Articles

WTF is… Relational Aesthetics?

by Kyle Chayka on February 8, 2011

The standard cliché summary of modern (and contemporary) art is that now, anything is art. Jackson Pollock threw paint around. Duchamp strung up a shovel, upended a bike wheel into a stool, put a urinal on a pedestal, and called the resulting three “sculptures” art of the highest order. After so long, we’ve started to run out of things to suddenly deem “art.” But relational aesthetics, or the posing of an artist-constructed social experiences as art making, is the latest step in this process of turning everything into art.

Nicholas Bourriaud's “Relational Aesthetics” (1998) (image from amazon.com)

Art critic, curator, and historian Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term “relational aesthetics” in his 1998 book of the same name. He’s pretty much inseparable from the concept itself, so chances are you’ll see his name attached (or quoted) wherever you see relational aesthetics pop up. In the book, he defines the term 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. (pg. 113)

That is to say that relational aesthetics projects tend to break with the traditional physical and social space of the art gallery and the sequestered artist studio or atelier. Relational aesthetics takes as its subject the entirety of life as it is lived, or the dynamic social environment, rather than attempting mimetic representation of object removed from daily life, as would be the case in a Dutch Baroque still life, for example.

In even simpler terms, the goal of most relational aesthetics art is to create a social circumstance; the viewer experience of the constructed social environment becomes the art. The task of the artist is to become a conduit for this social experience. To that end, artists often create a physical space to be used for a particular (often ephemeral) social event. What is this “social event,” you ask? Well, almost anything could constitute a relational aesthetics event: a communal meal, a discussion … even sitting around.

Rikrit Tiravanija's Thai food at 303 Gallery in 1992 (image from theblindcorner.blogspot.com)

Let’s take a look at an example. The most famous work, and probably the most famous practitioner, is Argentinean-born Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija’s first untitled solo show at 303 Gallery, New York in 1992. During the length of that exhibition, Tiravanija cooked Thai food for visitors in a kitchen set up within the gallery. The food is the art, but not in the fine cuisine sense: “it is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people,” Tiravanija says. The communal experience of cooking and eating the food becomes the object on display, under the direction of the artist, who acts as a sort of experience “curator,” or maybe “ringmaster” would be a better term.

A recent watershed moment in the canonization of relational aesthetics (which is now widely accepted as a discrete genre of art, if not a movement) was the Guggenheim’s theanyspacewhatever exhibition of 2008-2009, whose hipsteriffic one-word no-caps name should also present a clue as to the genre’s audience. Featuring the work of ten artists whose work partakes in aspects of Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, including Tiravanija, the exhibition space-altering Jorge Pardo, provocateur sculptor Maurizio Cattelan and Philippe Parreno, who created a movie theater-style marquee for the Guggenheim that gave no hint as to the spectacle going on inside. Participating artist Carsten Höller created a hotel inside the Guggenheim that guests could book one night at time. Jerry Saltz stayed in the hotel and wrote about it, documenting his experience with the art-as-experience.

Jerry Saltz at Carsten Höller's hotel at the Guggenheim's “theanyspacewhatever” (click through to view Saltz's article) (image from NYMag.com)

Another well-known name is Tino Sehgal, who doesn’t allow photos of his human-made installations that create unique, often abstract, experiences for the viewer. For the artist’s “This Progress,” also at the Guggenheim, Sehgal trained special docents of all ages to guide visitors up the museum’s ramp, having conversations and discussions with them as they walked. The conversation is the medium and the message; the moment of shared communication is the realization of the artwork.

If this sounds a little sketchy to some readers, you’re not alone. Relational aesthetics is still redolent of the 1990s that it came of age in — the beginnings of internet culture, instant communication, and the instantaneous gain and loss of celebrity, but without the same cynicism we’ve developed today. Relational aesthetics pits the artist as experience curator and, I think, has contributed to the destabilization and popularization of the term. Relational aesthetics also carries the baggage of artist-as-celebrity. Art critic Hal Foster pointed out in the 1990s that with relational aesthetics, “the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star.” (Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, pg. 54-55) I bet Kanye would love it.

The best ongoing work of relational aesthetics art? Well, the Ace Hotel’s uber-cool coffee bar has certainly created a social moment, experience and event where “what happens between people” certainly exceeds the quality of any physical art around the room. Normal hipster coffee shop, or relational aesthetics piece inhabited by mac laptops? Your call.

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  • http://twitter.com/batteredgnome Dave Callan

    No mention of my work ‘Doing the dishes (After Rikrit Tiravanija)’?

    • acewagstaff

      You’re too clever for this art game, Son.

