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Bourriaud x Curtis - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 09:27 am
Bourriaud x Curtis

Yesterday I bought a copy of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics. It's specifically about art in the 1990s, but I note that the curators of my most recent art activities in New York and London (Philippe Vergne and Mathieu Copeland) are both key figures in Relational Aesthetics -- Mathieu helped translate the book, and Philippe was one of the first curators to recognize Rirkrit Tiravanija. Bourriaud himself went on to institutionalize his ideas in a "space of encounter": the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Relational Aesthetics isn't yet old hat. Despite Jerry Saltz's declaration that it has entered a "mannerist" phase, the movement is still very much at the centre of contemporary art, spreading to a "second generation" of artists and designers like Anneka Eriksson and Carolina Caycedo, Alex Rich and Jan Family. It's also become a "look" involving boxes, tables, books, catalogues and magazines, potted plants, rubber matting, temporary plyboard walkways, platforms, bean bags, camping gas, conviviality. Take the 2006 Rirkrit Tiravanija installation on the cover of the book, for instance. What do we see there? An informal, friendly space, a sort of cafe in an art gallery. A place where people can read art books, hang out, drink beer, chat, relate.

I read the first couple of chapters of Relational Aesthetics in a cafe yesterday, and scribbled some notes in the page margins. But maybe it's not interesting enough to just give you my Bourriaud notes. I'd like to broaden things by bouncing those notes off another set I made later in the day, maybe producing an unexpected third text through the juxtaposition. Adam Curtis, the television essayist, last week sent me DVDs of his new BBC 2 documentary The Trap. So I'm bouncing the Bourriaud notes off the Curtis ones. The bits in bold are me finding a third text in the parallels between what they're saying.

Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics connects with Marxism via de-reification: a making-visible of the relationships between people that are hidden, in a consumer society, in relationships we have with objects. So, in art, finished objects lose their sovereignty, and the focus shifts to relationships. The opening upstages the artworks.

Curtis: Attempts, post-WW2, to liberate us from the "dead hand" of bureaucracy have led, instead of freedom, to a trap: a world in which a reduced view of human beings as self-interested, suspicious mechanisms leads to a dark world of numerical calculation, targets, rollbacks of legal rights in the face of terrorism, a collapse in social mobility, and the return of privilege and power.

Bourriaud: Art makes "minor modifications" rather than re-shaping the whole field of social relations. It can nevertheless be a dolce utopia.

So art is opening up fluid social relations at precisely the time wider society is closing them down. Is art an experiment, a research into social alternatives, or a compensation and reparation for lacks and failings in the big world?

Curtis: During the Cold War, scientists at the Rand Corporation turned to game theory to model the likely responses of the Soviet Union. The basic model was "fuck you, buddy" -- cold, hard self-interest, suspicion, and the idea that whenever your partner can betray you, he will. In economics, at around the same time, Friedrich von Hayek was promoting a similar idea: that only cold rationality and self-interest (rather than, say, altruism, patriotism, duty, generosity or community-mindedness) could guarantee social stability.

Bourriaud: Developments in the 1990s facilitated Relational Aesthetics: globalization, networks, flexibility, density.

Was the liberating free-flowing openness of the 90s something that happened because of right wing ideas in the 80s, or despite them? Would those ideas have been okay if we had been able to sustain that and widen it globally, rather than swinging into neo-imperialism in the 21st century?

Curtis: John Nash won a Nobel Prize for his Game Theory work at the Rand Corporation. But it was basically paranoid, assuming that your opponent is hostile and bent on your destruction. The problem is, this doesn't correlate to how people behave in the real world -- co-operation, hospitality, love and so on.

Bourriaud: Modernity has two conflicting (or mutually-producing?) sides -- an Enlightenment project of increasing rationality, but also things like Surrealism and Dada, which celebrate the irrational. The sleep of Reason breeds monsters, perhaps?

