What is a University? (2014)

Daphne Plessner

About this exposition

The popular perception of the University today involves notions of hierarchies of knowledge distribution and centres of excellence. The University is also regarded as a space where the values of social equality and mobility allegedly are reproduced, carrying the traces of sentiments such as those in which education is seen as a social good, a preparation for public life and civic responsibility. However, despite this general conception, students may look to a University for material, that is, career advantages, lecturers believe that universities are for critical inquiry and self-development (at least in Europe and America), and managers see it as a business enterprise and replicate the economic strategies of neo-liberalism. None of these conceptions sit very well together. In fact, they conflict sharply. The pressing question then is, What is a University? This project investigates and responds to this problematic question by looking more carefully at how people imagine the idea of a University. What exactly are the assumptions of say, a group of research students? How do different universities instigate and enforce the boundaries of membership and participation? And exactly what kind of education is on offer when universities operate as a 'service' industry with a managerial rationale borrowed from the business models of corporate capitalism? These questions weave through a series of collaborative and interventionist art projects, some of which are still under development and others have yet to be realised. The point is not to arrive at an answer, but to capture the experience of the University in transition and to problematise its conditions.
typeresearch exposition
affiliationGoldsmiths College and Emily Carr University of Art & Design
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Rory Harron - 01/10/2014 at 13:15)
Jan Cohen Cruz 17/09/2014 at 14:57

This is a very thoughtful set of questions about the crisis in UK and US universities, appropriately brought to various sites of the university through three interventions that engage members of that "community" itself in the critique. Given that part of the critique, however, is that the university was once conceived as a public good and it has become increasingly privatized, where else in the public sphere might interventions around this question be significant? What about secondary schools, for example? Has the author considered interventions in other locations?

Rory Harron 22/09/2014 at 17:14

The comment was deleted by Rory Harron on 01/10/2014 at 13:12.
Rory Harron 01/10/2014 at 13:15

In a project that draws to mind Cildo Meireles' Insertions into Ideological Circuits, this research does not represent politics or political struggle but seeks to live it. The neo-liberal variant of education wherein the university has become a privatized factory or machine (Raunig) is troubled by the authors artistic interventions in London universities. The researcher develops three critical artistic interventions with student collaborators to reawaken the Enlightenment University. Through militant research consisting of polemical text to engender thought and dialogue among students and staff, visual questionnaires encouraging participants to reflect upon the system and their fear or mistrust of the foreign or the other and a citizen newspaper freely distributed to impact consciousness on us and them, the researcher is doing politics through art to penetrate subjectivities, instigate dialogue and ultimately affect change.


The three interventions function as exemplary manifestations of the traditional conception of the university in the post enlightenment period as a site to acquire knowledge, critique power, engender agency and empowerment. These methods of 'reterritorialization,' that being resistance to subservience within the system (after Raunig and Deleuze) are successful in that they function as negations of the status quo and indeed provide examples to students of what the university can be and their place within this constellation. The author problematises Raunigs definition of the university as a rigid factory, pointing to the flows of dialogue and contradictions throughout and within the people and system. The interventions function as insertions into the discourse of UK universities at this specific time where university and border agency conflate; they resist while residing within, asking us what is other, who are we and who are they and what are we all here to do? Ultimately, they celebrate and embody the Enlightenment ideals of questioning; they unabashedly hold to equality and provide lived experience for students and staff of the real function of critical thinking and artistic investigation in the 21st century University.

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