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Relational Aesthetics - History and Concepts

Started: 1996
Relational Aesthetics Timeline
The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.
Nicolas Bourriaud
When an artist shows us something he uses a transitive ethic which places his work between the 'look-at-me' and the 'look-at-that'
Nicolas Bourriaud
In focusing on 'relations of exchange', social interplay and inter-subjective communication, relational art practices - in their exhibitionary method - also provide nodal points for reflection on their socially transitive potential.
Anthony Downey
Any examination of the politics of relational aesthetics is engaged not so much in an examination of political content as it is with the politics of social formations
Anthony Downey
The general mechanisation of social functions gradually reduces the relational space ... and professional behavior patterns are modelled on the efficiency of the machines replacing them, these machines [in turn] carrying out tasks which once represented so many opportunities for exchanges, pleasure and squabbling. Contemporary art is definitely developing a political project when it endeavours to move into the relational realm by turning it into an issue.
Nicolas Bourriaud
Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. It is the critic's task to study this activity in the present.
Nicolas Bourriaud
The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art.
Nicolas Bourriaud
Art is a state of encounter.
Nicolas Bourriaud

Beginnings of Relational Aesthetics

Precursors to Relational Art

Many canonical movements within Modern art can be seen as part of a shifting trend toward an understanding and practice of "art" that is not restricted to the production of aesthetic objects to be exhibited within institutions. These include Dadaism, Happenings, Fluxus, Situationists, and Performance, but also encompass the creation of particular situations and social encounters within our everyday milieu that focus on socio-political and social change.

Artists involved in the early 20th century Dada movement were some of the first to think about art conceptually. Rather than aiming to create visually pleasing objects, Dadaists wanted to find a way to use art to critique and challenge aspects of society such as bourgeois attitudes. Some of them like Hugo Ball and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven found that non-object-based practices such as installation and performance could be particularly useful in this regard. In the process of exploring these new artistic avenues, Dadaists also found themselves grappling with pivotal questions regarding the role of the artist and the fundamental nature of art.

Allan Kaprow father of “Happenings”

American artist Allan Kaprow coined the term "happenings" in 1959 to refer to ephemeral, somewhat theatrical, but also participatory, art-related events, many of which were conceived in such a way as to be intentionally open-ended, allowing for improvisation. Artists honored this sense of spontaneity by creating rough guidelines, rather than strict rules or scripts, for participants to follow. The particular social contexts/dynamics and groups of participants (which included the audience members) involved in each happening were integral to the form the events took, causing the same performance to develop differently each time it was carried out. The central belief held by artists involved in creating Happenings was that art could be brought into the realm of everyday life.

The Situationists, a group active from 1957 to 1962, were heavily influenced by Marxist theory, which purported that while living under capitalism, individuals experience alienation and social degradation in their daily lives. They were equally informed by Guy Debord's theory of "spectacle," which states that under capitalism, the mediation of social relations occurs primarily through objects. Wanting to offer solutions toward both these concepts, Situational artists focused on creating works that brought people into direct, immediate encounters and experiences with each other. For example, they used the strategy of détournement (defined as "turning [preexisting] expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself") to enact "Situationist pranks," such as distributing misinformation through false broadcasts, pamphlets, and even church sermons. Another strategy used by the Situationists was the "dérive," defined by Debord "as a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances." In other words, a dérive was an unplanned journey, like walking through a city's streets, during which the individual (referred to by Debord as a "psychogeographer," and also commonly understood as a sort of "flâneur" or romantic wanderer/stroller) allowed himself to be fully aware of, and engaged with, the surrounding environment. They also organized "situations" which were very similar to "happenings."

Similarly, the Fluxus group of artists, active from 1959 to 1978, sought to challenge the long-held tradition that art was to be contained within institutions and required an educated viewer. Instead, they aimed to bring art into the realm of everyday life and to make it available to the masses. Similar to the Dadaists, their art critiqued societal issues and bourgeois sentimentality. Works by Fluxus artists tended to be characterized by humor, playfulness, receptiveness to the element of chance, and audience involvement. Fluxus "events" were often shaped by a set of brief instructions (called "event scores"), which the performers, artists, and/or audiences acted out. For these artists, the artistic process mattered most, not the end product.

Nicolas Bourriaud

French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud first used the term "relational aesthetics" in the catalogue for the 1996 exhibition Traffic, which he curated at the CAPC musée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux. Traffic included many of the artists that Bourriaud would associate with Relational Aesthetics over the next decade like Henry Bond, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Christine Hill, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Miltos Manetas, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. For Bourriaud, the "relational art" works of these and various other artists active in the 1990s required new criteria for aesthetic judgment, as they tended to be more collaborative, participatory, and focused on the curating of social relationships and encounters than on the production of fine art. Art historian Claire Bishop, who spent much effort in quantifying and analyzing the controversial new term, noted, "It is important to emphasize, however, 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: relational art is seen as a direct response to the shift from a goods to a service-based economy."

