Traffic Control: Joe Scanlan on Social Space and Relational Aesthetics

Article excerpt

WHAT MAKES relational aesthetics so boring? I've been wondering a lot lately why an approach to art-making dedicated to social interaction has generated so much underwhelming art. Perhaps the fact that relational aesthetics is dependent on site contingency, collaboration, and contrived indeterminacy makes it feel a little too much like the 1960s and is therefore dulled by nostalgia, or worse, academicism. Or perhaps it was that Nicolas Bourriaud's book Relational Aesthetics, first published in French in 1998 and translated into English in 2002, seemed like Pierre Bourdieu's theories on cultural production cut and pasted onto the artists of our time. In any case, I have attended my fair share of events over the past decade, including several that were key to the aesthetic's convergence in the 1990s (like "I, Myself, and Others" a group show that included Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Philippe Parreno at Le Magasin, Grenoble, in 1992). Time and again I have found myself in a room full of people with no obligation other than to appreciate the moment, yet the group has always ended up exchanging pleasantries or planning dinner (if none had been served) instead of giving away their possessions, breaking into song, or trashing the place. Indeed, firsthand experience has convinced me that relational aesthetics has more to do with peer pressure than collective action or egalitarianism, which would suggest that one of the best ways to control human behavior is to practice relational aesthetics. That is, create an artwork as a situation devoid of all the white cube's usual restraints, then inform everyone who comes to see the artwork that its completion is actually up to them.

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The basis for my thinking has to do with traffic. Not "Traffic," the exhibition curated by Bourriaud at the capcMusee d'Art Contemporain Bordeaux in 1996 that is considered the ground zero of relational aesthetics, but traffic--the complex mix of persons and vehicles typically found in urban centers--and the way its interactions reflect the values a community places on group dynamics and self-determination. Conventional wisdom holds that the various entities using city streets should not arbitrarily mix. It has always been assumed that the more restrictions there are on traffic behavior, the safer its participants will be.

Recently the town of Drachten, Holland, adopted an approach to traffic safety that not only defies conventional wisdom but is eerily similar to relational aesthetics: The town square has been stripped of all directional signs and road markings, the curbs flattened, and the entire traffic area paved in identical stones. Every day, a steady stream of cars, buses, delivery trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians there engage in an open-ended negotiation of what should happen next. …