artintelligence

March 23, 2009

On Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics

Filed under: Aesthetics, Theory, Art into Life — Graham Coulter-Smith

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) was the most sophisticated theoretical text to accompany the new generation of artists that emerged in the 1990s. Compared with the writings of the New York-based October critics, however, who framed the postmodern appropriation movement of the 1980s (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Hans Haacke) Bourriaud’s text lacks  theoretical depth and cohesion. Relational Aesthetics contains a section on the aesthetics of Guattari but Bourriaud pushes this to the end of his book as if he does not want to scare the reader away with too much theory. Most of the book consists of mentioning the names of artists and providing very short glosses on particular works which they have produced. The only sustained analysis of a particular artist is devoted to Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

It is also the case that Bourriaud is very selective in his choice of particular instances of works produced by the artists he mentions. Specifically he selects works that supports his thesis. This is problematic because such works are not indicative of the oeuvre of most of the artists with whom he deals. There are really only two artists whose work consistently supports Bourriaud’s thesis: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gonzalez-Torres and of these two only Tiravanija can be described as thoroughly “relational”.

Bourrriaud’s central premise is that artistic practice in the 1990s can be understood in terms of a paradigm shift in which artistic practice is “focused upon the sphere of inter-human relations … and the invention of models of sociability” . He notes 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. Almost thirty years ago, Félix Guattari was advocating those hands-on strategies that underpin present-day artistic practices: “Just as I think it is illusory to aim at a step-by-step transformation of society, so I think that microscopic attempts, of the community and neighbourhood committee type, the organisation of day-nurseries in the faculty, and the like, play an absolutely crucial role .

From this quotation one obtains insight into Bourrriaud’s notion of  “relational aesthetics” and its philosophical basis in the theoretical writings of Guattari. We discover that art of the 1990s is a micropolitical form of resistance to the reification and alienation evident in capitalist corporate culture. At the end of his text when he focuses on Guattari he mentions the latter’s concept of “integrated world capitalism” or IWA, the acronym being reminiscent of the Marxist philosopher Louis Athusser’s ISA or “ideological state apparatus”. Indeed, in the course of this text Bourrriaud refers to Althusser’s notion that capitalist society consists of a “state of encounter imposed on people”, of which the most obvious example is the modern city which is designed to channel people into the dual capitalist trajectories of work and consumption.

As soon as we grasp the urban dimension of Bourriaud’s argument we recall the Situationist International’s obsession with dérive (drifting), psychogeography and “unitary urbanism”. And it is certainly the case that the background to Bourrriaud’s conception of the modern urban experience lies in the analyses of the artists and intellectuals associated with Situationism with the exception that instead of a Marxist frame of reference Bourriaud adopts the more fashionable poststructuralist theory of Guattari.

With regard to the background to art of the 1990s Bourrriaud points to “two visions of the world” on the one hand rationalism and on the other “a philosophy of spontaneity and liberation through the irrational (Dada, Surrealism, the Situationists)” his conclusion is that the emancipatory project of Dada and Surrealism and Situationism failed to stem the tide of rationalism in the form of “authoritarian and utilitarian forces eager to gauge human relations and subjugate people”. He observes:

“Reason” made it that much easier to exploit the South of planet earth, blindly replace human labour by machines, and set up more and more sophisticated subjugation techniques, all through a general rationalisation of the production process. So the modern emancipation plan has been substituted by countless forms of melancholy.

But this melancholic reflection is not the end of the story because, according to Bourriaud, art of the 1990s continues the struggle against utilitarian rationalism. Bourriaud observes that all the vanguard movements he mentions (Dada, Surrealism, Situationism) “fell within the tradition of … [the] modern project” in the sense of “changing culture, attitudes and mentalities, and individual and social living conditions”. The implication here is that such movements failed because they were formulated according to the parameters of modernism. Bourriaud is unclear at this point in his argument because he does not delineate the alternative offered by postmodern thinking. Instead he makes a curious observation that:

today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models, veering in the direction indicated by Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian.

In this passage he appears to be saying that art of the 1990s is merely a continuation of the post-romantic social project evident in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is necessary to untangle and assist Bourrriaud’s analysis at this point and suggest that although there is an element of similarity between the modern and post-modern projects there is also a fundamental difference which Bourriaud fails to delineate at this point in his analysis.

We can suggest that the fundamental difference lies in the concept of totality. The notion of totality is evident in all of the precursors Bourrriaud mentions: “Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian”. In short their utopian project was to change the world whereas the contemporary strategy as outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari is to proceed micropolitically. What Bourriaud fails to spell out is that the concept of totality has been replaced by a Foucauldian notion of resistance conceived as inextricably interwoven into the distributed matrix of power. Foucauldian resistance operates at the level of individuals and groups and is not concerned with revolutionising the totality because the totality is beyond human intervention. Totality is a matrix of transpersonal forces which human agency is only able to negotiate not totally control. Like the weather, the systems implemented by human beings are unpredictable and prone to chaotic behaviour.

If we add a Foucauldian dimension to Bourriaud’s analysis it begins to make some sense. Unfortunately as it stands Bourriaud’s analysis is theoretically thin due to the fact that it is almost totally dependent upon Guattari’s aesthetic theory. Foucault is mentioned in Relational Aesthetics but only in passing. This is a significant omission due to the fact that the precursor movements of Surrealism and Situationism which Bourriaud refers to were fundamentally influenced by Hegelian Marxism and its notion that it was possible to conceive and revolutionise the totality. As the most significant post-Marxist thinker, Foucault is pivotal to describing an alternative to the failed strategy of Marxist inspired movements such as Surrealism and Situationism.

In terms of Foucault’s Nietzschean concept of power as a dynamic flux of transpersonal forces beyond the grasp of reason, human consciousness is only able to grasp fragments of the whole and therefore is only able to transform at the micro not the macro level. Total revolution is replaced by microrevolution. Although Bourriaud does not spell out the difference between total and microrevolution clearly and indeed even muddies the waters of his argument, this is essentially the point he is trying to make. Relational interventions function at the micropolitical level, more specifically the interpersonal level. Accordingly the viewer becomes critically important in the relational aesthetic thesis.

But even when we have clarified and reconstructed Bourriaud’s  argument there are still fundamental problems. One of the most obvious problems is that Relational Aesthetics is essentially a catalogue of artists names. Which is to say there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Bourriaud’s thesis. He claims that genius is dead but the critical focus of Relational Aesthetics are artist individuals. Genius may be an old-fashioned notion but we can observe that instead of being superseded it has mutated into celebrity. We can agree with Bourriaud when he notes the ideology of genius “exalts the solitude of the creative person and mocks all forms of community”. He is also correct when he notes that this institutionalisation of the artist stems from a vestigial romanticism: “Romantic aesthetics, from which we may very well not have really emerged, postulates that the work of art, as a product of human subjectivity, expresses the mental world of a subject.”. But we can be less assured when he claims that the new artistic generation of the 1990s offers a way out of this historically ingrained state of affairs.

