Publics in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics

What follows are thematic notes from my readings in preparing my masters thesis. The quotes are from the English translation (2002).

As you are probably aware, Claire Bishop has some concerns with Relational Aesthetics and asks “if relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?” There is this question as to whether Bourriaud’s theory presupposes what the public is and whether his thinking about relationality is too generous. We will compare notes from the Bourriaud-Bishop-Gillick conversation as well as the Rancière-Bourriaud-Michael Warner (his essay “Publics and Counterpublics“)

Let’s look at how the public is discussed in Bourriaud’s book.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb. Arshile Gorky. (1944)

Chapter 4 “Joint presence and availability: The theoretical legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

[T]he exhibition situations presented to us […] today […] are governed by a concern to “give everyone their chance,” […] negotiate open relationships with it, which are not resolved beforehand. This latter thus wavers between the status of passive consumer and the status of witness, associate, customer, guest, co-producer, and protagonist. (58)

[T]he artist encouraged the “beholder” to take up a position within an art arrangement, giving it life, contemplating the work, and taking part in the formulation of its meaning. (59)

The public is being taken into account more and more [….] as if the microcommunity gathering in front of the image was becoming the actual source of the aura [….] The aura of art no longer lies in the hinter-world represented by the work, nor in form itself, but in front of it, within the temporary collective form that it produces by being on show. (61)

Chapter 6 “Towards a policy of forms”

[T]he need for a visual “envelope,” for the picture was supposed to encompass, not to say submerge, the beholder in a chromatic ambience. We have often referred to similarities existing between the “enveloping” effect of Abstract Expressionism and the effect sought by painters of icons. And in both cases it is an abstract humanity that is under consideration [….] (79)

So reality is what I talk about with a third party. It can be defined as a product of negotiation [….] So the goal of art is to reduce the mechanical share in us. Its aim is to destroy any a priori agreement about what is perceived.
Similarly, meaning and sense are the outcome of an interaction between artist and beholder, and not an authoritarian fact. In modern art, I must, as beholder, make an effort to produce sense out of objects that are ever lighter, ever more impalpable and ever more volatile. [….] Feeling nothing means not making enought effort. (80)

Artists look for interlocutors. Because the public is always a somewhat unreal entity, artists will include this interlocutor in the production process itself. The sense of the work issues from the movement that links up the signs transmitted by the artist, as well as from the collaboration between people in the exhibition space. (81)


Society of extras
The society of the spectacle has been defined by Guy Debord as the historical moment when merchandise achieved “the total occupation of social life,” capital having reached “such a degree of accumulation” that it was turned into imagery. Today, we are in the further stage of spectacular development: the individual has shifted form a passive and purely repetitive status to the minimum activity dictated by market forces. So television consumption is shrinking in favor of video games; thus the spectacular hierarchy encourages “empty monads,” i.e. programless models and politicians; thus everyone sees themselves summoned  to be famous for fifteen minutes, using a TV game, street poll, or news item as go-between. This is the reign of “Infamous Man,” whom Michel Foucault defined as the anonymous and “ordinary” individual suddenly put in the glare of media spotlights. Here we are summoned to turn into extras of the spectacle, having been regarded as its consumers. [….] So, after the consumer society, we can see the dawning of the society of extras where the individual develops as a part-time stand-in for freedom, signer and sealer of the public place. (113)


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