Art, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, Dec 2010

Original version published in CANNED magazine, Issue 01 

Kate Stobbart: You’re So Not Worth It, Wunderbar Festival, 2010

Since the end of the second world war, our towns and cities have been rapidly transformed by the endless pursuit of globalisation.  Less defined by human collectives or cultural difference, today’s city is a thriving centre of commerce and consumerism.  No longer the touchstone of a democratic society, the sensation of belonging has become novel, and even nostalgic – a sought after product in places defined by their ability to import and export people and goods.

The progressive ideals of the modern metropolis – with all their utopian promise – have in many ways failed to consider the emotional life of the individual.  Lost by the way side of breath-taking advancements in transport, trade and technology, he lives in a world which eschews him;

A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions…where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral…[i]

Vividly described by writers such as Marc Augé (above), Jean Baudrillard and J.G.Ballard the ‘solitary individuality’ of our networked society has scarred the foundations of the human psyche.  An innate desire for meaningful, communal experience – no longer supplied by mainstream society – has therefore been increasingly addressed by artists, theorists and creative practitioners.

Increasingly focused on the type of relations his or her work will create, today’s artists conceive social spaces, meetings, encounters, games; all kinds of events and collaborations which take as their “theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”[vi]

The ‘open’ scheme of the participatory art work aims to address the alienating effects of capitalist society by creating short-term micro-communities and new models of sociability.  Taking the form of routinised actions – “dancing samba (Hélio Oiticia) or funk (Adrian Piper); drinking beer (Tom Marioni); discussing philosophy (Ian Wilson) or politics (Joseph Beuys)…” – these works minimise the distinction between the author/artist and audience by encouraging social collaboration in any number of constructed artistic contexts.[vii]

Although usually ameliorative in intention, it must be acknowledged that these interactive ‘hands-on utopias’ necessarily contain an immanent hint of despair.  No matter how liberating, inspiring or enjoyable the experience of an interactive art work might be, their conception attends to a lack of significance in social relations.  As Hal Foster suggests, “perhaps discursivity and sociability are in the foreground of art today because they are scarce elsewhere…”.[viii]  It follows that the risk with such work is that art becomes “a pale, part-time substitute”[ix] for more traditional models of sociability.

There is, therefore, a friction between what participatory art practices aim to do, and the reasons they exist in the first place.  Rather than actively address the deep-seated problems of capitalist society, hopes for revolutionary art have given way to compensatory micro-topias.  In my opinion, this aspect exposes a friction, or antagonism, which is fundamentally present in all works of interactive art.  With this in mind, the text that follows offers an introduction to what I will describe as the inherently antagonistic nature of interactive art and audience partcipation.

According to Nicolas Bourriaud “any stance that is “directly” critical of society is futile…not to say regressive”.[x] So what happens when art compensates for the futility of revolutionary, political change?  What happens when the subjective power of the state is not challenged, but re-modelled into transitory sets, stage managed by artists?  What does the desire for “an inter-human commerce”[xi] say about life under a thriving democracy?

Always Antagonistic: Participation and Relational Aesthetics

If taken seriously, art offers alternatives; new ways of engaging and living.  Today, following Nicolas Bourriaud’s hugely influential collection of essays, the term relational aesthetics can be used to describe art which sees the field of human relations as a workable, artistic medium.  By fusing, subverting, and fundamentally questioning everyday social protocol, artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick and Angela Bulloch establish art events, situations and performances which put the viewer centre stage.  In contrast to its traditional associations with reflection, contemplation and detached observation, present day art often engages directly with its audience through productive, participatory strategies.