Bourriaud claims that Guattari offers an alternative way of perceiving artistic creation: “Guattari’s theses … [refuse] the Romantic idea of genius … depicting the artist as an operator of meaning, rather than a pure “creator” relying on crypto-divine inspiration” 89. Yet on the same page Bourriaud can extol the virtues of a distinctly romanticist and “crypto-divine” artist such as Joseph Beuys:

Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol all constructed their work on a system of exchanges with social movements, unhinging the mental “ivory tower” myth allocated to the artist by the Romantic ideology.

What is profoundly contradictory for Bourriaud’s argument is that Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol are all now considered as geniuses. We can hardly describe any of these artists as mere “operators of meaning”, even if we knew what that phrase actually meant. And, significantly, Bourriaud criticises the most succinct and disseminated argument against genius namely Roland Barthes “death of the author”. Bourriaud claims that Barthes “death of the author” thesis does not tally with Guattari’s concept of the artist as “an operator of meaning”. He explains that for Guattari authorship is a “phoney problem” because:

It is the processes of subjectivity production which need redefining with a view to their collectivisation. Because the individual does not have a monopoly on subjectivity, the model of the Author and his alleged disappearance are of no importance: “Devices for producing subjectivity may exist in the scale of megalopolis as well as on the scale of an individual’s linguistic games”

In other words the artist-individual is no longer a problem because subjectivity is a collective phenomenon. But this is precisely the point Barthes is trying to make when he refers to a work of art as a “tissue of quotations” which is paralleled in Bourriaud’s quotation from Guattari in the form: “Devices for producing subjectivity may exist … on the scale of an individual’s linguistic games”. All Guattari adds is that the scale can be increased beyond a work of art to an urban environment, or one might add a globalised information environment. But there is no sense in which we can say that the “scale of an individual” has been superseded to the point where it can be ignored.

The basis for Bourriaud’s argument rests upon a contrast between romanticism and postmodernism “The Romantic contrast between individual and society, which informs artistic role-playing and its mercantile system, has become truly null and void.”. This is a remarkably overconfident generalisation, and it is inherently totalising. Moreover, Bourriaud’s contention is contradicted by the fact that the vast majority of the artists referred to in Relational Aesthetics to support Bourriaud’s argument have gone on to become fine art celebrities—the contemporary incarnation of the concept of genius. What Bourriaud leaves out of his equation is the specialisation of art which has been pointed out by Habermas, a specialisation that has separated it from everyday life. And we might also indicate the symbiotic relationship between artists and the specialised institutions of art outlined in the writings of George Dickie and Arthur C. Danto.

It is as if Bourriaud has an almost “crypto-divine” reverence for Guattarian theory taking the liberation of collective subjectivity as already realised in the totality of praxis. The fact of the matter is that “artistic role-playing and its mercantile system” are alive and well. How could anyone canonised by the art system think of themselves as anything other than a privileged individual? It is therefore wishful-thinking to assume, as Bourriaud does, that there is a “lessening the figure of the author in favour of that of the artist-cum operator”, especially when the examples he cites at this point in his argument are figures such as Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol who are revered not only as mere celebrities but as geniuses within the institutions of fine art. And no doubt some of the artists of the 1990s who Bourriaud cites as instances of a putative new paradigm of artistic production will also mutate from the condition of celebrity to that of genius over the following decades.

23 Comments »

  1. Kramer auto Pingback[…] produced. The only sustained analysis of a particular artist is devoted to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (more…) 1 2 3 4 // A archive P […]

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  2. Came across artintelligence while googling relational aesthetics. Thanks for the critique and the clear exposition that places the issues within a familiar intellectual history.

    I see that you have an RSS feed and have included it in artRSS, which is a searchable database of art-related news feeds at http://net18reaching.org/artrss

    Comment by Myron Turner — April 21, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  3. After reading Bourriaud’s book, I was open up to ideas of using form to create relationships; here’s one example:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt3pQOzOEcE

    Comment by Larry Caveney — April 30, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  4. Thank you for that read! At least one which took the effort of a critical review of the well known ‘Relational Aesthetics’. Though funny enough I came across it on my meanwhile extensive search for material on ‘Kontext Kunst/Context Art’.
    Seemingly the earlier coined term and exhibition by Peter Weibel in Graz in 1993 has almost no resonance out there. This might be due to the fact that most of the publications referring to the term are in german, or its more politically tended orientation (see Maria Lind’s reference “The question of context has come to the fore, also beyond the institution. To the point that there in the German-speaking area is a term ‘Kontextkunst’ (context art), coined by Peter Weibel for an exhibition with the same name in Graz in 1993, and highly contested by particularly the Cologne-based leftist art scene. Kontextkunst is, if you wish a German parallel to the so-called ‘relational aesthetics’ but more programmatically political and academic. Both imply a more dynamic notion of art, which actively takes the context into consideration and which often goes beyond the exhibition space. Some of the artists used as ‘good’ examples by Christian Kravagna have been associated with Kontextkunst. See Peter Weibel: Kontextkunst – Kunst der 90er Jahre, Cologne, DuMont Verlag 1994.” from http://eipcp.net/transversal/1204/lind/en/#_ftn16). Interestingly the catalog of the 1993 (”Documenting a wide-ranging exhibition designed to illustrate the emergence over the past decade of a new international art movement, this catalogue features an anthology of 22 substantial essays (some reprinted) discussing from diverse perspectives the artistic issues and social and political themes that distinguish “Context Art” from related forms of conceptual and installation art…. “) show is hardly available, or if so just at a hardly realistic high price.
    So regarding your comment, I was enjoying that you mention of the ‘october critics’ in the beginning, as some forerunners, whose interpretations were essential to the development of the following decades. Nevertheless I am always irritated to find so less about the ‘context art’ ideas, as they was so closely related to the social and political changes .. (see http://www.shiftyparadigms.org/false_economies.htm: “In terms of subject matter, where an earlier generation largely engaged in a critique of art and its mechanisms,(4) the way has been paved for effective critique to move beyond self-referentiality, as identified by Peter Weibel in his 1994 Kontextkunst (context art) project, suggestive of a proactive attitude towards change:
    It is no longer purely about critiquing the art system, but about critiquing reality and analysing and creating social processes. In the ’90s, non-art contexts are being increasingly drawn into the art discourse. Artists are becoming autonomous agents of social processes, partisans of the real. The interaction between artists and social situations, between art and non-art contexts has lead to a new art form, where both are folded together: Context art. The aim of this social construction of art is to take part in the social construction of reality.”) .. and meanwhile internationally recognized artists like Fareed Armaly, Cosima von Bonin, Tom Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, Meg Cranston, Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Andrea Fraser, Inspection Medhermeneutics, Ronald Jones, Louise Lawler, Thomas Locher, Dorit Margreiter, Kasimir Malewitsch, Katrin von Maltzahn, Regina Möller, Reinhard Mucha, Christian Philipp Müller, Anton Olschwang, Hirsch Perlman, Dan Peterman, Adrian Piper, Mathias Poledna, Stephan Prina, Florian Pumhösl, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Julia Scher, Oliver Schwarz, Jason Simon, Rudolf Stingel, Lincoln Tobier, Olga Tschernyschewa, Christopher Williams, Peter Zimmermann, Heimo Zobernig (http://www.neuegalerie.at/93/kunst/cover.html) were - despite the strictly german publications - part of it.

