gender codes to financial ‘norms’. The refrain holds within it both the potential for retransmission at the same frequency, or the alteration of that frequency. Deleuze and Guattari maintain that the dominant refrain is sustained by repetition but by virtue of repetition also contains the possibility for new and different articulations. What if we change our usual course and find agency, courage perhaps, to resist or break open the dominant refrain and change the frequency? What if we all did this on an individual basis like the boy on the train and then together, on the social register, as we make new connections? What if, instead of accepting the refrain, we invest in changing it? What if we sing another song?

Let us return to the questions posed and five problems outlined above and see if the refrain can help us explore some ‘answers’ for learning and how it can be better communicated through its own practice as well as moving beyond itself, shifting its place from edge to centre, or indeed in challenging the very idea of edge and centre (learning and ‘other’).

The questions

The questions I posed at the beginning of this piece asked where the debates within institutional critique lead us in terms of understanding what learning is taking place in art museums and how (and if) learning practice differs from artistic and curatorial practices as well as other forms of education in the museum. I also questioned if there was a way of understanding and articulating learning in the art museum that helps improve these conditions and that can move the discipline between or beyond given discourses, to find space in which to generate different voices that more effectively and authentically represent the practice of learning and account for what is being learned. I am going to take all three questions together and in doing so, make a case for learning that I feel to be at the heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the refrain.

I have argued here that dominant forms of institutional critique may help us develop understandings of institutional power-relationships and the role of learning, but that it does not account for the learning undertaken with the public. Indeed, I suggested that it prioritises the power relations of learning in museums and galleries over and above debate about the power of learning itself. In doing so, I argue, through the lens of Guattari and Deleuze, that institutional critique is itself ripe for problematisation in that it can be interpreted as one of the most dominant refrains within museum practice.

If one understands institutional critique as a refrain, one can form a view on the way in which it developed, initially as (i) a creative and resistant song that sought to ‘unmask’ ideological hierarchy, which then developed (ii) its own territory of thought through reiteration, and over time has (iii) broken open its song in extending itself beyond the concept of the institution as ‘it’ to ‘us’ (and more besides, as articulated by Fraser). The refrain therefore operates both as an effective analytical model of processes and as a meta-theory of ideological construction. The importance of the refrain is in being able to work with its three component parts across the three registers: individual processes; social strata; and mass-transmission. In effect, how the song can be sung differently.

The claim I would like to make here is that the interruption of the song and the creation of a different song can be usefully understood as learning itself. That the ‘breaking open’ or ‘lurching forwards’ and ‘improvisations’ of any song that take us from one recognised understanding of a constructed idea (knowledge) into the creation or different understanding of that idea (new knowledge) is the act of learning (the word ‘recognised’ is important here). The practices of artists, curators and educationalists may look similar, in that all seek to challenge dominant refrains and form new ‘songs’ in the form of new works, new models of exhibition and types of display or develop new insights with the public that break open territories. All of these creative acts can be considered to be, or to involve, learning. The refrain thus helps us speak across curatorial and educational divides by offering a meta-frame, the artwork becomes the song, the territories become the discourses and engagement with the artworks – their breaking open. Gallery learning and educational practices contribute in inviting the public directly into a conversation that seeks to make visible the construction of the three parts of the refrain and encourage the individual subjects to take part in interrupting and changing the refrain. In this way, artists, curators, educators (as well as various other staff, departments and colleagues in the museum and beyond) as well as now the learners or public can be understood as ‘us’. We are all implied in the institutional refrain and in changing the ‘frequency’ of what is transmitted to us and from us as individuals. As Guattari writes, ‘no-one is exempt from playing the game of the ecology of the imaginary.’23

This ‘game’ in the art museum is often played with the assistance of artists who work in gallery education and learning settings. This complicates matters further since the dominant refrain about the artist is one that presents, or transmits, their own highly singularised refrain (their artworks) and does so in relation to curatorial practices. It can easily get quite messy in these instances, trying to work out who is communicating what refrain (major or minor within the institution) when artists themselves change their focus and adapt their roles. However, Guattari furnishes us with tools to help get to grips with this conundrum through the idea of artist as learner. In The Three Ecologies his key example of positive activism that disrupts the dominant refrain is embodied in the idea of an artist, or, as I have suggested elsewhere, the artist-as-process.24 I use this term to clarify that it is not the concept of an artist as a creative ‘self’ that is at stake here but rather the processes of creative construction involved when the refrain is changed and learning occurs. The artist-as-process operates in ways that identify dominant transmissions and in acts of creativity, imagining, generating a new idea, creating and making a difference, and disrupting the forces of mass-transmission. As with the boy on the train, these processes can be found anywhere, but are modelled well in (some) artists’ practices involving the act of creativity in thinking and literally making a [thing of] difference.

