The research community sometimes seems to be all about inventing your own new academic term creating your own niche of studies,  that will someday grow into a department in a university where you will be the uncontested leader and expert. Often, these new terms are totally meaningless, like an inventions or a collages of words which need entire introductions and essays, peer-reviewed journals and symposia just to define the term. Academia today watches and critiques remix culture, but the irony is that the creation of new terms has become a remixable act in itself.

Nam June Paik, «TV-Buddha», 1974

Today, as I was looking for images of Nam June Paik’s ‘TechnoBuddha“, a piece I believe still sums up a lot of our current relationship of seduction to technology, I ran across the NJP Research Centre, a wonderful initiative to preserve Nam June Paik’s work and also continue his lifework “a reflection that extends beyond his role as a pioneer of video art,” and ultimately seeking to respond to the question of  “how do the artistic strategies Nam June Paik developed translate into and rearticulate current art practices?”.

The NJP research center has coined the term “artistic anthropology” as the leading term that governs its research and reflection efforts. It aims to create “new conceptual systems” necessary to create a conceptual framework which transcends art historical narratives in relationship to and extending far beyond Nam June Paik’s work. On the page that describes the proposal, the NJP center outlines its central questions thus:

But what in the world is ‘artistic anthropology’?

My intuition says that somehow it must point to the structuralist’s reference point of Marcel Mauss‘s anthropological studies on ‘The Gift Culture” and the importance of this study and anthropology as a foundation for much contemporary French philosophy. Mauss didn’t have philosophy or art as a direct object of study, and even though anthropology considers cultural artifacts as a means of studying a particular social group, it doesn’t necessarily consider art in the same way as artists and art critics do, if at all. The interpretations and applications of Mauss’ discoveries may have yielded new thinking in art and philosophy, but those are already far removed from anthropology per se.

I go on to examine the terms separately for a definition, given that the combination doesn’t sound quite right.  Anthropology is the study of humanity, so what does ‘artistic’ anthropology mean? Does it refer to the artistic study of humanity? a study of artistic humanity? a study of human artists? a study of human art? A study of art performed by anthropologists?  Each one of these variations present their own set of complexities doubtful of a more profound discussion, if purely based on the meaning of the words that make up the term.

Taking into consideration that social and cultural anthropology has shifted away from the more scientifically-based fields of anthropology in the post-modern era, ‘artistic anthropology’ sounds interesting, but I don’t understand the immediate epistemological shift here. Or is it just a buzzword conjured up by curators to justify a set of art-related ideas and new research journals? The respectable list of scholars involved in this research effort compels me to take it seriously.

My initial query lands me at the Institute of Art Anthropology at Tama University in Japan. It defines “art anthropology” as “a neologism combining two familiar terms, designates what is, even by global standards, a completely new academic discipline. A brash, youthful field that chimes with the spirit of the twenty-first century, art anthropology is designed to redefine the place of artistic activity in the whole sweep of civilization from remote antiquity into the future. It does not merely seek to integrate various disciplines pertaining to art with the study of anthropology; it seeks to establish a new, multidisciplinary approach to knowledge, while linking itself to the practice of art and the other manifold forms of creative activity that revolve around it.”

This to me seems a far cry from anthropology and closer to sociology or even sheer epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge, and as such a branch of philosophy. Due to my art background, I am more prone to consider the question about artistic anthropology as an extension Relational Aesthetics, (Les presses du réel, 1998; English translation 2002), and to revisit what Bourriaud was actually doing by calling the art of the 90s as ‘relational’. And this artistic anthropology begins to make some sense within a reflection of Bourriaud’s controversial ‘relational aesthetics’ mentioned in the research questions above. Both neologisms seem to point towards this ‘social turn’ in contemporary art.

Art is about the social relations it creates.

The fundamental proposition in Relational Aesthetics is that art is about “sets of relations” rather than objects. Bourriaud defines his new term as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.’ In this sense, I can see ‘anthropology’ on the horizon, but am not entirely convinced. Bourriaud’s proposition reminds me of Debord’s Society of Spectacle where he says that in a society of spectacle, images become mediators of social relations. As an extension of this mediatized ‘spectacle’, the use of ‘relational’ is invented in reaction to  a paticular type of art made in the 1990s which tended to be focused on art as an exchange of information between artist and viewer. It is important to note that Bourriaud was quite active as a curator in the 190s as one of the founders of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. This new term attempts to reposition the artist as a facilitator of ideas rather than a maker of objects.  Bourriaud does this by not concentrating on a particular style or medium but rather by privileging art’s social function above all, and to free art discourse from its formalistic analysis, critique and solipsistic categorization.

The advent of new and sociable communication technologies that are also used as a place of creative and artistic potential, the possibilities of sociability grow tenfold. Going to an art show in the 90s meant that you would inevitably leave with a freebie, or that you would have to do something, push some button, leave your mark in the artwork in order to escape the tendency for the one-sided relationship between viewer-object.

