Considering “Relational Aesthetics”

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Much art of the 1990s will forever remain associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition Traffic (1995) and the book it spurred him to write, Relational Aesthetics (1998), which put forward the terms of art we now use to identify (describe?) the offerings of artists such as Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerester and others.   Whether one was eating Thai food in a gallery, sitting and conversing on understated but stylized benches in an exhibition hall, or taking part in a seance, it was immediately apparent that something significant had happened to the way that artists were approaching the enterprise of art making, and Bourriaud gave it a name.

Now, the Guggenheim has just opened theanyspacewhatever (24 Oct. – 7 Jan.), an exhibition conceived in “collaboration” with a number of artists of the relational persuasion (Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija), who the organizer, Chief Curator Nancy Spector, invited to “collectively formulate a scenario for an exhibition, one that will reflect and articulate the unique nature of their practices.”   In an effort to keep this self-reflexivity running in high gear, the Guggenheim, along with the School of the Arts at Columbia University, presented “Catalysts and Critics: The Art of the 1990s,” a day-long symposium designed to reconsider “relational aesthetics” a decade on.

And reconsideration, it seems, is much in demand.   Ina Blom conjectured that this work revives the concept of “style,” understood as a “style of life”–this is style not as the attributes of a thing but as its continuous relationship to itself, but one now transferred to a particular “site.”   This externalization of style Blom named (what else?) a “style site.”   Alexander Alberro drew the audience’s attention to a “different relationality” altogether, one that began in Brazil in the 60s with artists such as Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica and Cildo Miereles.   Alberro’s otherwise excellent account of this “counter-formation” in the history of relational artistic practices was foiled only by the absence of Bourriaud himself (he was slated to attend), at whom Alberro’s talk was undeniably directed as a corrective to the Frenchman’s amnesiac theorizing.   And if I invoke that national identifier it is only because one other participant in “Catalysts and Critics,” Claire Bishop, made the point that Traffic and Relational Aesthetics was Bourriaud’s way of reasserting the importance of the art of the Continent.   Understood in this way, Relational Aesthetics was not so much a theoretical treatise–”incompetent” is how Bishop described Bourriaud’s theorizing–as a manifesto meant to draw a line down the middle of the English Channel.   Bishop also rightly noted that if we are to get our minds around this period and these practices, we will need to get clear on the differences between “relational” and “participatory,” the confusion of which greatly diminishes our ability to think about art that uses “people as a medium.”

So, given such prompts, how do others consider “relational aesthetics”?   Do we need to shed this label?   To renovate it?   Does one “participate” in an art that immerses itself so deeply in the patterns and rituals of a culture as to be indistinguishable from it?   Or are we talking about–and participating in–something else entirely?

9 thoughts on “Considering “Relational Aesthetics”

  1. There is another word that precedes this one – appropriation. Not too long ago you could conceivably teach a whole course on postmodernism with this one word to go on, and “relational” has taken its place. Bourriaud pushed too hard for an all-encompassing concept without really securing it and, hungry for its use, too many curators and critics wielded it as a handy device. I am interested in the appearance of these two words, both the apparent need or use for them and their ultimate inadequacy. In the case of relationality, it takes someone like Jean Luc-Nancy to give the concept its life in the world.

    With response to Claire Bishop, in fun and in seriousness I recently wrote about what has happened to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work Bourriaud devotes an entire chapter to, in the context of what I referred to as the gallery giveaway. What became visible to me was that each gesture of the giveaway revealed a completely different economy, and our relationship to it in return. The notion of the gift/promotional item in the capitalist democracy of “Chelsea” – which, I argue, has subsumed Gonzalez-Torres’s initial gesture – is refracted differently by each giveaway.

    For me, getting past “relationality” is simply a matter of discernment. There is antagonism in each case – limits imposed by “the economy” made visible in the specific gesture of the gift. One’s self is involved differently each time, and only because it can be – “the economy” that is legible to us is refracted in all these ways. This is ethnographic realism, and it is highly dependent on comparison in order to make these relations visible.

    Am I interested in privileging Hirschhorn above Tiravanija? Not particularly. But I do identify with the “relational antagonism of the divided and incomplete subject of today.”

  2. Have not seen the Guggenheim show on relational aesthetics (RA), due to the fact that the museum no longer maintains an aesthetic relation with me. Perhaps I will sneak in one day and successfully view it.

    In the interim, all accounts I have read or heard on theanyaestheticwhatever show indicate that, in addition to being nominally RA, it also feels rather MT. Frank Lloyd Wright would probably not mind: by default this allows greater attention to be paid to his shell. But I do understand that you can have a cup of coffee (no Thai curry this time – darn!), catch an old timey movie, sit in a padded, carpeted video lounge and watch interviews with the artists, or on various S-shaped red benches and listen to biographical Acoustiguide factoids. You can view a revolving hotel room under a domed skylight perpetually blanketed by a starry night sky. There is a drowned Pinnochio in the pond, lots of text stenciled on the floors and walls and even done up in free hanging black painted aluminum letters (like a pawnbroker sign?). And yes, as one leaves, a pile of small giveaway booklets filled with iron-on transfer images – of the museum itself.

