Traffic: Space-times of the Exchange

— Nicolas Bourriaud

“Traffic,” CAPC, Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, 1996, exhibition view, Vanessa Beecroft, Untitled, 1996

This text was first published in the catalog released on the occasion of the exhibition Traffic” (CAPC, Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, 1996).

An Introduction to Relational Aesthetics

Each one of the twenty-eight artists taking part in the exhibition “Traffic” has a whole world of forms, a set of problems, and a trajectory which are all peculiar to him or her. They are not linked together by any style, and even less so by any theme or iconography. What these artists do have in common, though, is more crucial, because they are working within the same practical and theoretical horizon—the realm of relationships between people. Their works highlight social methods of exchange, interactivity with the onlooker within the aesthetic experience proposed to him/her, and communication processes, in their tangible dimension as tools for linking human beings and groups to one another. So they are all working within what we might call the relational realm. They all pitch their artistic praxis in a proximity which, without belittling the visuality factor, relativizes its place in the exhibition’s protocol. The work of art of the 1990s turns the onlooker into a neighbor and interlocutor. It is precisely the attitude of this generation towards communications which helps to define it in relation to previous generations. Most artists who emerged in the 1980s, from Richard Prince to Jeff Koons and Jenny Holzer, pinpointed the visual aspect of communication systems. Their successors, on the other hand, show a preference for contact and tactility. Possible sociological explanations for this phenomenon exist, given that the 1990s, marked as the decade has been by recession, hardly bode well for sensational and conspicuous undertakings. There are purely aesthetic reasons, too: the

“hark back” pendulum stopped in the 1980s at the 1960s movements—Pop Art, mainly—whose visual effectiveness underpins most of the forms put forward by simulationism. For better or for worse, our period can be identified—right down to its recession “ambiance”—with the Arte Povera and the experimental art of the 1970s. This albeit superficial voguish effect helped to reconsider the works of artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, while the success of Mike Kelley recently encouraged a reinterpretation of Californian Junk Art, Paul Thek, and Tetsumi Kudo. Fashion creates aesthetic microclimates, whose effects are felt even in our reading of recent history. Otherwise put, the sieve organizes its mesh in different ways, and lets other types of works “sift through”—works which, in return, have an influence on the present. This said, we are dealing here with a group of artists which, for the first time since the emergence of Conceptual art in the mid-1960s, in no way seeks support from the reinterpretation of a past aesthetic movement. Relational art is not the revival of any movement, or the comeback of any style. It issues from an observation of the present and from thinking about the lot of artistic activity. Its basic assumption—the realm of human relations as a setting for the work—has no example to follow in art history, even if, a posteriori, it may appear to be the obvious backdrop of all aesthetic praxis, as well as a modernist theme par excellence. All one has to do is simply reread the lecture given by Marcel Duchamp in 1954—“The Creative Process”—to be persuaded that interactivity is scarcely a novel idea…

Novelty is somewhere else. It resides in the fact this generation of artists considers intersubjectivity and interaction neither as theoretical and faddish gadgets, nor as the auxiliaries (alibis) of a traditional practice of art. This generation takes these things as both a springboard and a culmination—in a word, as the principal informers of its activity. The space in which their works are arrayed is altogether one of interaction, one of openness ushered in by any dialogue (Georges Bataille would have written déchirure, split). What they produce are relational space-times—interhuman experiences which attempt to free themselves from the restrictions of the ideology of mass communications. In some ways, these are places formulated, along with critical models and moments of constructed conviviality.

It is nevertheless clear that the day of the New Man, the age of Futurist manifestos, and the moment for summoning a better world all ready to move into are all well and truly over. Nowadays, we live our utopia on a subjective, day-to-day basis, in the real time of tangible and intentionally fragmentary experiments. The artwork is presented as a social interstice within which these experiments, and these new “possibilities of life” turn out to be feasible. It would seem more pressing, here and now, to invent possible relationships with our neighbors than to hold out for brighter tomorrows. That’s all there is to it, but it’s an awful lot. And, in any event, it represents an awaited alternative to the depressing, authoritarian, and reactionary thinking which, in France at least, masquerades as art theory, variant: “common sense” regained. But modernity is not dead, if we recognize as modern a taste for aesthetic experience and for venturesome thinking, running counter to the overcautious orthodoxies championed by our piecework philosophers, by neotraditionalists (“Beauty” according to the ineffable Dave Hickey), and by Jean Clair–like activists hooked on the past.

