Nicolas Bourriaud - Esthetique Relationnel

In Esthetique Relationnel, a collection of essays written in the 1990's, curator Nicolas Bourriaud attempted to provide an overview of art from that decade. The book, written with the curator's insider perspective/understanding, aims to propose new criteria as a way to engage with contemporary artworks, which he maintains are as politicised as art from the 1960's.


Bourriaud defines relational aesthetics as “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.”


The work seeks to establish encounters in which meaning is elaborated collectively, rather than in the privatised space of individual consumption. Relational art is dependent on its environment and audience. Context is everything. Additionally, the audience is seen as a community, as opposed to the one-to-one relationship between artwork and viewer. Situations are engineered where viewers are seen as a collective, one which is given the tools to create a temporary community.


Bourriaud makes a distinction between relational aesthetics and interactive art. He sees relational practice as a way to locate art in the broader culture: as a reaction to the change from a goods-based economy to a service based one. In addition, it's also being seen as a reaction to the virtual relationships engendered by the internet and globalisation, with a desire for more immediate face-to- face interaction.


Bourriaud also distinguishes relational aesthetics from the work of previous generations by maintaining there has been a change in approach toward social change. Instead of searching for an 'ideal' solution artists attempt to find interim solutions in the present moment. Artists are simply “learning to inhabit the world in a better way”. Bourriaud's theory of relational aesthetics re-thinks the 'white cube' model as an experimental “laboratory” in which the work of art itself remains in continual flux.


Artist Tiravanija's dematerialised projects revive strategies from the 1960's and 70's. What would happen if the next time Tiravanija set up a kitchen in an art gallery, some homeless people turned up daily for lunch? In doing so Tiravanija breaks down the usual separation by so-called political art of the art-world from everything else.


Similarly, Bishop[1] argues that within the context of the current economic model of globalisation, his roaming everywhere-ness does not query this logic, but simply reproduces it. There are problems with the idea of an “open-ended” artwork, resistant to closure. It is difficult to discern/ascertain a work with such a deliberately unsettled identity. Bishop believes another issue is how the 'laboratory' can be easily adapted into a commodified space for entertainment and leisure.


Terms including 'laboratory', 'art factory' and 'construction site' have been employed when describing relational aesthetics to distinguish the approach from other collection-based museums. These spaces create a hive of activity and it could be put that within this context these open-ended works-in-progress link in with notions of the “experience economy”, a marketing strategy which replaces goods and services with staged personal experiences. Yet, Bishop points out, what the viewer should take from the creative 'experience' isn't always very clear.




[1] Claire Bishop (2004) ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’