In the very early 1990s, a group of artists, critics and curators reacted to an artistic context which was at the time paralyzed between, on the one hand, conservative attitudes opposed to contemporary art and, on the other, demagogic strategies in line with the cultural policies of the 1980s. In just a few years, they launched new magazines with unusual graphic formats (Documents sur l’art, Purple, Bloc notes, Omnibus), organized with the backing of institutions like the Villa Arson, the CAPC, and the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, international, ambitious and experimental group exhibitions, to which they invited French artists alongside artists from New York, Los Angeles and Cologne, and introduced a new cross-disciplinarity in terms of art praxis (with design, fashion, music, film, etc.)—Yves Aupetitallot invited architects to be part of “Project Unité,” Olivier Zahm invited musicians from the electronic musical scene and fashion designers to the Musée d’Art moderne, and in Les Ateliers du Paradise, we can’t distinguish the artworks from the everyday objects.
When we began preparing this issue, the last in the series on the 1990s, we had the idea of focusing on some of those exhibitions by publishing documents and texts where the curators explain their approaches. We duly made the supposition that those exhibitions had greatly contributed to bring forth that moment of openness and transformation of the French art scene. Here we are republishing documents about five exhibitions, which, with hindsight, seem to us important for evoking that logic of openness. They took place for the most part in the provinces, in Nice (two shows, “Les Ateliers du Paradise” at the gallery Air de Paris, and “No Man’s Time” at the Villa Arson), Bordeaux (“Traffic”), Firminy and Paris, between 1990 and 1996, each one the brainchild of gallery owners, critics and freelance curators. Within this time lapse, we can observe different stances with regard to putting on exhibitions and conceiving art praxes. “I’m struck by how little interest is being shown by most of the artists in ‘No Man’s Time’ for the ‘work of art’,” wrote Éric Troncy. The exhibition “L’Hiver de l’amour” referred to a season and an emotional state. The catalogue became the medium making it possible to transmit this relation, taking the form of a magazine or diary, and at times going hand-in-hand with episodic publications foreshadowing the show.
Our primary intention was to fill in a gap in terms of documents, publications and translations. The catalogs are out of stock or inaccessible, and rarely translated, and the illustrative material held in archives does not circulate very much (except for the exhibition “Traffic”). Furthermore, we are witnessing the beginning of a mythicization with regard to some of those exhibitions and their a posteriori association with the “Relational Aesthetics” label, as in the catalog for the retrospective theanyspacewhatever (2008). In it, Michael Archer wrote: “ ‘No Man’s Time’ was one of the key shows of the early 1990s in which the tendency identified a posteriori by Nicolas Bourriaud as ‘Relational Aesthetics’ started to become evident through a series of young artists’ activities. […] [This essay] ushers in a discussion about the contributions made by that exhibition to the development of Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea to do with Relational Aesthetics.” (2008).
So we have tried here to circumvent this Relational Aesthetics label, which did not appear until 1998, with the publication of Nicolas Bourriaud’s book, the popularity of which has obscured much more subtle practices and positions. In this regard, the most interesting thing here, perhaps, is the discovery in the video The Spoiled Children of Art, of a group of artists fresh out of art school and raising, with both wit and detachment, questions about the art world and their careers, keeping at arm’s length the professionalization in the process of becoming established in a more systematic way.
Producing an issue about these shows has turned out to be extremely delicate, because we have hit three snags.
The first was only giving space to the critical writings about those exhibitions held in the 1990s and more recently. Some of those shows (“Project Unité” and “No Man’s Time”) have been mentioned in recently published works about the relations between art and society (Hal Foster, Claire Bishop). There is a real challenge here in going back over these old and more recent critical writings to take up a position, and qualify and correct certain interpretations. So Claire Bishop only broaches “Project Unité” as an in situ experiment to do with the social. This issue does its utmost to adopt an open-minded, non-apologetic position, but one definitely opposed to these reductionist historiographical proposals.
Second snag, the danger incurred by this issue was to take part in the mythicization of a scene still broadly unknown, especially abroad, by highlighting an exclusive and seductive iconography in which readers would recognize key figures associated with this scene.
Third and last, numerous conflicts still remain. Everything is happening as if the task of analysis and self-reflexivity had not yet really been engaged upon. Whereas it would seem that an attempt of historicization has been under way since the mid-2000s in the United States, the difficulty of a return to those years by the protagonists themselves and the historiographical dearth make room for ambitious interpretations which catch these exhibitions in their nets, with intentions which seem to stem less from a rigourous approach than from a quest to validate, a posteriori, already established positions. The years 2013 and 2014 are perhaps announcing the beginning of a process of re-interpretation of that period, through a series of exhibitions—Pierre Huyghe at the Centre Pompidou, Philippe Parreno at the Palais de Tokyo, and the retrospective organized by Stéphanie Moisdon-Trembley at the Centre Pompidou in Metz, planned for next month, with a set designed by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.