Curtis: There was an odd harmony between the right's conception of self-interested individuals and the counterculture's mistrust of the establishment. Both attacked public servants' supposed disinterest. R.D. Laing saw love as nothing but selfishness, a struggle for control and power. The modern family was a dark arena of selfish games. "The so-called normal family is like walking into a carbon-monoxide gas chamber."

Actually, this is something Curtis' previous documentary Century of the Self was really strong on -- the way the counterculture played into Thatcherism and Reaganism. The way the creative culture with its emphasis on self-actualisation could be turned easily into an entrepreneurial model.

Bourriaud: There can be interstices, non-profit spaces within for-profit systems. "When an artist shows us something, he uses a transitive ethic which places his work between the look-at-me and the look-at-that."

Curtis: Quantification, checklists, targets arrived in the 80s as business managers were given the opportunity to restructure public institutions as metaphors, simulations of the ideal free market situation. The NHS got an "internal market". Democracy itself was dismantled, seen as a weak marker of public desire. Instead, we got "market democracy", John Major's Citizens' Charter, and New Labour's nightmare of rankings, indices of quality of life, efficiency targets and incentives. Managers seemed to be set free to be entrepreneurs, to meet the targets any way they liked, to "own" their own targets. But many cheated the system, which ended up decreasing social mobility (for instance, because schools were rated and ranked, affluent parents moved to where the good schools were, increasing social polarization).

Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics is what we do when machines take over. "The general mechanization of social processes gradually reduces the relational space." So art has to increase it again.

When game theory leads to mechanization of social processes, play is all that's left to us.

Curtis: The Rand Corporation's John Nash spent ten years in an asylum as a paranoid schizophrenic. Now he has had an "enlightenment". The model of "the human as businessman" has little relationship with actual human behaviour, he says. His Game Theory work over-emphasized self-interest and rationality. Humans are much more complex. Over the last five years, Nobel Prizes have gone to economists who have shown there's no inherent equilibrium in markets, no "hidden hand". New research shows that only two groups of people behave in a rational, self-interested way: economists themselves, and psychopaths.

It's fine for Jerry Saltz to want to declare Relational Aesthetics over, even before most people are aware it's begun. Art is always going to be a marginal, compensatory activity. But, before we do that, I think it's very important for people to realize that the kind of mentality Adam Curtis is describing -- the selfish, mechanistic view of human nature that emerged out of Game Theory and has infiltrated all our social processes in the West (not so much Japan -- they might still be able to leapfrog this whole foolishness) -- is no longer credible. There's lots of mileage left in the games suggested by Relational Aesthetics, but none left in the kind of paranoid gamesmanship John Nash used to advocate. That's over, played, and needs to be terminated in all areas with very little mercy or regret.

59CommentReplyShare

purveyorofchaos
purveyorofchaos
Hexe
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 08:59 am (UTC)

I found "Century of the Self" fascinating. Had no idea that guy did other stuff, but he must have, no?

You juxtapositions make for good late night reading here in Texas.


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realrealgone
realrealgone
realrealgone
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 10:08 am (UTC)

R.D. Laing saw love as nothing but selfishness, a struggle for control and power.

it annoys me immensely to hear, in 'The Trap' (and in commentaries on 'The Trap', the repeated conflation of R.D.Laing's insights into intra-familial power politics with the ideas of the social engineers of the right. True, both may be observing the same thing - but there is a fundamental difference, I would argue, in their reaction. The right saw (sees) this selfish struggle as an inevitable pre-destined state of being to be accepted and cynically exploited to maintain social equilibrium, whereas Laing was attempting to release individuals from the grip of such psychiatrically-damaged societal structures. Just because he saw what is commonly known as 'love' as all-to-often manipulative and damaging, did not mean that he thought it always had to be that way.

