Local Social Practice and the Theory of Relational Aesthetics

By Jonathan A. Dawe

The only time I ever remember having an argument with Ryan Thompson, of Dynamite Family, was when I questioned if social practice art, particularly the 100 Meter race between the now-defunct SWIM gallery and Dynamite Studio, is really art. "Why does it matter?" he retorted. I guess I didn't really have an answer. Then again, neither did he. I couldn't tell him why I needed to define it as art (or not art), and he couldn't tell me why I shouldn't. So we reached a frustrating impasse.

At the time I was sharing studio space and working with Ryan and his wife, Meagan Luhrs, at what was formerly the Dynamite Studio, trying my hand at painting. Meagan also was a painter, so I understood what she was doing. Ryan, on the other hand, was applying to graduate school and working on esoteric "projects" that I didn't at that time understand.

One of these projects consisted of taking dealership frames off automobile license plates, painting over them to simulate extending the plate to the frame's edge, and then reaffixing them to the license plate. A similar project consisted of covering the advertising displays above bathroom urinals with photos of blank billboards (at least that was the photo above the urinal I was peeing in). I thought both projects had interesting ideas. Their purpose, in my understanding, was to reduce the amount of consumerist messages that constantly bombard us. But how was it art? How could you exhibit it (other than its documentation), let alone sell it? Isn't it just a subversive social experiment, better left under the heading "sociology"? Perhaps just a clever stab at some neo-avant-garde? By what aesthetic criteria could it be judged? Did it need to be?

Looking at the roster of Dynamite Family projects, social practice is a re-occuring theme. For instance, the GR Tap project:

In an effort to meet new groups of artists, Dynamite toured the east-coast. We set up meetings with other groups, trading custom etched bottles of Grand Rapids tap water with bottles of local tap water along the way. Back home in Grand Rapids, we set up a tasted-test of the tap water collected on the trip. (From the Dynamite Family website)

Clearly, if projects such as these are art, it is art of a very different sort than that of the Salon or the art institution, whatever its manifestation (museum, gallery, school).

There's an artist by the name of Richard Cooper who operates his own studio just a few storefronts east from the Dynamite Studio (now, NEST, of course) on Lyon Street. Cooper's artwork, in sharp contrast to that of Dynamite, is traditional realist painting. I've spoken with Richard a few times in recent weeks and our conversations have been interesting. Cooper claims to be one of perhaps three artists in the West Michigan area who are full-time artists, making their living solely off their artwork. Everyone else, he claims, supports their art endeavors by teaching or working to support their art habits. Many artists and art students don't know how to draw, let alone be considered artists. Understandably, with such a paradigm of what makes an artist, Cooper is perplexed at the sort of artwork coming out of Dynamite. I could sympathize (without subscribing) to Cooper's beliefs about art and artists, but I noticed a major chasm between how art is understood among those who operate in "traditional" mediums (e.g. painting, sculpting, architecture) and those who operate in the "new" mediums (e.g. performance, installation, and social practice). It is to the latter group which I now turn.

Nicholas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics (1998) begins with a question: "Where do the misunderstandings surrounding 1990s' art come from, if not a theoretical discourse complete with shortcomings?" Granted the year is now 2006, eight after Bourriaud's publication, yet as my experience with Richard Cooper proves, the discourse has not improved, or at least not substantially. How is it that there are still, on the one hand, painters of the traditional realist persuasion like Cooper and, on the other, artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, who's exhibition once consisted in inviting visitors to open packages of oriental soups and cook them in a large vat of boiling water in the middle of the room? There are artists operating "in between" such extremities of course, but the radical comparison is helpful here.

According to Bourriaud, the practice of artists such as Tiravanija is defined around a new art vocabulary, which he calls relational aesthetics. Unfortunately, Bourriaud's prose is a little wordy and sporadic, so definitions are difficult to nail down. However, Bourriaud does provide a little glossary in the back of the book that defines relational aesthetics as an aesthetic theory that "judg[es] artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt." Relatedly, relational art is defined as "a set of 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." (Independent and private spaces taken to mean any variety of institutions, the commodity of art objects, or the me-and-the-art-object privilege of vision.)

As with any new vocabulary, terms are often difficult to assimilate and move fluidly in their contexts and definitions. Yet, Bourriaud's thesis can be re-worded as follows: Art criticism and its judgments must now revolve around the ethics and politics of the artwork. Certain keywords in Bourriaud's definition lead me to the usage of "ethics" and "political," namely, "inter-human relations" and "social context," respectively. Furthermore, in opposition to modernism, he writes, "It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbors in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows" and art "is no longer seeking to represent utopias; rather, it is attempting to construct concrete spaces." (RA 45-46) Quite true, and a virtue in Bourriaud's thinking. However, it does not come without its vices.

Though denying utopian futures for the sake of possible encounters in the present, Bourriaud fails to take into account the reality of strained encounters, what British art critic Claire Bishop calls "relational antagonism" (October 110, Fall 2004, pp 51-79), on the horizons of discourse. In other words, not every inter-relational encounter, instigated by relational art or not, is going to be all roses and sweets. In Bourriaud's political framework, democracy, but moreover a democracy marked by peace and a lack of strife (utopia?) seems to be the privileged system, whereas, predictably, authoritarianism (everything else) is the tired whipping boy. He writes: "[Modernism] was based in conflict, whereas the imaginary of our day and age is concerned with negotiations, bonds, and co-existences." (RA 45) This, after referring with a healthy dose of scorn and sarcasm to "the priceless Dave Hickey," "those backward-looking militant such as Jean Clair," and these "fundamentalists clinging to yesterday's good taste" on the same page. Moreover, as one would expect, all the examples of relational art that Bourriaud champions are harmonious ones: After all, eating soup together necessitates the commonality of hunger at least. I'd be a bit more pessimistic about what happens when Tiravanija invites Palestinians and Israelis into his studio for chats and frolic.

