Bourriaud, thirty years later, attempts to find an escape from the spectacle of histime, characteristically stating in his book that “if the spectacle deals first and foremost withforms of human relations… it can only be analysed and fought through the production of newtypes of relationships between people”.1During the 1960s, a discourse around the space of exhibition arose and the conceptionthat artworks were independent objects, worthy only of autonomous analysis was put aside.
Three decades later, the shift from curating as an administrative practice towards curating asan artistic practice was obvious. The 1990s were the years of, as Bruce Altshuler said, “the riseof the curator as creator”.2 The curatorial was now supposed to provoke debates. It wasestablished as a space that allowed for discussion and critique to blossom. Exhibitions asphilosophical and discursive gestures “produced particular and general forms ofcommunication.”3 The theory of relational aesthetics, originally articulated by NicolasBourriaud in 1998, intervenes in curatorial discourse in the early 1990s by putting the mainfocus on communication and interaction. This essay will explore and critically engage with1 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 842 Paul O’Neil, “The Curatorial Turn From Practice To Discourse”.
In Issues In Curating Contemporary ArtAnd Performance (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007), 203 Ibid, 143Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of “Relational Aesthetics” and examine how Guy Debord’s theoryof the “Society of the Spectacle” is used in Bourriaud’s texts. Furthermore, it will attempt toestablish a relationship between these two theories and distinguish how exhibitions mightfunction either as spectacles or as “relational”.Nicolas Bourriaud in his book discusses several artists who either exemplify the turn torelational aesthetics or their work can be considered relational. His most characteristic exampleis the case of renowned artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, whom he mentions throughout his book.
Apart of his artistic practice consists in bringing people together in order to cook or share meals.Convivial relations were a central artistic concern during the 1990s and, as seen in ClaireBishop’s book Participation, socially-oriented artworks and theories increased since then.4Tiravanija expressed this concern by preparing Thai food in the gallery and handing it out toexhibition visitors, prompting the interaction among them. Another artist mentioned byBourriaud, Christine Hill, decided to organise a gym workshop inside the gallery. Anothertime, Hill’s artistic activity involved her working at the checkout till of a supermarket.
5 At thesame time, for the exhibition Unité, Heimo Zobernig installed an actual bar within the galleryspace as a symbol of sociability.6 All these artists mentioned have one element in common.Their practices are interactive and address the relations between the people by producingmodels of sociability.
Most of them use as a means of artistic production a commonprofessional activity. By providing services, such as serving food and offering massages, theyattempt to “fill in the cracks in the social bond”7.4 Claire Bishop, Participation (London: Whitechapel, 2010), 105 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 86 Ibid, 327 Ibid, 364Relational aesthetics comes in to fill in this crack created in society. Through thistheory, Nicolas Bourriaud argues for art’s interactivity and its ability to raise discussion. In hisbook, he defines relational aesthetics as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoreticaland practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, ratherthan an independent and private space”.8 His concern occurred when, prompted by GuyDebord’s ideas in Society of the Spectacle, Bourriaud noticed that everything around him wassinking into capitalist systems, leading to a general reification.
In his view, everything is beingmarketed in order to survive. Even human relationships and social bonds are associated withgoods, or even replaced by them. He brings up an accurate example when he mentions the factthat people are considered to spend quality time together when they chat over a drink for whichthey have paid a price. “The social bond has turned into a standardized artefact”.9 ForBourriaud, this phase where human relations are reified is the most crucial and it could lead torelationships merely existent within a trading framework. As Debord had noted, the humanrelations in the society of the spectacle are “no longer ‘directly experienced’, but start tobecome blurred in their ‘spectacular’ representation”.10 For Bourriaud, contemporary artshould intervene, create an interstice and therefore create a space that allows for discussion andinter-human relations to grow.Instead of limiting art to independent objects displayed in a gallery, Bourriaud suggeststhat the focus should be placed on whether it succeeds in making the beholder relate to it, andthus relate to the other people.
Artistic practice should embrace viewer interaction, inspire theaudience to engage in discourse, and create a social experience. “Art is a state of encounter”11,an encounter not only between the viewer and the artwork – what he calls art’s transitivity -8 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 1139 Ibid, 910 Ibid11 Ibid, 1835but also an encounter between the image and all its possible links that create its actual meaning.These links are created through human interaction, during which people connect one thing toanother, invent symbols and make comparisons, even subconsciously sometimes. However,this formation of links has been strongly suppressed, as the relational space in general has beenminimised by the mechanisation of most social functions.12 Contemporary art should becapable of creating links and serve as a minor element that composes a wider picture. As putby Bourriaud, it should function as “a dot on a line”.13 A significant characteristic of artisticpractice that embraces relational aesthetics theory is either its ability to create relations amongthe public or to develop new models of sociability. In order to demonstrate this sociability,artists suggest as art pieces either objects generating sociability, or even moments ofsociability, such as group classes, collaborations, festivals or games.
