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?