    Is this institutionally self reflexive? or merely self regarding? And having said all that, do I now even need to bother going?

  3. To Catherine’s final point, at the conference I could not resist running my mouth during the Q&A on the whipping-boy of “subjectivity” that kept returning in each and every one of the presentations. Bishop admitted that in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,”–her fine critical essay which appeared in October 110 and from which she made it clear she is desperately trying to escape (imagine how Michael Fried feels)–she had turned to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s writing on the “democratic subject” specificially because it was informed by an (Lacanian) understanding of that subject as incomplete (split) and in-formation, and, importantly, because at the time she was steeped in Lacan for her own doctoral research.

    Now, I think Bishop’s analysis in that article is excellent, but upon hearing this bit of intellectual history, I could not but think that the whole thing smacked of a kind of philosophical nominalism. What, I asked, about other “models” of the “subject”?–ones more informed, say, by legal and juridical disciplines, such as (the trendy) Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life” or (the less trendy but I think more important) Martha Nussbaum and Armatya Sen’s “capabilities approach.” How might the politics of participation and relationality in the aesthetic sphere look from these perspectives? (And, as always, I had to clarify that this was not just casting about for some theory or another with which to “interpret” works of art but a genuine methodological question.)

    To Steven’s point: your comment about needing not to attend now that you’ve read or received descriptions of the scenarios that make up the exhibition bears an interesting parallel to something that Alberro broached in his talk but failed to seize upon. Cildo Miereles produced a piece for Documenta 11 entitled Disappearing Object, Disappeared Object, for which the artist arranged for street vendors to sell flavorless popsicles for a Euro a piece (ice cubes on a stick really) to the weary art tourists. In this scenario, the tourists “actualize” the art work in their purchase and consumption of the popsicles, a move that condenses and dramatizes their activities as consumers of international exhibitions and contemporary art in general. That the piece could also be seen as a political comment upon the “disappearance” of a necessary resource, potable water, was an interpretation also in play, but one roundly regarded as a failure given that so many people had no idea they were “actualizing” a work of art to begin with.

    And here is where the parallel comes in: at work here is a difference between being a “witting” or an “unwitting” participant, and this is a difference that rests on one’s cognition of the work as such, be it a scenario, object or other kind of manifestation, regardless of whether one sees the work for oneself. (The success of Miereles’ work, to my mind, lies exactly in its creation of these unwitting participants, and thus not only in the potential for subsequent revelation on the part of these players, but also in its staging of the analogous ambivalent situation we find ourselves in everyday as often unwitting parties to the degradation of our own health and to that of our environment.) What Steven’s comment raises is that one can also be a “witting” or “unwitting” non-participant in these scenarios, and that the “actualization” of the work may entail a different order of experience–imagined? virtual?–than those presumed by the work itself or by the artist. “Witting non-participation” could then entail all of those people who read or talk about these scenarios and gestures, which greatly expands the population of those people who are “party” to the work and who may then “actualize” it in radically different ways.

  4. Jonathan:

    Although I did not experience the Miereles piece, I enjoy your discussion of the added resonance some artwork can achieve by enlisting “unwitting participants”. My particular comment led you to the converse, that of “witting non-participation”, in which the artwork is experienced or actualized in a manner not originally intended by artist or institution.

    It’s true that the chattering classes, those who do not necessarily attend an exhibition but are still able to understand it via received media coverage, are an expansion of the population that is “party” to the work. The dissemination of information online tends to enlarge this population exponentially.

    Call me old fashioned, but I believe that artist, institution and audience are best served by the traditional model, by the actual presence of bodies, brains and eyes to directly experience an exhibition. The basic fact, the physical presence of the spectator/participant, is obviously that much more vital in the realm of relational aesthetics.

    On a practical, operational level, should the museum not encourage direct access to the exhibition, or even somehow manage to obstruct same, it commits a great disservice and betrays a large part of its cultural mission. In the special case of media access, which has the potential to exponentially expand the population that is “party” to the work, as discussed above, the problem is aggravated.

    Sadly, this is a problem for the Guggenheim, but not attributable to RA or MTness. Rather to NS. As in BetC.

  5. In these commercially challenged times, it’s nice to know that thoughts and words are free and worth no less than yesterday.

    First, about the name, “Relational aesthetics.” I would start with a bit of re-branding. This coinage is an instant turnoff — a classic case of dressing up a good idea in bad language. How about “Life Art,” or something similar? You know, in plain English. I believe Beuys has something to do with the art currently on view at the Guggenheim. However, his famous quote didn’t read, “Every intelligent subject is an aesthetic agent.” If that had been the case, I suspect the idea would long be forgotten. It bears pointing out that such insider jargon belies the seemingly democratic aspirations of the art.

    As to the substance of “relational aesthetics,” the exhibition’s premise calls to mind a cartoon from the seventies. The protagonist gets hold of a bucket of black paint. First he paints a picture. Then a drop lands on the frame, so he paints the frame. He doesn’t stop. He paints the wall, then the furniture, then the house. The last frames show the planet earth from a distance, with an ever larger portion of its surface covered in black. Finally, the whole planet is black. The underlying question: Where lie the boundaries of the category of art? The apotheosis of “relational aesthetics” might be a statement by an artist declaring the whole planet a work of art.