This concept of the artist takes us back to Pringle’s essay and her analysis of artists who work with learning and education programmes. Regarding ‘the artist as learner within a learning organisation’, she wrote:

Earlier research with artists working as educators in the gallery identified connections between art practice as a process of making meaning and learning. Particular artists engaged in the process of making art were found to be skilled in active questioning, taking risks, accommodating the unexpected, divergent thinking and critical reflection. Recognising the value of their expertise in relation to learning, these artists sought to facilitate its development in the people they worked alongside in the gallery. In other words they sought to ‘teach’ the skills of effective learning in order to equip learners to interrogate art and develop their own knowledge and understandings in the future. And it is this expertise (or as [Tate’s Director Nicholas] Serota would say ‘sympathy’) in relation to the process of making meaning through art, I would argue, more than their unique creative gifts or critical facilitation skills that enables artists to engage learners most effectively with and through art.25

Those artists engaged with learning, rather than presenting their own works, are involved through their own roles as artist-as-process in making the refrain visible (as above) but also in what Guattari describes as the crucial objective ‘to grasp the a-signifying points of rupture – the rupture of denotation, connotation and signification.’26 These are often apparent in artworks (as the pioneers of institutional critique recognised) but, as with the boy on the train, it requires that we/the public/everyone set personal conditions that are willing to look for and understand difference as well as a capacity to learn new symbol systems, codes and connotations that generates new meaning. On occasion, artists working in learning invest alongside their participants in generating or imitating a refrain as an object or intervention because ‘doing’ and ‘making’ are an effective way of making manifest one’s learning, exposing the breaking open of territories and creating new refrains. The complexities in how this transmission is received or how it relates to other transmissions within the art museum must remain a subject for another time. The point being here, that the purpose is not for artists working within education to sing their own songs but to break open the songs, and territories of others and encourage participants and publics to find their own songs to sing. This, of course, is the most interesting and complex of spaces, since for some artists this practice has become their song.

The refrain, I suggest, offers the idea and articulation of learning as the interruption or change of the refrain, in relation to the institution and indeed as applied to individual artworks, to artists and their territories. It also articulates learning from the perspective of learning itself and with the advantage in doing so of making that which is learned by the public the very nature of how to learn in the context of the museum ­– or how we go about making meaning with art. The refrain explicitly reveals the construction of ideas (and understands itself to be a construction of ideas). In this it necessarily speaks beyond learning and to all aspects of the museum as the song can be understood as the many processes of the museum. It makes visible all other refrains, thereby making explicit not only the dominant refrain of the institution and the refrains of museum professionals but also those of the public. In doing so, it shifts the priority of transmission from a focus on the institution to that of the combined refrain that is created in the interruptions and interactions of the public as part of the processes of the institution. Meaning-making and creating new songs is not a one-way ticket. In these terms, I would argue that the practice and processes of learning becomes an essential part of any debate, rather than a marginal debate set at the edges. Indeed, the refrain has no singularity and no edges; there are only other refrains.

There are many additional aspects to learning, beyond institutional critique, that I have omitted here. Language and its construction is probably most notable in its absence but is deeply connected to all aspects of the refrain and its construction with publics. However, I have attempted to provide the concept of the refrain as an approach that helps us articulate learning in a way in which it can be effectively described as process, an act of doing rather than ‘being’ and that defines its own discourse as part of an implied wider discourse of all institutional ‘songs’ that are sung together to form a further refrain.

The five problems

I challenged myself at the beginning of this paper to see if my suggested alternative (the refrain) could overcome the five problems I identified for learning in relationship to dominant forms of institutional critique. Let us see how far, under the lens of the refrain, this can be achieved.

(i) The privileging of discourse on power relations, in which the discourse of learning practice is subordinated.

This point mostly concerns the need to break open the territories of the dominant song of institutional critique and start constructing a song of learning that can work in harmony with other songs. The refrain enables this, first, by offering a three-part process for doing so (the song, the territories of the song, the breaking open of the song) and, secondly, by providing an account of constructing the refrain that is itself an articulation of learning. The refrain therefore sings the song of learning through its own processes and in doing so foregrounds the practice of learning as necessary to creating ideas rather than being subordinated by them; that is, learning must intrinsically be part of the core institutional discourse.

(ii) The reassertion and reiteration of the dominant discourse in which institutional critique and the institution as ‘it’ rather than ‘us’ is upheld.

The refrain implies the responsibility of ‘us’ in the construction or resistance of each and every transmission (of each and every song). MacKenzie’s argument that critique is not the criticism of the institution from the outside but the activity of changing processes that constitute the institution from within is inherent in the concept of the refrain. The refrain demands that we consider our own processes in constructing the institution and in doing so, refutes the concept of ‘it’.

(iii) Commentary without critique /creation of new ideas provides no change or alternative to the norm.

Changing the refrain requires all songs to be reimagined and newly sung. This means that an alternative needs to be constructed by individuals in terms of the creation of new symbols, codes and connotations. This is a creative act, as exemplified by the boy on the train. The refrain itself, as a concept, is one such creative intervention that provides adequate critique, and can be applied across all institutional activity.

(iv) That the lack of any alternative means that dominant power structures can only be overcome by replacing one type of master with another, maintaining normative power structures themselves.

The refrain replaces or perhaps neutralises this model by replacing it with the idea of an individuated, social and environmental agency and responsibility, in which power-constructs can only exist with collusion of the individual retransmitting the same song. There is no prioritised ‘song’ in the refrain, no master or slave, but songs that are sung together.

