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.
Guest Post by Robert Burnier
I once had a penchant for the obsessive, compulsive traditions of certain Dutch painters like Paulus Potter, Adriaen van der Spelt and Jan van Cappelle, so whenever I was in an encyclopedic museum, I would always make my way toward those galleries. Afterward, however, I would go straight to where the modern art was and stand in front of a Cy Twombly or some other such work. In 2002 the Gerhard Richter retrospective, 40 Years of Painting, came to the Art Institute of Chicago. One salient aspect of this was to witness a similar kind of range more or less present in one artist; one who held up Reading, Grey Mirror, and 256 Colors as artistic statements of the same order. I see these memories as analogies for the way I continue to approach works of art, especially â€“ though in a limited sense â€“ when it comes to issues of craft.
When I look at art today, I would say my taste still involves a dialectic similar to my earlier favorites. I can appreciate artists like Roxy Paine and Mari Eastman, Nicole Eisenman and Richard Rezac. With Paine, we have someone creating sculptures by a distribution of expertise among multiple minds through the idiosyncratic use of high-tech machines and processes, producing objects of a mysterious and alien ilk. Eastman at once shows her knowledge and understanding of painting while withholding some obvious trappings of virtuosity in favor of revelations of a seemingly more personal sort, which are then often further complicated by some borrowed subject or motif. Eisenman is commingling many ideas of painting together with the understanding of craft necessary to put them in conversation with each other, adapting them to her subjects. Rezac makes highly resolved and technological constructions that are nonetheless very slippery to our perception and suggestive through their careful arrangement. In all cases, the individual hand moves, sometimes at a distance, even if only to turn the knobs so that the machine overruns its target output.
Of course, for many reasons â€“ call it the loss of center , bourgeois democratic/market forces, technology, transportation, and communication â€“ our era is splintered artistically. It is apparent in public collections where many eras are present at once, creating a stacking effect of latent visual experience. Our perception of space and time are compressed. It isnâ€™t really possible to point out what to do or not to do because no one person can index all of it. Technology is of little help. It only reminds us of our difficulties even more. But we can reach into this heap of history, as I like to think Robert Smithson might have put it, for resources, touchstones, and questions unanswered.  We can look for ways and means that might yield new meanings or recuperate older ones in new ways. Not only does this apply to the mode and medium, but also to the work, effort, or craft involved.
The degree of facility is linked to the effectiveness of the artistic statement, with the critical caveat that it is for something and not self-reflexive. I often find myself saying to people that craft is only craftiness when facture overtakes ethos. If you paint the sides of a stretched canvas because you want it to look â€œfinishedâ€ the painted side remains a superficial garnish; if the painted side reinforces the conceptual aspect of the object, it can serve the work intrinsically. We could get into semantic questions of intent here, but I think if you really know it and mean it, it has a greater chance of seeming to be true, or we have a greater chance of becoming involved in the work on a deeper level. A specific example would be the vast difference between Karthik Pandianâ€™s recently exhibited sculpture at Rhona Hoffman, I Am My Own Wife â€“ a highly polished construction in steel and industrial-grade color â€“ and any number of sculptures that are often sprinkled along Navy Pier or grace the ad pages of a major art magazine, aspiring to a similar finish. Pandianâ€™s work perhaps takes us a distance toward examining issues of gender while the other sculptures too often donâ€™t take us anywhere in particular beyond the awareness of their often massive size and tired formalism. Another successful example would be the work of an artist like Alicja Kwade, whose phenomenological sculptures and installations can cause a shift in our basic understanding of the elements of experience. Works such as Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009, toy with assumptions of objecthood in terms of weight, substantiality and permanence. So what Iâ€™m saying is that with our incredibly intense media saturation, I turn to usage before material specificity for what I get out of seeing a work of art. I want to try to not judge a book by its cover; to allow the myriad options to play out; to remain variable, accepting and catholic in my assumptions about material and craft. Here I am reclaiming the non-religious sense of having a catholic attitude, which simply means to be open to a wide range of tastes.
Alternatively, the work of an artist can be de-skilled either in the sense that he does not concern himself personally with technique or high craft, or he transfers it to an outside technician (or even leaves it to chance). But if this becomes too dominant to the meaning of the work, then the lack of facility or personal involvement may fall into banality. For example, Iâ€™ve found it hard to pay attention to very much â€œglitchâ€ art. This has surprised me somewhat since it seems to go against my own extensive background in computer science. However, much of it seems to stop at the glitch itself, piling one glitch on top of another. Aside from the sense that I think glitch art may be claiming a little too much for itself anyway , I just canâ€™t be too impressed by the mere malfunction of a computer, even though Iâ€™m fully aware of the potential auratic qualities of such failure.  It just stops too soon. That said, I really liked Christopher Meerdoâ€™s recent show at Document. What separates his work is not only a very careful selection of some of the more uncanny images and a spectacular transformation into the medium of print, but also the stress laid on the origin and the process of exhuming source images: discarded vacation photos on found memory cards. Meerdoâ€™s exhibition really reflects on the medium, its relationship to our human lives, and our capacity for recording and forgetting through the usage and leveraging of those very same auratic tendencies of malfunction. I draw a similar conclusion about the difference between some of the stacking and leaning of things we are seeing today , and the output of an artist like Felix Gonzales-Torres, some of whose best work relies utterly on stacking and piling for it to function.