    Another convenient metaphor may be that of the Eruv, the orthodox Jewish practice of fencing off a certain portion of a neighborhood within which some restrictions of the Sabbath do not apply. In modern Jewish usage, “eruv” refers to a string or rope stretched out between poles to surround a neighborhood, creating a symbolic “walled courtyard.” It seems to me, the practice of “relational aesthetics” consists, somewhat analogously, of fencing off certain portions of reality, whether or not they have otherwise visible or tangible characteristics, to will to life a kind of symbolic walled courtyard of art.

  6. Drop the branding enterprise and nominalist worries for a moment. Even painting is relational, a painting faces us and how it faces us matters, and this is very much about who, about the force of an address towards an audience (I’m with Steve here). Does Michael Fried worry about this, do you really think? I don’t think the “problem” of subjectivity needs to be found anywhere but in the objects and how they structure experience, and it is not that “relational” needs to be re-branded, but that it in its branding it has become a lazy term that obliterates the fact that, as Jean-Luc Nancy says, “people are strange.” He writes, ‘Everything, then, passes between us. The “between,” as its name implies, has neither a consistency nor a continuity of its own.” I might want to give up on Bourriaud, but not on relations, and certainly not in to branding. ( Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford University Press, c. 2000, p. 5)

  7. I don’t believe “relational” is a “lazy term.” “Unmonumental,” now that’s a lazy term. But “relational,” particularly when we use it to refer to Bourriaud’s efforts, is not lazy, and should prove quite productive. The point here, I think, is not to carry the implications of this art, at least at the level of commentary, through to its logical (or illogical) ends, as Andras and to a certain extent Steven point out, but rather to look at what has actually happened in the past fifteen years and to understand that “relational aesthetics,” as a label, brand, or what have you, plays an important role in the transformation, avant-garde or otherwise, of artistic practice.

    I think one important point that has been made about all of this work is that you can’t divorce the “discourse” from the “practice.” Many times the production of the discourse is a product of the artistic practice itself, as when seminars and conferences are self-consciously, but still genuinely, staged as part of the overall aesthetic enterprise. Indeed, at the Columbia symposium, the audience recognized that it was, to a certain extent, part of the exhibition, even out ahead of it. And though this may sound like a tumble toward artistic solipsism, I think it actually demonstrates the profound importance placed by advanced contemporary art on the invention and debate of ideas.

  8. For clarification, my point is not that relational is in itself a lazy term, but in its so-called branding it has become so (“it is not that “relational” needs to be re-branded, but that it in its branding it has become a lazy term”)- I have been privy to a curator’s pitch for a “relational” show in the weakest sort of way. And Claire Bishop certainly felt the need to rescue it from its rather thin quality, as defined by Bourriaud. This is clearly one of the things that has happened in the past fifteen years. My point is that it IS an important word, one worth fighting over, if you will, hence the appeal to Jean-Luc Nancy that I made in my very first comment.

  9. This idea of laziness is stimulating, but not just in reference to RA as a “lazy term” or as subject to “lazy branding”. Rather in the very model of artistic practice encouraged by RA, a built-in posture of slackness or purposeful incompleteness, analogous to the folksinger who encourages the audience, halfway through the number, to “all join in”. We feel good after that rousing group rendition of “Kumbaya”, but might be reluctant to call it art. Or perhaps it does resonate as a form of “social sculpture”, after Beuys, who is the obvious precursor of RA, twenty years before Bourriaud’s treatise.

    Not to be (too much of) a curmudgeon, but one of the cautions I bring to RA is that it requires audience participation to achieve wholeness. This is often seen as an essential strength, going beyond performance art to incorporate the viewer as an active agent. From this perspective, RA is open ended, democratic, interactive, unfinished. It conspicuously leaves a theoretical door ajar, an invitation to outside intervention.

    But it can also suggest a certain sloth, with artists who are loath to commit to a final statement and execution, who happily fall back on halfway gestures, advancing only the suggestion of structure and situation, which must then be inhabited by the audience in order to fully connote. The international movable feast of RA requires the assent of an itinerant fan club, ready to travel from art capital to art capital, populate the installations and cheer.

    It is interesting that the RA of the 1990s was contemporary with slacker movements in music and fashion, and that all were potentially influenced by bad economic times, when a pristine, finished product was not so essential, because it was not likely to be financially rewarded – so why not experiment in the realm of the incomplete, in hanging out and hanging on? Perhaps our current economic meltdown provides a particularly suitable climate for a reexamination of RA. Have the Guggenheim and Nancy Spector arrived at a prescient moment in the zeitgeist? theanyspacewhatever is years in the making. Back in fall 2004, when planning for the show began, the good times were still very much a-roll.

    The press opening, which I did not experience, but which I imagine (like most media previews) was only sparsely populated, undoubtedly accentuated the emptiness of the installations. There were no crowds, none of the usual acolytes to add a frisson of artworld heat. No strength in numbers. Without this noise and activity, the work must have seemed thin, dry, half baked and lost in space.

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