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Counterculture and Relational Aesthetics

        The theoretical discourse on art since the early 1990’s has varied immensely. Writings on new media, internet art, collectives, and collaborations litter the terrain, proving once and for all that criteria of modernism, that of the new, the original, and the authoritative, had long been debunked.  The dialectics of the conversation had shifted as new themes and tactics began to coalesce around contemporary art practices that created situations for an experience, explored the notion of the viewer as collaborator, or were collective in nature.  These trends, which seemed Marxist in their emancipatory agenda, have been hailed by many as the new avant-garde.  Through the vernacular of Dadaism, Surrealism, the Situationists, and 70’s conceptual art, this new artistic endeavor has been credited with fulfilling the program of the historical Avant-garde, which has traditionally been defined as the emancipation of the viewer from the commodified object – freedom from that consumer-capitalist society that commodifies experience in order to distract and subjugate the proletariat.   This work is praised as a vanguard against the commodifying prerogatives of capitalism because it engages the individual interactions of the viewer while resisting the market.  But are the tactics of these artists really new? Or is the switch in focus, from the universal to the particular, from the utopian to the micro-utopian, from the community to the individual, symptomatic of a reaction to the historical difficulties of modernities quest for progress?  Furthermore, does this art carry forward the anti-capitalist banner of the Avant-garde?

A New Art

        At the 2003 Venice Biennale, a group of artists, led by Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija organized and displayed a collaborative art project titled Utopia Station.  In the article “What is a Station?,” Obrist, who is also a respected critic and author, describes the project:  “It begins with a long low platform, part dance-floor, part stage, part quad. Along one side of this platform a row of large circular benches sit, so that you can watch the movement on the platform or silently turn your back or treat the circle as a generous conversation pit. Each seats ten people. The circular benches are portable; as an option one could line them up like a row of big wheels.”  Over 60 artist collaborated on the artwork, contributing anything from objects, paintings, images, screens, musical instruments, and used books to political posters and flyers.  Artists were free to contribute anything they wanted.  The physical manifestation of Utopia Station, designed by collaborating artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick, was a small open pavilion constructed out of unassuming materials: cheap lumber, tape, cardboard, cloth.  The station was housed within a larger pavilion at the Biennale; a space within a building.  Described as a “way-station,” the project was a conceptual structure that was meant to be flexible: it was an open ended work: the catalyst to a conversation; “a place to stop, to contemplate, to listen and see, to rest and refresh, to talk and exchange.”  The structure is not a sculpture, it is a temporary manifestation of a concept that was “completed by the presence of people and a program of events.”  The pavilion was not to an object to be assessed visually but an experience in which to take part.  The artists were interested in the interpersonal relations to which art can be a catalyst.  For Obrist this becomes the question of redefining utopias: how to create personal utopias.


        The 50th Venice Biennale did not, however, mark the beginning of artists interest in the investigation and cultivation of intersubjective relationships within their work.  Artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick have been creating art that fosters interactivity and participation since the early 90s.   Tiravanija, a New York-based artist of Thai decent, is best known for his installation-performances in which he cooks Pad Thai for people attending his show at a gallery or museum.  In Untitled (Pad Thai) (1990), Tiravanija emptied the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, set up a make shift kitchen, and cooked pad thai for anyone who visited the gallery.  These works facilitate an atmosphere of conversation and interaction that, like his collaboration at the Venice Biennale a decade later, become a catalyst for individual participation.  The work is one of inter-personal relations; it becomes a celebration of the here and now, life in the present.  It is a space where one can speak on art, politics, movies, romance, or simply gossip: the proverbial water-cooler.  In this space hierarchies are broken down and every conversation becomes an equal participant in the development of the work: no topic is more relevant than another.  This participatory model of intersubjectivity can also be found in the interdisciplinary work of British artist Liam Gillick.  Gillick is best known for his series of works titled Discussion Island(s), in which Gillick sets out a space for conversation by using a rectangle of lights to highlight a spot on the floor in a museum or gallery.  The title of the work clues us in to the artists tactics, transforming an installation into a space for conversation.  Through the creation of this space Gillick reminds us that art is for discussion and invites us to fulfill the work by engaging with each other.  He creates zones for interaction through the creation of installations, sculptures, or murals.  His work, like Tiravanija’s, implies a kind of activism without proposing a specific agenda; it states simply that art can be a catalyst, even if the author does not offer a specific position.