    Comment by m. jaeckel — May 4, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  5. Thank you for that read! At least one which took the effort of a critical review of the well known ‘Relational Aesthetics’. Though funny enough I came across it on my meanwhile extensive search for material on ‘Kontext Kunst/Context Art’.
    Seemingly the earlier coined term and exhibition by Peter Weibel in Graz in 1993 has almost no resonance out there. This might be due to the fact that most of the publications referring to the term are in german, or its more politically tended orientation (see Maria Lind’s reference “The question of context has come to the fore, also beyond the institution. To the point that there in the German-speaking area is a term ‘Kontextkunst’ (context art), coined by Peter Weibel for an exhibition with the same name in Graz in 1993, and highly contested by particularly the Cologne-based leftist art scene. Kontextkunst is, if you wish a German parallel to the so-called ‘relational aesthetics’ but more programmatically political and academic. Both imply a more dynamic notion of art, which actively takes the context into consideration and which often goes beyond the exhibition space. Some of the artists used as ‘good’ examples by Christian Kravagna have been associated with Kontextkunst. See Peter Weibel: Kontextkunst – Kunst der 90er Jahre, Cologne, DuMont Verlag 1994.” from http://eipcp.net/transversal/1204/lind/en/#_ftn16 ). Interestingly the catalog of the 1993 (”Documenting a wide-ranging exhibition designed to illustrate the emergence over the past decade of a new international art movement, this catalogue features an anthology of 22 substantial essays (some reprinted) discussing from diverse perspectives the artistic issues and social and political themes that distinguish “Context Art” from related forms of conceptual and installation art…. “) show is hardly available, or if so just at a hardly realistic high price.
    So regarding your comment, I was enjoying that you mention of the ‘october critics’ in the beginning, as some forerunners, whose interpretations were essential to the development of the following decades. Nevertheless I am always irritated to find so less about the ‘context art’ ideas, as they were so closely related to the social and political changes .. (see http://www.shiftyparadigms.org/false_economies.htm : “In terms of subject matter, where an earlier generation largely engaged in a critique of art and its mechanisms,(4) the way has been paved for effective critique to move beyond self-referentiality, as identified by Peter Weibel in his 1994 Kontextkunst (context art) project, suggestive of a proactive attitude towards change:
    It is no longer purely about critiquing the art system, but about critiquing reality and analysing and creating social processes. In the ’90s, non-art contexts are being increasingly drawn into the art discourse. Artists are becoming autonomous agents of social processes, partisans of the real. The interaction between artists and social situations, between art and non-art contexts has lead to a new art form, where both are folded together: Context art. The aim of this social construction of art is to take part in the social construction of reality.”) .. and meanwhile internationally recognized artists like Fareed Armaly, Cosima von Bonin, Tom Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, Meg Cranston, Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Andrea Fraser, Inspection Medhermeneutics, Ronald Jones, Louise Lawler, Thomas Locher, Dorit Margreiter, Kasimir Malewitsch, Katrin von Maltzahn, Regina Möller, Reinhard Mucha, Christian Philipp Müller, Anton Olschwang, Hirsch Perlman, Dan Peterman, Adrian Piper, Mathias Poledna, Stephan Prina, Florian Pumhösl, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Julia Scher, Oliver Schwarz, Jason Simon, Rudolf Stingel, Lincoln Tobier, Olga Tschernyschewa, Christopher Williams, Peter Zimmermann, Heimo Zobernig ( http://www.neuegalerie.at/93/kunst/cover.html ) were - despite the strictly german publications - part of it.

    Comment by m. jaeckel — May 4, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

  6. I read Bourriauds book and found it really helpful-I particularly ejoyed the brief discussion of Torres and Boltanski.

    However the main impact of the book for me was the impetus it gave me to consider ‘relational aesthetics’ from a catholic perspective. I have for some time now i my work been trying to construct a kind of manifesto which would allow me to produce work in the public arena which visits and engages but does so respectfully and without abrogation. My work is primarily concerned with’visitation’ and often takes the form of quite large outdoor interventions which are transient-appear and disappear usually within days. Works that demand approval for their completion -e.g my ‘Love Song for the City’ (five gold wrapped lamposts in Stoke on Trent) obviously require official consent-but others do not.

    In order to conform with a principle of consent theefore I decided to leave my contact details displayed with any work I do so that-should three persons complain-then I will take the work down!! Equally -working as a catholic and therefore seeking to in some way engage others with the known attributes of God- love ,kindness,awe, beauty,mystery, otherness, relationship, respect etc then my work conforms to broad criteria. I was pleased to see that in his own way Bourriaud was alluding to a similar issue in his discussion of democratic and totalitarian forms.

    Working as a contemporary catholic artist in these the fag end days of postmodernism is really interesting. Certainly we may not return to old patronages gilt and portrait forms but must discover the new in an art which is capable of transcending the current sad weariness of nihilism and narcissism-it seems to me that Bourriauds work was-albeit from a secular world view somehow grappling with the same underlying spirit of change.

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — May 10, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  7. I hope this blog will continue since it’s the best art blog I’ve come across so far!

    Comment by Timja — May 25, 2009 @ 1:42 am

  8. Seconded - please come back soon!

    Comment by Katy — August 17, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  9. Kramer auto Pingback[…] Relational Aesthetics SAVE […]

    Pingback by designcritique09's Donna Bookmarks on Delicious — December 7, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  10. Bourriaud’s ‘Altermodern’, an eclectic mix of bullshit & bad taste
    The recent trend for curators to view themselves as the ‘real’ ‘heroes’ of the art world continues with the Parisian fashion-poodle Nicolas Bourriaud (AKA Boring Ass) using “Altermodern”, the 2009 Tate Triennial, to promote himself over and above anything he’s actually included in this aesthetic disaster. The selection of works for ‘Altermodern’ struck me as remarkably similar to the last ‘big’ show I’d seen curated by Bourriaud, the Lyon Biennial in 2005. The art itself doesn’t really matter, it is there to illustrate a thesis. The thesis doesn’t matter either since it exists to facilitate Bourriaud’s career; and Bourriaud certainly doesn’t matter because he is simply yet another dim-witted cultural bureaucrat thrown up by the institution of art.

    In Lyon, Bourriaud’s theme was Expérience de la Durée, which Frieze summed up as: “an art-historical argument for a ‘long 1990s’…. Unlike Cinderella, methods of making and thinking about art don’t become unwelcome at the ball just because the clock strikes midnight. If time, for David Bowie, ‘flexes like a whore’, for Bourriaud and Sans (Boring Ass’s Lyon co-curator and Palais de Tokyo chum) its movements are closer to soporific languor.” (Frieze ±95, Nov-Dec 2005).