Bourriaud’s own curatorial schema is interwoven with an eclectic (and not necessarilycoherent) mix of philosophical and political ideas, and artistic examples of the past. Amongthem, Guy Debord and Karl Marx, figure prominently, providing two central notions aroundwhich Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics develop. Firstly, French philosopher Guy Debord in hisbook The Society of the Spectacle (1967) unfolds the concept of the spectacle by analyzing thesociety of his time. Debord’s theory is referenced many times in Bourriaud’s book, as he usesit to indicate that relational aesthetics stands as an anti-spectacle. Debord in his book takes intoconsideration the effect of capitalism and the impact of mass media on human relationships,that have led to a distorted perception of the world and the alienation of individuals. ForDebord, the society of the spectacle is the direct result of capitalism, where the consumerspassively contemplate and are ruled by the commodities.
“The spectacle in general, as the12 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 16-1713 Ibid, 216concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”.14 He has definedthe spectacle “as the historical moment when merchandise achieved ‘the total occupation ofsocial life’, capital having reached ‘such a degree of accumulation’ that it was turned intoimagery”.15 The spectacle can be regarded as false reality. It is a social relation among peoplewho passively sink in the superficial world that the spectacle itself generates. Therefore, thesphere of inter-human relations is the most strongly affected by reification, as they have been”spectacularly” represented, or in Debord’s words, this is the stage of supreme “separation”.16Concerning the historical context that Debord wrote his book The Society of theSpectacle, one has to take into consideration the fact that it was one year before the May 1968events in France. Inspired by Marx and frustrated with de Gaulle administration, incombination with images of horrifying massacres in Vietnam all over the news, University ofParis students began massive strikes, which triggered the police’s violent response and causedmultiple arrests.
Millions of workers joined the students’ protests against capitalism andoccupied factories in order to make their own demands.17 The 1960s was a time of politicalturbulence that had an impact on French society and was reflected in Debord’s work.18Influenced by the Situationist International (SI), his belief that art is a dynamic tool to intervenein political reality and that it has the ability to exceed capitalist relations of production isobvious through his work. During that time, the utopian dimension of the neo avant-garde isstill prevailing and he envisages new utopian worlds. The element of shock is of centralimportance for him, and he suggests more radical techniques (such as détournement19).14 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black & Red, 1970), chapter 1, paragraph 215 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 11316 Ibid, 917 Keith Reader and Khursheed Wadia, The May 1968 events in France: reproductions and interpretations(Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1993), 118 Ibid, 5119 “Short for ‘détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements’. The integration of present or past artisticproductions into a superior construction of a milieu.
In this sense there can be no situationist painting or7Bourriaud, three decades later, calls into question this belief. For him, there is no more of thisutopian power that existed in the late 1960s and art is only capable of limited things –significant nevertheless – such as creating an interstice. Sharing a meal with Tiravanija canopen up a new universe, a crack in the system, but it is temporary and after its completionparticipants move on with their lives. Relational aesthetics seems to have neither the intentionnor the faith that the prevailing capitalist framework can be exceeded.
By returning to Marx, Bourriaud seeks precisely this: to recuperate the inherentlyradical – according to him – dimension of relational aesthetics in a society defined by a generalprocess of reification. “Over and above its mercantile nature and its semantic value”, writesBourriaud, “the work of art represents a social interstice”.20 It represents, in Marx’s terms ashe explains, a space that whilst it exists within the existing capitalist system, it is neverthelessnot governed by profit.
It opens up “other trading possibilities than those in effect within thissystem”.21 The space of relational aesthetics, then, as Marx’s “interstitial” spaces of labour,produces social relations, that resist the “law of profit”. It is for the same reason, that Bourriaudappears to insist on the processual character of much relational work, rather than on a final,tangible object, and on the ways in which it produces transient social relations.
22 But by thesame token, since the interstitial space also “fits more or less harmoniously and openly into theoverall system”, it is necessarily transient, ephemeral, and vulnerable to the externalmusic, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the oldcultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importanceof those spheres.” – “Definitions.
” Situationist International Online.http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline///si/definitions.html (accessed January 13, 2018).
20 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 1621 Ibid, 1622 Ibid, 228conditions.23 The relational artwork, Bourriaud, writes elsewhere “elapses within a factualtime, for an audience summoned by the artist”.24It is interesting to look further into the term interstice that Bourriaud uses. Accordingto the Merriam-Webster dictionary, interstice is “a space that intervenes between things,especially one between closely spaced things, or a short space of time between events”.25 Thisdefinition implies two dimensions to the term, one of time and one of space. Concerning theformer, the temporality of the interstice created can be grasped in the temporality of relationalartworks themselves. In Tiravanija’s shared meals, people gather and interact and for a shortperiod of time this interaction opens up new potential universes, generating a crack in theestablished system.
However, once the experience is over, people go back to their routines andthe interstice stays in the past. This temporality is evident when Bourriaud claimed that “it isno longer possible to regard the contemporary work as a space to be walked through. It ishenceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimiteddiscussion”.26 On the other hand, interstice can also be interpreted in its spatial dimension. Thiscan either be a physical space – since these experiences are mostly produced within the gallerywalls – or a metaphorical space. As reification, telecommunications and general mechanisationof social functions have minimised the space of human relations, art attempts to create anopening. It “strives to achieve modest connections, open up obstructed passages and connectlevels of reality kept apart from one another”.27 At this point, it is interesting to examineBourriaud’s comparison of art to a game.