With all due respect to these fundamentalists when it comes to yesterday’s good taste, today’s art is fairly and squarely taking on and taking up the legacy of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, while at the same challenging their dogmatism and their theology. And lest you should have doubts, this last sentence was much mulled over: it is quite simply time to write it down. For modernism was basking in an “imagination of opposition,” to borrow the term coined by Gilbert Durand,[1]which proceeded by way of separations and contrasts, readily disqualifying the past in favor of the future. It was based on conflict, whereas the imagination of the 1990s is concerned with negotiations, bonds, and forms of coexistence. These days, people no longer try to progress by way of conflictual clashes, but rather by the invention of new combinations, possible relationships between distinct entities, and constructed alliances between different partners. Like social contracts, aesthetic contracts are seen for what they are. No longer does anyone intend to establish the Golden Age on Earth, and people will be quite happy to create various modi vivendi encouraging more equitable social relations, fuller lifestyles, and fruitful combinations of existence of many kinds. Art, likewise, is not trying to represent utopias, but build concrete spaces.

Space-time in the 1990s

Where do the misunderstandings attaching to art in the 1990s stem from? From a shortfall when it comes to theoretical discourse. An overwhelming majority of critics and philosophers actually seem reluctant to come to grips with the elements which specifically inform and define contemporary praxis. So, for the most part, the most complicated and developed this praxis becomes, the more it remains closed to interpretation. It proves impossible to perceive the originality and relevance of these new aesthetic opinions, unless one grasps the intellectual horizons and the formal concerns of artists based on their activity, and not based on problems that have either been sorted out or left in abeyance by earlier generations. We must accept the oh-so-grievous fact that certain issues are no longer being raised. By extension, it is important to pinpoint those issues that are being raised by today’s artists. What are the real challenges facing contemporary art vis-à-vis society, history, and culture? The critic’s first job consists in reconstructing the complex set of problems which emerge in any given period, and taking a close look at the various solutions proffered.

Too often, people merely draw up an inventory of yesterday’s concerns, the more effectively to be aggrieved at not getting any answers. As far as these new approaches are concerned, the first question obviously has to do with the material form of the works. How are we to decipher and envisage these apparently elusive productions, be they procedural or behavioural—“dispersed” or “splintered,” in any event, in terms of traditional standards—if we stop taking refuge behind the history of art in the 1960s? Let us take a few examples of these contemporary activities. Rirkrit Tiravanija organized a supper at a collector’s home, and left him the supplies to make a Thai soup. Philippe Parreno invited people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May day on an industrial assembly line. Vanessa Beecroft used identical clothes and the same red wig to dress twenty or so women, whom visitors could only glimpse from the doorway. Maurizio Cattelan fed rats with Bel Paese cheese and sold them as multiples, or exhibited recently burgled safes. In a Copenhagen square, Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen installed an upturned bus which stirred up rivalries and sparked off a riot in the city. Christine Hill landed a cashier’s job in a supermarket, and organized a weekly gym class in a gallery. Carsten Höller recreated the chemical formula of the molecules secreted by the human brain in love, built an inflatable plastic yacht, and bred finches so that he could teach them a new song. Noritoshi Hirakawa put a small ad in a newspaper to find a girl would might agree to take part in his show. Pierre Huyghe summoned people to a casting session, made a TV transmitter available to the public, and showed a photo of men at work just a few yards from their worksite… And we could mention many other names and many other works. In these 1990s circles, the liveliest game being played out on the checkerboard of art is complying with rules that are interactive, convivial, and relational. The above list, however, gives no more than hints about method, and sidesteps all content. These “relational” procedures (invitations, casting sessions, convivial venues, meetings, and the like) are no more than a repertory of ordinary forms, and vehicles whereby singular thoughts develop, along with connections with the personal world. Nor, for its part, is the further form that each artist will give to this relational production something fixed and immutable. These artists perceive their work from a three-way point of view, which is at once aesthetic (how is it to be materially “translated”?), historical (how is one to join in the interplay of artistic references?) and social (how is one to find a coherent position in relation to the current state of social production?). If, to all appearances, these practices find their formal and theoretical mark in Conceptual art, in Fluxus, or in Minimal art, all they do is use them as a vocabulary, as a lexical plinth. In the old days, Johns, Rauschenberg and the New Realists based their work on the ready-made, to develop a rhetoric of objects as well as a sociological discourse. Relational art makes reference to conceptual or Fluxus-inspired situations and methods, or to Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, and Dan Graham, but in order to convey trains of thought that have nothing to do with theirs. The real rub is this: What are the right ways of substantiating (an exhibition) in relation to the cultural context and in relation to art history as it is being updated today? Video, for example, is proving to be an important formal method. But if Peter Land, Gillian Wearing, and Henry Bond, to name just these three artists, have a soft spot for video recording, they are still not “video artists.” Simply put, this medium is turning out to be the one best suited to formalizing certain programs and certain projects. Other artists are coming up with a systematic documentation of their work, and, in so doing, drawing lessons from Conceptual art, but based on radically different aesthetic foundations. Relational art, which is well removed from the administrative rationality underpinning this (the format of the notarized contract, which was so ubiquitous in the art of the 1960s), tends to draw inspiration more from the flexible processes which govern ordinary life. We can talk in terms of communication, but here, too, artists of the 1990s are situated poles apart from the way in which Jeff Koons and Richard Prince made use of the media in the 1980s. Where these artists broached the visual form of mass communication and the icons of popular culture, Liam Gillick, Miltos Manetas, and Jorge Pardo work on small-scale models of communicational situations. This can be interpreted as a change in the collective sensibility. From here on out, the group is played off against the mass, neighborhood against propaganda, low tech against high tech, and the tactile against the visual. And today, above all else, the day-to-day is far more fertile stomping ground than lowbrow (popular) culture—a form which only exists in relation to highbrow culture, through it and for it.

