Walead Beshty

Neo-Avantgarde And Service Industry Notes on the Brave New World of Relational Aesthetics

Rirkrit Tiravanija, aus der Serie "Stages / Stationen", Bangkok (Wahlen), 1992 Rirkrit Tiravanija, aus der Serie "Stages / Stationen", Bangkok (Wahlen), 1992

The conglomeration of strategies, and artists, that fit under the heading Relational Aesthetics indicate, if only for recent history’s lack of "movements," a pronounced shift in the topography of contemporary art, and the need for a realignment of critical terminology. Despite its amorphous set of conditions and tenets, as they are expressed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1997 book of the same title, it separates itself distinctly from early interventionist tactics (i.e. Institutional Critique, Identity Politics, Performance and Installation).

This shift appears induced by an intellectual paralysis concerning the patterns and strategies available for contestation. From a theoretical perspective, classical models of critical opposition provide an untenable set of compromises, between institution and practitioner, between the opening up or revealing of dominant structures, and the counter adoption of didactic prescription, or more precisely, one conducive to the reification of inherently problematic subject positions constructed from positions of dominance (i.e. one must assume the voice of authority in order to contest it), which re-subordinates the viewer. In stern condemnation, Michel De Certeau wrote that the discourse around repression and ideology is a self-inflicted chastening, which have the cumulative effect of "family stories," of "devils and boogey men," while "ideological criticism does not change its function in anyway; the criticism merely creates the appearance of a distance for scientists who are members of the institution." This is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the argument levied against the traditions of Institutional/Ideological Critique, rehearsed by Bourriaud. It seems Relational Aesthetics is born from a distinctly European retreatism, separate from the American return to the hand wrought escapist drawings, emphasis on craft, and melancholic lamentation of the passing of 68. Relational Aesthetics is enabled by the continued centrality of the European institution, robust in its state support, and thus able to unproblematically continue as an invisible container for the interaction of ideas, and most of all its presumption of being non-ideological in its reception of multiple points of view (including those that claim opposition). The proposal for a Relational Aesthetics that is about, "learning to inhabit the world in a better way," seems to avoid both the element of authority inscribed within the figure of the revealer, deconstructor, liberator, and thus presumes to create "open ended" contexts for self determination that are seemingly freed from the restrictions of the state, and capitalist structures. They do not treat the institution as a privileged location, but as yet another locale in the postmodern geography, as any other point where social relations are activated, and never as an emblem of an ideological position. In short, they avoid the predicament of being forced to take a stance on the institution’s role, while working almost exclusively within them.