So there is a kind of competence I see that has to do with an investigation within an artistic practice and through the artistâ€™s level of experience with it. This most often involves objects and materials, though it could also be bodies and spaces or something else. The artist grows a micro history of production, a personal academy and repertoire. The depth of the work emerges from the depth of the investigation and the shape of the path walked by the artist. She can come to know quite well what she is doing, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of connoisseurship and disinterestedness. This is about studio time.  The artist may find it better to reflect on what she did rather than what she thought, or accept what happened over what she intended. This doesnâ€™t involve the rejection of purpose, but the acceptance of things that come into view. For example, looking at R.H. Quaytmanâ€™s work for the first time a few years ago, I felt initially that the pieces functioned like works of art as essays in the sense put forward by Art & Language . But even as they projected a kind of ultra-intellectual air they had a resolve and physical quality that drew me in. From subsequent lectures and artist talks, I learned about the experiential origins of much of Quaytmanâ€™s work. Â A frequent refrain I remember in her talks went something like â€œ… after I did that, of course I thought it worked becauseâ€¦â€ In the end, the body of work sheâ€™s constructing is one of thoughts and contexts, but also of trials, errors and discoveries.
What kinds of experts do these artists become? All of them possess expertise in the statements they want to make in relation to their own concerns and toward the historical context. But in the same way that de-skilling was a term borrowed from economics, I want to say that these works have been â€œright-sizedâ€ in their respective areas of making. Pretty close to the mark from my perspective is a relatively recent piece by Claire Bishop where she says, â€œSome will say that skills no longer matter, that the artist today should be fully â€˜spectralized,â€™ because the truly emancipatory position is to erase the line between professional and amateur. [â€¦] That said, the best forms of de-skilling evoke in the viewer something of this spectralization: Such works generate in us not a disdainful â€˜I could do thatâ€™ but the generative energy of â€˜I want to do that!â€™â€  If I ever get that kind of energy from viewers of my work, then I have probably done my job.
 I saw this phrase in Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, Jon L. Seydl, Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951-1972. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
 What I mean here is that glitch is a breakdown, a misuse or a chance process. Not a new idea, though consistent with a medium specific conversation, the fact that it is a computer malfunction makes it a contemporary concern. Itâ€™s a concern that is, of course, worth examining, but the question is how to approach it.
 See, for example, Martin Dixon, The Horror of Disconnection: The Auratic in Technological Malfunction, Transformations Journal, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_15/article_06.shtml
 Robin Dluzen, https://twitter.com/RobinDluzen/status/324255330265595904/photo/1
 For a fascinating read on contemporary issues regarding studio time and its effect on the production of art, try Dieter Roelstraete, The Business: On The Unbearable Lightness of Art, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-business-on-the-unbearable-lightness-of-art/
 Such as in Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language, MIT Press, 2003.
 Society for Contemporary Art lecture, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and The Opening Reception Artist talk at The Renaissance Society, January 6, 2013.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.
So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. Itâ€™s appropriate that Iâ€™m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee â€“ thatâ€™s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writerâ€™s block. More like writerâ€™s diarrhea, really; I couldnâ€™t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what Iâ€™ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, â€œUntitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)â€, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torresâ€™s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torresâ€™s partnerâ€™s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that Iâ€™m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lordâ€™s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didnâ€™t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didnâ€™t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the â€œNew York Time Magazineâ€ a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dickâ€™s novel, â€œThe Man in the High Towerâ€, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with â€˜historicityâ€™, the other without.
The narrator muses:
â€œCan you feel it? … You canâ€™t. You canâ€™t tell which is which. Thereâ€™s no â€˜mystical plasmic presence,â€™ no â€˜auraâ€™ around it.â€
Or is there?
Though he doesnâ€™t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjaminâ€™s â€œThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,â€ seems to hover palpably over Gleickâ€™s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we canâ€™t know for sure. And if youâ€™re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, thereâ€™s a LOT of things we donâ€™t and indeed canâ€™t know.
So what Iâ€™ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsinâ€™s more parochial precincts is that one personâ€™s â€œLight of Christâ€ might simply be anotherâ€™s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd â€œSpecific Objectâ€. Arenâ€™t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
Thereâ€™s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
Itâ€™s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the â€œBook of Jobâ€. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that Iâ€™m making a false and probably dangerous distinction â€“ the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They canâ€™t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duckâ€¦
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I donâ€™t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torresâ€™s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.