Can cooking and eating dinner be art? How about sliding down a helter-skelter in the middle of a museum? Or building and managing a store, painting a river, talking to strangers, producing soda in a cooperative, and promoting historical reenactments?
According to Relational Aesthetics, yes, all of these things can be art! Relational aesthetics is the art that, in the age of technological speed and virtual communications, turned its focus toward human connection. It’s the art of collaboration, contact, and person-to-person bonding. It is something that blurs the lines between art and social exchanges, between institutions and public space.
The Birth of Relational Aesthetics
In 1992, people went to the 303 Gallery in NYC to see the work of Argentinian-Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. There were no canvases on the walls, no sculptures across the floor, no informational collages. Rather, Tiravanija took hold of a room in the gallery to cook a pad thai dinner for his audience.
This dinner was, in fact, the actual artwork. Not the food itself, but the entire event and the gathering. The conversations between those present, the experience of sharing food, and the interactions that took place there—all of this was a part of the work.
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Tiravanija’s Untitled (free) is a perfect representation of the interests taking over the art of the 1990s: ephemeral and interactive productions, a growing de-materiality, and a focus on experiences over physical objects. Young artists like Tiravanija were exploring curated events, on-site experiences, and situations that connected or inserted the artwork directly into the world.
At the time, artworks like this one were often overlooked by critics, dismissed as unclassifiable or messy, and constantly compared to the avant-garde movements of the 1960s. Art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud was the first to make a serious attempt to understand them. For Bourriaud, the art that was gathering momentum in the 1990s couldn’t be properly analyzed through comparison with preceding movements. It demanded a new theoretical paradigm. Identifying the trend of interactivity, de-materiality, and a growing interest in human and social relations, Bourriaud coined the term relational aesthetics.
The term was used for the first time in the 1996 collective art exhibit Traffic at the CAPC Contemporary Museum in Bordeaux. As the curator, Bourriaud came up with the concept of relational aesthetics while discussing the exhibit with his featured artists, which included Rikrit Tiravanija, Vanessa Beecroft, Pierre Huyghe, Carsten Höller, Jorge Pardo, Gabriel Orozco, Liam Gillick, Christine Hill, and other key artists in relational art.
In 1998, Bourriaud published his book Relational Aesthetics, which became something of a best-seller in the art world, and birthed its own subsequent industry of commentary and critique. Comprised of a collection of essays on the art of the decade, the book classified relational art as an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.
The Genealogy of Relational Aesthetics
The theory of relational aesthetics builds upon a number of radical art practices that rose to prominence in the mid-20th century. Though relational artists’ objectives and sensibilities are different than the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, they nevertheless build upon the innovations of several of those groundbreaking artistic groups.
Allan Kaprow’s Happenings
In the mid-1950s, artist Allan Kaprow coined the term Happening to denote an art event that featured something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen. Kaprow’s happenings were actually well-planned and extremely participative. The term soon caught on as a way to refer to practices and performances of art.
The Situationist International
The Situationist International was an intellectual, artistic, and revolutionary group that operated from 1957 to 1972. The artists in the Situationist International sought to construct situations or events in which people would come into direct contact with each other and the space around them, disrupting the rules of the art market and the very basis of the capitalist bourgeois society of the spectacle.
The situationists created and promoted practices like the dérive (the action of walking aimlessly and getting lost in the city), psychogeography (the study of the relationships between people and the geographical space they inhabit), and détournement (the act of appropriating and subverting advertisements and other means of consumerist propaganda).
Fluxus was an international, multidisciplinary art movement active in the 1960s and 70s. Operating often through humorous, playful subversiveness, Fluxus declared itself a non-movement, producing anti-art. The artists worked in expressed opposition to the object of art as a commodity. Experimental music, performances, and happenings of Fluxus aimed to collapse the boundaries between art and day-to-day life, at times including audience participation.
Hélio Oiticica’s Interactives
In the 1960s and 1970s, Hélio Oiticica started to move away from his modernist works into radical new forms. Oiticica made wearable artwork blending the lines between sculpture, clothing, dance, and performance. His sensory installations like Eden, Tropicália, and the Cosmococas are seminal works in Brazilian contemporary art that introduced new forms of interactive practices to the art world.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD
In 1971, American artist Gordon Matta-Clark opened FOOD, a restaurant in Soho, NYC. At once an art project and a service-providing business, FOOD employed artists as staff and experimented with socially engaged food art, collapsing the boundaries between cuisine, performance art, and day-to-day life.
