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.