28 Let us consider the characteristics of a game. It is23 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 1624 Ibid, 2925 “Interstice.” Merriam-Webster.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/interstice (accessedJanuary 13, 2018).26 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 1527 Ibid, 828 “Artistic activity is a game” – Ibid, 119a protected space, away from routine and with the element of labour absent. It is a constructedsituation for reasons of conviviality, where both interaction and rules coexist.
In the game -similarly as in the interstitial space created through relational art – another type of relationbetween the participants is developed. It is a playful anti-contemplative encounter with theelement of chance and happenstance. It has- to a certain extent – its own rules outside theframework of capitalist relations of production. These constructed situations – the game andthe interstice – both constitute an “experimental realization of artistic energy in everydaysettings”.29 Therefore, for Bourriaud, this interstitial place is far from utopian. It is somethingfeasible and realistic, where models of possible universes can be shaped.
While Debord wishes for new utopian worlds, Bourriaud, who lives in the criticaljuncture of the 1990s, renounces them. The 1990s was the era of the rising digital technologies.Computers and mobiles were common to many people and communication was moreattainable. The construction of roads and the development of transportation networks facilitatedindividual mobility and generated an increase in social exchanges.
30 Moreover, the end of theCold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union signaledthe end of real socialism and introduced a world where capitalism reigned.31 In a period wherethe political framework of Communism is extinct and the capitalist framework thrives,Bourriaud invites us to reconsider the Marxist theory. However, he recognizes thecircumstances that prevail and maintains a pragmatist position. He adjusts the Marxist viewsto the historical context of the time and suggests adaptation within the existing capitalistconditions.29 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 8430 Ibid, 1431 Michael K. Salemi and W. Lee.
Hansen, Discussing economics: a classroom guide to preparingdiscussion questions and leading discussion (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005), 7110Precisely this adaptation of Marxism within capitalism has been the subject of intensedebate. For theorist Claire Bishop, relational aesthetics have been founded on, as much asdiverted from post-structuralism, a “creative misreading” of post-structuralist theory: “ratherthan the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work itselfis argued to be in perpetual flux”.32 In relational aesthetics, she further argues, the idea of the”laboratory” comes to replace that of the autonomous work of art, thus suggesting “the shiftfrom goods to a service-based economy”.33 And yet, as she contends, what Bourriaud’s theoryultimately lacks is a clear contextualisation or description of the relational itself. Asks Bishop:”If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what typesof relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”.34 More adamant about the absence ofradicality in Bourriaud’s theory is Stewart Martin.
If Bourriaud himself insisted on the radical,confrontational aspect of his relational aesthetics, Martin contends that his theory wasideologically ambiguous and could equally “be read as a naïve mimesis or aestheticisation ofnovel forms of capitalist exploitation”.35 Furthermore, the author accuses the curator of fallinginto the trap of a double fetishisation: both of the art object (as a commodity), and of the socialrelations emanating from its production. The mere dematerialisation of the object of art doesnot undermine (even momentarily) the capitalist framework of production, for “it is thecommodification of labour that constitutes the value of ‘objective’ commodities”, and not theother way around.36 More importantly for my context here, a number of commentators, haveargued against Bourriaud’s reading of the utopian impulses of the neo-avant-gardes, andespecially of the SI. Owen Hatherley has contended that Bourriaud’s theory is nothing more32 Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 52, accessed January14, 2018,33 Ibid, 5134 Ibid, 6535 Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” Third Text, 21:4 (2007): 371, accessed January 14,2018, https://platypus1917.org/wpcontent/uploads/2010/10/martinstewart_relationalaestheticscritique_thirdtext2007.pdf36 Ibid, 378.
11than “a depoliticized version of Situationist attempts to disrupt consumption and spectacle”.37And Jennifer Stob has demonstrated how the curator, whilst returning to Debord, actuallyinstrumentalises the latter’s theories so to serve his own purposes: mainly to present relationalaesthetics as an extension of situationist practices, that can now be finally incorporated withinthe art system. Such a reading, is however, according to the author misleading “falselyimplying that the Situationists themselves wished to reconcile their project with the art worldbut did not manage to do so”.38Bourriaud’s return to Marx in a period where the capitalist framework prevails is aninteresting approach.
The fact that he adjusts it to capitalism and, therefore, embraces the deathof the avant-garde has raised many debates until present day, and it has been much argued thatrelational aesthetics might collapse into spectacle, where the logic of commodity reigns amongrelationships. It is ambivalent how relational aesthetics seeks to disrupt consumption and giverise to “anti-spectacular” ephemeral social events, but how, at the same time, there is thegeneral idea that these events, such as dining and playing together, might turn themselves intomere images that actually replace human relations, before they are confined within the artsystem. Although possibly not so subversive, Bourriaud’s theory that artworks can be “waysof living and models of action within the existing real”39, requires the viewer’s critical thinkingand conscious spectatorship and “learning to inhabit the world in a better way”40 would beextremely beneficial for the society and the generations to come.