Saturday, April 14, 2012

Relational Aesthetics

Relational Aesthetics

"The possibility of relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interractions and its social context, rather than the assertion of independence and private symbolic space, points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural, and political goals introduced by modern art." - Nicolas Bourriaud

The idea of relational aesthetics as a practice of art-making is interesting, though its parameters begin to get fuzzy for me upon close inspection.  I am particularly interested in the point being made in the article and the video that relational aesthetics in art making is a response to an overwhelming amount of imagery and a mode of (increasingly solitary) human connection dependent upon technology.  In a way, it reminds me of the slow food movement, but with art.  Have we, culturally, reached our saturation point with technological or mediated interaction?

In his (somewhat clunky) essay, Nicolas Bourriaud writes that "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 the scale chosen by the artist."

At the crux of relational aesthetics is the way the work demands or encourages human interaction.  Art in this vein is made not just to be looked at, but in fact requires active engagement from (sometimes many) people to function.  While this is a concept that is interesting, there were points throughout the article where I questioned the haziness of the line between this kind of art work and activism or social justice work.  Is bringing people together and encouraging them to have a real, face to face interaction inherently art?  Surely this is not the case.  It made me wonder what the difference is between having a potluck or gathering in one's home versus staging the same event in a gallery (an idea in dialogue with the artist in the video who cooked dinner in gallery spaces).  Both events create relation, if you will, though perhaps only the latter calls attention to itself as intentionally doing so, going as far as to comment on the very structures in which we relate to one another.

I immediately thought of a work I had seen in 2007 at the List Visual Art Center (LVAC) at MIT in a show called Sensorium.  The LVAC describes the overall exhibition as follows:

This two-part exhibition organized by the MIT LVAC, explores various ways in which contemporary artists address the influence of technology on the sense. The impact of new technology has reshuffled the established hierarchy of the senses and radically changed people's lives. Remote sensing via telephones and screens are fundamental parts of the daily sensorium (a Latin term that connotes ancient and often theological debates about mind and body, word and flesh, human and artificial). The art in Sensorium captures the aesthetic attitude of this hybrid moment when modernist segmentation of the senses is giving way to dramatic multi-sensory mixes or transpositions. The artists in this exhibition respond and question the implications of this significant epochal shift.

Artist Mathieu Brand created an interactive work called Ubiq, a Mental Odyssey (2006), which consisted of a room with several helmets that the viewers could wear.  On the front of the helmets, there was a screen, and each helmet had a button you could press to change the point of view being depicted on the screen.  By simply wearing the helmet, you saw your own point of view, but when you pressed the button, the screen switched to the point of view of someone else in the room.  Clearly, this project only worked if multiple people participated simultaneously.  By choosing to engage someone else's point of view, you altered your perception of space and could simultaneously walk around the room and watch yourself walking around the room.

Installation shot of Ubiq, a Mental Odyssey

David Hilliard engaging with the work

Bourriaud claims that "it is no longer possible to regard the contemporary work as a space to be walked through.  It is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion."  Relational aesthetics certainly makes art more active, which is exciting.  The idea of using art-making to create a venue in which to encourage an encounter between people resonates with me.  Though I do not work in this way, persay, my own art-making practice falls along these lines, in that I use photography as a means to connect with other people and to engage with the world around me.  I am interested in the effect this has on a larger scale.

The political element of this kind of art practice is integral to the meaning of the work, but again, the line between the art of relational aesthetics and other non-art-world acts of community building seems fuzzy.

Bourriaud writes, "depending on the degree of participation required of the onlooker by the artist, along with the nature of the works and the models of sociability proposed and represented, an exhibition will give rise to a specific "arena of exchange."  In this vein, I particularly liked the following sentiment: "art is a state of encounter."

Artist Sheila Pepe's ongoing installation project Common Sense engages with this dialogue in an exciting way.  Pepe describes it as follows:

Common Sense is an ongoing installation performance that Pepe calls “practicing for the end of ephemera.” The installations are large-scale crocheted drawings -- informed by Modernist abstract compositions as well as late 20th century notions of de/construction. Audience-turned-participants "unravel" the art, transforming the drawing into raw materials for making their own scarves, hats, socks, etc.

