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IICSI Independent Reading Group

IICSI Postdoctoral Fellow Illa Carrillo Rodriguez is currently organizing an independent reading group. For questions about the events in this series, please contact Illa at

Improvisation, Collective Action, and the Arts of Activism

When? 3-5 p.m. Tuesdays, starting February 3

Where? Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), McGill University, 3610 McTavish, 2nd floor, IPLAI Library Seminar Room (room 22-2)

Participation in the Reading Group

This is a not-for-credit independent reading group. Anyone with an interest in the group’s discussion topics is welcome to attend. Although discussion will be held primarily in English, participants may take part in the conversation in either English or French. Since the list of discussion topics and readings may change, please contact Illa for updated information a few days before the session that you are interested in attending.


In a book-length reflection on the 2012 Quebec student strike, the Collectif de Débrayage invokes the trope of improvised music making to account for both the unexpected ways in which the strike unfolded and the irruptive political forces it set in motion.

"This time, defying all expectations, it [the legal framework of the State and union-backed collaborations] exploded. . . . An extravagance of power was enough for the scenario to become muddled, unleashing unexpected possibles. In the absence of a predetermined score, the movement invented, improvised [my emphasis], and the strike became once again the object of passions. Beyond the GGI [unlimited general strike], or through it, it became possible for something like a strike without end to emerge in an unprecedented fashion." (Collectif de Débrayage, On s’en câlisse. Histoire profane de la grève printemps 2012, Québec, Montreal, Sabotart, 2013, p. 9; trans. Illa Carrillo Rodríguez).

The recourse to images and discourses associated with the improvisatory arts is a common representational practice in accounts, not only of the 2012 Quebec student strike, but of social and political movements more generally. In his influential work on early modern and contemporary contentious politics, historian Charles Tilly (1993; 2006), for example, characterizes established techniques of protest as shared performance repertoires or routines on which social actors incessantly improvise, thereby transforming those repertoires and generating unscripted possibilities for collective action.

This reading group proposes to explore the relationship between improvisatory practices and social transformation. What are the dimensions of collective action that improvisatory arts bring to the fore? Why is the trope of musical and theatrical improvisation repeatedly invoked by a variety of actors engaged in processes of social change? What forms of agency do improvisatory forms of art open up for inquiry? What modes of poiesis, both political and aesthetic, do they render perceptible? How might the uses of arts-based improvisational categories in studies of extra-artistic phenomena contribute to the reconfiguration of the ostensibly discrete boundaries between aesthetics and politics, theory and action, research and practice? What are the potentialities, but also the limits, of deploying arts-based ideas about improvisation as paradigms for apprehending “extemporaneous” or “spontaneous” phenomena occurring across a broad range of social and political practices? We will address these questions by examining a repertoire of improvisationally-inflected modes of collective action that have played a key role in shaping public soundscapes, social imaginaries, and political subjectivities in twenty-first-century mobilizations, such as the 2001 casserole demonstrations in Argentina, the 2011 street protests in Egypt, and the 2012 Quebec student strike. We will consider the work of a variety of activists, artists, and scholars who have undertaken a critical reflection on the ethics, aesthetics, and politics of these modes of collective action and their role within neoliberal cultural formations.

Provisional Reading/Discussion List

Week 1 (Feb. 3): Introduction: Improvisatory Tropes and Practices in Art and Politics

  • From: Tilly, Charles. Regimes and Repertoires. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2006. Chapter 3, “Repertoires of Contention,” pp. 31-59.
  • From: Faulkner, Robert R., and Howard S. Becker. “Do You Know...?”: The Jazz Repertoire in Action. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2009. Chapter 9, “Playing the Repertoire Game,” pp. 184-94.

Week 2 (Feb. 10): Improvising Mediations, Improvising Historiographies*

  • Screening of Peter Watkins’s 1999 film La Commune (Paris, 1871), followed by discussion *We will convene at 1 p.m. to watch the short version of the film.

Week 3 (Feb. 17): Aural Improvisations in the Public Sphere

  • From: Dobson, Andrew. Listening for Democracy: Recognition, Representation, Reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Chapter 1, “Why Listening?” pp. 17-48.
  • From: Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape. Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia UP, 2006. Introduction, pp. 1-31.

Week 4 (Mar. 3): Network Collective Action and Organized Chaos

  • Srinivasan, Ramesh. “Bridges Between Cultural and Digital Worlds in Revolutionary Egypt.” The Information Society: An International Journal 29.1 (2013): 49-60.
  • Coleman, Gabriella. “Anonymous in Context: The Politics and Power behind the Mask.” Internet Governance Papers. No. 3. Waterloo: The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 2013.

Week 5 (Mar. 17): Talk by Darci Sprengel (PhD Candidate, Ethnomusicology, UCLA): “Spontaneous Street Concerts and Social Change in Post-Mubarak Egypt”

Week 6 (Mar. 31): Politics / Participation / Collective Action

  • Barney, Darin. “‘Excuse us if we don’t give a fuck.’ The (anti-)political career of participation.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts and Culture 2.2 (2010): 138-146.
  • From: Collectif de Débrayage. On s’en câlisse. Histoire profane de la grève printemps 2012, Québec. Montreal: Sabotart, 2013. Chapter 8, “La cacophonie plébéienne,” pp. 185-211.

Week 7 (Date TBD): The Poetics, Politics, and Pedagogies of Improvisatory Collective Action

  • Al-Saji, Alia. “Creating Possibility: The Time of the Quebec Student Movement.” Supplement of Theory & Event 15.3 (2012): n. pag.
  • Lynes, Krista Geneviève. “Poetic Resistance and the Classroom without Guarantees.” Supplement of Theory & Event 15.3 (2012): n. pag.
  • Choudry, Aziz. “Avec nous, dans la rue: Pedagogy of Mobilization, University of the Streets.” Wi: Journal of Mobile Media 6.2 (2012): n. pag.

Week 8 (Date TBD): Improvising Art, Activism, and Scholarship

  • Screening of the film Insurgences (2012), by the Groupe d’action en cinéma Épopée, followed by discussion

Musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

– Ajay Heble