Finding roots in 60s Fluxus Happenings and the work of the Situationist International, relational aesthetics applies to any period of time that is lived through where audience members interact with each other in a uniquely prescribed context.  By offering opportunities to live differently in the short-term, Bourriaud explains that, “contemporary art is really pursuing a political project when it attempts to move into the relational space by problematizing it”.[xii]

Bourriaud’s text has been subject to widespread attention and close, critical scrutiny since it was first published in French in 1998.  One of the most notorious critiques, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, put forward by the critic Claire Bishop in 2004 forms a point of departure for my argument that there is a tension inherent in participatory art practices.  Bishop has two main qualms about the concepts put foward in Relational Aesthetics.  Firstly, she argues that Bourriaud fails to address the details and idiosyncrasies of individual artists’ work by instead focusing on the type of work created.  She says, “for example, what Tiravanija cooks, how and for whom, are less important to Bourriaud than the fact that he gives away the results of his cooking for free.”[xiii]

In readings of works such as Untitled (Still) (1992) at 303 Gallery, New York – one of many occasions that the artist Tiravanija  has cooked for his audience – Bishop laments an uncomplicated rhetoric of conviviality.  Asserting that Bourriaud’s user-friendly utopias “rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and community as immanent togetherness.”[xiv], she goes on to explain her second qualm – that Relational Aesthetics does not address the antagonism that necessarily exists in a democratic society.  For Bourriaud, ““all relations that permit “dialogue” are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good”[xv].

The following section of this text will focus specifically on Bishop’s appropriation of the word ‘antagonism’ and in turn her use of the term relational antagonism.  There are many problems with Bishop’s argument which cannot fully be addressed here.  However, by highlighting some of the specific theoretical inconsistencies in her text and (like she has done in response to Relational Aesthetics) supporting my argument with the work of a specific artist; my thoughts will provide a somewhat ambiguous conflation of Bourriaud’s and Bishop’s respective texts.  This process will, I hope, expose the problems of a too literal acceptance of theory, as well as offering an alternative, more productive, paradigm of the latent antagonism which underlies relational practices.

As John Rajchman explains;

theory is not a metadiscipline that supplies one ready-made concepts for the critical analysis or formal appraisal of what we already know and see…the proposition that theory is practice must be understood in an experimental rather than a reductive way.[xvi]

By nitpicking Bourriaud’s, at times ludic, explanation of works by artists like Liam Gillick and Tiravanija, Bishop has too literally interpreted the premise of Relational Aesthetics.  Taking her lead from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, she explains that by nature, a democratic sphere contains cracks, conflicts and antagonisms – antagonisms which aren’t addressed by Bourriaud’s artists.

Tirvavanija is a case in point, as the events he arranges often “produce[s] a community whose members identify with each other”[xvii] – namely through their affinity with the  contemporary art world.  Rather than actively tackling society’s problematic relationship with conviviality, “Tiravanija’s microtopia gives up on the idea of transformation in public culture and reduces its scope to the pleasures of a private group who identify with one another as gallery-goers.”[xviii]

The problem with Bishop’s response is that it is “based on the assumption that dialogue is in and of itself democratic” which, according to Liam Gillick constitutes a “superficial reading of the work”.[xix] My own reservations about Bishop’s application of the term ‘antagonism’ extend from this assumption and, subsequently propound a less rigid alternative.  In my opinion, by supporting her argument with artworks such as Santiago Sierra’s 160cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000) – works which are explicitly antagonistic, and outwardly political – Bishop fails to account for the fact that works of relational art are implicitly political, and implicitly antagonistic.

This argument links back to my earlier assertion that there is “a friction between what participatory art practices aim to do, and the reasons they exist in the first place”.  Bourriaud’s vivid descriptions of how current artistic praxis provide “a rich loam for social experiments..a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns”[xx] eschews the need for an outwardly political stance. A ‘friction’ persists in this context, because the very idea of ‘microtopias’ or ‘user-friendly’, ephemeral communities, admits an elemental awareness of the oppressive tendencies of capitalism.  These works of relational aesthetics exist because we feel alienated from our own society.  A forced frivolity ensues (however implicit) whereby utopian relational experiences provide short-term solutions to more deep-seated, structural problems.

Chaosmosis: Bourriaud and Guattari

When Bishop explains that the model of subjectivity that underpins the practice of artists like Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn (and not the artists presented by Bourriaud), “is not the fictitious whole subject of harmonious community, but a divided subject of partial identifications”[xxi] she opens a veritable, theoretical minefield.

