[-empyre-] Relational aesthetics

The geographical disparities in internet access Lea mentions is not
something that detains Nicolas Bourriaud in proposing 'relational
aesthetics'. Indeed, the disparities between the countries she cites are
just one dimension of an inequality that probably extends to an urban-rural
divide in many of these countries, not to mention gender, age and other
variables. For Bourriaud, art bears no responsibility to address such
inequalities, and certainly not as 'precursory phenomena of an inevitable
historical evolution'. He is suspicious of art fashioning utopian realities
and he grounds relational aesthetics in the practices of everyday life.
Borrowing Gilles Deleuze's 'grass' metaphor, art for Bourriaud 'grows from
the middle, not from the bottom or the top'. (Relational Aesthetics, 13)
Like the e-lounge, his examples of relational aesthetics transgress the
fairly strict codes of observation maintained in the gallery and the museum.
The e-lounge occurred in a music rehearsal room on a campus; his examples
cite artists working in every conceivable milieu outside the gallery (or
importing alien milieus into gallery spaces).

While I find this approach appealing, especially Bourriaud's refreshing
notion of sheer conviviality provides a proper ground for artistic exchange,
I get hung up during his easy passage past the idea of a tacit 'contract' as
the basis for artistic production and reception. My own experience in
producing performance events outside legitimate museal or performance spaces
indicates that such contracts (i.e. that govern instances of artistic
reception), resemble other types of contracts, generally, in that much is

When the artist, in one of Bourriaud's examples of performance work in
relational aesthetics, brings her gym class into the gallery, is not the
public viewer offered a fairly traditional contract in this sense? Crossing
the threshold into the gallery space activates protocols that cue the public
and even the participants to aestheticize the encounter. In fact, if such a
contract fails to deliver the cue to aestheticization to an audience, as has
been the intention in some of my work, it is usual to be accused of having
'broken the sacred bond' or of 'tricking the public'.

With Gair's report of the Defence Ministry 'occupying' the gallery in
Scotland for its meetings one finds an inversion of the same logic. The
gallery managers were contractually free as a corporation to rent the space
out to the MOD, but in doing so they transgressed an implicit contract with
their community of artists: i.e. there was to be no cue to aestheticization
in this case, nor were the defence meetings conducted even within a space of
'relational aesthetics'. I suppose the difference between the gym class and
the defence officials occupying a gallery is that in the latter case the
artist did not put them in there. What if Gair, for example, created a
relational performance work by persuading the MOD to hold its meeting in the
gallery? The relational contract here becomes something more ethically
charged than Bourriaud's easy-going niche marketing model would appear to
allow for.

What happened in the Atlantic Cultural Space e-lounge was the negotiation of
a fairly complex contract between the artists present, artists on-line,
conference participants, organizers and the public. Lea Deschamps had
proposed to the conference planners the idea of a collective viewing and
listening space for new media work. She had noticed that many new media
festivals and events up to that time had in effect individuated participants
at stand-alone stations. The idea was to create an in situ and virtual
cluster of new media work and artists from around the Atlantic perimeter to
define a collective space. The negotiation of these relations in the space
and across the internet became a preoccupation for some of the participants.

The difficulty with taking the 'contract' as the basis for such exchanges is
that contracts are so heavily dependent for their meaning and interpretation
on pre-given contexts--the density and intractibility (and yes, the
inequalities) of which should not be underestimated. This gets me to my
Janus-faced question about relational aesthetics: does not Bourriaud's very
invocation of 'contract' necessarily invoke the museum, the gallery and
their protocols of reception? Facing the other way, does not the artist
invoke the same protocols as soon as an everyday practice or event is named
(or prohibited from being named) as a relational art work?

Mark Kristmanson

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