What’s in it for me?

In the 1990s, art could possibly begin to answer the puzzled spectator’s question ‘what’s in it for me?’As the artist repositions him/herself and the work of art into a space of social propositions which escape the merely aesthetic and passive contemplation, the same repositioning is beckoned by the spectator now turned user, participant, interactor and in some instances, collaborator. However, most of the artists that Bourriaud puts under this umbrella (such as Félix González-Torres, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, etc.) do sometimes present a participative component but show their work in galleries and museums and are primarily makers of images and objects and installations within a reasonably tested and safe ground (Note: when I asked Tiravanija about relational aesthetics in a lecture Q&A in Singapore 3 years ago, he said he had no idea what relationality meant. He sees the cooking of meals in a gallery as a reenactment of a cultural habit from his native land where food preparation is central to living – and his work is centered on this idea of recreating home wherever he goes).

This is also not necesarily new – conceptual artists had already advocated art on the basis of participation and community as a questioning of its commodity status as far back as in the 1960s, with art that couldn’t be bought, only experienced in its own presence. We all saw how short-lived, though no less impactful, this radicalism was until its documentation in the form of photos and videos, publications, etc has been historicized and commercialized decades later. This, of course, is certainly no demerit to the intention of creating ephemeral art and performances,  art that can’t be bought, but rather its value was to question the definition of art itself and its transformative power.  It only shows that the relationship between art and politics is extremely fragile and problematic and deserves to be seen within the complex play of forces between the artist, the object, the audience, the exhibition space, the market, history as well as criticism.  In my view, Relational Aesthetics is meant to be seen as a set of artistic operations that are flexible and life-enhancing “alternatives” to current models of alienating socialization, especially within capitalism,  and thus offers a platforms for the possibility to think of alternative modes of living and new sociabilities that allow us to be critical of the system, or to throw the system against itself. This Marxist notion is reinforced when compared to a more 80s-like uncompromising opposition to consumer capitalism and the intensification of the political character in the art of that decade.

Even though Relational Aesthetics seems to have its validity within late post-modernism and the rise of network cultures at the turn of the century, the text has caused quite a stir. Its critics denounce the extrapolation of the term into an ‘-ism’ which has elevated the curatorial term into an actual movement that justifies any participatory aspect of an art exhibit. So if I create an installation that gives away a freebie to the spectator, I can be considered relational – hm…not so fast.

According to Stewart Martin in Critique of Relational Aesthetics, “Relational aesthetics’ is a theory of the emphatically social constitution of contemporary art; of the extent to which art has become, more immediately and above all else, a matter of its social constitution.” Bourriaud states this repeatedly: “‘Art is the place that produces a specific sociability.’ ‘Art is a state of encounter.’ ‘The aura of contemporary art is a free association.’” I read Martin’s comments as a denunciation of  the limitations in Bourriaud’s framework. If seen within the context of art’s relation to, or in opposition to, capital where these ‘alternative spaces of sociability’ create a new possibility for art to redefine itself outside of a system of commodification, the works Bourriaud designates as ‘relational’ can also be reverted into an aestheticization of this social constitution it wishes to expose. However relational or social, it is still ‘art’, still largely circulated in art institutions, heavily curated at best and needing all these agents in place for its legitimation.

Let art be art

However social or political contemporary art may have turned out to be, its agenda still remains primarily artistic, not sociological, and the pitfall will always be its aestheticizing impulse. Otherwise, art students should be studying sociology and economics in art schools, have an incredible basis in social and cultural theory and have the ability to consistently implement it their practices. Yet this is not and will not the case in terms of an artist’s education. Perhaps it is not art per se that should be so heavily questioned, rather the critique seems to be to debate what we call the ever-changing notion of aesthetics as a temporally shifting notion, and within this context we need to evaluate what the ‘aesthetic’ portion of the term means when paired with the ‘relational’. To aestheticize relationality may not be that bad after all – the aesthetic aspect becomes a form of communicating this critique of commodity and sociability in arts own terms. After all, Bourriaud doesn’t say ‘relational art’, but ‘relational aesthetics’.

Artistic Anthropology, as per the NJP Research Centre, maybe points to the study of this humanity and sociability as reflected upon within artistic forms – or at least this is how I understand it. This is different than the Japanese university’s proposal to posit art and art history as a social science.

Whatever ‘artistic anthropology’ means, I still see a danger in over-emphasizing the social aspect to the detriment of art itself. When the tide turns to the next big thing, relational or not, anthropological or not, we may have nothing left to critique or reflect upon. And it is the art component, not the social, that will allow art to survive until the next big thing comes along.

And by the way, since Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud has already invented another term: “altermodern“…coming soon to a sociable space of artistic exchange near you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s