To cut short any controversy over the so-called return to a “conceptual” art, we should bear in mind that these works in no way extol the immaterial. None of these artists has the time of day for performances or concepts—words which no longer mean a whole lot here. In a nutshell, there is no longer anything paramount about the process of working on methods of rendering this work material (unlike the art process and the process of Conceptual art, which, for their part, fetishized the work process). In the worlds constructed by these artists, objects are part and parcel of language, and both—object and language—represent the connection with the other. In a way, the object is every bit as immaterial as a phone call. And a work that consists of a supper around a bowl of soup is as material as a statue. Objects, institutions, times, and works are all part and parcel of human relations, because they render social work material. It is this arbitrary division between the gesture and the forms produced by gestures which is called into question here, insofar as it is the very image of contemporary alienation, the cannily maintained illusion, even in art institutions, that objects excuse methods, and at the end of art justifies the pettiness of the intellectual and ethical means involved. Objects and institutions, timetables and works, all are at once the outcome of  human relations—because they render social work tangible—and factors producing relations—because, conversely, they organize types of sociability and regulate meetings between human beings. Present-day art thus gets us to have a different view of relations between space and time. Essentially, what is more, it derives its main originality, which resides in the very nature of its production, from the way this issue is dealt with. What is actually tangibly produced by artists such as Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Vanessa Beecroft? What, in the final analysis, constitutes the object of their work? Answer: The wide variety of forms and processes used by most of these artists clearly shows that they do not dictate this object. What is produced, in concrete terms, is a connection with the world that is broadcast by an object, which itself determines the relationship we have with it. In other words, the relationship with a relationship. A collector of Tiravanija or Douglas Gordon acquires a duration or term, a space-time. Here, though, time turns out to be more important than the space which it informs when it shows itself. Accordingly, for Philippe Parreno’s “Snow Dancing” show at Le Consortium in Dijon, he asked for two hours in which to produce the actual exhibition, adopting the social form called a party. Visitors to it were offered all sorts of “things to do.” The day after the party, it was possible to see what had really been produced. It was not history (like Fluxus happenings, which were part of a historicist vision of art), not relics or fetishes (like the morning after Beuys performances), but the image frozen, focused, for a period of time lived through. For the passing visitor, “Snow Dancing” offered the frustrating spectacle of a time not used, returning us to our daily alienation. A similar sensation strikes the onlooker when he sees Rirkrit Tiravanija’s works. He must first realize that the leftovers from meals and the vehicles at a standstill, kitted out with survival systems, in no way represent relics (i.e. objects which have some value as memories in space), but instruments producing periods of time, engagers of split seconds whose artistic value relies on a temporal quality. This status likewise applies to works which are, to all appearances, more formalized, like a Douglas Gordon photograph—Pocket Telepathy—showing a hand slipping a slide (depicting a Russian medium) into a coat pocket, in the Van Abbemuseum cloakroom. The image offered to the onlooker is not the simple documentation of an action. It is just an element in a program consisting of a gesture, a photo, a form, and an idea. We have left behind the world of traces, in favor of a universe of programming. Just like the exhibitions of Parreno, Tiravanija, and Pierre Huyghe, Douglas’s photographs stem from a space-time which devalues the notions of before and after. In an age of simultaneous communications (satellites, cable TV, faxes, the World Wide Web, and so on), forms are taken in an “online” time (an interactive, simultaneous time); they can be reactivated at will, and they are prone to developments. For this generation of artists, time is simply space given form, and space is just time rendered tangible. What they produce smacks of this. The rudimentary “stage” built out of rough plywood by Liam Gillick for his show at the Basilico Gallery in New York, on which a few pages from the Ibuka! libretto are placed under glass, is a work which can be taken in many ways. It can be situated in relation to a program (and not a series) of exhibitions based on his book, an opus in a state of ongoing change. At the same time it is a user-friendly object intended to be read, a structure whose form conjures up Minimal art, and whose function calls to mind Conceptual art. It is also an open, indeterminate stage—a platform of propositions.

