Improbable Assembly

What is it?

Societies know many different forms and formats of assembling, gathering, coming together. In traditional celebrations, official conferences, institutionalised bodies, political demonstrations and (subversive) social movements societies perform, create and confirm the social collectively. The arts have been experimenting with many different forms of (improbable) assemblies during the dissolution of the artistic genres since the 1960s.1 Assemblies and Participation was the name of the first postgraduate programme (2012-2014) that worked with and on PABR. Within this frame, as well as in the subsequent postgraduate programme Performing Citizenship (2015-2017), different assemblies were not just researched on but at the same time developed as a basic format of Participatory Art Based Research.

As a research format, the Improbable Assembly is a situation that is envisioned and set up to assemble people who would not otherwise come together. What is more, it is a set-up intended to let different kinds of knowledge emerge and be recognized – to create a mode for the different researchers, co-researchers and participants to “know” (Peters 2014) within the act of assembling. Furthermore, an Improbable Assembly can constitute, be or become (part of) a body that claims its own knowledge – a knowledge that goes beyond established and proven forms, brought about through procedures of sharing, confirming, recording, representing, speaking for others, or speaking in the name of something. In this sense, the Improbable Assembly is a tool to produce and curate new and improbable publics.

What is researched?

Assemblies are collective performances that can be analysed by employing categories of performance analysis: the space and time of the assembly, the roles, rights and rules of the assembly, the ways people can participate, communicate, mediate and take part in decision-making. Assemblies create community, conflict, plans for collective action and subject positions to be embodied and performed.

The postgraduate programme Assemblies and Participation was inspired by new practices of assembling in the Occupy and the Real Democracy movements. Looking at different forms of protest, Judith Butler describes assembling as a fundamental political and social action. Butler is pushing against Hannah Arendt’s conception of the “space of appearance” (Arendt 1998) as the appearance of the subject to others (Butler 2015).2 She suggests to rethink Arendt’ s view, “so that the body, and its requirements, becomes part of the action and aim of the political”, which in turn would allow us to “start to approach a notion of plurality that is thought together with both performativity and interdependency” (Butler 2015: 151). This notion of plurality includes thinking of those who do not and cannot appear (as subjects) within established forms of assembling.

Within the postgraduate programme Assemblies and Participation, the members’ basic assumption of research with and on assemblies was to work more explicitly on the performance of assembling in order to create different, more inclusive publics and, in consequence, different, more horizontal politics.

The aim of the research was identifying ways to assemble that would counteract hierarchical forms of representation and organisation governed by unity, identity and determining common enemies. Curating alternative assemblies also means producing a counterpublic that confronts the idea of a homogeneous, overarching public. How would this new public be called?  Who should be addressed as this public? How to assemble ‘the many’, the most heterogeneous of groups, and find new ways of being together through new ways of gathering (Tsomou/Tsianos 2016, Tsomou 2018)? Research was done along questions such as: How do media tools format assemblies and how could new media practices format them differently? Can the performance of decision-making in public planning be devised in a way that includes voices unheard before? The research project Yes No Maybe by Hannah Kowalski (2013) explored the desires and proposals of children for planning the outdoor area of the Gängeviertel and devised an assembly that allowed for alternative performances of collective decision-making that included the children. The Young Institute for Future Research by Eva Plischke (2013) assembled children, politicians, activists, and other citizens of Hamburg to explore alternative ways of future research, empowering kids to create forecast scenarios. The project The Class Exchange by Esther Pilkington and Sibylle Peters (2015) first invited students of two primary schools in very different districts of Hamburg (one poor, one rich) to switch their everyday lives for one school day and then, a few days later, to assemble in the FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research to meet and share their experiences and views on the everyday of the other class in an urban context they had not previously known. The Megaphone Choir by Sylvi Kretzschmar (AMPLIFICATION! A Collective Invocation, 2013) assembled inhabitants, performers and activists to mourn the Esso Houses of St. Pauli in the context of the ongoing process of gentrification in this neighbourhood and at the same time investigated how “bodily, spatial and electronic amplification of voice(s) can create an acoustic space of assembly” (Kretzschmar 2014: 165 translated by the author]; see also Kretzschmar/Wildner 2016). The Welcome City Group by Paula Hildebrandt assembled new inhabitants of Hamburg with and without a legal status to explore the practice of arriving and settling in a new place (2016). The Art of Being Many by geheimagentur (2014) assembled performers, researchers and activists to investigate the practice of assembling as a democratic act within the Real Democracy movements as well as in participatory theatre, performance and live art. Furthermore, the research project Tactfulness (Reimers 2013) assembled people for devised dinners to research how different senses participate in the act of assembling. The metroZones’  – School of Urban Action is a further example for a curated assembly, in this case in the serial form of political education units creating debates on urban issues and activism (2016). In all these projects, the assembly is created and researched as an open process to look at the assembly’s modes of exchange and collective knowledge production.