Despite the relative successes of a number of artists within Bourriaud’s groupings (most notably, Pierre Huyghe, Maurizio Cattelan, and Rirkrit Tiravanija) in the U.S., the American response to the movement itself has been minimal, and when it has taken notice, tepid. In the Summer issue of Artforum, Joe Scanlan opined, "Why is relational aesthetics so boring?," going on to say, "time and again I have found myself in a room full of people... yet the group always ends up exchanging pleasantries, and planning dinner..." The only extended critical response published in an American journal came from Claire Bishop (who hails from the UK) in the pages of October. Bishop’s article matched Scanlan’s derisive tone, albeit in markedly different terms, faulting Bourriaud’s sometimes mantras of community, and exchange, as "rest(ing) too comfortably with an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and community as immanent togetherness." Both writers insinuate larger problems contingent upon questions of verifiable ‘quality,’ as Bishop writes, "...how are we to measure or compare these relationships? The quality of the relationships in ‘relational aesthetics’ are never examined or called into question... all relations that permit ‘dialogue’ are automatically assumed to be democratic or good." But if the criterion by which the efficacy of relational programs is missing (or partial) a more sinister implication alluded to by Scanlan, who, chidingly, writes, "Indeed, firsthand experience has convinced me that relational aesthetics has more to do with peer pressure than collective egalitarianism, which would suggest that one of the best ways to control human behavior is to practice relational aesthetics." And continues, "Peer pressure is effective because it uses one of our most basic fears—public humiliation—as a built in mechanism for controlling behavior." The metamorphoses of Bourriaud’s stressing of "conviviality" and "the horizon of an art based on interactivity and the creation of relationships with the other," into systems of "control" or an unreflexive "imbrication" within a dominant model, requires some explanation. Bourriaud frequently oversimplifies the work of the artists he discusses, in service of their theory, often excluding characteristics that do not fit comfortably within the relational program. In writing on Rirkrit Tiravanija, he describes his work as a sort of kindergarten experiment, a place ".where people once again learn what conviviality and sharing mean, " and by Bishop who claims Tiravanija is simply creating new networking points for "art dealers and like minded art-lovers...because it evokes the atmosphere of a late night bar" citing a 1996 account by art critc Jerry Saltz which details his social escapades with art world insiders and random flirtations in Tiravanija’s first New York solo show Untitled (Free) from 1996 (where he chats with David Zwirner, Paula Cooper, and Lisa Spellman, and meets some young artists), as evidence. While this criticism is partially true, Tiravanija exhibitions do reinforce preexisting social networks, and have a saccharine surface of togetherness, this dismissal obscures a more comprehensive understanding of the complex of subject formulations operating in Tiravanija’s work. Continueing to use Saltz as a tezt case, in the passage immediately following Bishop’s citation, he goes on to say:

A sense of uneasiness was always close by. Once when I went to the gallery I ate alone, and I felt that old fear of doing something wrong. I remember pausing outside the door and thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't do this--they'll think I'm a moocher." I felt sheepish, guilty, like I was a freeloader. I don't usually feel this way when I go back to a show more than once.

Certainly this doesn’t satisfy the question of accessibility, or the passive relationship Tiravanija has to the mode of social interaction he creates, but it does attest to an important societal contradiction, and a specifically capitalist anxiety typified in the free market mantra: "there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch." But the investigation of the nascent anxiety presented by Tiravanija, and the potential implications that follow are, for Bourriaud, patently off limits. After summarizing critiques deriding relational programs for their artworld insularity, Bourriaud asserts: But do we deny Pop Art because it reproduces codes of visual alienation? ... What these critics overlook is that the content of these artistic proposals has to be judged in a formal way... bearing in mind the political value of forms... They are aimed at the formal space-time constructs that do not represent alienation, which do not extend the division of labor into forms... the purpose is not conviviality, but the product of conviviality...

It seems that while Bourriaud rejects these dimensions of Tiravanija’s work, chastising us for daring to ask these questions, and displacing the emphasis on some later, unexaminable "result," Tiravanija invites the query. "Alienation," and "the division of labor," seem to be exactly what Tiravanija is proposing we ask about, both the ubiquity of low paid service labor in the artworld and its invisibility, but doing so subtly without resorting to spectacularized circuses of victimization. First hand accounts often allude to "the product of conviviality" as constructed by Tiravanija, as one reviewer has said, "[w]e are now the wallflowers at the party, and our old-fashioned spectatorship is just sad," in the contradiction that Saltz describes as a "subversive, unsettling hospitality." The specific character of this form of "unsettling" needs to be examined. The anxiousness described by Saltz, in his repeated interactions with Tiravanija’s work (both in 1996, and on the occasion of his last show at Gavin Brown’s in 1999, Saltz again describes almost adolescent angst, "...being there can be difficult. I experienced unwanted waves of shyness, affection, and irritation there." ) and the social restrictions (i.e. peer pressure) of the environments appear continuous with a society of surveillance, and their self-policing rigid codes of conduct which occupy all transactions without being firmly locatable. In fact, relational programs not only amplify consumerist anxiety within the museum context, but facilitate the corporatization of the museum itself.