Her work requires and depends upon audience participation, changing over the course of an exhibition as visitors engage with it through the act of knitting.  When she showed it in Boston, the gallery director asked me if I knew anyone in the knitting circles of Jamaica Plain who would potentially be interested in contributing to the work, as it would really only be successful and exciting through a large amount of visitor interaction.  This again raises the question: what are the fundamental differences between choosing to come together to knit in an art gallery versus in someone's apartment or a coffee shop?  One is high brow and one is low, but why exactly?  Does it even matter?  Can we make a distinction between art and life any longer?  Perhaps that is exactly the point of relational aesthetics, yet all of these art makers are still attempting to make work that functions within the art world, which is inherently not the same as the real world.  Are they undermining their own arguments by continuing to present the work within a fine art context?  Or are they making it more powerful?






Installation at Carroll and Sons, Boston, MA

Gallerist Joseph Carroll participating in the knitting

Artist Cobi Moules participating in the knitting

I also thought of artist Barbara Gallucci and her soft, pliable chair-like creations that encourage participation and interaction.  Though this is not engaging as directly with the idea of relational aesthetics as something like the Brand piece at MIT, it still fits the bill.  Below are installation shots from the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA.







I suppose it worked, because I certainly engaged with the work, and with other museum visitors by extension.

Of course an artist like Marina Abromovic comes to mind instantly, though I won't go into that too much since her performance The Artist is Present has already been talked about so extensively.





The relationship between relational aesthetics and performance kept coming up for me throughout the readings.  A lot of the work discussed seemed to have a performative element, whether direct or implied.

I thought of a performance from The Wedlock Project by TT Baum and Michael Grohall that I participated in at the ICA Boston in early 2010.  The idea was for people of the same sex, one of whom was gay and one of whom was straight, to hold hands and walk around the museum for an hour.  While this was very much a public art piece, it also created a huge amount of interaction between the participants, as well as a lot of interesting emotional reactions before the performance even took place.  Some gay folks were afraid to ask their straight friends to hold hands with them in public for an hour (myself included, which was an unexpected reaction on my part).  My friend and gallerist Arlette wanted to go and claimed me as her hand-holding partner, so it all worked out fine.  Some of the gay participants had their straight friends say no, which in and of itself caused problems and revealed prejudices that were previously not known or expressed publicly.

Anyway, the performance not only had the effect of inspiring these interactions and conversations beforehand, but it also raised questions about the nature of art viewing, the public nature of expressing intimacy, etc.  It was pretty amazing, in ways I didn't expect.  It was also unbelievably awkward to try to hold hands with someone constantly and look at art at the same time.  I enjoyed the process of having to negotiate someone else's pace and interests and thinking about how that idea functions more broadly. 

Me and Arlette

TT Baum and me

This is what it looked like, all around the museum



I also thought of Andy Goldsworthy's 2005 piece Drawn Stone at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  A site-specific installation, the work is a crack that runs along the ground outside of the museum and inside to the lobby.  The work is "a continuous crack running north from the edge of the Music Concourse roadway in front of the museum, up the main walkway, into the exterior courtyard, and up to the main entrance door. Along its path, this crack bisects--and cleave in two--large rough-hewn stone slabs that will serve as seating for museum visitors.

Drawn Stone has particular resonance in the cultural landscape of California, an historic locus of environmental sensitivity and activism. It has added relevance in the context of landscape architect Walter Hood’s landscape design for the de Young and in the natural environment of Golden Gate Park."

While this work is much more subtle than some of the others discussed this week, it relies upon the viewer's engagement to activate it.  It seems accidental at first glance, but upon closer inspection, its intention becomes clear.  It certainly creates its own kind of experience and encounter.








To get back to the BBC video, I was interested in the quest to define relational aesthetics as a movement and to question whether or not it is an "ism."  The video was a little comical, though I didn't get the sense that that was intentional.

The rules made me laugh a little bit, and revealed in part the ridiculousness of the art world's efforts to  place everything into clearly defined movements and categories:

1.  A new ism must come from an old ism
2.  A new ism is a new way of thinking about art
3.  Artists of an ism must hang out together
4.  A new ism is invented by an art critic
5.  A new ism always has a slightly different British sub-species
6.  At first, people think that a new ism is not art
7.  A new era leads to a new ism
8.  A new ism must have a landmark exhibition

I know this is a theory class, but it seems like this is really something that should be left to the art critics and theorists and ignored by the artists.  On one level, who cares if it's an ism?  Does it affect the making of the work somehow?  Rule number four seemed especially poignant in this regard.  Is this a conversation for the critics?  Will they look back on this period, as the video ponders, as the emergence of relationalism?

There is a lot to be gleaned from this discussion for sure, but worrying about the semantics seems not nearly as critical as engaging with the ideas being explored and examined.

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