        The turn towards collaboration, participation, and interactivity of the artists working in the 90s, of which these works are but a few examples, seem to mark a historical development in the criteria for creating and encountering art.  While the lineage of this work can be sounded off by any student of contemporary art as utilizing the methodologies of 1970s conceptual art, such as dematerialization and institutional critique, or the participatory ethos of the Happenings and Fluxus movements, this art does not embody any of these previous movements.  The practices of these contemporary artists do not fall neatly into the categories of traditional art.  Indeed, their ‘art’ is nearly impossible to locate through a traditional lens: it is not in the aesthetics of thai food, nor is it the pavilion as sculpture.  So, how is it that making pad thai for visitors to a gallery can be seen as art?  How does the vegetable curry of Rirkrit Tiravanija differ from a home-made curry?  Why is Utopia Station art when a camp fire is not and why should we consider a meeting place art in the first place?  If, as the philosopher and art critic Arthor Danto maintains, “to see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry - an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art,” then what are the precepts of this new theory of art?  And is it in-fact new?

Relational Aesthetics

        French critic and curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, attempts to address these concerns in his 1997 publication titled Relational Aesthetics.  In this collection of essays, Bourriaud christens the shift in contemporary art practice as one of “relational aesthetics.”  According to Bourriaud, relational aesthetics, or relational art, takes as its theoretical horizon “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”  Whereas pre-modern art examined the relationship between humankind and the transcendental (the deity), and modern art explored the relationship between humankind and the world (the fetishized object), relational art marks a shift to a new paradigm: art that examines humankind's  relationship to itself.  This theory goes a long way to shed light on the artistic investigations of Obrist, Tiravanija, and Gillick, and in fact Bourriaud specifically focuses on the convivial art of Tiravanija and Gillick as being paradigmatic of “relational aesthetics.”  These artists, he claims, are interested in arts ability to cultivate inter-personal relationships in an era that is increasingly detached, distracted, and disconnected by the “society of the spectacle.”


        Bourriaud offers a provocatively simple theory of contemporary art in his book: “art is a state of encounter.”  This generous, all-encompassing, definition of art is illustrative of his desire to capture the atmosphere in the culture at large, as opposed to merely highlighting a new criteria for interactive art.  However, it is also the reason that many critics find the theory of “relational aesthetics” to be unwieldy: in its aim to capture everything it defines nothing.  Thus, in order to avoid this problem, and to focus on what Bourriaud is most interested in, I will be using the term “convivial aesthetics” throughout this article to discuss those works that emphasize interpersonal relationships, a communal space for sharing, and the interaction between individuals.  Where relational art can be anything that investigates the intersubjective relationships of contemporary society, convivial art represent a mode of relational aesthetics that emphasizes  the micro relationships of individuals as opposed to the macro connections of the social-sphere. 


        Convivial aesthetics emphasize the ephemeral, the here and now, and the reality of one-on-one interaction.  According to Bourriaud, it can be “seen as a response to the virtual relationships of the internet and globalization, prompting a desire for more physical one-on-one interaction.”  For Tiravanija this involves elevating the everyday through the recreation of a familiar space that both encourages and calls attention to individual interactions; for Gillick this provides the opportunity to highlight the role of art itself as a catalyst for dialog.  The defining trait of these works becomes interactivity and participation.  They become collaborative: the interaction of the viewer is required to create meaning.  These artists take the concept of the “open work,” that is, the theory that every work of art is potentially “open” since it may produce an unlimited range of possible readings, to its extreme by creating situations for the creation of art rather than the art itself. 


        The exploration of the “open work” by convivial art relates the authorial with the authoritative; it seeks to undermine the sovereignty of the author in order to empower the viewer.  This gesture is seen by many critics as the anti-hierarchical promotion of participation and democratic principles that is the legacy of the Avant-garde.  Bourriaud claims that “it is evident that todays art is carrying on the situationist, dadaist, and marxist fight by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models.”  By championing the cause of the situationists, that is, the ultimate and final emancipation of the viewer from the spectacle, convivial aesthetics aligns itself with the historical Avant-garde.  Bourriaud argues:



    “The social bond has turned into a standardized artefact.  In a world governed by the division of labour and ultraspecialisation, mechanization and the law of profitability, it behoves the powers that human relations should be channelled towards accordingly planned outlets, and that they should be pursued on the basis of one or two simple principles, which can be both monitored and repeated.  The supreme “separation,” the separation that affects relational channels, represents the final stage in the transformation to the “society of the Spectacle” as described by Guy Debord.  This is a society where human relations are no longer “directly experienced,” but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation. Herein lies the most burning issue to do with art today.