    For the Tate Triennial, Bourriaud has adopted a technique much beloved by talentless song-smiths when record companies demand new material they haven’t yet composed, take an existing riff and reverse it. Thus the back cover of the Triennial catalogue announces: “Few books introduce a word into the language as this one does. The term ‘altermodern’ has been coined by leading critical theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud to describe the art that has arrived at the end of the postmodern period, made in today’s global context, as a reaction against cultural standardisation.’ This claim singularly fails to mark out any new field for ‘contemporary’ cultural practice, since art in the modern sense of the term developed more than two centuries ago in reaction to the cultural standardisation of the first industrial revolution, and in the context of the development and global expansion of capitalism (the initial moves from its formal to its real domination, a process that continued until well into the 20th century). And it should hardly need stating that the justification for Bourriaud’s Tate squib is simply Lyon 2005 in reverse. But forwards, backwards or anagramatised, the notions Bourriaud hangs his shows on all amount to the same thing: bullshit.

    So much for the (non)-’theory’, what about the art? The video installation Hermitos Children by Spartacus Chetwynd looks like out-takes from a promo by a really bad indie band replete with mock-shocking nudity (zzzzzzz). Nathaniel Mellors’ Gaintbum is even worse, featuring as it does films of would-be luvvies rehearsing for a play about being stuck inside a huge arse (and yes, the free guide really does explain that coprophilia is “an obsession with excrement”). While in The Plover’s Wing, Marcus Coates fakes it up as a shaman, and comes across as truly pathetic because he clearly has no idea that practices he is unable to even parody, emerged at the very moment tribal society began to stratify into class societies, and were thus a response to alienation.

    That said, there is the odd decent piece in Altermodern, even if Bourriaud is only able to include the most outstanding work by completely over-indulging his taste for slip-shod curational methods. The Tate Triennial is supposedly an exhibition of emerging British artists, Gustav Metzger is actually stateless (he does live in London) and his art world reputation dates all the way back to the 1960s. Those two things don’t particularly matter to me in relation to the curation of this show, but I do object to Bourriaud re-dating Metzger’s work so that it can be presented as recent art. Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment dates from 1965, not 2006 as the labelling in Bourriaud’s Altermodern exhibition would have it. This work has also been shown relatively recently as part of the Gustav Metzger Retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1998/99, and the photograph in the MOMA Papers Volume 3 (page 40) produced to accompany that exhibition is dated ‘1965/98? (the standard method of dating re-made work when the ‘original’ is unavailable). Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment was shown again as part of the Summer of Love show at Tate Liverpool (2005) and then toured in Europe through to late summer 2006. The piece was re-made once more for this exhibition and is correctly dated in the catalogue (page 221) as “1965/2005?. The Tate then bought the piece from Metzger, and it should have been labelled in Altermodern as “1965/2005?; but this dating would render its inclusion absurd, and a charlatan like Bourriaud – who can’t be bothered to seek out decent contemporary work – has no qualms about faking the provenance of a piece like Liquid Crystal Environment.

    But let’s move on to the catalogue, which like the posters and other graphic elements in the show was designed by M/M, the Paris based team of Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak. The Design Museum sums up the career of these bozos with the following words: “After starting out with music projects, M/M became involved with Yamamoto and Sitbon in 1995 and have since worked for other fashion houses including Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. Their work in the art world ranges from commissions for museums such as Centre Georges Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo in Paris, to collaborations with artists like Philippe Parreno and Pierre Hughe. Amzalag and Augustyniak also work as creative consultants to Paris Vogue.” My own take is that M/M’s way too self-conscious use of ‘ecentric’ typefaces is unnecessarily baroque and looks like complete shit. In a classic triumph of would-be ’style’ over substance, M/M don’t put page numbers on certain sections of the Altermodern catalogue, including the three ‘keynote’ essays at the front (meaning that anyone wanting to cite quotes has to count off the pages by turning them); no doubt if M/M were architects the idea of getting ‘transgressive’ by designing buildings without foundations would appeal to them. That said, the catalogue’s content is even worse that its cretinous design.

    Bourriaud’s introduction to the Triennial catalogue exposes the lack of anything substantial behind his half-baked notion of the ‘altermodern’. To quote Boring Ass directly: “The term ‘altermodern, which serves as the title of the present exhibition and to delimit the void beyond the post-modern, has its roots in the idea of ‘otherness’.” (page 12). If Bourriaud sees a void beyond postmodernism, this is presumably because he is loathe to admit that capitalism (like feudalism and every other form of exploitation to be found in recorded history) has a finite life-span. Likewise by connecting alter to other, Bourriaud reminded me of a book I read a dozen years ago, The Other Modernism: F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Fiction of Power by Cinzia Sartini Blum (University of California Press, 1996). In this tome, Blum “investigates a diverse array of… futurist textual practices that range from formal experimentation with ‘words in freedom’ to nationalist manifestos that advocate intervention in World War I and anticipate subsequent fascist rhetoric of power and virility.” Curiously, some of Bourriaud’s rhetoric does indeed echo Marienetti’s ‘other’ modernism, viz: “altermodernism sees itself as a constellation of ideas linked by the emerging and ultimately irresistible will to create a form of modernism for the twenty-first century.” (catalogue, page 12). So don’t go accusing Boring Ass of being a ‘mainstream’ liberal, since he counterposes ‘irresistible will’ to notions of agency! That said, it might be that ‘natural’ ‘leaders’ like Bourriaud have ‘will’ and ‘agency’, and it is this which will determine the altermodern ‘evolution’ of ‘the masses’! I am, of course, assuming here that when Boring Ass anthropomorphises altermodernism by talking about how it ’sees itself”, he is simultaneously indulging in a process of personification in which he becomes the physical embodiment of his own ‘ideal’ In which case altermodernism might more properly be taken as a synonym for Bourriaud’s personal variant on narcissism.

    Moving on, Bourriaud pointedly steps back from anything as contentious as overt link-ups with full blown fascist modernism: “The historical role of modernism, in the sense of a phenomenon arising within the domain of art, resides in its ability to jolt us out of tradition; it embodies a cultural exodus, an escape from the confines of nationalism and identity tagging, but also from the mainstream whose tendency is to reify thought and practice. Under threat from fundamentalism and consumer driven uniformisation, menaced by massification and the enforced re-abandonment of individual identity, art today needs to reinvent itself, and on a planetary scale. And this new modernism, for the first time, will have resulted from global dialogue. Postmodernism, thanks to the post-colonial criticism of Western pretensions to determine the world’s direction and the speed of its development, has allowed the historical counters to be reset to zero; today, temporalities intersect and weave a complex network stripped of a centre. Numerous contemporary artistic practices indicate, however, that we are on the verge of a leap out of the postmodern period and the (essentialist) multicultural model from which it is indivisible; a a leap that would give rise to a synthesis between modernism and post-colonialism.” (page 12).