(v) That subversion in this model becomes the sole mode of resistance to regimes of power.

The refrain effectively addresses this by implicating all of ’us’ as the creators of the processes of the institution, which can effectively transform the systems and structures, rendering subversion redundant. The institution cannot be subversive of itself: we are all implied in the processes and systems of creating the institution.

In these ways, the refrain helps us to recognise our own responsibilities in interrupting ideas and changing the frequency of transmissions. Power relations are bound to stay the same if we continue to reiterate them, comply with them and take part in the processes that uphold them, instead of challenging them and changing them. The most dismal part of reiterating the same is that the only possible ‘positive’ outcome is that the subordinated takes over the position of subordinator and the system and power-relation maintains. Borrowing Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas, I ask ‘What if we start to sing a different song?’ We have to understand that this potential is real and practices through small and large acts/songs can be effective. As artists’ practices, museums and publics change, and as a demand for learning and forms of participation increase, there is the potential for singing a song based in, and emerging from, different forms of practice, joining up many different songs. If one does not accept the institution as ‘it’ but fully takes on the responsibility of ‘us’, there will be new ways to change the song of all and any institutions.

Fraser’s ‘us’ has been a useful point of reference throughout this paper. Her comments in ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ (2012), present her views on an uneasy set (or perhaps sets) of contradictions in relation to art and institutions, capitalism and artistic intervention, world and self. Here she writes that through the operations of arts discourse, ‘we not only banish entire regions of our own activities and experiences, investments, and motivations to insignificance, irrelevance, and unspeakability, we also consistently misrepresent what art is and what we do when we engage with art and participate in the art field.’27

My intention here has been, in some small way, to recall and reclaim the ‘banished regions’ and suggest that a means of changing the operations of arts discourse require that we move beyond binary opposition or contradiction and instead use the ecosophic registers of the subjective, social and environment as the existing landscape for change. In Fraser’s closing comments she points to aspects I have covered in this paper in terms of the refrain, writing, ‘it may be that the way out of the seemingly irresolvable contradictions of the art world lies directly within our grasp, not in the next artistic innovation – not, first of all in what we do – but in what we say about what we do.’ 28 Or as I argue, how we create the next refrain.

What new songs and discourses will develop from this and from changing practices, I cannot say, as this will depend on the processes we all contribute to and actively create together. We all have the right and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility to change the refrain, and given that I believe that the interruption of the refrain and creating new refrains are acts of learning, I also profoundly believe that we all have the right and the responsibility to learn, because without learning, we will never change the song.


  • 1. John C. Welchman, Institutional Critique and After, vol.2, Southern California Consortium of Art Schools symposia, Zurich 2006, p.11.
  • 2. Astrid Mania, ‘Walls Fall Down:Berlin’s Contemporary Art Institutions’, ibid., p.251.
  • 3. Andrea Fraser, ‘What is Institutional Critique?’, ibid., pp.305­–6.
  • 4. See, for example, John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Radford 2008 and Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York 2007.
  • 5. See Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Museum: From The Critique of Institution to a Critical Institution’, in Tone Hansen (ed.), (Re)Staging The Art Museum, Berlin 2011, pp.77–106.
  • 6. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (eds), Curating and the Educational Turn, London and Amsterdam 2010.
  • 7. Fraser 2006, p.123.
  • 8. Emily Pringle, ‘The Artist, the Gallery, the Art and Learning: Negotiating Theory to Understand Practice’, Tate Papers, issue 11, Spring 2013,, accessed 19 March 2013.
  • 9. Emily Pringle, ‘The Artist, the Gallery, the Art and Learning: Negotiating Theory to Understand Practice’, Exchange: Artists, Young People and Galleries, engage, no.27, London 2011, pp.50–60. 
  • 10. Welchman 2006, pp.13–14.
  • 11. See Iain MacKenzie, The Idea of Pure Critique, New York 2004.
  • 12. Piotrowski 2011, pp.77–106.
  • 13. For example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, New York 1994.
  • 14. Félix Guattari,The Three Ecologies, London 2000, p.28.
  • 15. Ibid., p.39.
  • 16. Fraser 2006, p.123.
  • 17. Guattari 2000, p.42.
  • 18. Guattari 2000 p.106.
  • 19. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia vol.2,London 1987, p.311.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Ibid., p.330.
  • 22. Ibid., p.311.
  • 23. Guattari 2000, p.57.
  • 24. Anna Cutler, ‘Museum of Now’, in B. Dillet, I. Mackenzie and R. Porter (eds), The Edinburgh Companion to Postructuralism, Edinburgh 2013.
  • 25. Pringle 2011, p.57.
  • 26. Guattari 2000, p.56.
  • 27. Andrea Fraser, ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, Whitney Biennial 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2012, p.32.
  • 28. Ibid., p.33.

Anna Cutler is Director of Learning, Tate.
Tate Papers Spring 2013 © Anna Cutler.

How to cite

Anna Cutler, 'Who Will Sing the Song? Learning Beyond Institutional Critique', Tate Papers, no.19, Spring 2013,, accessed 24 July 2016.

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.