Tino Sehgal’s These Associations performed in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern is certainly at the cutting edge of fine art practice in the 21c. But unsurprisingly it is also a reworking of ideas developed by the Situationist International (SI) in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly because radical art of the 1960s remains the foundation for even the most progressive contemporary art and Sehgal’s These Associations reminds us of this fact. The Situationists’ concept of ‘situation’ was derived from Jean-Paul Sartre and the SI described their ‘situations’ as constructed encounters and creatively lived moments in specific urban settings. The aim was to critically transform everyday life by attacking the mind-controlling power of consumerism and mass media. Constructed encounters were also referred to in terms of ‘constructed situations’ and it is instructive that Sehgal also foregrounds this term when discussing his work thereby exhibiting his indebtedness to Situationism.
In the context of Situationism the ‘constructed situation’ was intended to replace artistic representation by the experimental realisation of artistic energy in everyday settings. Sehgal certainly follows in this vein but differently because he brings the Situationist ‘constructed situation’ up to date. The Situationist International of the 1960s was profoundly anticapitalist. Sehgal is not, his constructed situation, These Associations, at Tate Modern is sponsored by Unilever.
Wikipedia informs us that Unilever is a British–Dutch multinational company. It is the world’s third-largest consumer goods company measured by 2011 revenues (after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé). Unilever PLC had a market capitalisation of £27.3 billion as of 23 December 2011.
The idea of an artist being sponsored by a multinational company would have been anathema to the Situationists; they were not even comfortable exhibiting in government funded art galleries feeling that such institutions were fundamentally bourgeois and implicated in the capitalism that produced what Guy Debord referred to as ‘the society of the spectacle’—meaning the ‘spectacle’ of mass media and consumerism.
But things have changed since the 1960s, radicalism has become blunted by the growth of globalised capitalism since the 1980s which has greatly assisted the art market and the process of professionalising fine art. The increased integration of the commericial gallery system into globalised capitalism has understandably led to a general awareness amongst artists that the project of making art a vehicle for political radicalism has become seriously compromised. Today artists such as the Chapman Brothers, Santiago Sierra, Maurizio Cattalan, and Damian Hirst effectively satirise the notion on the basis of the impossibility of not acknowledging their implication in the capitalist system. Contrast this with an artist such as Hans Haacke—one of the last artists with an international reputation to be able to take a moralistic political position with a straight face. And compare Haacke with Barbara Kruger who took a similarly high moral anticapitalist position in the 1980s but who, in the 2000s, entered into a collaboration with Selfridges via advertising agency Mother.
Given the loss of political credibility, art at the turn of the millennium effectively returned to the condition of l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, that characterised art prior to the rise of radical antiart movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Situationism and Fluxus. Such modern movements followed in the bohemian trajectory of rejecting bourgeois capitalism. And the art of the 1960s—that serves as a foundation for contemporary art—also sought an ‘outsider’ status. In the 2000s however the radicalism of the early 20c has been replaced with an acknowledgement that art and capitalism are reconciled and that aspiration to a bohemian lifestyle has been replaced with an acceptance of the values associated with affluence.
A work such as Tino Sehgal’s These Associations sponsored by a multinational company and exhibited in one of the top contemporary art museums in the world shows very clearly that art in the early 21c is deradicalised. This is not to say it is not creative, but it is to say that art is now professionalised and almost totally assimilated into globalised capitalism. Like Unilever fine art is a business. This is something that needs to be underscored due to the fact that there are vague modernist notions still floating in the noosphere regarding the relationship between art and radicalism. Sehgal’s These Associations is a perfect instance of how an emerging art superstar in the early 21c operates. He appropriates a strategy from radical art of the 1960s and effectively deradicalises it—turning it, for want of a better word, into fine art. The method of the Situationists is detached from its intention.
And this is very interesting because Sehgal’s work seems to indicate a tipping point between visions of what 21c art might be, because in 1998 the progressive curator and then co-director of the Palais de Tokyo public art gallery in Paris published Esthétique relationnelle published in English as Relational Aesthetics in 2002. This is significant because Relational Aesthetics is a thesis concerning the nature of 21c art that is informed predominently by the radicalism of the Situationist International combined with the radical philosophy of Felix Guattari a friend and follower of the schizo liberationist movement founded by David Cooper and R. D. Laing. It is significant as a last blast of aesthetic radicalism that is effectively blown away by Tino Sehgal’s appropriation of the Situationist’s ‘constructed situation’ for a Unilever sponsored exhibition. It is not Bourriaud’s faux-radicalism that is indicative of art of the early 21c it is Tino Sehgal’s appropriationism.
Yet despite breaking with the radical agenda of the Situationists in a very real sense Sehgal’s These Associations does succeed. It succeeds in shifting art away from representation towards the Holy Grail of bringing art into life. The difference is that we accept (given the Unilever sponsorship) that life is now irredeemably captialist.
Apart from the lack of a anticaptialist agenda another distinction between Situationism and Sehgal lies in the latter’s obedience to necessity of ‘exhibition’. On the street Sehgal’s work would fall into the category of ‘flash mob’ and the activities of a group such as Improv Everywhere. But no, Sehgal’s constructed performances are not flash mobs because they happen within the space of an art gallery. They are therefore fine art in the same way that Duchamp’s urinal became fine art when exhibited in an art gallery.
But there are very positive outcomes to Sehgal’s reworking of the ‘constructed situation’. First let’s look at how he creates the work. It is quite simple he gives a group of performers a simple script that they can improvise. In the case of These Associations there are several dozen of them who run up and down the Turbine Hall in swarms, or group together in clusters that suddenly burst into song-like chanting. The repetition of the phrase ‘technological age’ was one snippet that I caught. And there is also a theatrical effect accompanying the clusters and chanting in the form of the lights going out for a few minutes.
OK this is not Situationism of the anticapitalist ilk, but half a loaf is better than none. It is still an extremely valuable addition to the repertoire of art. Indeed Sehgal is putting forward the Situationist constructed situation as a viable art form, indeed one might say he is pursuing a new genre, which is always a very valuable contribution.
What is good about Sehgal’s constructed situations is that one can watch as if it were performance art or walk into the group of players who become in effect living sculptures. This is certainly effective in the context of immersive installation art and one could compare it to the effect of walking into one of Vanessa Beecroft’s installations of live bodies. Although in the case of Sehgal the actors are not naked and the immersion is not meant to shock.