Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics
Radical Culture Research Collective (RCRC)

Nicolas Bourriaud¶s Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 1998; English translation 2002) undeniably has been an effective generator of debate. In the wake of critical responses by Claire Bishop (in October in 2004 and Artforum in 2006) Grant Kester (in Conversation Pieces, 2004, and in Artforum in 2006), Stewart Martin (in Third Text in 2007) and Julian Stallabrass (in Art Incorporated, 2004), the strengths and limits of Bourriaud¶s book will be no secret. Our remarks at this point will not be new, but we think it may still be helpful to formulate some critical propositions with a sharper political orientation.

Bourriaud champions art that understands itself as an experimental production of new social bonds ± as ³the invention of models of sociability´ and ³conviviality.´ (³Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector¶s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup. Philippe Parreno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.´[pp. 7-8]) His case for what he calls the ³art of the 1990s´ is a great improvement over discourses fixated on more traditional, object-based artworks. There of course are risks involved in gathering diverse practices into this new category of ³relational art.´ Some differences in political outlook and position ± those between a Philippe Parreno and a Vanessa Beecroft, for example ± are no doubt lost in the reduction. Nor is it self-evident that these practices and Bourriaud¶s characterization of them always correspond as seamlessly as is usually assumed. That said, Bourriaud has been an effective advocate for the contemporary tendency to emphasize process, performativity, openness, social contexts, transitivity and the production of dialogue over the closure of traditional modernist objecthood, visuality and hyper-individualism. The fiercest enemies of relational art, after all, are conservative critics of the ³back to beauty and painting´ kind. Bourriaud¶s preemptive defense of Tiravanija, et al. has to be understood in large part as a blast against Dave Hickey¶s influential Invisible Dragon. Forced to choose between Bourriaud and the new Dave Hickeys, we¶ll gladly take the former.

If in the end we can¶t take him either, it will be for different reasons. Bourriaud claims that the new relational models are principled responses to real social misery and alienation. But he acknowledges that the artists he writes about are not concerned with changing the system of social relations ± capitalism, in our language. Relational artists tend to accept what Bourriaud calls ³the existing real´ and are happy to play with ³the social bond´ within the constraining frame of the given. Bourriaud tries to put the best face on this kind of practice, characterizing it as ³learning to inhabit the world in a better way.´ (p. 13) But in spite of his approving allusions to Marx, there is no mistaking that this is a form of artistic interpretation of the world that does not aim to overcome the system of organized exploitation and domination. At most, relational art attempts to model the bandaging of

But to be politically relevant and effective. But it does not give up the radical. we¶ll address the argument for what it is: a claim about the historical importance of relational art as the new cutting edge of politicized cultural practice. In Relational Aesthetics. the avant-garde tradition continues to be transformed by its own process of self-critique. is the whole legacy ± and so also the present and future ± of the avant-garde project.´ The old avant-gardes. it would reflect the ³end of history´ common sense dominant in the 1990s and would exemplify neo-liberal strategies for outsourcing managerial innovation and ³human resources´ research in conditions of post-Fordist production. 45) At stake. present-day art is roundly taking on and taking up the legacy of the twentieth-century avant-gardes. the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond. we would also insist that it not come to stand in for the radical project it falls short of ± and indeed refuses. we are in the register of post-structuralist commonplaces: Foucault¶s ³technologies of the self. Michel de Certeau¶s ³Practice of Everyday Life. The assumptions behind this claim are clear enough. And it doesn¶t settle for the experience of gallery simulations. we see it as the main limitation of relational art ± and one that negates any claim it makes to the legacy of the avant-gardes.´ (p. This legacy being one of our passions. we can¶t be indifferent to Bourriaud¶s claim. as well as processes of privatization with their accompanying rhetoric promoting ³community. bonds. Undoubtedly. relieved of this dogmatic radical antagonism and macro-focus on the global system. While we would defend relational art from its conservative and reactionary critics. Bourriaud saw this as a virtue. As such. (And there is no social progress without contestation and struggle: this for us is a basic materialist truth that makes any blanket refusal of ³conflict´ problematic. relational aesthetics represents the liberalization of the avant-garde project of radical transformation. and co-existences. Precisely formulated.36) It would be one thing if relational art claimed to be no more than a production of modest alleviative or compensatory gestures. It¶s not that experiments in forms and models of sociability are not needed today ± they certainly are. macro-historical aim of a real world beyond capitalist relations. .´ (p. 70) We would put it differently. while at the same time challenging their dogmatism and their teleological doctrines.´ micro-biopolitics as an ethic of love and a technic of living ± an orientation rather easily deflected in practice into what Stuart Hall has called ³adaptation´ as opposed to ³resistance. were oriented toward conflict and social struggle. such experiments need to be grounded in (or at least actively linked to) social movements and struggles.´ Félix Guattari¶s delirious subjectivity machines.´ But Bourriaud goes much further. then. relational-alleviational art ³is concerned with negotiations.´ voluntarism and the ³third sector.) As a gallery-based game.´ (p. Bourriaud tells damage and to ³patiently re-stitch the social fabric´: ³Through little services rendered. Leaving aside our suspicions that many relational artists evidently couldn¶t care less about the avant-gardes and would not subscribe to Bourriaud¶s use of this term. Today. In 1998. 45) The new relational avant-gardistes ³are not naïve or cynical enough µto go about things as if¶ the radical and universalist utopia were still on the agenda. positioning relational art as the heir to the twentieth century avant-gardes: ³Whatever the fundamentalists clinging to yesterday¶s good taste may say and think.´ (p.

