An Introduction to Relational Aesthetics and Social Practice

October 7, 2014 · Print This Article

By the title of this essay I imply not that I am providing an introduction to this topic, for the uninitiated, from the perspective of experience.  Rather, I intend to share the experience of my own introduction to this topic, in preparation for a course I will be teaching next semester.  Prior to beginning my research, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends; their responses follow.

Explain “relational aesthetics/social practice,” using only common language (no artspeak), and without bringing up Thai food. Go.

Jay Gallegos: Practical collaborative participation. It’s more like Ethiopian food.

Casey McGonagle: Do regular stuff, only it’s art.

Randall Szott: Art for artists inspired by Martha Stewart.

Chloë Rayson: One mans trash is understood by another man to be treasure

Richard Holland: Sometimes people make shit up.

Jennifer Reeder: Block party fantasy camp.

Albert Stabler: Making a blog about an ethically-motivated garage sale.

Randall Szott: Wait, that cuts a little too close to home there buddy.

Sherelle Castro: The kind that comes with cats and batteries.

Anne Harris: I have no idea. And I’m actually about to eat Thai food. Imagine that.

Kevin Freitas: Bullshit

Meg Duguid: The composition of moments and actions that shed light on a concept. You should be able to talk about this work like one might a painting or a composed photo, composition, movement, content. There should be a broad exposure to multiple practices from Mierle Ukeles, Mary Miss, Maya Linn, to Gordon Marta Clark and Rick Lowe. There should be a range of politically overt and implicit politic. I actually think that you could leave politics out all together and look at some of the work of the Judson Dance Group and some of Kaprow’s late performance work. I would liken some of it to the idea of found object as it is found motion.

Robert C. Anderson: Verbal self-abuse.

Mike Malorin: Peanut sauce… Dammit!

Kevin Freitas: Soup kitchen

Sarah Kaiser: compare visual stuff to the rest of the world

Michael Mlekowski: Stuff you look at and if it’s any good you get to take a free sample home!

Diana Dorwin: The importance of the object or action isn’t determined by the artist, or the individual viewing the artwork, but the viewing community as a whole.

Grub Fay: some young art student goes to a party where everyone is having a good time, and starts yelling, “look at us, we’re all art!” and of course makes the party less good, and ruins the art.

From this hyper-informal survey, it seemed that among my friends, many were not disposed to take the topic seriously:  not only in the humorous, playful responses to my question, but in their attitudes towards relational aesthetics as a serious practice.  Others recognized its legitimacy, and a few (e.g. Meg Duguid) spoke from firsthand experience working in this genre.

I’ll admit some past skepticism towards relational aesthetics; my perspective (thought not so eloquently phrased) echoed Casey McGonagle’s:  “Do regular stuff, only it’s art.”  I decided that I owed it to myself to learn more about the topic, to at least add some nuance to my skepticism and hopefully gain a greater appreciation for it.  To this end, I volunteered to teach a course on Relational Aesthetics next semester (Spring 2015), and began research in preparation for this.  The following essay is a summary of my initial readings.

The phrases “relational aesthetics,” “relational art,” and “social practice” have becoming increasingly common in the art world since the late 1990s, while their exact meaning continues to elude many of those not directly involved in this field. In order to study this aspect of art, we need to understand exactly what it is that we are talking about.

French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined the approach in 1998 in his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics), calling it “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” He had coined the phrase two years earlier in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, curated by Bourriaud, at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.

Relational aesthetics, then, can be understood as a way of looking at things, as a guiding principle, and as an approach to artmaking. An artwork can be considered “relational art” if it is essentially based on social interaction. In this way relational aesthetics is very different from traditional art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography, which are defined by the physical materials and tools used in their production. Relational aesthetics may be more similar to a movement, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. Writer and director Ben Lewis finds many similarities between relational art and earlier “ism”s at their beginnings: relational art is often not considered art at all because it redefines the concept of art, many artists considered “relational” deny that they are such and relational art had a “founding” exhibition.

Since relational aesthetics is not defined by a single medium, it follows that relational art can be made in any media. And certainly, examples of relational art can be found in a wide range of media. However, certain media lend themselves to relational aesthetics. In particular, the best-known examples of relational art often exist as a subset of performance art. The poster child for relational aesthetics has always been Rirkit Tiravanija, and his best-known series bears a close resemblance to performance. Beginning with Pad Thai (1990) at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, Tiravanija cooked and served the exhibition’s eponymous food for gallery visitors. The difference between this form of relational art and other types of performance is that in most performance art, the artist’s actions are the essence of the work; in relational art of this type, the essence of the work lies in the interaction between the audience and the artist. Cooking Thai food could be a performance; serving it to visitors moves it into the realm of relational aesthetics.