For the events following the recent Guggenheim acquisition of Tiravanija’s Untitled 2002 (he promised) in 2004, with help from American Express, Tiravanija turned over the event programming to the museum, who then worked in tandem with American Express’ PR department, and created a sequence of programming which was more spectacle than microtopia: To celebrate the new IN:NYC Card, Amex will present a free interactive art exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum created by internationally acclaimed artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, which will engage visitors with a variety of programming elements that respond to the culture of the city in which it is displayed. In addition, award-winning music artist Wyclef Jean will perform live for invited guests.

Or as it was later described by the fashion wire service:

Fashion Wire Daily October 8,2004- NEW YORK - In the New York universe, installation art by 2004 Hugo Boss prize-nominated artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is in the same room as celebrity guest DJ's Nicky Hilton and Nicole Richie; Wyclef Jean performs and sings about his political leanings to a well-heeled crowd of girls in Chanel jackets drinking lychee martinis from Latin fusion restaurant Calle Ocho. Canadian Press - Fri Oct 8,11:16 AM ET LONDON (AP)

Similarly, at his recent exhibition at the Sepertine Gallery in London, the communing of artworld insiders, morphed into an event that sounded more like a Hollywood Oscar party (with a few art stars mixed in) than a microtopia. Stuart Comer’s Artforum.com diary entry describes processions of celebrities, Kid Rock, Rod Stuart, Farrah Fawcett, Mariah Carey, David Gilmore and Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), Alex James (from Blur), which crescendoed in "A flurry of pale yellow chiffon, [as] Paris Hilton made her entrance into the kitchen." Here the insiders privileged in Saltz’s account, are themselves shut out, for a new level of insider, that of the celebrity. Instead of creating a new zone of interactivity, the social divisions are renenacted in heightened spectacle: the subjects sit back and watch the glamorous.

Tiravanija, and others who invoke these "free" zones of conviviality, not only run the risk of transforming the communal into the estranged, but more importantly, they naturalize social repressions, locating them as the ur-text of experience. Bourriaud repeatedly confuses the liberation of the artist from traditional divisions of labor with the assumed liberation of the viewer, compacting Michel DeCertaus’s depiction of resistance in daily life (mini revolts of use, and practice that contradict the everywhere present monolith of ideological power), with the artists adoption of ruses, operating as curator, interior designer, caterer, public relations manager, and event organizer (quite different than the parodic adoption of these roles in institutional critique, with Broodthaers as museum director, Andrea Frazer as Docent, or Michael Asher as exhibition designer, the Relational Aesthetics programs simply adopt these roles, they do not reflexively dismantle them). Bourriaud defends this adoption, and refers to it as democratic, but democratic for whom? While these open new territories for artists, it would be deeply problematic to assume these mean more ethical, or valuable contexts for viewers to interact. The viewer is not presented any further occasion for play other than that which is already present in another repressive structure, in fact it is the institution, with the artist facilitating, that engages in these ruses, manipulating the categorical divisions, and masquerading as some other environment (either a bar, kitchen, dance club, etc.). Tiravanija’s progression in practice demonstrates this in particular, as the instrumentalization of his work (which is diffused by the inherent complacency, i.e. anti-didacticism of his relationship to authorship) never violates the model that is given priority, i.e. that of the artist as a moving target.