a deradicalization ± of social desire. The main responses to Bourriaud¶s book ± and Claire Bishop¶s have certainly been the most visible ± somehow managed to leave the impression that this is as interesting and ³political´ as it gets in mainstream art discourse. we question the assumption that art institutions are the most productive or appropriate form of institutionality here. it is the activist affinity group ± and the popular assemblies. forum and network processes. Debates about relational aesthetics were at times heated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. http://transform. like Oaxaca. Now that these debates are winding down and their shape becomes clearer. such as those by Superflex or Marjetica Potrc. The more vital convergences of culture and social transformation still form a glaring blind-spot of these and other market-oriented ³art world´ publications.relational practices are cut off by an institutional divide from those who could use them. what these debates around Relational Aesthetics most of all reveal are the potentials and limits of art discourse itself. For us. primarily. we know. activist camps and mass mobilizations that articulate it with larger social movements and emergent struggles. But this is how the disruptive utopian energies that do exist in relational art are managed and kept within tolerable limits: the social separations. Meanwhile. There are exceptions. we can ask what was occluded and think about where these discussions could go.) In general. October and Art Monthly. that flare up in struggle. and provided a focus for those oriented to ³progressive´ cultural practices. But we don¶t think such collaborations need the neutralizing institutional mediations implicit in Bourriaud¶s relational art. after YBA (³Young British Artists. (And this is a very different demographic from those marginalized communities whose members are sometimes enlisted for roles in relational works. We put no faith in the trickle down of sociability from the art world. the radical processes of social experimentation are taking place elsewhere: in the streets and squats and social forums.´ known critically as ³High Art Lite´)and before the current proliferation of art fairs. The politically salient site where non-capitalist social relations are modeled today is not the gallery or exhibition-based relational art project. in the communes. stratifications and (self-)selections of the art system enact a liberalization ± that is. wherever people are trying to organize themselves to find a way beyond the system of exploitative transform . Although ³institutions´ in the sense of organizational infrastructure might be necessary from a pragmatic perspective. what we see too much of is the appropriation and displacement of social desire from the streets into the aesthetic forms and affirmative circuits of administered art. Who are the consumers of relational art? The cultural élite of the dominant classes.eipcp. supplemented by the socially ambitious layers of a de-classed general public ± the ³culture vultures´ and would-be cultural élite who form the crowds passing through the big biennials and exhibitions. this audience does not tend to overlap with the people actively attempting to generate pressure for deep social change. and in the ongoing work of creating counter-publics and counter-institutions ± in short. as it is developed in magazines and journals such as Artforum. We¶re sure effective collaborations between artists and social movements are possible.

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