Observer: Strained Relations

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The French curator and writerNicolas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics is the mostinfluential work of art criticism to appear in the past decade. Firstpublished in 1998 and translated into English in 2002, it’s afashionable art-world bestseller that can be found in any gallerybookshop. Bourriaud defines “relational aesthetics” as atheory that judges art-works “on the basis of the inter-humanrelations which they represent, produce or prompt.” Relationalart, he says, concerns itself with “the whole of human relationsand their social context, rather than an independent and privatespace”—by which he seems to mean the private space of boththe artist and the viewer.

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, a Thaiartist based in New York and Berlin, is often given as an example ofrelational art. Tiravanija creates events in galleries where he cooksand gives away food (Thai curries, for example) to anyone who wants tojoin in and eat. The art lies not in the formal or material aspects ofthe occasion, but in the interactions and relationships thatspontaneously occur between the artist and the people who take part. Itoffers the consolation of “everyday microtopias” where it ispossible to find pleasurable moments of sociability free from themanipulations of the highly commercialized public sphere. As Bourriaudwrites, “Meetings, encounters, events, various types ofcollaboration between people, games, festivals, and places ofconviviality, in a word all manner of encounter and relational inventionthus represent, today, aesthetic objects likely to be looked at assuch.”

It was only a matter of time before designers and designcritics started wondering whether relational aesthetics might be appliedin some way to graphic design. In 2006, the British writers MonikaParrinder and Colin Davies, founders of the website Limited Language,argued in Eye magazine that the central ideas of relationalaesthetics can “open up a broader way of thinking aboutcommunication and the effects of its dissemination in the world.”It was a brave attempt, but not entirely convincing. While it ispossible to find graphic design projects that offer some degree ofinteractivity or draw people into a relationship with a space, projectsthat promote social relationships between people are rare. Parrinder andDavies cite a room at Tate Britain in London—designed by the UKstudio A2/SW/HK—where visitors to the annual Turner Prizeexhibition could write their comments about the art on cards and hangthem on the wall. They claim that this is “more than a simplemethod of feedback; it is about meeting and creating a livecommunity.” Fascinating as these cards were to read, I saw noevidence that they had the power to cause complete strangers to breakinto debate about art or anything else.

Relational aesthetics is atroot a political idea—Bourriaud describes how the relationshipbetween people is “symbolised by goods or replaced by them, andsignposted by logos.” Clearly, this is a world shaped by design.Today, he suggests, we are presented with the “illusion of aninteractive democracy in more or less truncated channels ofcommunication.” Thus, you can write your opinion on the wall atTate Britain, but it has no influence on the selection process for theprize, or the jury’s decision about the winner. Participation isan illusion. The system, controlled by the curators, continues much asit always did.

Difficulties also arise in a recent Design Observerblog post by Andrew Blauvelt, head of design at the Walker Art Center.Blauvelt argues ambitiously that, after design’s formal andsemantic phases, we are now in a third phase of modern design history,which is relationally based and contextually specific. Blauvelt musthave known that his title, “Towards Relational Design,”would immediately bring to mind Bourriaud’s relational aestheticsfor some readers (Parrinder and Davies imply the term, but don’tuse it), but nowhere in his article does he explain the connections ordifferences. When questioned about this in a comment, Blauvelt repliedthat although he is very aware of relational aesthetics, he “chosenot to ‘go there’ because it doesn’t offer acomprehensive enough theory that could possibly bridge the dividebetween contemporary art culture and specific design practices.”

In that case, we might ask, why use the term “relational”at all, especially when this new usage also risks confusion withrelational database design, a well-established term in computing? Infact, Blauvelt’s rather abstract description of relationaldesign—the most detailed example in his post concerns vacuumcleaners rather than graphics—does suggest areas of thinking incommon with Bourriaud. Blauvelt, too, is for real-world settings ratherthan unattainable utopias. Noting the influence of digital developmentssuch as interactivity, open source collaboration, and social networking,he focuses on design’s performative and participatory aspects andits “ability to facilitate social interactions.”

The art writer Claire Bishop, a critic of relational aesthetics, has pointed out its supporters’ tendency to assume that any encounter that permits social interaction, regardless of its content, must be inherently democratic, without showing how these encounters are valuable. “If relational art produces human relations,” she writes, “then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”

That question is even more trenchant and pressing when it comes to graphic design as a medium of public communication, for the reasons Bourriaud indicates. Yet Blauvelt doesn’t address these essentially political issues, preferring upbeat but vague allusions to “open-ended rather than closed systems” and “connected ecologies,” even as he acknowledges that the public is viewed instrumentally (by commercial organizations) as a social entity to be “exhaustively data-mined and geodemographically profiled.” Here, “relational” starts to sound like a euphemism for ever more subtle forms of social monitoring and control. If this is the era of relational design and if graphic design really is a part of it, then Bishop’s clear-sighted question—what types of relations, for whom, and why?—remains the one we need to answer.