Bishop also emphasized that Bourriaud's concept of relational aesthetics was underpinned by earlier theories. These include Walter Benjamin's Author as Producer (1934), which argued that all authors, whether they are aware of it or not, take a political stance through their selection of techniques of production; Roland Barthes's Death of the Author and Birth of the Reader (1968), which assert that an author's intentions should be irrelevant to the reader's interpretation of a work's meaning; and Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (1969), in which Althusser describes how the ruling class dominates the working class through the use of "repressive apparatuses of the state" and "ideological apparatuses of the state;" as well as Umberto Eco's The Open Work (1962). But Bishop also argued that Bourriaud misinterpreted Eco's assertion that all works of art are potentially open to infinite readings. She explained, "Eco regarded the work of art as a reflection of the conditions of our existence in a fragmented modern culture, while Bourriaud sees the work of art producing these conditions."

Bourriaud also opted to describe relational works using many terms associated with technological culture such as user-friendliness, interactivity, and DIY (do-it-yourself). According to his book Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (2002), Bourriaud described these works as developing in response to the changing mental space opened by the Internet, and as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." He also used the term "postproduction" in order to refer to the way in which art's role has shifted from production toward creative, appropriative postproduction. As Professor of Visual Culture Anthony Downey explains, "relational art represents a branch of artistic practice that is largely concerned with producing and reflecting upon the interrelations between people and the extent to which such relations - or communicative acts - need to be considered as an aesthetic form."

Essentially, relational artworks seek to create an open-ended environment in which participants take part in a shared activity. Robert Stam, the head of new media and film studies at New York University, termed these shared activity groups "witnessing publics." As cultural studies scholar Anika Dačić explained, "relational aesthetics is used to describe all those artistic practices that tend to erase the line which separates spectators from the work of art [...] This social event can practically include any profane activity from our everyday lives like drinking coffee, having dinner or booking a hotel room. The whole concept depends on the artists' abilities to recreate living and real environment which we experience daily, and not to display his subjective vision of the objects and social situations." Moreover, Bourriaud identified political conscientiousness and social change as aspects of relational art, with artists and participants "learning to inhabit the world in a better way."

In 2002, Bourriaud curated the exhibition Touch: Relational Art from the 1990s to Now, at the San Francisco Art Institute, which included works by Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jens Haaning, Philippe Parreno, Gillian Wearing, and Andrea Zittel. Bourriaud described the exhibition as "an exploration of the interactive works of a new generation of artists."

In 2008, the Guggenheim Museum hosted the exhibition Theanyspacewhatever, an exhibition featuring several artists associated with Relational Aesthetics. Yet, the words Relational Aesthetics were intentionally not referenced in the show, as curator Nancy Spector did not wish to engage with the term, which was already viewed as highly problematic to many critics and scholars.

Bourriaud and other scholars/critics have since reevaluated works prior to the term's 1996 inception as engaging in its defining principles. For instance, Bourriaud noted that some earlier works involved a "degree of randomness" that served as a "machine for provoking and managing individual or collective encounters." For example, in Braco Dimitrijevic's Casual Passer-by series from the 1970s, the artist hung posters in high-traffic public spaces that featured photographic images of anonymous people he met in the streets, with the intention of misleading viewers into thinking that these individuals were somehow famous. Bourriaud also retrospectively applied the label to the work of Stephen Willats, who, since the 1960s, has been working with community members to map the social relationships that exist among them; and to the Banquets organized since the 1970s, during which artist Daniel Spoerri would carry out various sorts of social experiments, such as serving different amounts and types of food to different guests, which would produce various interesting reactions among the participants.

Concepts and Styles

Relational aesthetics has gained much criticism for its ambiguity and its elusive slippage from grasp of any specific definitions. Rather than envisioning the term as one that encompasses object-based parameters or groupings of likeness, it is more apt to locate its place in how Contemporary art addresses and implicates the viewer. The following categories represent the way relational aesthetics do just that within the artist's event or environment, and there is often conceptual overlap.

Microtopias

For Bourriaud, the most characteristic examples of Relational Aesthetics are those works that prioritize interpersonal interaction over the presentation of object removed from daily life. These artists tend to use various techniques, such as constructing spaces and situations that put people in close proximity with each other, encouraging dialogue, or creating a shared experience that fosters a sense of connectedness, lending to the creation of temporary "microtopias," in which participants develop harmonious relationships with one another.

Engagements

Many works of relational aesthetics rely on the participation of the viewer, whether by assimilation into the actual performance of the piece, or as an active participant within a constructed set of variables supplied by the artist. These works ultimately rely on audience contribution to exist, although their outcomes are as unpredictable as the human condition they strive to temporarily replicate and/or manifest.