Other forms of relational art more closely resemble sculptures or installations. Some of Tiravanija’s works resemble installations, albeit installations inviting viewer interaction. One example, from Traffic (relational aesthetic’s seminal exhibition) was described in Frieze magazine: “‘Traffic’ predictably included the model practitioner of this kind of art – Rirkrit Tiravanija. Around the second floor viewing gallery he provided simple, user-friendly arrangements of tables and chairs made from brown packaging cardboard, each with a free mini-bar of red wine and mineral water.”

However, the clearest example of the sculpture/installation model of relational art is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Nearly all of his work consists in some way of objects arranged in a space. Some, such as his stacks of printed posters and his piles of candy, invite viewers to take one of the component pieces home with them. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud describes the problem posed by these takeaways:

One is allowed to take one of the posters away with him/her. But what happens if lots of visitors walk off in turn with these sheets of paper offered to an abstract public? What process would cause the piece to change and then vanish? For this work did not involve a “Performance”, or a poster hand-out, but a work endowed with a defined form and a certain density, a work not displaying its construction (or dismantlement) process, but the form of its presence amid an audience [italics original].”

This problem is more a theoretical one than a practical issue; the medium of the work itself is described in this case as “Offset print on paper, endless copies.” The museum, gallery, or collector would simply order more copies of the poster made, and replenish the stack. Similarly, the piles of candy are replenished from commercial sources. The issue is not one of logistics, but rather of the interaction, via the artwork, between the artist and the viewer, who becomes a complicit participant in its creation. This is what places the work within the realm of relational art.

Gift-giving is only one possible mode of social interaction of course, and yet relational aesthetics often carries with it a presumption of generosity. Another mode is communication, often the transmission of information or the teaching of a skill. I think now of Hui-Min Tsen’s walking tour of Chicago’s Pedway. [http://chicagopedwaytour.com/Home.html] Tsen guides participants on a walking tour of this underground route through the city, a form of casual urban exploration, a better way of getting to know the place.

My wife Stephanie Burke and I created several artworks which, though we didn’t necessarily use the term at the time, are in hindsight relational in nature. In one series, called Shooting With Artists, we took Chicago-based artists to a shooting range in Indiana to shoot guns. For many, this was their first time shooting a gun, and their first exposure to “gun culture.” We thought this was interesting because art culture and gun culture generally never meet; they are seen as polar opposites politically and socially. The exceptions to these, where these cultures overlap, become nuanced and unexpected. These trips were documented with video and still photos, but the works themselves were essentially relational.

Another project, which was Stephanie’s concept, was called “Snow Coffee.” In our neighborhood (as in much of Chicago), people would claim “dibs” on a parking space that they had (ostensibly) shoveled clear of snow, marking it as their own private parking space with various items, most often patio furniture. Playfully interacting with this contentious practice, we would put on our bathrobes and take a carafe of coffee to enjoy while sitting in these impromptu cafes, consisting of no more than a pair of lawn chairs in a snow-free parking space on the side of the street. Eventually, following the epic snowstorm remembered as “Snowmageddon,” Stephanie spent the better part of a day digging our Jeep out of the snow. When we left the parking space thus created, we “claimed” it with two chairs and a card table, complete with tablecloth and a vase of flowers.

This essay documents the beginning stages of my research into relational art and social practice, in preparation for a course I am teaching next semester at Northern Arizona University. This research will continue until and throughout the Spring 2015 semester. Feedback is welcome; contact me through Facebook (Jeriah Hildine) or at jeriah (dot) hildwine (at) gmail (dot) com.

Jane Boyer: Repetition ain’t what it used to be

October 3, 2014 · Print This Article

Susan Francis, Palace of Sham (2012), installation view

Susan Francis, Palace of Sham (2012), installation view

Eat, Sleep, Repeat: there’s a meme doing the rounds all about repetition. As philosophies go, it’s a little simplistic, suggesting nothing so much as a kind of nihilistic stoicism. So if you want the antidote, consider the next show due to open at No Format Gallery.

RECURSIVE is a group show which looks at the cyclic nature of personal history, as suggested by the work of five international artists. The Gallery in South London is hosting Hitomi Kammai, Ant Pearce,  Susan Francis, Simon Fell and Jane Boyer.

Boyer is also curating the show. The artist is losing count of the number of times she has by now also curated. Some kind of repetition compulsion might be at work there, except for the fact that Boyer draws inspiration, not from Freud, but from one of the authors of Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze.