        The possibility of a “convivial art” points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetics, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art.  Not only do these practices employ the tactics of the Avant-garde, such as detournemount, ephemera, performance, documentation, dematerialization, participatory, appropriation, and pastiche, but they also appear to align themselves with the goals of those historical movements.  As theorist Claire Bishop points out in her article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” these tactics are meant to place relational aesthetics in direct opposition to Greenbergian modernism: “rather than a discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends context, relational art is entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience.”  Thus, relational aesthetics has been exalted as the new avant-garde: it challenges the “society of the spectacle” in its emancipatory efforts to create inclusive and participatory work while simultaneously rejecting capitalism, the fetishization of the art object, and the commodification of experience through tactics of dematerialization.


         But how new are these artworks and the accompanying theory of “relational aesthetics?”  Are they truly counter-culture, breaking from tradition, and ushering in something experimental or innovative?  Or, if Bourriaud is correct in his claim that the “new” is the rejected criteria of modernism, then how successful are these works in getting away from capitalism, in the emancipating the viewer?



        Bourriaud connects relational aesthetics to the Avant-garde by virtue of its relationship to modernism:  “Present-day art is roundly taking on and taking up the legacy of the 20th century avant-garde's, while at the same time challenging their dogmatism and their teleological doctrines.”  It is easy to see the impulse to draw these connections since convivial artists, in particular, have found value in the tools of these historical movements.  This association is especially tempting because the traditional models of aesthetics and art criticism, located as they are in either a privileged object or the authors intention, seem to be incapable of addressing the concerns of these artists.  However, the program of convivial aesthetics, in its promotion of the micro over the macro, the particular over the universal, and the individual over the social, has a long tradition in the West that is both reactionary and regressive.


        As we have seen in the works of Tiravanija, Gillick, and Obrist, convivial art embraces a participatory ethos and open structure that “turns the beholder into a neighbor, a direct interlocutor.”  However, these trends towards interactivity and the open work can themselves be traced back to the philosophy and literary theory of Post-structuralism and Deconstructionism.  In the 1960s and 1970s, post-structuralists sought to problematize the universalist theories of Structuralism, claiming that all perceptions, concepts, and truth-claims are constructed in languages which are likewise nothing more than transient epiphenomena of cultural discourse.  This meant that there was no privileged position, no “correct” interpretation of a work.  It also signified the indefinite deferral of meaning; a work was alway open to re-interpretation.  Claire Bishop tracks the lineage:  “The theoretical underpinnings of (relational arts) desire to activate the viewer are easy to reel off: Walter Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” (1934), Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and “birth of the reader” (1968) and - most important for this context - Umberto Eco’s The Open Work (1962).”  According to Bishop, relational artists evoke a creative misreading of Roland Barthes and post-structuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux.  This leads to an art practice that is open-ended, interactive, and resistant to closure, often appearing to be “work-in-progress” rather than a completed object.  The “Death of the Author,” which claims that the privileged interpretation of the author has been displaced by the birth of the reader as an author of his own experience, became the foundation for the interest in viewer participation.   


        This turn towards an “open-ended work” is itself symptomatic of a deeper nihilistic ideology.  It is indicative of an extreme view of relativism which claims that there is no rational grounds on which to establish truths. While this philosophy culminates in the post-modern theory of the 70‘s and 80‘s, its contemporary manifestation has its origins in the 18th century philosophy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  In an effort to discover the limitations of humankind's faculties of reason, Kant explores the concept of the “Transcendental Ideal” which is itself premised on the understanding that we cannot know a thing in itself, that is, we cannot know any thing objectively because we are only capable of observing the world through our own eyes.  This basic concept leads to Friedrich Nietzsche’s proposal of perspectivism, which claimed that “all thinking is perspectival, and that there are no facts, only interpretations;” reality is a construct. 