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  • Zoro21x

    Seems like something has gone full circle. Human interaction, which has become something of a lost “art,” is now being found again after suffering an atrophy from so many digital interfaces between people. Did we just never realize that a party with a host was actually a cool human experience that could have been seen as being a funky kind of art if only seen with more creative glasses? I guess…but in a way it could also be seen as rather shallow prospecting for a new art form. Now, tuning into this aspect of human interaction and cultivating it into an artistic event, and heightening the participants awareness of the interactions as a form of art, is definitely creative. It takes insight and skill to pull it off well so the participants catch a glimmer or full body slam of the experience. Maybe it’s like seeing a person’s aura for the first time. It’s always there but you only suddenly get a glimpse of it and see/feel the absolute coolness of it. I’m not saying I’ve seen an actual aura, just saying. And as far as early examples of a relational aesthetics events go, doesn’t John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 hotel room sleep-in/Vietnam war protest count? It was a week long, hosted, limited to a single hotel suite, involved pajamas and birthday suits, attracted critics and supporters and was definitely creative. Maybe it had too much actual purpose to be art.

  • Rob Myers

    Relationalism is the art of the service industry.

    It’s the religious art of managerialism, symbolically resolving the aporia between ideology and reality for a price. It’s the artist as consultant, creating value by getting people to create a set of social relations they wouldn’t otherwise that [aesthetic] value is created by [or in fact extracted from], just like every manager everywhere knows they do. It’s the alienation-and-selling-back of self-awareness, the servicization of your own experience, a shorting of imagination.

    Relational artworks are super-beaks for management, fetish porn for MBAs and officials, but their description in “Relational Aesthetics” is mystificatory. There are tea-parties and rummage sales, there are awkward encounters, there are parodies of research, but if you’re taking part you’re not the audience, and you’re certainly not the patron.

    Relational art is a curtain, Relationalism is an admonition not to look behind it.

    • Zoro21x

      That’s interesting. Complicated description but interesting and I get it. Almost every experience we have now involves productization. Schools, restaurants, theaters all offer products that are physical AND experiential, even if we sometimes don’t like to think of the experience part of them as such. So relationalism is kind of the mirage that is created in so many of our day-day experiences. It’s another example of being manipulated in a way to give up what is wanted by someone else (money, compliments, etc.). Every person taking part in setting the stage (manager, waiter, actor, cashier, sales assistant) knows that they are part of the curtain but I often sense that many are also a little uneasy or embarrassed by their role. You can feel it when you interact with them and the higher the position the less willing the “server” is to acknowledge the situation to the customer. That’s probably why I always tend to poke behind the curtain with conversation with employees or physically looking around a place I’m in. I guess I sense the mirage and have a need to peek behind it so I know where and what the human is.

      • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

        With all this in mind, in relational aesthetics art, is the artist denigrated to the position of “server”? It seems to me that in such an ostentatious denial of artistic agency (the ability to just create, from nothing, a painting) and dependence on a participating audience for impact in the end makes the artist into a celebrity in front of the curtain.

        By exposing the behind the curtain, they celebrate it, and position themselves as the conduit of that celebration, thus Bishop’s critique.

        • http://bespangled.tumblr.com Janelle

          It’s funny that you’re posting about this today of all days, as I just had to read the Claire Bishop article in relationship to Utopia Station from the 2003 Venice Biennale.

          I’d like to turn Hal Foster’s critique on its head and think that relational aesthetics could be seen as a way of democratizing or challenging the hierarchy of curators and artists — they are reduced to the same role in a certain way, therefore challenging the potentially false dichotomy between the two. Curator and artists both as servers. I’d like to think that’s what relational aesthetics can do, but the hierarchies, the power structures that define the institutions are still there. However, socially-based projects that work outside of institutions and locations outside of commercial interests seem less self-indulgent (in the way that you speak of, the celebration of the artist) because their authorship doesn’t have the same stakes. I’d like to elaborate but the comment box is behaving weirdly.

  • Silverfacey

    Sounds as if relational aesthetics = Narcissism! Glorified self-consciousness, a hall of mirrors in which everyone watches themselves watching….

  • Meinwelt22

    Kyle, this concept makes life and art so cheap ! It is the oposite of has been proposed.
    And smells a bit like imposition of values too.
    Reading now the comment above of “Siverfacey” I agree with him/her about this too. All this only leads to a much meanless life.
    And defensor of it , in my opinion , are only people with no talent for nothing that want to feel special in so way. People that can’t handle with its own mediocre existence , or personal nature and wants to reduce everything made by others with glorifying the ….. well…. you know .

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  • Boinko

    Thank goodness for aesthetic theories—without some cookie-cutter premise like this, talentless people who go to ivy league art schools on trust fund money would have nothing to offer. This gives them an opportunity to exploit their empty narcissism and achieve celebrity through the usual channels of nepotism and other aristocratic social connections that cement the art world to its consumers. They can be as empty and hedonistic as their bourgeois buyers, who will identify with the work in he deepest of flaccid ways.

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