On March 22nd, I had the fortune of seeing the Thai contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija lecture at USC. I was quite excited by this chance, especially because I had frequently read about Tiravanija’s work as theorized by others, particularly Bourriard and his seminal book on relational aesthetics (and thus heavily categorized and polarized over time through that lens) but had never had the chance the hear the artist speak in his own words about his work.

After studying only the now-canonical and much imitated cooking-food-in-galleries projects of the 1990s, I was pleased to learn about Rikrit’s more recent work, and to hear it described in its complexity of possible meaning and process rather than as relational aesthetics. It actually gave me a new perspective not on the aesthetics of relations or social exchange, but rather on labor and distribution processes as related to the aesthetics of protest and activism. Not at all what I was expecting.

Rikrit’s practice is evolutionary in its iterations, often seizing on a theme or way of working and building upon possible tendrils of meaning, form, distribution processes, and contexts over a series of exhibitions and projects – and responding to the restrictions and frameworks of an institution or art context in the process. His current work can be traced to a process he has since worked with in many variations – collections of traditional images of protest from around the world (hand-made signage, peaceful and violent gatherings, rallies and marches) clipped from newspapers and then carefully re-drawn by art students in Thailand and elsewhere. These collections of images are then displayed in myriad contexts within institutions around the world – framed as works on paper, fabricated into silk-screened wallpaper, drawn as collaborative wall murals over the course of an exhibition, translated into sound and pressed on to vinyl records, etc, etc.

Alongside this, Rikrit has begun to experiment with the fabrication, distribution and display of that most ubiquitous and anonymous vehicle of protest imagery, the t-shirt. Sporting tongue-in-cheek phrases like “No Country for Old Prime Minister” (distributed and photographed at the Bangkok protests of 2008), or “Less Oil More Courage” (which has since made its way on to Greenpeace tote bags), these shirts have most recently been fabricated by art students in a makeshift pop-up shop in Gavin Brown’s space in New York, and displayed in “parades” (not protests or marches) on the backs of teenage models in art fair contexts. The slogans, a jumble of appropriated, submitted, and made-up phrases referring to a variety of social issues and protest contexts, are gathered haphazardly into the frame of art before just as fluidly migrating out into other frameworks and lives.

Rikrit embraces and lays bare these distribution methods of activist imagery dedicated to social change (of the t-shirt, the newspaper, the hand-made sign, the protest gathering, the gallery, the art edition, the art fair spectacle), as well as issues of labor and authorship – and this, what I believe to be the most compelling and critical aspect of his work, is also what opens him to the most vitriolic criticism. After his talk, a young MFA student attacked Rikrit for using the labor of “Thai children” to produce his work, for failing to produce anything with the trace of his own hand (i.e. Walter Benjamin’s “aura”), for ethical irresponsibility and charlatanism.

Authorship is one of the greatest sticking points, again and again, when it comes to social practice works. Surprisingly, it comes from a much younger generation of artists (today’s MFAs) than one would expect, and the anger and confusion behind these “authorship” questions is sometimes palpable. It would be a little too easy to blame this young artist himself for just having a screw loose and dismiss his comments – his rage was palpable and I have felt it elsewhere – and it speaks to the state of the very system that Rikrit is attempting to address through the transparency of his methods. Young MFAs are often doomed to work as studio assistants during their best years, and resigned to a difficult life of adjunct teaching positions, the struggle for recognition, and the pressure to produce ever more cutting-edge commodified objects. Clinging to self-expression and craft and authorship is a very natural reaction to the life that these artists are very likely entering into.

Yet by this very token, artists like Rikrit are creating critical art by questioning the anonymous power of protest imagery in those contexts, re-appropriating that anonymous imagery to an artistic context and applying complex layers of authorship and distribution to it (like licensing phrases/slogans for free to Greenpeace, selling t-shirts for $10-20 that could be considered art objects that are fabricated by art students, clipping media images and applying the hands of artists, albeit student artists, to their reproductions and selling them under his name and then redistributing that money back to the student artists…). Rather than attempt to assert or remove himself, rather than insist upon a false frame for what he does, Rikrit navigates the many complexities and contradictions of these very systems of aesthetic distribution, influence, and power – embracing them and peeling them open. Anger is a natural response, but it should be leveled at the contextual processes Rikrit so masterfully identifies and lays bare rather than the man himself. This work is so much more than cooking food in galleries and congenial conversation – it implicates each of us participating in this art world context and beyond – with a smile and a wink.