The 1990s and the Relational Form
Following the end of the Cold War, the 1990s experienced a rapid advance of globalization and unrestrained consumerism. It was the decade of the digital technological boom, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Communication became digitalized and instantaneous.
The arrival of virtual space connected different sides of the world, but it also allowed for multiple areas of human relations to be turned into products and areas for consumption. It’s on the heels of these developments that relational art came into being. Relational works sought to distill social experiences into art, creating direct bonds with the world and turning its attention to human connections at a time when they became increasingly commodified.
Relational art’s general object is not the result of interactions but the interactions themselves. Nicolas Bourriaud affirms in his emblematic book Relational Aesthetics (1998) that Art is a state of encounter. This space-time of collaboration and communication is sometimes referred to as a microtopia. The social insights of relational aesthetics don’t have the end goal of changing the world by glimpsing into a utopic social rearrangement, as was often the case in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. Instead, relational art often creates these microtopias as a world that is brought to life in an event, even if it is contained by the specific rules of the art piece. Artists working with relational aesthetics played with institutional rules, sometimes subverting the expectations of what a piece of art exhibited in a gallery or museum should be like, and at other times engaging people completely outside of artistic institutions.
Key Relational Artworks
Like many contemporary art movements that aren’t quite movements, relational aesthetics doesn’t have a set of strict rules or boundaries. A few examples of important relational work include everything from interactive installations, participatory sculptures, street interviews, urban interventions, and happenings.
These include Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (free/still) food-related events like the pad thai dinner from 1992. The piece was reactivated several times in different places, in 1995, 2007, and 2011. Other examples include Gillian Wearing’s Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-1993), where the artist asked strangers to write anything they wanted on a sign and photographed them.
There are also sculptures of Felix Gonzalez-Torres like Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A) (1991) which consists of a pile of candy representing the artist’s boyfriend Ross Laycock. The candy pile has an ideal weight of 175 lbs, the weight Laycock had before contracting AIDS. The work encourages the public to not only touch the artwork but to eat it. As the public takes the candy for themselves, the work dwindles, referring to the illness.
Christine Hill’s Volksboutique is a project started in 1993 that’s still ongoing. It takes the form of several shops set up by the artist, where she sells a number of products, reinstating the human element to commercial transactions. Jans Haaning’s Turkish Jokes (1994) featured a performance where the artist played recorded Turkish jokes on the streets of Oslo, confusing and excluding Norwegians who didn’t know Turkish while connecting Norwegians and immigrants who did.
In Jeremy Daller’s Battle of Orgraeve (2001) the artist set up a reenactment of a historical conflict between police and workers on strike, involving people who were there for the actual event. Daller later exhibited a recording of the reenactment and historical records of the actual conflict in installations blurring the boundaries between fiction and recorded history.
Carsten Höller on the other hand makes installation of giant slides in regular buildings. The artist has worked with slides several times, from the Valerio slides at the 1998 Berlin Biennale to the massive Test Site slides at Tate Modern in 2006. The toy prompts people, especially adults, to engage in play.
After Relational Aesthetics
Relational aesthetics has been criticized since its inception, particularly in American and British art circles. Common critiques argued that the concept was far too vague, in such a way that all art could technically be considered relational. Questions rose about the nature of the audiences that participated in the artworks, and its effectiveness as a ‘democratic’ process against the elitism of the art world. Many have also argued that the term had become banal, as the word relational started to be used interchangeably with interactive or participatory.
The theory has been revisited and revised a few times by others, including Nicolas Bourriaud himself. His research in relational aesthetics is closely tied with his subsequent works, like Post-production (2003) and Altermodern (2009). Relational aesthetics (the concept), relational artworks, and Relational Aesthetics (the book) remained popular and influential, particularly among artists and art students. It is safe to say that relational aesthetics did the important work of introducing new frames of reference to art and new ways of thinking about art practices and forms.