Artistic means

Researching established and new forms of assembling means focusing on their frames, protocols, practices, authorisations and their politics of representation; it also means questioning these and suggesting future forms. When, where, why and how do people come together? Which formats, structures, interactions, which practices and constellations of assembling do we know, do we reject, do we propose? All this can be asked, tested and performed in a (theatre) performance situation that is always also a public assembly. Every constellation of audiences and performers has to constitute itself anew as an assembly. Thus, the public assembly is no longer only the precondition but a possible subject of investigation of performance (Peters 2012: 131, Plischke 2020: 128)

Furthermore, assemblies are a basic format of knowledge production: Learning and researching are fundamentally based on different forms of assembling. Academia provides well-established forms and formats such as conferences, discussions or workshops. Most of these established forms are wilfully and highly exclusive and perform learning and research as privilege. If the performance of assembling is impacting the content produced by assemblies, this also applies to knowledge created by and emerging within assemblies. Therefore, Participatory Art Based Research aims to assemble in a way that activates, recognises, creates and brings together other forms of knowledge and expertise beyond established frames of academia. Research projects aim not only to assemble artists and scientists, but also experts of everyday life, including those whose expertise is not yet established or acknowledged by social institutions and publics: To invite and assemble people as experts within a research project means creating a frame that addresses them in a way that recognises and values their expertise. The Improbable Assembly offers the unique possibility of providing a public forum for different concerns and forms of expertise. In this forum, different kinds of knowledge can emerge or be produced, they can enter into a dialogue and be shared on equal terms.

Doing research within an assembly means framing it in a way that authorises its participants to know, to speak or to act and to invent roles and rules that allow the assembled to access that “specific mode in which we know” (Peters 2014: 221 [translated by the author]). Sibylle Peters points out the importance of how the public is addressed in this context. “Who is called to assemble?” (Peters 2016: 36), Peters asks. “Who assembles whom?” (Reimers 2014), Inga Reimers asks. As Michael Warner argues in his book Publics and Counterpublics, by addressing a public we presuppose its existence at the same time as calling it into being (Warner 2010, Peters 2016: 37). Here, the artistic mode of the ‘as if’ can work as a catalyst to practice assemblies differently, to perform Improbable Assemblies. The mode of the ‘as if’– as if children were experts for the future, for example – can be used to maintain “a fictional or utopian (or even legal) distance towards social reality and at the same time work within this reality temporarily” (Plischke 2020: 142). Improbable Assemblies that are situated on the threshold between fiction and reality can operate with “their uncertain status in a productive way” (Plischke 2020: 141) – using the resources of art to turn the fiction, the alternative, into the real. They can be set up on the line between art and social reality to expand or cross it and thus blur their respective status (Plischke 2020: 141-142). The act of addressing a public as if it already existed, as if it was authorised and recognised, creates a “real fiction” (Peters 2016: 37).

The performing arts provide a wide range of means and procedures for calling, addressing, structuring, designing and staging an Improbable Assembly, to create frames and set-ups that allow the Improbable Assembly to function as an act of emancipative representation. This includes new forms of speaking for one another (Bernstorff, The Last Judgement – An Extrajudicial Hearing, 2014) and forms of interaction that are beyond language, such as movement, ritual, music and play (Kowalski, Yes No Maybe, 2013; Kretzschmar, AMPLIFICATION! A Collective Invocation, 2013).

