Relations, human and not

by craigepplin

I recently returned to a book I first read when I was writing my dissertation, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. When I read it before, I was looking for a way to talk about projects like Mario Bellatin’s Escuela Dinámica de Escritores and also his Congreso de Dobles. The first of these is a writing school where students attend workshops on everything except writing itself: dance, photography, bookmaking, etc. The second was a literary conference where visitors encountered not the famous writers who were announced in the program, but rather stand-ins who had practiced scripts penned by those writers. It seemed to me then that what Bourriaud could offer was a way of understanding events in which the relations established among participants was the crucial aspect, overshadowing what was actually on display. What was on display was, on the contrary, the set of interactions among those participants.

It still seems that way to me, but this framework now strikes me as inadequate. This is true not only because of the critiques that have been directed at Bourriaud (by Claire Bishop, Hal Foster, and Stewart Martin, about which I’ll write in a later post), but also because of the anthropocentrism, the aversion to media and technology, that comes across in his book.

First a word about the text as a whole. It is a collection of articles first published in Documents sur l’Art that reflect both Bourriaud’s own practice as a curator and his general theory of art. It thus describes certain artistic practices common during the nineties and makes a case for their significance.

Those practices are significant, Bourriaud argues, because they foreground the space of human relations inaugurated by art. In fact, he sustains that relational practices are made up of the sum of those interactions. “The exchanges that take place between people,” he writes, “in the gallery or museum space, turn out […] to act as the raw matter for an artistic work” (37). The work itself is explicitly made up of the humans convoked by it. Referring back to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the work of art in the age of technological reproducibility, Bourriaud writes that the “micro-community gathering in front of the image” becomes “the actual source of the aura, the ‘distance’ appearing specifically to create a halo around the work, which delegates its powers to it.” And thus the aura “no longer lies in the hinter-world represented by the work, nor in form itself, but in front of it, within the temporary collective form that it produces by being put on show” (61). Human spectators, recast as participants, make the artwork what it is.

This conviction shows up in the work of numerous artists, and it both represents a new development and looks back on earlier periods in art history. Relational art’s “basic claim–the sphere of human relations as artwork venue–has no prior example in art history, even if it appears, after the fact, as the obvious backdrop of all aesthetic praxis” (44). That is, relational artists have realized at the level of formal practice that the fundamental task of art has always been to bind people together.

At the same time, artworks establish relations not only among people, but between people and everything else. And thus Bourriaud understands art history as “the history of the production of relations with the world, as publicised by a class of objects and specific practices.” There are various iterations of this pattern–relations between humans and deities or between humans and objects–and relational aesthetics would add a new wrinkle to the fabric: “artistic practice is now focused upon the sphere of inter-human relations” (28).

Compound adjectives like “inter-human” and “inter-subjective” abound in Bourriaud’s text, which seems to suggest that relational artists unveil the truth underlying capitalist social relations: that what appears to be a relationship between things is actually a relationship between humans. However, in the book’s final chapter, he gets beyond this narrow emphasis on humanity. There he centers on the art criticism of Félix Guattari. His notions of distributed and multiple subjectivities “are disconcerting,” Bourriaud writes, “because the non-human is an intrinsic part of them” (85); subjects emerge only through “the set of relations that are created between the individual and the vehicles of subjectivity he [sic] comes across, be they individual or collective, human or inhuman” (91); finally, no accurate representation of social relations are possible “without a far-reaching ecological transformation of subjectivities, without an awareness of the various forms of founding interdependence of subjectivity” (95).

One could only wish that Bourriaud had dwelled longer on the consequences of this “far-reaching ecological transformation,” integrating Guattari’s insights into his own presentation of relational aesthetics. Then we might have seen that the actions of artists he cites have as much to do with the relations that cross the life-nonlife divide as with the interactions among strictly human participants. To give a concrete example, he mentions at several points the cooking experiments of Rirkrit Tiravanija, who opened up spaces to cook and share food. Certainly, we can read such a work as foregrounding the relationship of humans to each other around the acts of cooking and eating. However, at the same time, the relationship of food itself to the human subject, and also of food to the room in which it is left, seems to be just as crucial to an adequate understanding of the work. Packages of dried ramen noodles not only reflect the human labor that went into them, but also their own vibrant materiality.

This would not be such a crucial oversight if Bourriaud paid more attention to the central nonhuman aspect of relational artists: their emphasis on constructing scenes, spaces, and frameworks in which relations play out. He is at pains to distance himself from any form of technological determinism, so much so that he makes the claim that “technology and artistic practices do not always go hand-in-hand.” He may mean by this that there is no strict, one-to-one relationship between the technologies an artist employs or is surrounded by, and the work that the artist creates. This is true enough. But he seems to imply that technology is a neutral vehicle for artistic experimentation: “Let us recall that, in its day, photography did not transform the relationships between the artist and his [sic] material” (65). It seems to me that photography has always effected and still effects such a transformation, both in the temporality of its production (faster than a painting) and in the reproducibility of its results (infinite identical copies). Artistic technologies don’t impose, in a simple fashion, a given ideology on their operators; they do, however, transform the relationship among artists, spectators, and things, and also between themselves and their operator.

In sum, this seems to me important for the simple reason that artists who install spaces for humans to gather do so by manipulating the environment that surrounds them. They inaugurate new spaces of relation not only among human participants, but between those participants and a general ecology. That ecology is not an inert space to be understood as a playground for human beings or as a reification of human labor. Rather, its elements are crucial participants in the collective world, of which humans are but a part. Artists often know this on a formal level; it is incumbent on critics to seek out that knowledge.