In the theory of relational aesthetics, the artist, the art (be it an object or not), and the individual as viewer disappear in order to make room for the all-important possible encounter. This is problematic on many levels, the most obvious of which is the fact that after removing "author," "text," and "reader," we may or may not even be in the realm of "art" any longer, no matter how broadly construed. Should that not be problematic to you, the problem still remains that all individuality in the artwork-process is being wiped out in order to facilitate the relationships among the many. To me, this is ironically reminiscent of the worst of an authoritarian communist politic. Though, in Bourriaud's defense, this is a latent effect in his theory, not something written out as a primary manifesto.

Though Bourriaud stresses not conviviality (utopia), but the possibility of conviviality (possible encounter/utopia) in the relational art experience, it is still unclear how relational aesthetics would judge an artwork who's real possibility of conviviality yields an actualization of none. In other words, if everyone goes home in a worse inter-relational condition than they came, is the work a failure? If so, it is because a present, even temporary, "microtopia" (to borrow Bourriaud's term) was not acheived. Moreover, if I provide free beer at my studio for an hour of the evening on a particular date and time for the express purpose of getting people to come and interact in a democratic and positive manner, is that not still contrived and orchestrated, as if from on high (or, more humbly, by the artist)? This raises an interesting question: Can art authentically be democratic? Doesn't the very notion of authenticity deny egalitarian participation? Are we not intellectualizing our recreational parties under the guise of an art vocabulary?

Consider this extended excerpt by Claire Bishop (who herself quotes Umberto Eco at length) in the Fall 2004 October:

Writing on what he perceived to be the open and aleatory character of modernist literature, music, and art, Eco summarizes his discussion...in terms that cannot help but evoke Bourriaud's optimism:
The poetics of the "work in movement" (and partly that of the "open" work) sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society. It opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy, as well as a new chapter in the history of art. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art. (Umberto Eco. "The Poetics of the Open Work" (1962), in Eco, The Open Work (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 22-23.)
...it is Eco's contention that every work of art is potentially "open," since it may produce an unlimited range of possible readings...Bourriaud misinterprets these arguments by applying them to a specific type of work (those that require literal interaction) and thereby redirects the argument back to artistic intentionality rather than issues of reception. His position also differs from Eco in one other important respect: 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. The interactivity of relational art is therefore superior to optical contemplation of an object, which is assumed to be passive and disengaged, because the work of art is a "social form" capable of producing positive human relationships. As a consequence, the work is automatically political in implication and emancipatory in effect.

I do not wish to reject Bourriaud's theory outright, nor reject his champion artists (such as Tiravanija). I do want to offer some stronger alternatives, based on a slight rethinking of relational aesthetics. I think if we must accept anything from Claire Bishop's criticism, it is that Bourriaud's relational aesthetic itself is not new, nor are its surrounding concerns of ethics, politics, and the relationships between artist, artwork, and viewer. In the opening paragraphs, I referred to the license plate and advertising projects of Ryan Thompson. In closing, I want to argue why these projects, avoiding Bourriaud's shortcomings, provide a much better embodiment of a "relational aesthetic" than Bourriaud's heroes (taking Tiravanija as his exemplary example).

Considering that relational art according to Bourriaud takes into account the whole of human interaction, removed from private space, it is interesting that rather than the contrived and institutional space of Tiravanija's "soup eating project," Thompson's projects were quietly executed in such public spaces as automobiles and bathrooms (don't say that bathrooms--and possibly only male bathrooms too, as far as I know--are private spaces), used for such human interaction as driving and urinating. In addition, Thompson's works were open to the viewer's interpretation and participation, and not contingent on them, as was Tiravanija's (if no one eats soup and/or talks, there is no real art experience). It could be argued that Tiravanija's project allowed for greater immediate interaction between artist and viewer, viewer and viewer. However, Bourriaud's theory takes no account of the quality of the interaction. Indeed, even if it did, it would have no criterion under which to do so. On the other hand, because of the art object present in Thompson's work, a message is given and open to response. Moreover, that message creates conditions of commonality with other viewers of Thompson's work, leading to a more serious initial human interaction among viewers. In this way does Bourriaud's "possible relationship with neighbor" see probable outcomes of actualization, actualization that is both politically stimulating and emancipatory in effect.

Jonathan is a web consultant, living as a nomad between GR and Chicago. He has a degree in Philosophy & Literature from Calvin College and is a co-founder of LAMB. He has lately been rather in love with Claire Bishop.

Posted on October 12, 2006 9:34 AM


"Why does it matter?" - this is the question haunting relational aesthetics discourse. As we've discussed in a number of posts, framing a good many activities as art, is largely a matter expedience rather than necessity. The various critical conundrums that arise around so called "relational" activities could largely be avoided if we developed a new arena - an "unart" arena (to borrow from Kaprow) perhaps...

Posted by: LeisureArts on October 23, 2006 8:44 PM

this work comes to mind

- Art as a Cultural System
Clifford Geertz
MLN, Vol. 91, No. 6, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1976), pp. 1473-1499

there's another question: why ask 'why is this art?'. how about asking 'how is this art?' instead, which points right back at Eco's perspective on the relationship between author, reader and text? that way we can begin to understand the ways in which an artefact or situation is made art, and the ways in which an objet de art is just an object - sometimes a toilet is just a toilet...

that should also lead to empowerment - not of the participants in an already organised artistic endeavour, but empowerment to turn a given situation into an artistic moment

Posted by: arvind on November 2, 2006 8:03 PM

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