Works and Exchanges

Because art is made of the very same stuff of which social exchanges are made, it has a singular place in the collective production, for the simple fact that a work of art has a particular quality which sets it apart from other products of human activities. This quality is its (relative) social transparentness. If a work of art works, it invariably aims beyond its mere presence in space. It is open to dialogue, discussion, and that form of interhuman negotiation that Marcel Duchamp called “the coefficient of art,” which is temporal process, being played out here and now. The basis on which this negotiation is established thus turns out to be the “transparentness” which singles it out as a product of human endeavor. The work of art in fact shows (or suggests) at one and the same time its manufacturing and production process, its position in the interplay of exchanges, the place—or the function—it earmarks for the onlooker, and, last but not least, the creative behavior of the artist (otherwise put, the sequence of postures and gestures which form the artist’s work, and which each individual work passes on, in the manner of a sample or marker). So every Jackson Pollock canvas connects the trails of paint so closely to a pattern of artistic behaviour, that the trails appear as the its image—as their “necessary product,” to borrow Hubert Damisch’s phrase.[2]The beginning of art is the behaviour adopted by the artist—that set of arrangements and acts whereby the artist acquires his relevance in the present. The “transparentness” of the work of art comes partly from the fact that the gestures forming and informing it, which are freely chosen and invented, are part of its subject. For example, over and above that popular icon, Marilyn Monroe, the sense of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn comes from the industrial production process adopted by the artist, which is governed by an altogether mechanical indifference towards the subjects chosen by him. This “transparentness” of artistic work runs counter, needless to say, to those ideologies which, doubtless out of some obscure nostalgia for the victims of their infancy, try to revamp religion in art. So this transparentness is bothersome, because it is the very form of artistic exchange. We know that once any kind of production is introduced into the exchange circuit, it takes on a social form which no longer has anything to do with its original usefulness. It acquires an exchange value which duly and partly covers up and masks its primary “nature.” The fact is that a work of art has no a priori useful function. Not that it is socially useless, but because it is available, flexible, and has “infinite propensities.” Put another way, it commits itself, straight-away, to the world of exchange and communication—the world of “commerce” in both meanings of the world. Common to all goods is the fact that they have a value, that is a common substance which encourages their exchange. This substance, according to Marx, is the “quantity of abstract work” used to produce this item. It is represented by a sum of money, which is the “abstract general equivalent” of all goods taken together. It has been said of art—by Marx first and foremost—that it represented the “absolute merchandise,” because it was the very image of value. Nowadays, this idea is becoming common currency here, there, and everywhere. But what exactly is being referred to? The art object, not the practice of art. The work as it appears to be shouldered by the overall economy, and not its own economy. Art, let us remember, represents a barter activity which cannot be regulated by any currency, or any “common substance.” It is the division of meaning in the wild state—an exchange whose form is determined by the form of the object itself, before being so by determinations outside it. So it is the artist’s praxis which constructs the link that will be maintained with his work. In other words, what he produces in the first instance are relations between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects. Of course, some artists don’t give a damn, and reproduce, as such, the relations of alienation, thus fuelling their petty trade in signs. But present-day art is also striving to produce situations of exchange, and relational space-times.

Translated from French by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods
  1. [1] French anthropologist and sociologist. See Les Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire (Paris: Dunod, 1993).
  2. [2] Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaune cadmium ou les Dessous de la peinture (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1984), 76.