Witnessing Publics

Many artists creating works of relational aesthetics purposefully eschew the gallery or institutional setting to show their work and the populous is an important impetus in that decision. Relying on the foundational basis of communal human experience to articulate these works, their success relies on connection to their audience. Audiences as "witnessing publics," therefore act as equal performers within the scope of the work, and the more democratic, (unconfined to a specific demographic such as "gallery goer") the better.

Installation/Gallery

Bourriaud's vision of Relational Aesthetics leans more toward works created in public. Nevertheless, many artists whose works are often characterized as "relational" choose to carry out their works inside gallery or museum spaces. These works still aim to generate interpersonal interactions that create temporary community. Although, Bishop has questioned their validity because the works' location inside of institutions limits the types of participants to only those individuals who actively choose to enter the museum or gallery space.

Later Developments - After Relational Aesthetics

It is important to note that Relational Aesthetics has been strongly criticized since it first came into usage in the 1990s, and, moreover, that the term is rarely employed even by the artists who are generally considered to be its most outstanding exemplars.

Although it was an influential term in the second half of the 1990s, applied to a wide variety of contemporary and historical pieces, Relational Aesthetics has lost some of its significance. Some suggest that its specificity has been diluted by overuse, like art dealer Gavin Brown who has asserted that the phrase has become "a catch-all for a generation of humans who are alienated from day-to-day experience." Some scholars and art educators, like Sunghee Choi, employ the term rather loosely, often using it interchangeably with "participation" in discussions of viewers' experience. Meanwhile, other critics question whether the concept really ever had much theoretical weight to begin with. For instance, art critic Roberta Smith asserts, "the claims by these artists and advocates that their work can help heal human relations and create a sense of community, any more than any other art does, are hard to prove." As Cultural Studies scholar Anika Dačić notes, "Though it's a fashionable term many scholars and art historians consider it unnecessary and argue whether it should be discarded or at least reevaluated." She continues, "These experiments in sociability do not seem to achieve the outlined goals and look more like spectacles and exhibitionism rather than radical social practice."

Bishop's main contention with Relational Aesthetics has to do with its prioritization and separation of the work's structure from its subject matter. She writes, "I am simply wondering how we decide what the 'structure' of a relational work comprises, and whether this is so detachable from the work's ostensible subject matter or permeable with its context. Bourriaud wants to equate aesthetic judgment with an ethicopolitical judgment of the relationship produced by a work of art. But how do we measure or compare these relationships? The quality of the relationships in 'relational aesthetics' are never examined or called into question."

Bishop also takes issue with the flippant and naive use of terms such as "democracy" and "social change" in Relational Aesthetics discourse, as well as the underlying assumption that "all relations that permit 'dialogue' are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good." In regards to the latter, Bishop asks "But what does 'democracy' really mean in this context? If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?" Thus, Bishop argues, the relations within Relational Aesthetics are not truly democratic, as they "rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness," producing communities that Bourriaud himself describes as "microtopian," and involve little to no "friction."

Likewise, visual culture professor Anthony Downey explains, "Bourriaud's broad use of terms such as conviviality, democracy, dialogue and politics - in the context of contemporary aesthetics - all needs further consideration and qualification if a politics of relational aesthetics is to have purchase in a neoliberal, globalized and service-based economic milieu. And the stakes could not be higher. In a milieu where the political arena seems increasingly compromised, it would appear that aesthetics (specifically the interdisciplinarity of contemporary art practices) is being ever more called upon to provide both insight into politics itself and the stimuli for social change." In other words, scholars need to be attentive to the way in which aesthetic judgment in Contemporary Art is becoming increasingly entangled with moral judgment.

Indeed, rather than serving as a way to define a bounded artistic movement, Relational Aesthetics may be more useful as a framework through which we can think about a marked trend that has come to characterize a wide range of works and approaches to artistic practice in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Today, the strategies of relational art have come to make up part of the standard vocabulary of many contemporary artists, and the concerns of relational art (everyday life, social interaction, political critique, and social change) have become primary concerns within a wide range of contemporary artworks.

Key Artists

  • Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist who is known for his sculptures and large-scale installations that create diverse pieces intended to propose critical interventions within existing social systems, an effort that is designed to inspire debate and fresh perceptions, or to catalyze change.
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American, Cuban-born visual artist known for his minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS and living at the time of the outbreak of that disease.
  • The British Gillian Wearing rose to fame by photographing strangers to hold up a sign saying whatever was on their minds.
  • Sculptor Maurizio Cattelan wittily interrogates social norms, and pinpoints our darker human struggles and uncomfortable emotions.

Do Not Miss

  • Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
  • Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
  • Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
  • "Queer Art" became a powerful political and celebratory term to describe the art and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Relational Aesthetics Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 28 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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