One of the issues with art that is inherently based on social exchange is that these practices have not really been clearly examined or theorized. There is a tendency amongst art writers and curators and artists to smush together all kinds of varied “movements” like Dada, Fluxus, the Situationists, Happenings, relational aesthetics (a la Bourriard), and dialogical aesthetics (a la Kester). Not to mention the fact that a variety of very vague terms are used to describe these practices (community art, public practice, social practice, etc). I have found myself falling into this lazy naming, but I feel that I must start somewhere. Very simply, the language has not been adequately defined, and I hope to work through some of these terms in my posts.

So what exactly am I talking about? Perhaps some of the definitions of writers I look to frequently in my studies of these practices will help map out this fraught territory, and an iterative study of particular projects will help to illustrate the context. We’ll start with Nicholas Bourriard. The term he coined, “relational aesthetics,” now elicits snorts and scoffs, and has come to stand for a post-critical art of “congeniality,” a realm in which a bunch of lazy artists have learned that they can call dinner parties and beer-drinking “artworks” within a gallery or museum setting. “Found” parties rather than objects, injected without much thought or rigor into art historical discourse.

Free Beer - Tom Marioni

Free Beer – Tom Marioni

I believe, however, that Bourriard was getting at something that has since been colloquially lost in translation – some (but not all) of the art he talks about hits on questions of community, societal mores, the meaning of public space, and how economies or technologies shape day-to-day social interaction. This is interesting, but the “theory of Form” that Bourriard advances lumps these practices with those that concern themselves only with the social networks of the art world and pleasurable congeniality. This is problematic, and does a disservice to the works that are critically examining political and cultural contexts. The metric he advances is simply not adequate to make those distinctions.

Relational Aesthetics

Bourriard calls relational aesthetics a “theory of form” in his series of essays on art from the 1990s. He traces this in the historical trajectory of the avant-garde, positing that the “perceptive, experimental, critical, and participatory” models of current art are carrying on the “modernist fight,” albeit in the context of quite different societal presuppositions. He defines relational art as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” These artworks examine social systems, and turn small exchanges into issues reflective of a broader society shaped by political, economic, and social mores. He calls the “arena of encounter” created by these works “a game” – in which participatory structures are modeled. He believes that this “arena” must be judged by its coherence of form, the symbolic value of the “world” it suggests to us, and the image of human relations reflected by it.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Exhibition View, Secession 2002

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Exhibition View, Secession 2002

Some of the works Bourriard describes include:

“Rikrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup.”

“Philippe Pareno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.”

“Vanessa Beecroft dresses some twenty women in the same way, complete with a red wig, and the visitor merely gets a glimpse of them through the doorway.”

“Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery.”

“Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site.”

We could add people like Liam Gillick, Adrian Piper, Tom Marioni, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Jens Haaning to this list according to Bourriard’s rubric – but I still feel uncomfortable lumping the practices of these artists together. Perhaps they are all part of some broader contemporary trajectory, but they each are concerned with such different realms of interaction. Relational aesthetics is a good start, a useful entry into these practices, but is just too reductive in its language. Rigorous social practice rarely begins and ends with friendly interactivity between an artist and a public. We are beyond relational aesthetics as a theory of form, because the form keeps changing and evolving. What we need is a deeper analysis of how artists are inserting themselves into realms that are not often considered spaces for art.