Potentials, problems and outcomes

An Improbable Assembly is setting up an alternative proposal for how to assemble, how to act, how to know together, that in itself can be enacted, and thereby tested and tried out. As a format of Participatory Art Based Research,  an Improbable Assembly investigates and tests procedures and models of coming and acting together in the very moment of assembling and hence produces knowledge performatively.

Many Improbable Assemblies are involved in the constitutive process of a civic body. The moment an assembly starts to speak for itself, the moment the assembled start to say “we, the assembled”, always refers to the constitutive moment of the political subject – the performative act of saying “we, the people”. The performance of self-empowerment can be enjoyed as easily as it can be abused and turned into exclusivity and entitlement. The role and the degree of engagement of the participants might be diverse and manifold. This has to be taken into account especially if the Improbable Assembly in question is the main format of a given Participatory Art Based Research project such as The Art of Being Many.

For the research, it is important to counter a simple differentiation between representation on the one hand and authenticity of direct action on the other. The assembling as if we had the authority to do so, to decide, for instance, on the future, is enacted and therefore becomes real. Research therefore will ask how representation is and can be performed in many different ways, instead of trying to avoid representational modes entirely.

As for most of the research formats, the question of documentation relates to the research questions that determine the type of assembly. It is helpful to start documenting with the call to assemble and the specific (spatial) set-up of the upcoming assembly to reflect the dynamics of the assembling process. Who actually responded to the call? How did the participants interact in the assembly? What was their experience? Participatory Art Based Research requires the researcher to find adequate as well as, possibly, supplemental forms of documentation. For example, in order to also grasp aspects of the experience of an assembly that cannot be seen on video recordings, these could be complemented by interviews, questionnaires, images, drawings, or diaries. The research will therefore in part deal with the question how different forms of documentation can complement each other to leave as few blind spots as possible.

Within larger research projects, Improbable Assemblies are regularly called to mark or coincide with certain key moments of the process, such as foundation ceremonies or moments of key decisions. In these cases, assemblies are often part of other improbable entities such as Try-Out-Institutions or Heterotopian Zones. However, assemblies like these also bring heterogeneous participants together. As parts of a larger research project, assemblies are meant to structure the process, to focus on certain moments within to test and share results, to evaluate and document events and statements and to make collective decisions for future action. To manage all that, to focus on and share earlier moments of the process during the assembly, to prepare proceedings for testing, evaluating, documenting and decision-making in a way that allows a heterogeneous group of citizens and non-citizens to participate, Improbable Assemblies will often follow a clear structure. However, assemblies ultimately have to remain open in order to allow for spontaneous participation and unforeseen outcomes.

Maike Gunsilius, Sibylle Peters


response by Inga Reimers


1 From the 1980s on, Suzanne Lacy staged numerous performances in which she assembled citizens of different social contexts in order for them to speak and act together in different settings and to explore alternative forms of gathering as a community, such as Whisper, the Waves, the Wind (1984), The Roof is on Fire (1994), Between the Door and the Street (2013) and many others. She labelled these works »new genre public art« (Lacy 1995, 2010). Different hybrid forms between social, political and theatrical practice have emerged over the last two decades, such as works by Rimini Protokoll (World climate conference«, 2014, 100 % City, 2008-ongoing), Milo Rau/IIPM (The Kongo Tribunal, 2015) or geheimagentur (The Art of Being Many, 2014).

2 Butler conceptualizes the assembly as constitutive for the public: “[…]this space of appearance is not a location that can be separated from the plural action that brings it about; it is not there outside of the action that invokes and constitutes it. And yet, if we are to accept this view, we have to understand how the plurality that acts is itself constituted. How does the plurality form, and what material supports are necessary for that formation? Who enters the plurality, and who does not, and how are such matters decided?” (Butler 2015: 77)


Arendt, Hannah (1998): The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Butler, Judith (2015): Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Kretzschmar, Sylvi (2014): “VERSTÄRKUNG – Public Address Systems als Choreografien politischer Versammlungen”, in: Burri, Regula V./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Pilkington, Esther/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Versammlung und Teilhabe: Urbane Öffentlichkeiten und performative Künste. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 143–172.

