July 5th, 2006


Was it lunch, or was it "relational design"?

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Åbäke, the Swedish-Japanese-French-Welsh design collective, at their Shacklewell Lane studio in London. As regular readers of Click Opera know, I'm a huge admirer of this subtle, elliptical, eclectic, quiet, conceptual, community-minded design group. Normally they don't allow photographs of themselves or their working environment (they appeared on the Singapore Resfest DVD with their faces completely pixellated out, for instance), but they relented during my visit. "We're finding we care less and less about that kind of thing," Maki told me. So here they are, cutting up melons on a map of London, comparing cell phones with James Goggin (subject of a similar photo-essay tomorrow), wearing yellow t-shirts, displaying their builders' bum cracks and some of their work, letting me sit on their Mussolini-profiled stool (the flat-top made it look more like Henry Rollins), and telling me how to build a nice simple set of bookshelves.

So, I'm delighted to announce that, at the invitation of Åbäke, who teach there part-time, I'll be giving an unreliable tour of the Royal College of Art in November. Actually -- and this terminology will probably appall Åbäke -- it occurs to me that what they, and cohorts like Alex Rich and Jan Family, are doing could be described as "relational aesthetics meets design" or simply "relational design". Because the vocabulary of interventions, actions, meals, barters, exchanges and meetings is very much the same one encountered in the work of artists like Liam Gillick or Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Here's an explanation of relational aesthetics, from the current Jerry Saltz column in the Village Voice:

"This useful term, coined in the mid 1990s by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, was meant to describe the then groundbreaking practices of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, Vanessa Beecroft, and others whose work often involved what Bourriaud called "connectivity" and "interactivity... 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."

The melon was delicious... but was it "relational design"? Let's just call it lunch.