In this sequence of deceptions, reappropriations, and play, the viewer continues to be merely the object in the environment acted upon, enticed to engage in a series of banal activities; in seeming acknowledgment Tiravanija lists "lots of people" as one of his materials. This is why Bourriaud concerns himself more with describing how the artists act, their intentions, and the distinctions between their approach and previous practices, and avoids, almost completely, as Bishop discerns, the "quality" of those interactions. He simply refers to the impacts, and the type of relationships as being positive because they have been enacted, not what contexts for behavior they are activated within, or their relationship to external mechanisms. Often the occupation of various roles, like Jorge Pardo’s foray into store design at the Dia, indicates a seamless almost cynical conflation of disciplines, but also the metamorphosis of the institution into commercial space (Pardo’s Dia merges the design of the expanded book store into the first floor gallery). The promise of relational programs, and their issuing of a "better way of life," is interchangeable with the contemporary shopping mall when enacted in grand scale (perhaps this is the most devious Warholian trick enacted since Warhol himself painted celebrity portraits, that later found their way to the museum, or starred on "Love Boat"). The current trend in malls is self-described as a location of "communal meeting points," "settings for festive interaction," "space to roam, to sit down, and to talk," and have with increasing regularity created public events, employed large open "park-like" spaces, and free attractions to entice consumers, fully displacing its less seductive relative, public space. Moreover, facilitating the evolution of the museum into another aspect of the entertainment industry. If at one time museums were autonomous and naturalized power centers, in the U.S. the climate of curtailed governmental support radically changes the situation, as "...both the museum and the entertainment complex are, today, sustained by the transactions of shopping." Between 1992 and 2002, the amount of shopping space in the typical U.S. museum has increased by almost ten times the amount of gallery space.

Far from utopic, relational aesthetics often leaves us in a decontextualized social world, where only the repressions, not their material conditions are apparent. In the rejection of strategies of Institutional Critique, which always reasserted the material conditions of space, the Relational Aesthetics conception of social interaction mirrors the recent shift in urban planning’s understanding of the city. As Sze Tsung Leong argues, the spatial term "map" is jettisoned opting instead for "scenario analysis systems," a "science of spatial modeling", a "decision support system" or a tool for "forecasting space time dynamics,." They are echoed in relational aesthetics appropriation of terminology like "laboratory," "station," "matrices," "sets of information strata," and "mixed use," (among others), intermittently signaling data structures, industrial forms, and economic categorizations. Similarly, the relationships that occur in relational aesthetics are invisible to the material understanding of the institution, or physical locus of power, by their very imbeddedness. This revision of the city map foregrounds the relations between pockets of the city, privileging usage over topography, networks over space, all in service of "the primary engine of urbanization: the market." Bourriaud’s "interstices" in "the social corpus" are just such invisible points of communion where the market transcriptions of personal relations are the boundaries between people, no longer the physical walls, and the complete irrelevance of private vs. public space is realized. The proposed libratory conflation of domestic space and gallery space, and the real world progression of the art institution into entertainment complex, creates both a disturbing endpoint where domestic space become indistinguishable from commercial space, (for Bourriaud only considers the transition going one way, not the other) and masks the understanding that this is already happening. The new digital behaviorist topography of the city completely dissolves the symbolic divisions between personal and public. The city itself becomes an expression of interrelations, consciousness of material conditions evaporate, creating systems of control invisible to those who are placed inside it. With the onset of the satellite, the panopticon has become as ubiquitous as the sky itself.

Nan Ellis argues that this dematerialization is the foundation of a distinctly postmodern anxiety of the city, "[w]here modernist fear and the positivistic climate in which it occurred led to efforts to detect causes and effects...postmodern fear amid the refining anti-technocratic climate has incited a series of closely related and overlapping responses including retribalization, nostalgia, escapism, and spiritual return." Or in Bourriaud’s words, "...we are hoping for a return to traditional aura..." The understanding, or reflection, of these evolutions of subjectivity and space are important to consider in reexamining the subjectivity of the viewer, and how control can be disrupted, but relational aesthetics seems to go only so far as recreate these systems, literalize their movements, without providing any moments of resistance. Instead it is staged t as an inevitable outcome, by reinscribing these existing structures of control as "a realm of possibilities," of a "possible future," as "microtopias." This is exactly the system of domination that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe in "Mille Plateaux", writing, "Attention has recently been focused on the fact that modern power is not reducible to the classical alternative "repression or ideology" but implies a process of normalization, modulation, modeling, and information that bear on language, perception, desire, movement etc. and which proceed by way of micro assemblages."