Gleaning: relational aesthetics (2005)

Relational Aesthetics as a term to describe certain art has been around since 1995. More recently it has flared into the limelight as a focus for discussion. Below is a list of some recent flashpoints. Notably the Tactical Interventions Strategies exhibition, curated by Marcus Canning in 2001 in Perth, took the bull by the horns in penetrating beyond the catchphrase and getting on with the actions implied by it.


Relational aesthetics was first coined in 1995 by Nicolas Bourriard, French curator and, since 1999, co-director with Jerome Sans of the contemporary art centre Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The author of two books, Relational aesthetics and Postproduction, Bourriard also co-founded with Philippe Parreno, Eric Troncy and Liam Gillick, the annual bilingual(French/English) magazine Documents sur l’art in 1992. Relational aesthetics refers to art concerned with social interaction. It is not the name of a theory. Bourriard’s concern is to engage with what he considers the most interesting recent art and, endearingly, not to write art history. Hurrah!

“Art constantly transforms me. I am not a historian, and I am not interested in writing good things about good artists.”
(from interview with Miroslav Kulchitsky in Ukrainian online art magazine Boiler #1, Kiev 1998,

Relational art doesn’t produce a product but focuses on relations between audience members, events and ideas. The aesthetic dimension of such artwork is process not product; the work is not a spectacle but that far humbler thing – a relationship. The audience becomes participant not spectator, experiencing a transient moment or event initiated by the artist, and coming away from it not with a memory of an object or of the vision of a single artist but rather with a renewed sense of relations between people as negotiable and fluid, as open and able to be determined spontaneously and freshly. Such thoughts may then be applied to the wider world.

If they occur in galleries such events occur under the mantle of art and, while they may seem gratuitous and their outcomes frequently trivial or bemusing, giving away lollies or making soup thus demonstrating art as a precarious gift, often they contain some serious political comment and substance. When they take place outside galleries their political intent has more bite and segues into activism and general culture jamming.

In generating behaviour and potential reuses art challenges passive culture, composed of merchandise and consumers. (Relational aesthetics, Bourriard)

Culture jamming is a phrase incorporating both a sense of playing with culture, like musicians ‘jam’ with each other, as well as ‘jamming’ in CB radio slang – the illegal interruption of mainstream radio broadcasts. Culture jamming skews the logic of mainstream culture to reveal the manipulations and inequalities endemic in consumer society and commodity capitalism. Felena Alach calls interventionist art actions ‘logic bombs’.

But how new are such approaches? Buggering up billboards for alcohol and tobacco is a task undertaken by the various anonymous members of BUGAUP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) since 1979. Contemporary stencils, stickers and graffiti which undercut and comment on daily life follow in BUGAUP’s footsteps. Such work makes the spectator, who is now a participant and no longer a spectator, think about the place or the role of art and what its use may be, everywhere or anywhere in daily life rather than confined to established opinions and expert places. Thus art, that old elastic and open category, is further stretched and extended. That vital link between art and life where the freedom demonstrated by art is a reflection of what may be achieved in life is present here. Thus what Bourriard draws attention to is not new but is newly relevant or extended in recent artwork.


In the UK the group known as Platform has, since 1983, engaged in art as a social practice, a tool to broaden awareness and illuminate basic social, political and ecological issues. ‘PLATFORM has been described as many things – an arts group, a forum for political dialogue, an environmental campaign – but, in essence, it is an idea, a vision of using creativity to transform the society we live in; a belief in every individual’s innate power to contribute to this process.’ (

Critical Art Ensemble is a group of five artists dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory. Their work includes publications, biotech projects and tactical interventions. (

Such art and the semionauts (sign travelers) who undertake it have goals which confront and undermine globalisation and commodity capitalism. Some examples are pvi collective’s offering of a terrorist training squad experience to a mini-busload of spectator-participant-trainees; Christian Di Vietri’s Insecurity which involved keeping people out and then filling the gallery with multiple security guards; the air guitar competition run by Damp Collective; the interactive installations which Jacqui Riva and Geoff Lowe have produced for many years with the collective identity of A Constructed World.

Yet these approaches to art are not particularly new. They contain elements of performance art, Situationism, Fluxus events and 1970s ‘happenings’. There are also distinct elements of community art in this kind of work. What is new are the particular pressures and situations of globalisation today. Recently contemporary art has advanced to a new level of major global business. Biennales have increased tenfold in the last ten years, along with art fairs, auctions and publications. The juggernaut of exchange and circulation of money that means business can result in the numbing impotence of culture which becomes mere fashion fodder, cash crop, and change for the sake of change. In the sixties the first attempts were made by artists to escape co-option, to make uncollectable art, to comment without being commodified.