Bishop fails to consider (or even mention) Bourriaud’s thorough analysis of the writings of Félix Guattari; most notably his last published work chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (1992).  The mere citation of of this work, even regardless of the detailed interpretation that Bourriaud offers, discredits her claim that Relational Aesthetics requires a ‘unified subject’.  Paraphrasing Guattari, Bourriaud states “[t]here is nothing less natural than subjectivity…What matters is our capacity to create new arrangements and agencies within the system of collective facilities formed by the ideologies and categories of thought, a creation that shows many similarities with artistic activity”.[xxii] He goes in to great detail, explaining that subjectivity offers ways of deciphering (and challenging) the conception of the “entirety of the capitalist system”.[xxiii]  The so-called production of subjectivity, especially to a Guattari reader like Bourriaud,  distorts the  traditional, naturalised distinctions provided by mainstream society and the state.  This cerebral process indicates a more nuanced form political participation; a way of thinking and living ‘with difference’.

Not Above or Below, But Within

Bishop’s argument is supported by the introduction of two artists – Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschorn – whose work is explicitly ‘antagonistic’ in approach.  She explains that because “the relations produced by their performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, their work acknowledges the impossibility of a “micro-topia” and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants and context.”[xxiv]  Whilst the scope of this essay restricts me from providing a more thorough description of these artists’ work, it’s important to mention that, according to Bishop, both artists “reassert the autonomy of art from life”[xxv] by creating or exposing tensions amongst people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Hirschhorn is well known for making ad hoc monuments to famous philosophers such as Giles Deleuze and Georges Bataille.  Often deliberately situated in contexts not normally associated with contemporary art – like an impoverished suburban community, miles from the official site of Documenta XI in Kassel – Hirschhorn’s work is described as exposing “the kernel of impossible resolution on which antagonism depends…”[xxvi]

Similarly, according to Bishop, Sierra epitomises the concept of relational antagonism by providing a “tougher, more disruptive approach to “relations”.[xxvii] Now an infamous member of the international contemporary art scene, Sierra is known for making extreme, socio-political artworks, the titles of which are disconcertingly self-explanatory – 160cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000), A Person Paid for 360 Continuous Working Hours (2000), and Ten People Paid to Masturbate (2000).

It goes without saying that my own interpretation of the concept of relational antagonism owes much to both Bishop and Bourriaud.  After much contemplation, I have found Bishop’s text to be much more productive when considered as an extension of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics.  Bishop’s muddled re-modelling of Bourriaud’s largely optimistic collection of texts exposes more than just her own personal misgivings.  As I have explained, the problem with participatory art practices is that they are inherently antagonistic.  To attempt to embrace their effects in a way which reworks the subjects defined by “the work of specialized corporate bodies”[xxviii], they must be perceived as a workable part of the everyday order.  Otherwise put, we must try to appreciate their possibilities for change from within.  The ethical and aesthetical modes of everyday, communal exchange are not, as Micheal Hirsch explains “means to some political ends.  These modes are changes in the meaning of the relations of singular beings to one another, and to things, and not changes in the existing state of things and social relations themselves”.[xxix]

When Bishop locates Hirschhorn and Sierra’s work in the context of ‘autonomous’ art practices – defined by their separation from empirical reality; she revokes the idea of immanence which is absolutely central to Relational Aesthetics.  Inspired by philosophers such as Guattari and Deleuze, Bourriaud understands that meaning comes from the middle.  For art to function productively in an increasingly globalised world, fraught with the effects of systemic alienation, it must not withdraw from the world it considers.  As Guattari explains, “the future of contemporary subjectivity is not to live indefinitely under the regime of self-withdrawal, of mass-mediatic infantilization, of ignorance of difference and alterity…It’s modes of subjectivization will get out of their homogentic ‘entrapment’ only if creative objectives appear within their reach”.[xxx] Not above, or below but within, art’s central positioning, granted by Bourriaud, allows for a wilful, ontological transformation – something Bishop’s critical analysis entirely neglects.