Her group of artists may be select, but the show organiser is gathering them together with a proposition by the influential French thinker:  “We don’t repeat because we repress, we repress because we repeat.” It sounds true, but what exactly might it mean?

The morning she was due to begin the hang in London, Boyer spoke with me on the phone. “It’s a difficult one,” she freely admits about her quotation. “In fact it’s given me a challenge, as well, to really wrap my head around it.” That at least is reassuring.

“He’s talking about an initial elemental experience we all have,” suggests the artist, “whether it’s the moment of birth or whether there’s some sort of trauma or some other thing that begins to develop and really solidify our identity.”

In other words, perhaps, we repeat to give us a sense of ourselves. We repeat because we could use this elemental experience in some way.  And as life develops we try and fit these repetitions into our current situations.

Since repetition is so vital to us, says Boyer, “We begin to disguise that and perhaps, as [Deleuze] says, close it”. What really intrigues is that this originary experience is one we all share. Rather than a factor in a sickness, like one of Freud’s primal scenes, it appears to be a cornerstone of who we are.

The Califormian artist says that, while it never gets in the way of visual pleasure, she’s “very intrigued by and inspired by philosophy”. And in this respect particularly Deleuze: “As I read philosophy, I just have all sorts of mental images, that happen in my head and as a result I feel sort of compelled to get those images down in the artwork.”

Boyer makes no apologies for staging a show in which the philosophy is overt. Indeed she makes it sound like the most honest starting point: “Philosophy underlies every aspect of society so any attempt to look at art without philosophy would be like going to the movies without philosophy.”

While everyone gets, say, The Matrix (1999), some still balk at raw post-structuralism. “But it’s there, insists Boyer, “and whether or not they’re engaged with it and understanding it, it is in fact affecting their lives and and it’s entering their lives in ways that they may or may not be aware of.”

That holds true for Deleuze, however off the wall he might seem. His presence at this show is after all a result of a certain “clarity” which can be found in his work. Says Boyer: “It’s a sort of twofold clarity.” And the artist enjoys both the “brilliant” initial thoughts and his detailed explanations.

“What I’ve learned in reading Deleuze is to follow with him,” she says. “Sometimes it’s not easy, but to follow with him . . . he’s making a case and making an argument for each element, in his argument and then he brings it all together and makes a final statement”. Sounds clear as crystal.

But no one said curating was easy. “Curating my own work is particularly challenging,” says Boyer. So this week has been busy, and soon she could be back in her role as an artist. That is to say: read, paint, sleep, repeat.

RECURSIVE is at No Format Gallery, London, from October 9 to November 2 2014. See exhibition blog for more details.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (10/3-10/5)

October 2, 2014 · Print This Article

1. It Ended with My Putting It On at Comfort Station

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Work by Matt Woodward and Wrekmeister Harmonies.

Comfort Station is located at 1879 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.

2. Cowgirl in the Sand at The Hills Esthetic Center

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Work by Sara Condo.

The Hills Esthetic Center is located at 128 N. Campbell Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-11pm.

3. Out of Site Chicago in Wicker Park and Bucktown

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522 Years of Golden Medallions, work by Mouthy Woman.
Location: St. Paul and Damen.

Emergency Response Team, work by Ginger Krebs.
Location: Polish Triangle, Division and Milwaukee.

A line connecting, a line dividing, a line defining, work by Stephanie Acosta.
Location: Western, Damen and Division L-Stops.

All performances Friday, 5-7pm.

4. Mothernism at Ordinary Projects

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Work by Lise Haller Baggesen.

Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. Reception Saturday, 5-9pm.

5. To Begin to Write It, to Begin to Fade at ACRE Projects

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Work by Kristina Felix and John Lui.

ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W. 17th St. Reception Sunday, 4-8pm.

Catch and Release: Kim Piotrowski at Linda Warren Projects

October 1, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

I drift. A good drift. A perfect drift. One that will catch a nice trout. I swing my rod overhead and flick the tip upstream. Mend. Mend. Recover and drift….fish. My memory takes me downstream and the water sweeps my feet from underneath me. I allow the current to drag me away from here.

As I rush past the shores of my recollection, I realize that it may take a lifetime’s worth of attention to learn the secrets of the river. I realize that each section of the stream requires a different understanding and consequently, a different approach, to unlock the mysteries of each pool, eddy, and riffle. I’m reeling but not too aggressively. I don’t want to lose this fish.