    All of which can be taken as so much sound and fury signifying nothing, the proverbial tale told by an idiot, because post-colonialism was ‘always and already’ an integral part of modernity (just as modernism and modernity are inseparable from a process of globalisation that was already in motion in the sixteenth century; and rather than marking a break with modernism, ‘post’-modernism is actually a continuation of modernity). It strikes me that Bourriaud might benefit from sitting down with a few books written by the likes of Paul Gilroy. Likewise, Boring Ass talks of the historical role of artistic modernism, then of the historical counters being reset to zero (which he presumably sees as nullifying any historical role modernism performed); similarly, he speaks of our contemporary world being characterised by a complex network stripped of a centre, as well as the threat of ‘the mainstream’ reifying thought and practice. If there is a dialectical telos at work in Bourriaud’s ‘thought’ to provide a methodological underpinning to these otherwise senseless inversions, then it stands in direct contradiction to the claims he makes elsewhere in this text such as: “Our civilisation, which bears imprints of a multicultural explosion and the proliferation of cultural strata, resembles a structureless constellation awaiting transformation into an archipelago.” It looks like what is waiting to kick off here is that old idealist fallacy about consciousness being brought in from outside the ‘masses’, a trope much beloved by the likes of Lenin and Mussolini. Likewise, while artistic modernism may indeed – as Bourriaud claims – serve to ‘jolt us out of tradition’, it is important to remember that fundamentalism and traditionalism are also products of modernity in its broadest sense. Given the positions Bourriaud strikes, it unfortunately also becomes necessary to restate once again that artistic modernism is not necessarily incompatible with fascism and/or nationalism, and indeed that fascism is not incompatible with anarchism (see, for example, my text of a dozen years ago Anarchist Integralism).

    Bourriaud’s rant about the “threat from fundamentalism and consumer driven uniformisation” and “being menaced by massification and the enforced re-abandonment of individual identity”, like his ritual denunciations of multiculturalism, are familiar enough as political rhetoric. That said, most of us are probably more used to seeing such positions articulated by ideologically motivated crytpo-fascists than art curators. Of course, it is possible that when Bourriaud speaks of ‘the threat from fundamentalism’ he means the type found in the US Bible belt, but if this is the case it is extremely foolish of him to refrain from explicitly saying so because the terminology he uses is so closely bound up with the political rhetoric of groups like the French Nouvelle Droite that many people will assume he is invoking so called “Muslim fundamentalists”.

    In a review I wrote for Art Monthly last summer, I observed: “Interviewed recently by Anthony Gardner and Daniel Palmer, Bourriaud claimed ‘our new modernity is based on translation’… When in the interview just mentioned, Bourriaud speaks of the ‘fight for autonomy and the possibility of singularity’, he could be mistaken for a late-twentieth century disciple of Italian Dadaist Julius Evola.” The specific disciples I was thinking of were Nouvelle Droite ideologues such as Alain de Benoist, people who were far more influenced by Evola’s fascist politics than his brief involvement with the modernist avant-garde. I would, however, stress that I quite deliberately used the term ‘mistaken for’ and I am NOT claiming Bourriaud is an unreconstructed crypto-fascist.

    The Wikipedia (on 16 February 2009) summarises Alain de Benoist’s views thus: ““from being close to fascist French movements at the beginning of his writings in 1970, he moved to attacks on globalisation, unrestricted mass immigration and liberalism as being ultimately fatal to the existence of Europe through their divisiveness and internal faults. His influences include Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Jünger, Jean Baudrillard, Helmut Schelsky, Konrad Lorenz, and other intellectuals. Against the liberal melting-pot of the U.S., Benoist is in favour of separate civilisations and cultures. He also says he opposes Jean-Marie Le Pen, racism and anti-Semitism. He has opposed Arab immigration in France, while supporting ties with Islamic culture. He has also tried to distance himself from Adolf Hitler, Vichy France or Aryan supremacy, in favor of concepts like ‘ethnopluralism,’ in which organic, ethnic cultures and nations must live and develop in separation from one another.”

    Despite Bourriaud’s inflammatory rhetoric about ‘a multicultural explosion’ in the Tate Triennial catalogue, I continue to view him as an over-ambitious culture industry hack rather than a political demagogue. He may have picked up the moronic phraseology he employs almost unconsciously and have no idea of what it signifies politically. On the other hand, Boring Ass may be hedging his bets, thinking that ambiguous statements of the kind he is making about the ‘altermodern’ will ingratiate him with the political establishment in France if there are further swings to the right. It isn’t entirely clear to me what Bourriaud’s ambitions are, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he wanted to be director of an institution such as the Centre Georges Pompidou, or else running cultural policy for the French government; and if this is what he desires, then his curational charlatanism (viz re-dating Metzger’s work) indicates that he is unscrupulous enough to attempt to achieve it through a somewhat ambiguous redeployment of Nouvelle Droite motifs.

    There are only two pieces in the Altermodern show that actually resonate with Bourriaud’s inflammatory catalogue essay. Curiously, Adrian Searle in his Guardian online review felt moved to link them: “…one sits and listens to Olivia Plender’s description of the relationship between Robin Hood and the various splits in the scouting movement in the early 20th century, and how that eventually led – via digressions on EM Forster, the Kibbo Kift and the archives at the Whitechapel Gallery – to a troubling faction called the Green Shirts (not a million miles from the fascist Blackshirts), who railed against the British Credit System in the 1930s (one of their number fired an arrow at 10 Downing Street). On the table, there are last week’s newspapers, with their credit-crunch headlines. The point circuitously being made is not so different from that of the mad, anti-semitic conspiracy theorist in Mike Nelson’s installation. Everything is connected, they both say. We just need the key.”

    I have already criticised Mike Nelson elsewhere (bottom part of that page) for his redeployment of anti-Semitic motifs in a different work, which was done ‘without a suitable critical framing’. There I also observed: “the art world doesn’t just represent violence, it also reproduces it; and like the rest of capitalist society, often in its most murderous forms. Art won’t save the world; only the vast majority of us acting collectively can make this marvellous green planet somewhere that is really worth living.”

    So to sum up, Altermodern at Tate Britain isn’t really about what’s happening in contemporary art, it is actually about Nicolas Bourriad and very little else. The show itself is boring and you really don’t need to see it. Nonetheless, just what were the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation thinking of when they underwrote Bourriaud’s ‘altermodern’ activities? Answers in the comments please!

    And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!

    Comment by The anti=bullshit Stewart Home fan and Nico Bourriaud hater — January 11, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  11. Bourriaud’s ‘Altermodern’, an eclectic mix of bullshit & bad taste

    http://stewarthomesociety.org/blog/?p=550

    Comment by Rick Terror — January 11, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  12. Kramer auto Pingback[…] You will probalby have to buy it, but there is a critical review at: artintelligence.net […]

    Pingback by Nicolas Bourriaud « Cultural/Critical Discussion for Artists — May 9, 2010 @ 7:24 am

  13. Kramer auto Pingback[…] artintelligence.net/review/?p=845 newTino Sehgal […]

    Pingback by haiku LMS : Exploring Issues in Contemporary Art : Course Packet — November 3, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  14. Kramer auto Pingback[…] of relational aesthetics, in his book of the same title – for a concise criticism, see this text). But it was more directly influenced and inspired by Claire Bishop’s sharp review Antagonism […]

    Pingback by Relational Design… | otocron — November 9, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  15. This critique was a long-time-coming. Like the link to the ‘Bullshit & Badtaste’ article, read it quite a while ago before, it made me laugh.