You’re So Not Worth It

Whilst risking an oversimplified conflation of conflicting theoretical positions, I feel that Bourriaud’s hopeful portrayal of the possibilities of  a self-made subjectivity, would survive Bishop’s critical scrutiny if applied to more openly ‘antagonistic’ or ‘disruptive’ artworks.  Whilst I have argued that all works that could be considered in the realm of relational aesthetics are in inherently antagonistic, as they exist to compensate for the effects of  social alienation; my research has led me to a piece which in some ways addresses the latent antagonism I speak of.  With this proposition in mind, I will conclude this investigation of the difficult nexus between art and human relations, by way of an example.

For last year’s Wunderbar Festival in Newcastle upon Tyne Kate Stobbart invited people round for dinner.  Conceived in the context of the exhibition Tours of People’s Homes, curated by Joshua Sofaer, You’re So Not Worth It was performed on four separate occasions during the festival.  Originally unaware of the artist’s intentions, a motley collection of individuals became imbricated in a series of dialogic performances where their hopes, insecurities and psychological limits were playfully tested.

After the usual good-humoured introductions, visitors sat down to eat at a table prepared with customised crockery.  As each meal was consumed, a thin line of text, emerging around or underneath the food, revealed statements such as ‘I’m really glad you could come’, ‘Hopefully you won’t be staying long’, ‘It’s great to see you’ or ‘What the hell?’.  Allocated by the artist, Stobbart’s puckish use of text destabilised the otherwise convivial group dynamic.  Although the text had been digitally printed in advance, there were hundreds of statements to chose from; a collection of compliments, insults and flirtatations which were tactically dished out.

What are we supposed to say? What do we want to say? What do we say?  And why?  By mixing in authentic statements about herself such as, “I just want to be loved” or “I wish I had breasts like yours”, an ethical and aesthetical ambiguity left both artist and audience emotionally vulnerable.

By reading the reactions of individual people, the statements became increasingly contrived and personal – “I like men with lots of hair” to a bald stranger, or “I like your quiet manner” to a particularly shy guest. Unlike Bourriaud’s artists according to Bishop, Stobbart doesn’t presume that “all relations that permit “dialogue” are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good”.  She exposes the internal and external friction between what we should and shouldn’t say; what we think and what we really think.

Conflating the convivial with the antagonistic, Stobbart (who didn’t eat with her guests) plays with notions of social and conversational conformity.  By extension, You’re So Not Worth It forms an interesting tapestry of the arguments presented by Bishop and Bourriaud’s texts.  Embroiled in the field of human relations, the work offers “a rich loam for social experiments…a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns.”  It “prompts us to envisage the relations between space and time in a different way”, and it problematises ‘democratic’ social relations by exposing and disrupting them.

Stobbart exposes the surface tension of life in a democratic society.  During my own experience of You’re So Not Worth It,  her guests were restrained and polite.  Her increasingly personal accusations were not verbally contended, yet a sense of visceral anxiety ensued.  This paradoxical sensation was somewhat productive; it exposed both our desire for genuine human interaction and our propensity for social or political correctness.  Testing the limits of what constitutes a meaningful, communicative experience, Stobbart treated her guests to sumptuous food, wine and deserts, whilst being deliberately aloof and unsociable.  Inveigled by the warmth of a family home, we squirmed in the confusingly, antagonistic atmosphere, yet maintained a an appearance of genial conviviality – a “veneer of consensus”[xxxi] as described by Erving Goffman.

