Relational Art

The fact that Nevejan’s work is a sociological research that investigates new forms of social interactions brought forth by the digital media, in which the notion of “relation” plays a central role (which she identifies as the fourth dimension of inter-action in her chart), is yet another good reason to introduce it to the field of contemporary art. The ‘artistic medium’ of relational art, after all, is social interaction.

Relational art, in other words, similarly investigates new forms of social interactions opened up by contemporary media. For some reason, however, the movement has almost exclusively been interpreted in terms of conventional forms of social interaction, even though Bourriaud has emphasized that the emergence of the new communication technologies are a historical condition for relational art. Bourriaud first employed the term relational art in the catalogue of Traffic, a show that he curated in the museum of contemporary art of Bordeaux (1996). In his introductory essay, entitled “Space-Time in the 1990s,” Bourriaud raised the question what “the real challenges” are “facing contemporary art vis-a-vis society, history and culture? (Bourriaud 1996b, p.1).” In the answer to this own question, he concluded that in “the age of simultaneous communications (satellites, cable TV, faxes, the World Wide Web, and so on),” we are confronted with different concepts of space and time, which are “interactive, convivial, and relational (1996b, p. 2).” The new generation of artists in the 1990s (such as Huyghe, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Douglas Gordon, and Liam Gillick), according to Bourriaud, moved away from the materially based, aesthetic object and began to produce “relations between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects, thereby stating that immaterial art can have aesthetic content despite its ephemeral character (1996b, p.8).

Bourriaud questioned the distinction between the material and the immaterial altogether: “In a way, the object is every bit as immaterial as a phone call. And a work that consists of a supper around a bowl of soup is as material as a statue. Objects, institutions, times, and works are all part and parcel of human relations, because they render social work material” (Bourriaud 1996b, p.4). Bourriaud is not the first to think about the way in which the communication media change our materially based concept of art in postwar France. François Lyotard similarly addressed the relation between materiality and immateriality in his visionary show Les Immatériaux (1985) on the basis of the assumption that new technologies of information would have a lasting effect on human life and culture — which he, notoriously, declared the postmodern condition. While Lyotard’s show also featured a range of conventional exhibits (paintings alongside cutting-edge technologies), Les Immatériaux marked a decisive break with the modern exhibition because it transformed the entire floor of the Centre Pompidou into a postmodern sensorial labyrinth, in which the visitor had to find his way — equipped with headphones — through an intricate network of visual, audio, audiovisual, and linguistic routes (18). Bourriaud’s Traffic is related to Lyotard’s show because of the shared exploration of interactivity in the aesthetic encounter of material objects with immaterial situations. Not surprisingly, Bourriaud includes one chapter of his book, Esthétique Relationelle (an extended version of his catalogue text for Traffic), on the impact of new technologies in the 1990s, entitled “Relations Écrans (‘screen relations’),” and subtitled, “L’art d’ aujourd’hui et ses modèles technologiques” (Bourriaud 1998, p. 67). Bourriaud proclaims that “notre époque est bel et bien celle de l’ecran” — not that far from Krauss’s idea of a “reality that retreats behind the mirage-like screen of the media” — and reflects upon the immaterial impact of the new communication technologies on the material object of art.

It is important to highlight Bourriaud’s concerns about contemporary media conditions in response to a strong line of criticism on relational art that has belatedly emerged in the US; that is, about a decade after the movement began in France. The starting point of this criticism is an issue of October (Fall 2004), in which its new editor George Baker introduces a cluster of essays on relational art on the basis of a couple of negative assumptions about the movement and its advocate, Nicolas Bourriaud. Both, Baker claims, fail to recognize relational art’s precedents, such as Fluxus, Happenings and the situationists, which already developed participatory models in the 1960s. Baker also claims that relational art has a misconceived idea of concepts such as “interactivity” and “sociability,” not to mention their naïve embrace of the avant-garde. Baker sums up his criticism of relational art’s ideas as a “potentially retrograde vision of the social fields and its engagement with social relations” (Baker 2004, pp. 49-50). It is Claire Bishop, however, who receives the task of questioning the ambitions and premises of relational art in greater analytical depth. In “Antagonism and Relational Art,” Bishop thus tackles the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick, which she presents as the two poles of Bourriaud’s relational stable: at the one end Tiravanija, who mobilizes relational art’s participatory idea quite literally by cooking Thai dinners on art openings, while the intellectually oriented Gillick choreographs his abstract scenarios for possible encounters on the other. While this is not the right place for a defense of the “quality” (a term used by Bishop) of the social relations facilitated by Tiravanija or Gillick, Bishop’s choice is certainly selective — if not straightforwardly strategic — and does not do justice to relational art in all its complex manifestations (see the work of Maurizio Cattalan, the ‘early’ Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Huyghe, Gillian Wearing, and others).

Bishop does recognize that the founder of relational art aims high: “It is important to emphasize that Bourriaud does not regard relational aesthetics to be simply a theory of interactive art. He considers it to be a means of locating contemporary practice within the culture at large” (Bishop 2004, p. 54). But she only admits Bourriaud’s high cultural ambitions as a springboard to her own criticism, namely that relational art did not succeed in establishing relations with culture and society at large, but stayed safely within the confines of the art world — and here Tiravanija’s dinners on art openings, and Gillick’s scenarios for exhibition spaces serve to prove her point (19). And a point she has: indeed, a bothersome amount of relational artworks consists of second-rate social events or socially engaged projects within the context of art.

Note 18 : One of the best synopsis of this show is Rajchman’s exhibition review in Art in America at the time itself, especially in combination with Rajchman;s discussion of Lyotard’s entire intellectual work in a memorial of the French philosopher after his death in an essay for the journal October. See Rajchman (1985): 110–17, and Rajchman (1998): 3-19.

Note 19: Liliam Gillick writes a critical response to Claire Bishop’s essay in a later issue of October, in which he attacks her reading of relational art and his own work. He also rightly points to the many factual errors in her essay. I attended the opening of Traffic; wrote the first review on relational art in The Netherlands, and have followed the development of relational art and its critical reception ever since in both Europe and the US. Thus, I was equally disturbed by the multiple mistakes in Bishop’s essay and her inadequate readings of many artworks (especially of Tiravanjia) and Bourriaud’s ideas. See Gillick (2006), pp. 95-107; and van der Meulen (1996), p. 55.

Sjoukje van der Meulen