    Comment by Gwyddion Flint — November 22, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  16. Let art save democracy!

    Or, can relational art also subvert today’s imperative to re-stage non-capitalist social relations in this so-called post-utopian age?
    BAVO

    Architects/philosophers Gideon Boie and Matthias Pauwels (BAVO) offer an exciting critique of art’s relationship to neoliberal policy. Both through examples and by in-depth analysis, the authors find that ‘the idea that art cannot but accept the ruling system in order to be of any social significance today, enables cultural forces to remain active in a capitalist reality they “theoretically” denounce. ‘ How to escape from this ‘interpassive’ deadlock? Pauwels and Boie argue for an art that radically forces to ‘choose sides’.

    Introduction: tear down the house of people

    The key question of the Museum of Conflict programme, based on a quote in the inaugural catalogue of MNAC by Nicolas Bourriaud, was: ‘Can art take over the location of power, being a symbol of openness and democracy?’ It is useful – if not essential – to take this question apart. The first phrase makes up a valuable question in its own right. The second phrase is not a question, but a blunt assumption that straightforwardly directs the reading of the question that precedes it. This reduction of argument is symptomatic of the role that is assigned to art in the current post-communist era, both in the West and the East. Art is thought to be able to occupy the empty place of power as emptiness and can as such safeguard society from regressing into the unbearable closures of totalitarian regimes – of which the House of People in Bucharest is the epitome. The concept of art as symbol of openness is obviously problematic. While art is supposed to represent openness and democracy, it evokes at the same time their opposites: the traumatic ‘inhumane’ experience of closure.

    Jacques Rancière identified both opposite aesthetical configurations as an answer to the post-utopian condition, as two éclats caused by the undoing of the alliance between a political and artistic radicalism.(1) Both the ‘aesthetics of the sublime’ and ‘relational aesthetics’ are ways for art to dodge the impossible choice between merely conforming to the current power regime or believing in an aesthetic utopia (which is considered as totalitarian in its own right). This explains the problematic relationship between art and the House of People in Bucharest. While art – the last vestige of democracy – rejects this ‘totalitarian’ building, it is nonetheless attracted and attached to it as a sublime image of an unbearable societal closure. However, if this building is really a sublime symbol of a totalitarian past that clashed with the wishes of the Romanian people, would it not be a good idea to demolish it and allow the Romanian people to take a piece of marble stone as a souvenir – as happened with the Berlin Wall?

    To reflect upon the political role of art, we think it is essential to move beyond the image of the House of People as a prime instance of ‘totalitarianism’. Moreover, it is necessary to identify the ways in which the ‘relational’ idea of art as a symbol of openness creates closures in our post-utopian ‘Westernized’ world. Firstly, we consider the relational conception of art as the ideal complement of the current capitalist subject. Secondly, we believe it reflects the basic contradiction that underpins capitalist society, both on an ideological and economical level. In conclusion we suggest a few actions that potentially free relational art from these constraints and thus repoliticize art.

    Relational aesthetics with Dutch characteristics

    Whereas Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of relational aesthetics still presents itself as a critical alternative to common aesthetics, we think Jacques Rancière was right to posit its conceptual framework as the hegemonic aesthetical regime in post-utopian conditions. In the Netherlands especially relational aesthetics have become all-pervasive. Take for instance the socio-cultural events that were enacted under the banner of WiMBY!(an abbreviation for ‘Welcome in my backyard!’) in Hoogvliet, Rotterdam. Hoogvliet is a post-war neighbourhood that – within the framework of the ‘Big Cities Policy’ – is being heavily restructured at present. The official policy is set up to boost the social atmosphere in the neighbourhood. The actual restructuring, however, boils down to a blunt rearrangement of the property relations.

    It is typical of the Big Cities Policy that it has, apart from a demolishing scheme, a huge budget for cultural projects that are initiated bottom-up. In this space WiMBY! functioned as anonymous container that gathered cultural actors from different backgrounds (designers, architects, artists, urbanists) to reflect upon the restructuring schemes. As a ‘multiple author’ – as Boris Groys would have called it – it was asked to engage with both the victims and the project developers and figure out interactive interventions. The outcome was aesthetical activism of an eclectic nature. It organized temporary events (open air festivals, cooking workshops) and collective design sessions (inventing a new imaginary Hoogvliet, mapping the social-spatial logics of the neighbourhood, etc.). It created virtual interfaces so that people were enable to learn about the logics of urban space via websites. It intervened in the urban setting through refurbishing the public area with new playgrounds, a pet cemetery, projecting colourful photographs on the grey housing blocks, etc.

    Although it is not acknowledged as such in the official discourse, the framework of relational aesthetics is a clear point of reference in this interactive cultural project. The nature of all these micro-interventions is deeply ‘relational’ since their official aim was to provide an alternative to ‘the current general mechanisation of social functions’ that is happening in Hoogvliet. Social housing has become a commodity; it is inscribed in the economical schemes of globally operating project developers. Art is used art as “a factor of sociability and a founding principle of dialogue.”(2) Amidst the socio-economic cleansing in Hoogvliet, WiMBY! was a symbol of openness that provided the different forces (private and public parties, civil partners and individual citizens) with a platform to connect, reflect and negotiate their respective desires and alternative project planning protocols and design experiments. WiMBY! seems the perfect incarnation of Bourriaud’s famous statement that: ‘One of the virtual properties of the image is its power of linkage, (…) flags, logos, icons, signs, all produce empathy and sharing, and all generate bonds.’(3)

    The art of idealistic conformism

    WiMBY! is also perfect to analyse the practical implications of Bourriaud’s conceptual framework. Strikingly, WiMBY!’s strong social ‘constructivist’ commitment did not prevent it from accepting the massive destruction of Hoogvliet as a historical fact. Its very name testifies to that. ‘Welcome in my backyard!’ are the words local people were supposed to utter. WiMBY! presented itself as being critical of the demolition programmes since they engender unrest among the people. Yet, its passionate plea for openness addressed primarily the local people. They were asked – rather, they were demanded – to use the opportunities the restructuring offered to broaden their social world, to overcome their inactive instincts, and accept the nomadic nature of today’s world.

