She argues that relational art lacks antagonistic debate and is based on unconvincing utopian ideals instead: “I dwell on this theory [antagonism] in order to suggest that the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and of community as immanent togetherness” (Bishop 2004, p. 67). But while antagonism can be seen as a sign of a functioning democratic society, its foundational heart remains participation.
A media theorist who investigates the status of democracy in advanced media society, Thomas Meyer, has argued that participation has become difficult in a society where the media have colonized the public domain to such an extent that we should speak of a “mediocracy” instead of democracy (Meyer 2001). Huyghe’s work is particularly relevant in this context because he encourages a media-conscious attitude that opens up creative modes of participation in complex media contexts, all of which paves the way for critical and responsible interaction with today’s mediocratic society. This is one of the reasons why I find it constructive to look at Huyghe’s contributions to relational art in addition to those of Tiravanija and Gillick (20). Huyghe’s Chantier Barbés-Rochechouart and The Third Memory not only address Bourriaud’s ‘screen condition,’ but also engage the ethico-political dimensions of art that Bishop so desires. Whether or not intended by Huyghe himself, The Third Memory and other works of his raise important questions about a new kind of ethics necessary for contemporary media society on a global scale (21). Such an ethico-political intent is without doubt what drives Nevejan’s sociological thesis. Nevejan’s ambition is nothing less than setting a (new) standard for human behavior and well-being in the age of advanced media conditions — the 21st century, that is. Nevejan takes the “Declaration of Human Rights,” formulated by the United Nations after the Second World War, as her point of reference: “...the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been chosen as the essential normative perspective of social interaction, and thus for the potential building or breaking of trust” (Nevejan 2007, p.11). Nevejan thus shares Bishop’s concern for “qualified relations” in a broad sociopolitical sphere, but she locates and understands these relations in a technologically driven media environment. I argue that Nevejan’s new ethics and Bourriaud and Huyghe’s aesthetics are linked through their shared diagnosis of the new spatial and temporal conditions generated by the media, which profoundly effect our whole cultural and social environment — “media determine our situation,” as Friedrich Kittler states it concisely in one single phrase (Kittler 1999).
While Bourriaud and Nevejan develop their theories in the different contexts of art and sociology, they both look for the same kind of “qualified relations” as described by Bishop in her developed critique of relational art, but in the process they give a more convincing analysis of contemporary conditions than the latter does. Bourriaud does not limit relational art to interactive art, as Bishop also observes, but this does not mean that the new media context should be negated in the critical assessment of the movement. This brings me back to Baker’s “retrograde vision.” Relational art, it appears to me, is only “retrograde” if you do not acknowledge that the movement looks ahead and not just into its (art historical) past, which, by the way, it recognizes. Which is not to say that relational art is indifferent to its art historical precedents. Far from it. Bourriaud has often referred to Fluxus as an inspiration source for relational art. In Esthétique Relationelle, for instance, he states unambiguously: “La ‘participation’ du spectateur, théorisée par les happenings et les performances Fluxus, est devenue une constante de la practique artistique” (Bourriaud 1998, p. 25) (22). While Bourriaud refers somewhat less frequently to the situationists, he does criticize Debord’s Society of Spectacle openly: “Les utopies sociales et l’espoir révolutionnaire ont laissé la place à de micro-utopies quotidiennes et à des stratégies mimétiques: tout position critique ‘directe’ de la societé est vaine…” (Bourriaud 1998, p. 31). Evidently, Bourriaud is indebted not only to Lyotard’s show, Les Immateriaux, but also to his postmodern theory, in which the philosopher develops the idea of the “petites récits” (Lyotard 1979). So, Bourriaud’s assessment of contemporary culture and society can be conceived as a critical response to Debord’s analysis of the spectacle society.
In the introduction of a new English edition of his Society of Spectacle in 1993, Debord states that “nothing has changed” since he wrote the book, and that he still intends to “harm society” (Debord 1995). Bourriaud, Huyghe and other relational artists, in other words, do respond to the situationist legacy (think of Huyghe’s idea of “mise-en-situation,” or his critical take on the spectacle value), but they are less optimistic about the possibility of changing society according to the good old Marxist model — a sign of antagonism that Bishop chooses to ignore. It is precisely Baker’s argument of the historical weight of the 1960s avant-gardes, as embodied by the situationists, which annoyed the younger generation of relational artists, not because they were irreverent to historical precedents, but because it blocked the recognition of what Bourriaud called “the real challenges of art vis-à-vis society, history and culture” (Bourriaud 1996b) (23). Though relational art questions the situationists’s conviction that we can — and must — subvert media society, it still holds that we can find other ways to productively relate to, and operate within, spectacle society. Huyghe does not shy away from today’s intricate media situation, but rather thinks the consequences of contemporary media conditions through for culture and society, including the possibilities for the human subject to be proactive within it.
Note 20: In his analysis of classic films and other media, Bismuth has shown how to infiltrate and interrupt existing codes of meaning in culture at large. The same goes for Douglas Gordon in his early work such as his notorious appropriation of 24 Hours Psycho (1993).
Note 21: Another work to mention in regard with a new ethics is Huyghe’s relatively early video projection, Show white (1997), in which the artist also interrogates deeply ethical questions as a result of the result of the tension between natural presence and mediated presence in a rather touching manner. Show White is a documentary about Lucie Dolène, a woman who ‘gave’ her voice to the French translation of Walt Disney’s movie on the same fairy tale. Dolène sued Disney for abusing her voice when the company did not give her the proper royalties for the distribution of a new edition of the film. Dolène’s motivation to go to court, however, had to do with ethical issues of privacy and ownership rather than money. What is at stake in this work, then, are fundamental issues of property rights in the age of advanced media conditions. We have learnt from John locke a long time ago that property and property rights have something to do with ourselves, with our own existence, our physical body. A question such as Dolène’s as to whether or not our own voice (or image) also belongs to our property, in other words, is an ethical challenge of the media society in which we are living today.
It must be said that at the time itself Bourriaud was not the only one who pointed through both texts and exhibitions to the historical precedents in the 1960s such as Fluxus while arguing that we need to address new contemporary conditions. See, for example, Bart de Baere, This is the Show and the Show is Many Things (Ghent: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994), Hans Ulrich Obrist, Take me (I’m Yours) (London:Serpentine Gallery, 1995), or my own introductory text for the exhibition of the first International Curatorial Training Program at the De Appel Foundation in Amsterdam. See van der Meulen (1995).
Note 22: It must be said that at the time itself Bourriaud was not the only one who pointed through both texts and exhibitions to the historical precedents in the 1960s such as Fluxus while arguing that we need to address new contemporary conditions. See, for example, Bart de Baere, This is the Show and the Show is Many Things (Ghent: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994), Hans Ulrich Obrist, Take me (I’m Yours) (London:Serpentine Gallery, 1995), or my own introductory text for the exhibition of the first International Curatorial Training Program at the De Appel Foundation in Amsterdam. See van der Meulen (1995).
Note 23: I heard the next critique of relational art within the line of negative criticism in the US on the CAA conference in Chicago (2010), where Jennifer Stobb attacked Bourriaud and relational aesthetics in her paper “Anti-art, Non-event: The Situationist Inverse of Relational Aesthetics.” While Stobbs argued convincingly that Bourriaud does not sufficiently recognize the legacy of Guy Debord and the situationists, she (like Bishop) failed to understand the deeper motivations of relational aesthetics in the 1990s as a distinct phenomenon of the 1960s artistic movements such as Fluxus and the Situationists.