Kretzschmar, Sylvi/Wildner, Kathrin (2016): “Amplification and Assembly”, in: geheimagentur/Schäfer, Martin/Tsianos, Vassilis. S. (eds): The Art of Being Many. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 169–182.

Lacy, Suzanne (ed) (1995): Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle, Wash: Bay Press.

Lacy, Suzanne (2010): Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974 – 2007. Durham, NewYork: Duke University Press.

Peters, Sibylle (2012): “Unwahrscheinliche Ansprachen”, in: Dod, Katrin/Hehmeyer, Kirsten/Pees, Mathias (eds): Theater der Zeit: Arbeitsbuch zum HAU Berlin. … Import Export. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, pp. 130–133.

Peters, Sibylle (2014): “Das Wissen der Versammlung. Versammeln als Forschungsverfahren einer beteiligten Wissenschaft”, in: Burri, Regula V./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Pilkington, Esther/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Versammlung und Teilhabe: Urbane Öffentlichkeiten und performative Künste. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 275–229.

Peters, Sibylle (2016): “Calling Assemblies. The Many as a Real Fiction”, in: geheimagentur/Schäfer, Martin/Tsianos, Vassilis. S. (eds): The Art of Being Many. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 35–50.

Pilkington, Esther. (2014): “Coming Together, Coming Apart: Wege zur Versammlung”, in: Burri, Regula V./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Pilkington, Esther/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Versammlung und Teilhabe: Urbane Öffentlichkeiten und performative Künste. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 21–35.

Plischke, Eva (2020): Zukunft auf Probe. Verhältnisse von szenischer Kunst und Zukunftsforschung. HafenCity University Hamburg. Available at:

Reimers, Inga (2014): “Wer versammelt wen? Die Forschungsversammlung als ethnografisches Experiment”, in: Burri, Regula V./Evert, Kerstin/Peters, Sibylle/Pilkington, Esther/Ziemer, Gesa (eds): Versammlung und Teilhabe: Urbane Öffentlichkeiten und performative Künste. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 197–214.

Tsomou, Margarita (2018): Zwischen Repräsentationskritik, Selbstrepräsentation und nicht-repräsentativen Politiken: die Aktionsformen der Aganaktismenoi auf dem Syntagma-Platz, Athen 2011. HafenCity University. Available at:

Tsomou, Margarita/Tsianos, Vassilis S. (2016): “Assembling Bodies in New Ecologies of Existence. The Real Democracy Experience as Politics Beyond Representation”, in: geheimagentur/Schäfer, Martin. J./Tsianos, Vassilis S. (eds): The Art of Being Many. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 77–93.

Warner, Michael (2010): Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Works / Projects

Bernstorff, Elise von, The Last Judgement, 2014, Hamburg

geheimagentur, The Art of Being Many, 2014, Hamburg

Hildebrandt, Paula, Welcome City Group, 2016, Hamburg

Kowalski, Hannah, Yes No Maybe, 2013, Hamburg

Kretzschmar, Sylvi, AMPLIFICATION! A Collective Invocation, 2013, Hamburg

Lacy, Suzanne, Whisper, the Waves, the Wind, 1984, San Diego,

Lacy, Suzanne, The Roof is on Fire, 1994, Oakland,

Lacy, Suzanne, Between the Door and the Street, 2013, New York,

metroZones, School of Urban Acting, 2016, Hamburg

Pilkington, Esther / Peters, Sibylle/FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research, Class Exchange, 2015, Hamburg

Plischke, Eva, Young Institute for Future Research, 2013, Hamburg

Rau, Milo/IIPM, The Kongo Tribunal (2015),

Reimers, Inga, Taktsinn, 2013, Hamburg

Rimini Protokoll, World Climate Conference, 2014, Hamburg,

Rimini Protokoll, 100 % City (2008-ongoing), Berlin, etc.,