    This ambivalence at the heart of WiMBY! brings us to the basic contradiction in many current debates concerning the relation between art and politics. Debates will often be in favour of a ‘third way’ that unproblematically merges conformism and social activism. Bourriaud argues: ‘It is not modernity that is dead, but its idealistic and teleological version.’(4) In other words, it is believed that only if art is able to accept the given social reality – i.e. the ruling capitalist regime and all the forces within it – will it be able to fulfil its natural role to ‘open up’ and expand this reality through artistic practices. ‘This is the precise nature of contemporary art exhibition in the arena of representational commerce;’ Bourriaud claims, ‘it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the “communication zones” that are imposed upon us.’ The precondition for this is, again, that cultural forces shed the authoritarian, utilitarian, idealistic and teleological expectations they mustered and accept the given social and political reality in order to be able to move on. We are thus confronted with a cynical situation. The acceptance of the ruling capitalist regime, and the renunciation to politicize the current socio-economic organisation is presented as the precondition to ‘democratize’ and ‘open up’ reality.

    How can we further analyze this situation? It should be clear that this ‘third way’ creates a kind of idealism too – or straightforward utopianism, if you like. This becomes apparent when Bourriaud inverts the what he calls ‘negative melancholic’ tendency in the work of Jean-François Lyotard. ‘Postmodern architecture’, Lyotard wrote, ‘is condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and to abandon an overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.’ In Bourriaud’s opinion, however, this very ‘condemnation’ comes to the fore as a chance: ‘a chance… in order to learn to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution.’(5) It is at this point that art is again invested with major expectations. As symbol of democracy and openness, art is regarded as blessed. Its task is no longer to subvert capitalism, but to prevent the current capitalist regime from its self-induced closure. Art brings this off by using the virtual property of the image to engage all parties in a new dialogue and build a new sense of community on a local level. In doing this relational art seem to hold the belief that – despite all the criticism one levels against capitalism – there is ‘something more’ in it that is worth preserving.

    Shut up and give us art

    It is significant that art’s democratic role is heralded as inevitable at the very moment that the virtue of democracy itself has become increasingly corrupted due to capitalism’s multiple forces. The urban arena is chock-full with populist images that refer to safety, wholeness and identity, icons of various religious fundamentalist ideas, corporate identities, etc. One cannot turn a blind eye to the massive mobilisation of the ‘virtual property of the image to create bonds’ for all sorts of dubious causes. The argument we advance is that all this shows that the conceptualisation of art as a ‘symbol of openness and democracy’ principally compensates for the abovementioned renouncement of the democratic consciousness in the political realm itself. While the current regime is not ready to query its own workings, the art sector is granted the responsibility to politicize the fraying social fabric.
    WiMBY! specifically targeted informal spaces of social exchange that have not yet been commodified – a kennel for dogs, a hang-out spot for youngsters, an emergency space for schools, etc. – and granted it critical value. Although the critical potential of these types of spaces is still unclear, the benefits of strictly dividing labour between the ruling elites and cultural forces are obvious. In the typical psychoanalytical situation of ‘transferential relationship’ two partners always complement their mutual shortcomings. So the advantage is that while the current elites openly state that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the art sector keeps up the appearance that there still is some commitment towards democracy and openness. As such, the aesthetical regime compensates for a hiatus in the ruling order; it claims that it is incapable of doing more than adjust all social relations to the logic of capital. Thus it prevents people from giving up their confidence.

    This ‘winning combination’, however, only works insofar both partners stick to their implicit yet strict division of labour that supports their cooperation. The conformist character of this type of art that establishes new bonds becomes clear the moment cultural forces take relational art’s own presuppositions very seriously.

    ‘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.’(6) What would happen if WiMBY! had claimed that all the buildings to be demolished were genuine places of social exchange? That it would consequently be unethical to demolish them – even when they do not meet contemporary living and esthetical standards. Conversely, what would happen if WiMBY! simply argued that also the remains of social space had better be demolished – fake as they are? This gesture would not only cause the strict division of labour between both partners to collapse. It would also establish a situation in which the local people would lose confidence in the ruling power – a situation the ‘new social bonds’ had been trying to avoid.

    The functionality of relational art’s dysfunctional nature

    It is necessary at this point to connect Boris Groys’ ideas about ‘multiple authorship’ with his recent plea for ‘equal aesthetic rights’.(7) The past years we have witnessed a major redistribution of the rights to authorise the social sphere. In the Netherlands, artists – and especially ‘relational artists’ – have become necessary partners to involve when restructuring the balance in larger cities by demolishing social housing structures. It is their merit that popular demands are taken seriously and that hot political issues such as radical democracy were put to the test. In Romania, too, the art scène occupied a niche in the House of People, a symbolical seat among the political assemblies. However, it would be misleading to claim that these practices of ‘multiple authorship’ entail ‘equal aesthetic rights’. Making cultural forces privileged partners merely grants them it a marginal and relatively unimportant jurisdiction – at least from an economical or strategic point of view. It is clear that the ‘multiple authorship’ is after all a formal equality that should not apply to Dutch or Romanian society as a whole. While being a partner, art is never granted the full political mandate to redesign the social organisation in a way that endangers the interests of the ruling powers.

    This inequality in ‘aesthetic rights’ allows us to contextualize the anti-essentialist character of relational aesthetics. It cannot conceal the fact that cultural forces cannot take an essentialist viewpoint. They are not allowed, as it were, to claim the whole House of the People. This is only a privilege of the ruling powers. The transferential relation between art and politics can best be understood in terms of what Slavoj Zizek has called ‘interpassivity’.(8) Cultural forces can propose whatever they want to democratize and open up a given situation, as long as their proposals do not endanger the control of capitalist developers of this situation. Here we come upon an ideological function of relational art that has been concealed so far: it is the provision of an ‘ersatz’ social space by using the virtual property of the image to create a bond between the ruling regime and the people – rather than a real intervention in the political space by confronting the dominant relations of power and production. The scandal, if you like, is that through this simulation of a sphere of openness and respect, cultural forces mobilize the people to – as David Harvey stated – ‘act against their own desire’.(9) Once included in this sphere where all the parties – project developers, local government, and the people – freely negotiate their respective desires, people can no longer choose to politicize their frustrations.

    The same holds for the cultural actors themselves: the idea that art cannot but accept the ruling system in order to be of any social significance today, enables cultural forces to remain active in a capitalist reality they ‘theoretically’ denounce. Bourriaud’s conceptualisation of ‘relational aesthetics’ as then re-enactment of modernism’s liberation and emancipation, without its direct servitude towards a specific political-ideological system. This idea is based on the assumption that any such servitude would turn art into an authoritarian, utilitarian, rational teleological and/or political messianic force. This phobia of functionality – expressed in Bourriaud’s sneers at ‘cultural Darwinisms’ – transfers upon relational aesthetics a ‘functionality to the power of two’. Relational art is functional in the current socio-political system because it is non-functional. True to the democratic ambition to ‘do nothing’ but ‘keep open’ the situation it operates in the service of the current power regime.

    The economic benefit of zones of exception

    We cannot limit our interpretation of the deadlock of relational art to the sphere of ideology. This would further feed the misunderstanding – for which Francis Fukuyama is largely responsible – that capitalism itself is here to stay as a natural and essentially ‘good’ development. Capitalism is the end result of all developments. Yet, people for whatever reason cling to the image of another world of social harmony.