It was interesting, however, to see how Nash (for one) appears to have come to some sort of realisation of the narrow, paranoid nature of his theories. Identifying dynamics is a dangerous business - the realisation can liberate us, but it can also reinforce those very dynamics as immutable realities.

that is all.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)

Curtis does say that Laing's intentions and the effects of his insights were very different things. I think this is one of the things his films are strongest on, because it's counter-intuitive -- the way we're in the pickle we're in today because both left and right have brought us here. Selfishness and self-interest were the effect of the Me Generation counterculture, and identity politics, as much as of right wing economists like Hayek. The corollary of this is also interesting -- there's something true radicals might share with true blue conservatives of the old school: an interest in the kind of "moral sentiments" the marketplace can never provide. Curtis says that in fact, even in the golden age of laissez faire, the self-interest of the market place was distinguished from moral sentiments -- things like sympathy and understanding for others. These, according to Adam Smith, could not be dispensed with.

As for R.D. Laing, he actually discovered Game Theory when he visited Palo Alto, and applied it to family research, making checklists of all the strategies people used in family situations. This is what allowed him to come up with ideas like the "double bind", and it is strikingly similar to Cold War gamesmanship. He concluded that when we talk about "love" we are often talking instead about power, and about imposing impossible demands on people.

Like the right wing, the libertarian hippy counterculture concluded that none of the institutions of postwar life could be trusted, and that altruism didn't exist. They, as much as Thatcher, tore down the UK's Keynsian institutions in the name of "freedom".


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 10:25 am (UTC)
Nobel prize

Ah. And there is no such thing as a Nobel prize in economics. It's a much later invention, not part of the purists Nobel prize canon. Can't imagine Alfred would have wanted it any other way.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 10:51 am (UTC)

Interesting. I don't know anything about relational aesthetics, but from your descriptions it seems to echo the Lévi-Straussian structuralist turn of the mid 20th C, where context starts to trump content.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 12:02 pm (UTC)

Just a reminder of what Jerry Saltz said about Relational Aesthetics and the Sublime:

"The Sublime is us. As messy and embarrassing as it is to admit, these days lots of people get a bigger Sublime jolt from having a cup of coffee with a friend than from standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. That doesn't mean that we're God or that nature is dead, only that a certain elementary frisson is being generated from being around one another.

"Which brings us back to relational aesthetics. In the hands of subsequent artists a lot, but not all of the art grouped under this moniker, has become mannered. Connectivity has devolved into a neo-hippie hangout involving couches, cots, tables or some kind of shelter in which participants eat, sleep, watch monitors, or whatever. Interactivity now mostly consists of the documentation of artists doing things like interviewing others, meeting workers, etc. Too often the audience is also simply lounging around while thinking about lounging around, or they're just gawking at others. Either way, everyone is essentially telling him- or herself things they already know. Relational aesthetics, once probing and complex, is becoming a cul-de-sac of fun effects, momentary experiences, and comfy playhouses."


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peripherus_max
peripherus_max
peripherus_max
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)

I adore this post, and oddly, I immediately think of Tom Marioni:

http://www.crownpoint.com/artists/marioni/act_of_drinking_beer.html

I hope that you don't mind if I borrow your Saltz quote. It's too timely and juicy a meme not to spread. :)


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bongo_kong
bongo_kong
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC)
the trap

The music is ace too. Episode 2 had clips of Cosmonaut by Stereo Total at the start then a clip later on of their cover of Heaven's In the Back Seat of my Cadillac. Do they symbolise the entrapment of the masses in a post-modern prison of their own design? I hope not cos they're one of my favourite bands.


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chokogin
chokogin
chokogin
Thu, Mar. 22nd, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)
Re: the trap

yeah i kept drifting off wondering what music was playing in the background

good to hear john carpenter in there too


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 01:29 pm (UTC)

Relational Aesthetics isn't yet old hat... the movement is still very much at the centre of contemporary art
I'm afraid old dear, that this is very much a contradiction in terms


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)

I´m really, really trying to think of a pretext to comment with my new Bolan macro here, but it´s not working, damn you.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC)

And now, something completely different (or not): The issue you raised a few days ago about art and economics (in an anti-capitalist approach) it will be useful to see this French journal
http://www.revuedumauss.com.fr/

Pedro Félix


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 02:09 pm (UTC)

If being "liberated from the dead hand of bureaucracy" means a decrease in the power of government; how does it follow that a powerless government would be more likely to roll back legal rights?

