on relational aesthetics
24 December 2016

November 2015 



Art as an agent for community building has long been on the agenda of numerous contemporary practices we see today. Ideas proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud and Claire Bishop, are examples that tackle systematic social alienation through exploring the paradoxical nature of relational aesthetics. The contemporary community living, while noble and idealistic in conception, faces a variety of executional issues. Taking cues from Bishop’s approach of antagonism, this essay aims to analyze and assess whether the artistic medium can achieve community building through its renunciation of belonging in relational participation.

Community, Communication, Commitment

The concept of community, as vague and high minded as it may sound, is the fundamental building block of any functioning society. Georges Bataille may deem it a distant possibility, but it is nevertheless a common natural incentive for many of those disenfranchised by circumstances of life.1 Its conflict with the modern influx of technological advancement is perhaps best illustrated in artist-curator Paul Chan’s writings. In “The Unthinkable Community,” he questions the role of communication in building, if not alienating, relationships. While sharing the same Latin roots, communication and community are hardly causational terms in the modern setting. Chan suggests that “time deepens connections, whereas technology economizes communication.”2 Their inherent and seemingly irreconcilable differences reveal what it means to be contemporary: a constant renunciation of belonging.

This brings us to the notion of the industrial network that has rendered the individual powerless and disengaged from association to any sense of community. The domination of technology facilitates our reach into the world, meaning its fundamental purpose to capitalize on communication puts more emphasis on quantity than it does quality. Chan therefore proposes a solution: commitment. The collective working and cooperation of a group of individuals, also known as compearance, provide room for the kind of community building that “can only be recognized against a background from which it differentiates itself”.3 Commonality and differences blurs into a singular bond, overcoming and perpetuating divisions when commitment and awareness between two separate entities are realized.

An essential incompleteness within the individual therefore emerges. Community is built upon the commitment of cohering differing views in anticipation of what is to come. Perhaps this is not unlike Bataille’s almost dystopian sacrificial communitarian experiment, where everyone shares an intense, undying erotic love immunized from the moralizing factors of society.4 It does make one wonder if an original and unbreakable bond once existed in the world.5

Back to Relational Aesthetics

So what is art’s place in this new utopian social framework? Should one even apply art to achieve such social means? We can perhaps begin our assessment with relational aesthetics as the new postwar paradigm that prompted a series of artistic responses to the image of life in a service economy. Relational aesthetics, stripped down to its core, is a kind of service; it provides a transactional alternative to Bataille’s idea of creating social values through sacrifice. Its most famous advocate, Nicolas Bourriaud believes in the art form’s ability to shape and transform the future of society through “tightening the space of relations”.6 This well-worn idolization of participatory art has rendered artistic practices to a rubric of moralizing value system susceptible to the immanent political contingencies of society.

Claire Bishop, famous for her extolment of the antagonistic model in opposition to Bourriaud’s inclusive participatory art form, questions the legitimacy of such “social-issues-morphed-into-art” projects which end up representing a prescribed political position due to their emancipatory qualities.7 From the personal level, the institutionalization of art making in recent decades manifests itself in the rise of social media where acts of “liking” and “commenting” becomes faux-inclusive practices that are supposed to build relationships that transcend physical limitations. She criticizes the utopian assumption of “togetherness” by proposing antagonism as a natural response to the impossibility to constitute convivial relationships in the modern age.

This brings us back to Paul Chan’s skepticism of communication’s role in community building in the technological era. Social media quickly blurs the line between self-expression and self-promotion as one comprehends the inauthenticity and inefficiency of such spanning communicative forms in solving social disengagement. Similarly, relational aesthetics, proposed by both Bourriaud and Bishop fall short to provide meaningful solutions that advance positive social change. Art reaches an impasse. Perhaps the artistic should be separated from the pedagogic as two different modes of flexible, critical dialogues; an art of resistance that favors the aesthetic power over the moral and ethical ones without hybridizing the two shall remain in art making.

Tethered to None

Paul Chan proclaims: “art is not itself a thing”.8 The transcending nature of art is not confined by its physical, tangible form, providing multiplications of reading that never fully expresses its embodiment in time. Perhaps it is worth questioning whether the field of art, in its attempt to address the urgency of modernity, has given up its innate formal power in exchange for a functional role subservient to other social agendas.

The dialectical nature of art refuses to be reduced as mere kit of parts. In fact, the ghostly presence of art only wishes to be free from all forms of actualization influenced by the power of interdependency in the globalized world.9 The complex entanglement between art and the diverse body of life in modern society has perhaps rendered art as simply a mediation of conflicts and differences. Art, charged in the name of globalization, loses it subjectivity and hence “becomes a thing”.10

Noting the distinction between art-making and activism during his time in New Orleans, Chan explores the power of art as an antithesis of society through the rejection of an underlying social force. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), perhaps profound and emblematic of the city’s post-Katrina mentality, was a project premised on a “clear division between process and outcome.”11 It is not proposing a moralizing method of reimagining the empty roads and debris of the landscape. Set in various neighborhoods wrecked by hurricane Katrina two years earlier, the rendition was an attempt to demonstrate art as a form of reason. The play encouraged successive artistic responses to organize a new image of life in the city.

Rather than treating art as direct agent for change, Chan applies activist strategies to realize a work of art. During his eight-month residency in New Orleans teaching for free at the universities, he gathered the activist momentum from his classrooms and transformed it into a successful theater production. The curious interplay between art and education, creative production and political activism, are thresholds upon which he successfully navigates and utilizes. This is closely tied to his idea of art belonging to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.12 In the age of globalization, a mutual commonality is established not by actual relationships between people but the things in which they possess. To codify the artistic process with specificity to any underlying social and material construct of the trend will only aggregate its pertinence as a redundant translation of the status quo. The power of reason therefore enables art to become a versatile medium in which the alienated individual reconciles with the world.

The resulting impact of the play demonstrates art’s immersive role in community building while maintaining its own identity resistant to the influence of social goals. Students and volunteers who worked on the Godot production were inspired to organize a collective to share works and create their own sense of community.13 Chan’s definition of art and activism as two separate yet inevitably interconnected modes of production provides insights into the meditation on art, politics and community building in contemporary practices.

1 Bataille argues that community is experienced only through the rejection of the self because the fear of death and human mortality will always distinguish onself as a separate and distinct entity. See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (La Communauté désoeuvrée), Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

2 Paul Chan, Selected Writings, 2000 – 2014, New York: Laurenz Foundation, Schaulager, and Badlanos Unlimited, 2014; p. 92.

3 Ibid., p. 96.

4 Ibid., p. 102.

5 Ibid., p. 97.

6 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 1998; p. 5.

7 See Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics in October 110, October 2004.

8 Chan 2014: 71.

9 Chan 2014: 75.

10 Chan 2014: 76.

11 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of  Spectatorship, New York: Verso; p. 250.

12 Chan 2014: 82.

13 Chan 2014: 94.