    Bourriaud posits that Marx saw in art, besides mercantile and semantic qualities, a representation of a ‘social zero’: ‘an interstice term used by Marx to describe trading communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit: barter, merchandising, autarkic types of production, etc. The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within the system.’(10)

    This statement ignores that we deal with one of the basic contradictions of late capitalism as defined by Ernst Mandel, i.e. the very fact that in order to reproduce itself capitalism is forced to neutralise herself ‘in her own womb’.(11) While it may seem that the commodification of social relations is all-pervasive, it is clear that capitalism must violate its own laws in order to keep itself alive. People in the Third World are forced to use their own pre-capitalist means of subsistence and are kept outside of the logic and logistics of profit. The First World is confronted with countless examples of pre- or non-capitalist forms of production that are re-enacted. Take the growing numbers of ‘creative flex workers’ who increasingly depend on strong family ties for their social security and health, and their close network of co-flex workers for possible commissions. These informal human relations are not ‘outside’ of the capitalist system, as we are made to believe, but are an integral part of it. It is a principal law of capital that it will always seek to ‘externalize’ the costs of its reproduction towards non-capitalist socio-economic formation. Not only is the social family network exploited to outsource the high costs of social welfare, the informal creative sector is mobilised to recreate bonds between people and the ruling regime. Is it then not cynical to summon art to repeat this logic?

    Can art symbolize the ‘crack within’?

    This self-contradictory state of capitalism has an immense impact on the debate of the political role of art. It disproves the basic claim of Bourriaud that ‘all social relations today become mechanised and commodified’, which clearly reflects the Leftist myth of the market as an all-powerful monster. Instead of giving way to the compulsory idea of finding new strategies to break open our capitalist order, we think it is more effective for cultural forces to take the advice of Slavoj Zizek and address the ‘structuring of the order itself’.(12) In the context of Hoogvliet it is clear that its capitalist regime – i.e. the local government and the project developers – in order to reproduce itself is forced to permanently subvert its own capitalist logic. In order to avoid social uprising the regime has no choice but to open up the fixed restructuring schemes and allow some space and consideration for social interactions. In this way, any discussion about how to subvert the ruling regime has to take into account that each system – also the current capitalist regime – is always already subverting its own logics. The new democratic regime in Romania clearly and symbolically shows that by allocating a space for the art sector in its own heart.

    The key question is whether cultural forces will use this inconsistency or ‘crack’ in the system to downplay the asocial character of the current regime. In the restructuring schemes in Hoogvliet this inconsistency is used to argue that the developers are not ‘the bad guys’. The developers are willing to consider and meet social demands. The seat for the Romanian art sector right at the heart of power, the House of the People, suggests that even within the heavily restructured Romanian society there is some place left for critical thinking. In both cases the crack in the system is thus mobilised to soften the blows the people suffered. It is a matter of negotiating between capital and the community.

    Is relational art able to manipulate the existing ‘gaps’ in the system so as to bring the people to the point that they are no longer willing to negotiate their longing for deep social relations with capitalist firms that seek profit? This would allow them to subvert the dominant capitalist logic of compromise that prevents their desire to be fully realised. In short, if art is really committed to democracy, it has to short-circuit the myth that human beings are split between individuality and equality, economic profit and solidarity, and that they always have to find a proper balance between these values to prevent catastrophe. The long history of social revolt shows that when it comes to satisfying their desire for freedom and equality, people are all too eager to give up their very individuality and self-interest. We think art is perfectly capable of redesigning this anthropological phantasm of man as a ‘third way’ being.

    Art can draw on some strategies to short-circuit this logic of the constant compromise that is imposed by liberal democracy and be ‘relational’ at the same time. That is to say, the relational artist can either unambiguously act as a ruthless capitalist who couldn’t care less about social values. Artist Santiago Sierra is known for his fierce anti-capitalist stance and is at the same time straightforwardly capitalist in his performances. This type of artist uses budget to make temporary workers destroy the last remains of the social fabric. Or, alternately, the relational artist can act as an radical altruist who is unwilling to even consider cooperating within the capitalist regime of creative destruction. The latter position would be taken up by a WiMBY!-activist who believes that the housing blocks about to be demolished are invaluable places of genuine social exchange. Consequently, she chains herself to the building in an attempt to block the restructuring process. Both radicalizations of the relational position will no doubt take it beyond the point of merely dressing up the current status quo. They force the different parties to take sides. The capitalist regime will be forced to spit out its best pupil, or it will be forced to show that they do not care about social bonds and new communities.
    We believe that a consistent and ethical choice is more than ever needed when it comes to the issue of whether art can and/or should occupy the place it is granted in the infamous House of People in Bucharest. Every partial occupation is after all always in danger of compensating for the refusal of the new power elites to be fully democratic. Its return to the people remains symbolical, that is: ‘not total’. We propose alternative scenarios. What would happen when the MNAC refuses to occupy a side entrance of the House of the People (stating that this is only a fake opening of the locus of power to the Romanian people) and claim the entire building (to set up a ‘shadow’ parliament that debates on all current political decisions that affect Romanian society)? It would clearly show that this genuine symbol of power is still closed off for the people and occupied again by new elites that are only willing to open up to their cultural agenda – if not their political agenda. Inversely, what would happen when the MNAC propose to demolish the building and return the material leftovers of the former regime, the marble blocks, to the people?

    If the House of People really is a sign of collective pain – a sublime image of the suffering of the Romanian people – can we then accept that a bunch of politicians and cultural actors opportunistically (mis-)use this building for its ‘Bilbao effect’? Since the House of the People symbolises the immense sacrifice of the Romanian people, we think it is ethically justified to propose it be demolished and its material shared. The idea is not to neglect the suffering of the people, but to redistribute the wealth of the House of the People and enable the people to remember the past – not to misuse it.•

    Notes
    1 Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique, Paris: Editions Galilée, 2004.
    2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002
    3 ibid.
    4 ibid.
    5 ibid.
    6 ibid.
    7 Boris Groys, ‘Multiple authorship’, in: Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (eds.), The Manifesta Decade – Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions in Post-Wall Europe, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005, and Boris Groys, ‘The politics of equal aesthetic rights’, in: Radical Philosophy, Issue 137, May/June 2006
    8 Slavoj Zizek, The plague of phantasies, London: Verso, 1997
    9 David Harvey, A brief history of neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2005
    10 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002
    11 Ernest Mandel, Het laatkapitalisme, Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 1976
    12 Slavoj Zizek, The indivisible remainder, London: Verso, 1997

    This text was first published as part of a newspaper to announce the conference Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People, Bucharest, January 11, 2007
    © BAVO 2006

    Comment by Gwyddion Flint — January 24, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

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  21. Could you advise some reading about alternative theories than the one of Bourriaud that would present art and the work of artists as something else than work of meanings or socio political interventions?
    thanks a lot for the great article!

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