In ‘Introduction to the presentation of the self in everday life’, Goffman explains,

“I do not mean…the kind of consensus that arises when each individual present candidly expresses what he really feels and honestly agrees with the expressed feelings of the others present.  This kind of harmony is an optimistic ideal and in any case not necessary for the smooth working of society.  Rather, each participant is expected to suppress his immediate heartfelt feelings, conveying a view of the situation which he feels the others will be able to find at least temporarily acceptable.”[xxxii]

Goffman is refering to the presentation of self in general, however, when read in relation to participatory art practices, I feel this comment goes some way to resolving the seemingly irresolvable tensions between Bishop’s ‘antagonism’ and Bourriaud’s desire for ‘conviviality’.  These concepts are more malleable, less exclusive than their authors would like to admit.  If we believe in producing our own conglomerate subjectivities, as theorised by Bourriaud and Guattari; art can provide a platform for testing the limits of available distinctions.  Whether ameliorative or antagonistic in intention, a relational artwork is never complete – it ruptures the fabric of convention, and blurs the lines of art, conformity, and social acceptability.  As Guattari explains, art can move in one of two ways;

It can move in a direction parallel to uniformitization, or play the role of an operator in the bifurcation of subjectivity…This is the dilemma every artist has to confront: ‘to go with the flow’, as advocated , for example by the Transavantgarde and the apostles of postmodernism, or to work for the renewal of aesthetic practices relayed by other innovative segments of the Socius, at the risk of encountering incomprehension and of being isolated by the majority of people.”[xxxiii]

[i] Augé, M.(1995) p63

[ii] Barthes, R. ‘The Death of the Author’, in Bishop, C. (ed) (2006) p45

[iii] Ibid. pp43-44

[iv] Ibid. P44

[v] Ibid. P41

[vi] Bourriaud, N. (2002) p14

[vii] Bishop, C. in Bishop, C. (ed) op.cit, p10

[viii] Foster, H. ‘Chat Rooms’, in Bishop, C. op.cit., p194

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Bourriaud, N. op.cit. p31

[xi] Ibid. P16

[xii] Bourriaud, N. in Bishop, C (ed) op.cit. p162

[xiii] Bishop, C. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ (2004) p64

[xiv] Ibid. P67

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Rajchman, J. ‘The Lightness of Theory’, in Kocur, Z., Leung, S. (eds) `(p392)

[xvii] Bishop, C. op.cit p68

[xviii] Ibid. P68/69

[xix] Gillick, L, ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (2004) p105

[xx] Bourriaud, N. op.cit. p9

[xxi] Bishop, C. op.cit. p73

[xxii] Bourriaud, N.op.cit. p89

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] Bishop, C, op.cit. p70

[xxv] Ibid, p74

[xxvi] Ibid. p78

[xxvii] Ibid. p77

[xxviii] Guattari, F. in Bishop, C. (ed) op.cit., p80

[xxix] Hirsch, M. In Shumon, B., Miessen, M. (eds) (2006)

[xxx] Guattari, F. ‘Chaosmosis’ In Bishops, C. (ed) op.cit p81

[xxxi] Goffman, I. In Corner, J. (ed) and Hawthorn, J. (1980), p155

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid. p p80




–          Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, London, Verso

–          Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text, London, Fontana

–          Bishop, C. (2004) ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ – – 01/11/2010, first published OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, October Magazine Ltd and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp51-79

–          Bishop, C.(ed) (2006) Partcipation, London, Whitechapel Ventures Limited

–          Bourriaud, N. (2002) Relational Aesthetics, France, Les Presses du Réel

–          Butt, G. (ed) (2005) After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd

–          Corner, J. (ed) and Hawthorn, J. (1980) Communication Studies: an introductory reader, UK, E. Arnold

–          Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. (2004)) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London, Continuum

–          Frieling, R. (ed) (2008) The Art of Partcipation: 1950 to now,, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York and London, Thames & Hudson

–          Gillick, L. (2004) ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ –  – 01/11/2010, first published in ‘Letters and Responses’, OCTOBER 115, Winter 2006, October Magazine Ltd and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp95-107

–          Guattari, F. (1995) Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, Sydney, Power Publications

–          Kocur, Z., Leung, S. (eds) (2005) Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd

–          Kester, Grant H. (2003) Conversation Pieces : Community and Communication in Modern Art, London, University of California Press, Ltd

–          Laclau, E. And Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London, Verso

–          Shumon, B., Miessen, M. (eds) (2006) Did Someone Say Participate? : An atlas of spatial practice, Cambridge, MIT Press