And now there is NUCA, the Network of Uncollectable Artists, begun by Lucas Ihlein, ex-member of Squatspace and a committed cultural activist. ‘NUCA is a nation-wide affiliation connecting those who gravitate towards ephemeral projects, participatory experiences, illegal art actions, and activities that oddify everyday life. Some members make unwieldy installation projects, while others alter billboards, project images in abandoned spaces at night, or exchange ideas rather than objects. Some simply make dead ugly paintings that would never sell.’ (

Is art ever more than what can be bought and sold?
Can art be liberatory?
Is art a zone of fashion, of humorous or salacious fuel for the jaded appetite, of material to be digested and regurgitated by academia, or does it have a role of justice, of manning the barricades, exposing greed and corruption, lighting the darkness?

“The enemy we have to fight first and foremost is embodied in a social form: it is the spread of the supplier/client relations to every level of human life, from work to dwelling place by way of all the tacit contracts which define our private life.” (Relational aesthetics, Bourriard)

The political dimension of the idea of relational aesthetics is significant as it draws attention to what is also happening on a global level – resistance to multinationals.

“there is a driving argument for the need for art to soften its own image, to become more like the adelaide central markets, and less like the bank.”(21/1/2004 email from Lucas Ihlein)

In Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse) made in 2000 we see people in France in all kinds of situations collecting things – potatoes, grapes, furniture, oysters, bric-a-brac, artichokes, apples, while the filmmaker collects images, people and stories. Part autobiography, part documentary, and including reflections on the law, poverty, serendipity and ageing, this oblique yet direct film with its casual truth to the haphazardness of life and its attention to the suffering and individuality of ordinary people collecting what is left over or left out of the official world lingers in your thoughts as a radically human intervention in a harsh world.

Stephanie Radok

published in Artlink, September 2005, STIRRING.

Some references

Relational Aesthetics Symposium, Queensland University of Technology’s Visual Arts/Creative Industries and the Institute of Modern Art, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, 12 March, 2005, Bronia Iwanczak

In Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud argues that a new generation of artists have dispensed with old approaches to art. Instead, he claims that contemporary artists like Pierre Huyghe, Thomas Hirschhorn and Rirkrit Tiravanija make art installations that privilege “relations” over “objects”. In so doing, they develop a more engaged relationship with the art audience and the broader community.
South, market visits, Melbourne, 5 March, 2005, Nicola Harvey

Following the experience I started to think about the way in which the community members who frequent the markets responded to the presence of the artists, this led me to the writings of the French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud. In 1998 Bourriaud published a seminal text Relational Aesthetics, and it has since been construed as one of the defining texts in contextualising the trend amongst many artists in the 1990s who attempted to return art to the realm in which it is always initiated: the public arena. As Bourriaud suggested, “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real”.
Transforming Aesthetics, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, July 8-9, 2005

A significant trend in contemporary thought holds that the links between things are more important than the meaning of an object in isolation. Michel Serres argues that we no longer need ontology but desmology (desmos = link). Within contemporary art theory there has been a shift away from the study of meaning toward the study of process: in Deleuze’s words, art is defined not by what it means but by what it does. Nicholas Bourriaud has coined the term ‘relational art’, proposing that the art object is no longer materially or conceptually defined, but relationally.
Partnership Learning through Art Culture and the Environment (PLACE), College of Fine Arts, University of New Mexico, 2005

Relational Art is an emerging movement in art identified by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French philosopher, who recognized a growing number of contemporary artists used performative and interactive techniques that rely on the responses of others: pedestrians, shoppers, browsers—the casual observer-turned-participant.
The Peak Publications Society, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 16 May 2004, David Wilson McLeish

The artworld is abuzz over “relational aesthetics,” a theory developed by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud argues that avant-garde artists in the 1990s explored the realm of human interaction as the form and subject of their art. Bourriaud locates this shift in art practice within the context of a growing service industry. The capitalist notion of consumption, formerly applied only to tangible commodities, now also applies to experiences.
Relational Aesthetics Forum, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, August 11, 2004

‘Relational aesthetics’ is a term coined by the French curator and writer Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a broad strand of contemporary art in which the sphere of human relations constitutes the site of the artwork’s meaning. It names, for example, forms of art practice where the artist models ‘situations’ or generates micro-utopias.
Tactical Interventions Strategies, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, July 5 – August 12, 2001, Felena Alach

Rather than contriving a definition for interventionist art, it is more appropriate to describe it as a way of situating art in relation to the viewer according to a flexible set of principles that structure this relationship. The art of intervention seeks to ‘inhabit’ cognitive space that intersects our everyday sense and our sense of the everyday. This may imply the insertion of art ‘work’ into the public domain or alternately the introduction of incongruous external systems into bounded art-spaces.