I think Curtis mistakenly makes this connection because he's lumping together all of the positions that appear on the Right.

The Libertarian wing of the Right, which is the most concerned with eliminating bureaucracy (see The Cato Institute's website), is also very concerned about the erosion of civil liberties (again see their website).

The Neoconservatives are not at all concerned with the temporary erosion of rights, if it means "security." They are also not in the least bit concerned about bureaucracy--which has increased greatly during the Bush administration.

The idea that large government bureaucracies are inefficient is still very much relevant and true. Not to say that many private companies aren't run inefficiently, but naturally if the bottom line affects what goes into your own pocket, you're going to care more about how the company is run. That's just common sense. Government agencies must also deal with increased paperwork because they're spending somebody else's money.

There are plenty of sound arguments against rampant privitization, loosening of corporate restrictions, and unfettered capitalism in general--claiming that they lead to an erosion of civil rights and "neo-imperialism" is not one of them.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC)

If being "liberated from the dead hand of bureaucracy" means a decrease in the power of government; how does it follow that a powerless government would be more likely to roll back legal rights?

Liberation from the dead hand of bureaucracy was the way certain "reforms" were sold to us. In fact, what actually happened was that a synthetic, game theory-style model of the free market replaced old bureaucrats (motivated, sometimes, by elitist "we know best" attitudes, but also by altruism) with new bureaucrats (motivated by incentives to reach targets and quotas on efficiency, "quality of life assurance", etc).

Although this "market democracy" involved mimicry of the private sector -- and relied heavily on market research, and the attitude that selfish behaviour is behaviour that benefits everybody -- it wasn't actually the free market. What led to the erosion of civil rights was "the exportation of freedom to other countries" (otherwise known as war), leading to terrorist reprisals, leading to suspension of habeus corpus, etc. Habeus corpus, of course, wasn't part of the "targets" or "quality of life standards assurances package".


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desant012
||||||||||
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)

I'm so tired of theory that talks about creativity. It's like the novelist writing letters to his friends about his novel rather than actually writing the thing - creativity has become the afterthought, and all we've got are works groomed for investment (New York, London, Berlin, etc.), and stacks of theories. We might as well not even have an imagination anymore.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)

At some point in the 20th Century, the art world was taken over by theoretical essayists like John Cage. To him, art is only interesting if it asks some kind of concrete question about society or about art. The purpose of art as a Walter Pater understood it--that is, beauty--was no longer relevant.

So all of a sudden, tonal music wasn't worth doing. It was boring. We've heard all of that before! Explored it completely! What was--a couple of decades earlier--enough for a guy like Maurice Ravel, was definitely not enough for a John Cage. Ravel spent his whole life composing and somehow never became bored with tonal music. Surely a testament to his small mind!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC)

Thanks for this - it's really interesting to me. Momus, I wonder if you are monitoring the UK TV telephone calls affair (http://media.guardian.co.uk/broadcast/story/0,,2036766,00.html )- it seems to me to be an illustration of how British media organisations have come to be laid out according to the management principles that Curtis describe. Those principles ultimately manifest themselves in the treatment of the audience as rational self-interested beings, which the audience revolt against, biting the broadcasters firmly in the ass.

I also think you would enjoy the keynote speech given by 42 Entertainment at the recent ARG Fest-O-Con in San Francisco. http://www.argn.com/archive/000564argfest_panel_videos_on_youtube.php

Best

Gideon Reeling


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Tue, Mar. 20th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)

Being around 24 years old, I have grown up in America with this kind of attitude everywhere - I was thinking about how much sarcasm is part of hipster culture here today, how usually it comes about when people who are generally nice try to act tough, by laughing at everything.

I think this idea that it's best to be self-interested comes from the whole cowboy aesthetic, but thinking that it's a post-cold war attitude makes me feel better about the future of america, because if it's a recent attitude then it can be overcome easier.


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