        The theoretical underpinnings of convivial arts is a relativist exaltation of the individual experience as the only reality.  It emphasizes the individual relations of the here and now, taking a stand only to point out the futility in taking a stand.  Accepting as truth that their is no truth, they proudly announce that “art is no longer seeking to represent utopias; it is attempting to construct concrete spaces” and that “these days, utopia is being lived on a subjective, everyday basis, in the real time of concrete and intentionally fragmentary experiments.”  Relational art, therefore, is merely the belated manifestation of a theoretical project more than two centuries old.  It is neither revolutionary in concept nor execution.  It is the uninspired exclamation point on an age old statement.


        Despite the fact that convivial aesthetics may be re-presenting existing theory instead of providing a ‘new’ direction, perhaps Bourriaud’s claim, that relational aesthetics picks up the standard of the 20th century Avant-garde, is not completely misplaced.  Through folding in the methods, and even some of the ideology, of those movements, these works appear to subvert the commodification of experience that has been the legacy of American capitalism.  Relational aesthetics seems to have proposed a practice that is Marxist in spirit; it is resistant to the market and democratic in ideals; it strips authoritarian power from the object and author, empowering the viewer in turn; and it successfully merges art with the everyday.  But, does this practice truly address the philosophy of the avant-garde?  And does it succeed in the emancipation of the viewer?


        Despite Bourriaud’s best attempts to align relational art with the aims of the Situationists, the emphasis of convivial aesthetics on the subjective, the individual, and the particular is not the active attempt at world building that Debord embraced when he proclaimed, in the “Situationist Manifesto,” that: “First of all we think the world must be changed.  We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined.”  While relational aesthetics utilizes the methods of dematerialization to resist the commodification of experience it does so through the debilitating lens of post-structural relativism.  In the celebration of the particular experience of the here and now, convivial aesthetics claims that “social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies. Any stance that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive.”  These artists evoke a reactionary stance against universalism when they avoid grappling with the larger political issues that lie beyond the particular experiences.   Relational aesthetics fails to emancipate of the viewer from the distractions of the spectacle of a consumer society by indulging in an absolute relativism that boarders on escapism.  It has itself become a distraction from the problem of world building.  It has taken the language of the avant-garde while leaving behind the spirit of the counterculture.


        Despite the failure of convivial aesthetics to posit a clear stance on contemporary culture, the association of these works with the ideologies of the Avant-garde inadvertently illustrates the penchant for anti-capitalists to oppose the economics of the capitalist system while refusing to move against the political regime that is intimately tied to that same system, thus revealing a severe misconception about the nature of American capitalism.  The failure of the project of the avant-garde lies in the insufficient nature of a unilateral attack on capitalism that is based on economics alone.  By acknowledging the multidimensional aspects of the system, it becomes clear that it is not merely a society of commodification and consumer culture; it is also a political machine that exalts the particular.  This particularism is rooted in the American subconscious.  The fierce individualism of the American spirit, which is manifest in everything from the politics of property rights, to the ideals of individual freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights and the freedom of religion, is inherently tied to the particularism of American consumer culture.  Through evoking the particularism of post-structuralism in order to oppose consumer capitalism, convivial artists have unintentionally aligned themselves with the subjectivism, individualism, and particularism inherent in the American capitalism system.


        Through an analysis of the theoretical foundations of relational aesthetics it becomes clear that, while these artists have engaged in some interesting and thought provoking art practices, they are anything but avant-garde.  Contrary to Bourriaud’s claim, this work is anti-political in nature.  Through the exaltation of the everyday, the emphasis on the individual experience of the here and now, and the creation of works-in-progress, convivial aesthetics takes as its foundation the nihilist belief that there is no truth outside of individual experience.  It is anti-political because it does not believe there exists a solid foundation from which to advance.  It uses the language of the avant-garde to create work that implies a kind of activism without proposing an engagement on the part of the authors; it seeks to bypass the problem of authorship altogether by refusing to write the work.  In attempting to provide the catalyst for interaction this work seems to claim that one direction is as good as another, thus evading responsibility: the artists become irreproachable through their refusal to engage.  Ultimately, convivial artists create politically correct art.

Works Cited

Bishop, Claire. "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics." October 110 (2004): 51-79.

Bishop, Claire. Participation. London: Whitechapel, 2006.

Bourriaud, Nicolas, and Simon Pleasance. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Presses Du Réel,     2009.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. 

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.

Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.


     //  A drafted formulation of the ethical implications of convivial art.  This work is in progress and is, more or less, a  direct response to the posturing of relational aesthetician Nicholas Bourriaud.