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Towards a critical relational art (illustrated talk)

by on July 25, 2008

Full meeting audio with John Molyneux Towards a critical relational art 

Towards a critical relational art: Marxism 2008, Central London

 show happy birthday elvis and me 3m 06


 In this film I’m aiming to exploit, by which I mean ”draw from; make good use of” the extra-ordinariness of ordinary people, which to me is a politically-motivated activity in itself.

As Stephen Willats puts it: QUOTE “in a society which reduces people I’m working to celebrate their richness and complexity. I see this as a kind of cultural struggle”. END QUOTE

 I want to take you on a brief critical journey of relational art by looking at 3 works.


SLIDE Feel free to colour in – Nicola Thomas

 Here the artist has wallpapered a corner of the shared gallery space, in front of which she has laid out a range of good quality artists’ materials.

Thomas says OPEN QUOTE

“I wanted to reclaim the exhibition space for the viewers… Often within the gallery space you cannot touch the artwork. With ‘Feel Free to Colour In’ the artwork could not only be touched and altered, but the viewers and participants constituted the work as well (and determined the outcome of the work). The work as well as participatory is also a reaction against to the conventions of the art institution – austere white walls etc. What better to react against that than domestic, cosy wallpaper! CLOSE QUOTE

SLIDE Test Site – Carsten Holler

 This reminds me of what Carsten Holler says about his various slides about two types of people: those who engaged with the work (went on the slide) and those who didn’t… 

 In addition to the primary visual and conceptual experience of the slides within a fine art space, as with Thomas, I like to think that some of the people who experience the work, either directly or indirectly, might then be lead into thinking about  their attitudes towards risk-taking, fun, danger, communality, the unknown, playfulness  – however the work speaks to them personally – and take that thinking into their everyday approach to life. And having said that, I should also say that Holler hasn’t mentioned wanting in his work to achieve these things, I’m talking about how we can subsequently interpret his work.

SLIDE and show catalogue

 Similar to the Chappell/Snell piece that John talked about, and similarly operating at a more critical level, is Mark Wallinger’s State Britain.

 This is a photo of the parliament square space that Brian Haw had occupied since June 2001. In 2005 the government passed the serious and organised crime and police act (SOCPA), colloquially known as Haw’s law. It demarcated a kilometre circle around Parliament, and was applied retrospectively to Brian Haw.

The space where Wallinger’s work was shown bisected that circle. So, as a viewer at the Tate Britain of all places, in addition to experiencing a hugely powerful piece of art, you were implicitly invited to cross the line and “join” the protesters.

These works, in different ways,  meet our criteria for relational art, in that they, in Claire Bishop’s words QUOTE “appropriate social forms as a way to bring art closer to everyday life.” END QUOTE

 Much more challenging, including to us as Socialists:

 SLIDE Santiago Sierra’s Line of 250cm Tattooed on Six Paid People, 1999

Santiago Sierra is one of the most controversial yet one of the most successful artists working today. Is his work a critique of capitalism, exploitation and labour, or is the work itself exploitative?

It’s certainly difficult … 

Sierra says OPEN QUOTE

“The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometre long, using thousands and thousands of willing people.” END QUOTE

This might seem like an extreme example of relational art, but like other artists such as Sophie Calle, Sierra explores the darker face of human relations, and I wanted to at least mention the “anti-aesthetic” in this introduction.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s 1998 book relational aesthetics defines relational art as the type that “represents a social interstice.” He explains the term thus, QUOTE

“the interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within this system.”

The meaning that results from works of relational art comes from the interstice between artist and beholder, the attempt at momentary intimacy set apart from the “alienation reigning elsewhere”.  The artwork is presented as a social interstice within which these experiments and these new “life possibilities” appear to be possible.” END QUOTE

Since this book was translated into English in 2002, responses have broadly fallen into two camps. Academics such as Claire Bishop and critic Ben Lewis argue for a critical evaluation of relational art, while Grant Kester and others argue that the value of the work should be “measured” according to how good a model of participation (“human relations”) it offers.

In Kester’s words: QUOTE “Solidarity creation, solidarity enhancement and the counter- hegemonic.” END QUOTE

You might wonder why we would disagree with this?

Well, as Bishop says, QUOTE

“It is also crucial to discuss, analyse, and compare such works critically as art. This critical task is particularly pressing in Britain, where new labour uses a rhetoric almost identical to that of socially engaged art to steer culture towards policies of social inclusion. Reducing art to statistical information about target audiences and “performance indicators,” the government prioritises social effect over considerations of artistic quality.” END QUOTE

And I would suggest we’re with Bishop here, because it is an art question. Quite obviously, the motivation for artistic expression shouldn’t be driven by social objectives. Of course we agree similarly with Kester’s position of solidarity, but not that it should be a  predetermining factor in the production – or funding – of art.


One of the projects I am currently working on is mapping the borough where I live through the wishes of the people there. The first was made with local residents in Elephant and Castle …


 …and the second, in Peckham, but within an art/exhibition context. The resulting works are very different, and when shown together, as in Left in Vision, they provide a kind of mini class commentary about differing aspirations. You can go to see them, and make up your own mind if they do indeed operate critically.

A fundamental hypothesis that underpins my practice is that there is something inherently affirming about participating in the making of a work of art, for both the participant and the artist. If it ends there – as it will for most people -, that does not detract from the “value” of it, for the individual, the artist or the subsequent viewers.

And a personal aim that underpins my practice is that the more I can collaborate – give up control – in each exchange, the more I will grow.

Although I have talked only talked about films I have made, I also work in performance and other media. I’m currently thinking about the concept of exchange and have some ideas around freely giving my services in exchange for whatever is offered. I hope this will operate critically around notions of value and what constitutes “fair” exchange.


I want to finish just by saying this

 Art can provide us with dialectical opportunities, opportunities for us as Socialists, the same as any other area of our lives. In terms of contemporary art practice, I suggest that relational art is particularly well placed to offer us opportunities to critically reflect on society, it’s values and it’s structures, whether as artists, participants or viewers.

 And I hope that as Socialists we continue to critically engage with these cultural issues, and meetings such as this one are a great opportunity to do so.

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