Fly fisherman, like painters, have an uncanny ability to liken any conversation to their pursuits with a rod or paintbrush, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it relates to their quests. In Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release at Linda Warren Projects, this perpetual metaphor is alive and well and permeating from the walls of the gallery. The rush flows from one piece to another. The fish spook and swim under rocks and stay there until I walk away, only to emerge again as I distance myself from the work–forcing me to return and throw another glance at the image. These are freshwater works(predominately made with water-based media), bottomless and infinite–their currents creating a generative energy for their creator that seemingly erodes her immediate boundaries and transforms those limits into the conditions upon which the next work is made.

Process Photo Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

I lodge the toe of my boot underneath a submerged log as to brace myself for another run. It’s trying to get away from me. I hold my rod high and behind me with my left hand and keep my right hand on the reel. My body twists to make the position possible. I’m adding line as fast as the fish rips it off. The cold water makes new seams around my legs, adapting to my temporary damn. I watch my line tighten. The fish changes direction–and once again–I’m reeling.

I stand suspended in the gallery, surrounded by effort–large and small. Piotrowski has transformed the space to not only display her achievements, but to advance her inquiry. In her debut exhibition with LWP, Piotrowski casts her lines in every direction. Her massive site-specific painting done directly onto a gallery wall that spans 43 feet, is a glowing example of her fearless attempts to allow opportunities to be the source of her invention. She has titled the piece Tide Tango and in her words, it represents “the dance we do with the rush of thoughts as life runs over and through us.”

Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

Like the river, Piotrowski’s paintings meander, dash, swirl, and coalesce in spaces that cannot be confined by the limits of the page. She recognizes the necessity to expand the space into different formats(see Corner Lot, 2014), providing new borders to break free from and allowing new puzzles to emerge.

Piotrowski’s paintings remind me of Matthew Ritchie’s complexly scaffolded spaces that find organization in chaos. The ability of arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of a painting is particularly present in both artist’s works. Though Piotrowski seems to be making the paintings with much less discrimination. Less rules. Less fuss. More risk. Yet, in both artist’s work, there are common mark-making strategies, similar viscosities in paint applications, and there is an ever present familiarity in the natural locomotion of fluids on the surfaces they paint on.  While Ritchie seems to be interested in corralling those fluids to work within his system, Piotrowski seems to let paint go where it wants, and her next move is a response to its uninhibited resting place.

Matthew Ritchie Self Portrait 2064, Oil and Marker on Panel 80″ x 100″ 2003

I’m bringing him afoot. The line is tight but loosening. As the fish lays down, I pull him softly toward my free hand. In an instant, before I could grab him and at exactly the moment our eyes meet, he gives one last fit of terror and snaps free of the fly.

Fishing and painting are matters of timing in a changeable universe, and even when one returns to a place or moment of success, its doubtful that it will be under the exact conditions. Having broken the rhythm of a brilliant performance, it’s possible to never go back at all, and one shouldn’t go back–forward is the only worthwhile direction. The next hole upstream holds a trophy too, and its there that Piotrowski seems to be constantly aiming.

Corner Lot 2011 84″ x 120″ silver leaf, acrylic ink, flashe, markers, acrylic paint on synthetic paper (Yupo)

Life is a dangerous and unmanageable mess, but somehow these paintings have achieved a different description. Piotrowski’s description of life and linear time, is something much more approachable. Catchable even. As life runs over and through her, Piotrowski stands in the river waving a stick, trying to catch the catchable and upon success, immediately releases it back into the water for the next fisherman to stumble upon.

Michael Miller.

September 29, 2014 · Print This Article


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Michael Miller was an incredible educator, a great printmaker, a good friend, and my world feels a little smaller without him.

I met Michael in 2000 when I came to tour the School of The Art Institute of Chicago as a prospective graduate student. I went on to assist (TA) his classes for a couple of years and I learned much from his easy demeanor and casual laugh. He brought an unusual sense of calm to those of us lucky enough to be in his presence. As a TA, Michaels classes were heavenly. He gave me a bunch of materials and told me to work constantly and bring as much energy to the class as I could muster. If he thought I was doing something interesting, he would have me demo it for the students. It felt like the gift I needed to keep me connected to printmaking. I spent most of graduate school exploring video, photography, sound, and electronics, and I often felt like I was floating away from the discipline that had brought me to art in the first place. Michael seemed to instinctively recognize this and made sure I had a home there.

He had a remarkable commitment to his students and the students of the department of Print Media, where he taught for 40 years. He was the kind of professor you could reach out to several years after leaving school and he would happily buy you a beer and help you with your problems. His advice was always spot on and I was lucky to be have often been its beneficiary.

The thing I will miss the most about Michael is the warmth  he showed. He could always be relied upon to be a sympathetic face in an unfriendly crowd and his presence made a room easier for those of us who had to inhabited it.

I’m going to miss him.

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