Interview with Nicolas Bourriaud

24th February 2015, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Conducted as part of research for my dissertation thesis in Bourriaud’s office which he liberally filed with cigar smoke.

MK: I first wanted to talk to you about the goals of relational aesthetics, in particular how to understand them in terms of applicability. On some  occasions, you speak about artworks as ‘concrete spaces’, as something that is quite realizable but at other times you call them ‘programmes’ and ‘scenarios’, meaning that they are not meant to be fully executed. Which way are you leaning then?

NB: The fact is… I am not the one who decides that, it’s the artist, actually.
We have to start at the very beginning of this book which was a strict observation of fifteen to twenty artists at the time, more or less the same age as I was. They were emerging at the time and were having a very interesting debate among themselves. So, that’s the big difference between a philosopher, or someone who works purely in the aesthetic field, and a curator. I think my position as a thinker is the one of a curator. It’s very important to understand this in order not to mislead the interpretation of the book itself. Because what is the main source is the studio, the exhibitions – and I’m describing merely what I see. So, it was a bunch of artists working together between 1993 and 1996, more or less, and I just wrote a book about them

MK: You wouldn’t see a ‘problem’ with an artwork that features ‘only’ as a proposal, neither the one which is more accomplished, that is, becoming part of the social structure through actual work in the community at the end of which there is, let’s say, a library.

NB: Well, I’m not a censor. I’m only trying to think and describe what I see. That’s the most important part of it.

MK: What I’m trying to say, if the work got applied into the social or city structure, wouldn’t it look more like activism?

NB: Sure, absolutely. It did happen but later. Among the artists mentioned in the book, not so many literally work with [communities] as such but it came a bit later, I would say. There’s a huge difference between Pierre Huyghe on one side and Rirkrit Tiravanija on the other side. The stakes are very different but the definition of relational aesthetics still functions for both.

MK: …which is the sphere of the interrelational.

NB: Absolutely! Which is also a pattern and a new source which has exactly the same importance as the society of consumption had for the [art of] the 60s and that was the big breakthrough at the time. Artists were really working out of it but all in very different ways. It’s not one type of form.

MK: If relational works break out of the boundaries of art and blur the line between art and consumerism or art and activism that is considered okay- is this a new kind of form actually?

It’s okay sometimes but sometimes not. It depends on every artwork. I don’t judge. I mean, art means nothing. It’s just what artists do. It’s Heidegger.

MK: So how would you judge a work?

NB: I can only judge individual works. I cannot judge art as such. I can say that repeating the exact same thing that was already done is a definition of an interesting artwork– sometimes. Look at Elaine Sturtevant. But then sometimes something you don’t like a priori might be interesting. I’m a nominalist, you know? Categories don’t exist, only individuals. And the same goes for artworks.

MK: Another key point in relational aesthetics is the tension between conviviality and antagonism which includes Claire Bishop reacting to your theory. You start by describing relational aesthetic as something that stems from the relational sphere and which doesn’t necessarily set up positive or negative, good or bad relations. But relational theory seemed to have become associated mainly with the notion of conviviality, talking and eating together…

NB: But that’s a huge generalization. And everything that is general is not interesting. It’s nothing.

MK: So you do see potential for conflict, difference and antagonism in some relational artworks.

NB: Of course, why not?

MK: Is it then completely misinterpreted when the opposite is suggested?

NB: Well, she needed something to say about it, you know. She criticized me for not including Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra, right? It would have been true if their works had existed at the time when I wrote the book (laughter). But in ’95, I didn’t know either of them. So that’s the only reason of them not being in the book.

MK: We could therefore ‘class’ them as relational artists.

NB: Absolutely. Of course. Completely.

MK: How does the interhuman exchange take place in such situations? Because it’s relatively easy for it to happen in harmonious conditions…

NB: That’s a matter of sociology, not aesthetics. I’m really on the side of aesthetics, describing what’s going on within the work and the processes that the artist is implementing. Then, what’s literally happening between people in an artistic situation is something which is not in my scan. That is better treated by a sociologist. But I’m not a sociologist, you know (laughter).

MK: You’re sticking with judging artworks from the formal, aesthetic perspective.

NB: Absolutely. Everything could be, even politics.

MK: But if the relationships are part of the formal structure of the works

NB: What’s really interesting in this generation of artists and the ones afterwards is that social interactions and real…interactions or any type of a formal relation between people can be used as a material for the work. Within the work, it becomes formal.

MK: Shouldn’t we look at it also from the ethical angle?

NB: If ethical means something empty and the content is coming from somewhere else, then no. Aesthetics is enough- it’s both. You have a political aspect and an aesthetic aspect and both are the content of aesthetics. Why should I use an ethical point of view? It’s not my view at all. You see, I don’t despise aesthetics. I think it’s much bigger than people generally tend to think.
Ethics is like gas coming to fill empty forms. And forms are never empty. An empty form doesn’t exist. If it is supposed to be an empty form that is different- if it is the intention of the artist. But at first, you know, any form has meaning. If you don’t understand that then you think it’s ethical. But it’s not.

MK: These issues make me think of public art– the new genre public art. Do you think this is subsumed within relational aesthetics?

NB: What I describe under the name of relational aesthetics can be public…or can’t. It really depends. It’s broader. It can be participatory or not, it can describe, it can represent or present. It’s not a limited or closed definition. The only one I give is taking the interhuman relationships, literally or theoretically, as the starting point.

MK: And these interhuman relationships come from consumerism, from politics, from social and cultural forms. I understood it this way– relational aesthetics brings in forms from these areas and uses them for its purposes, as if in the post-production method. Am I interpreting it right?

NB: Yes. The thing is I tried to keep the same team of artists in both books essentially. Relational Aesthetics was published in ’98 and Postproduction was written right after and published in 2001, if I remember well. So I tried to take the same artists to show that no artwork, no artist can be associated just with one thing. Because if this is the case, he/she is not very interesting… I wanted to take the same landscape and shoot it with a different camera, to see it from a different angle. And that’s why Postproduction talks about the same artists, more or less. Because their work is rich enough to
provide three, four, five, six, seven different conceptual examinations and they are still relevant. If they can be reduced to one form of art that’s pure boredom, I would say.

MK: Would you say then it is possible for artworks to fit into different frames of concepts? What I want to ask is – some of the relational artworks remind me of artworks from the 60s and 70s which now seem to be recycled. And you do say that we shouldn’t confuse these two periods, that they are separate. What would you say is the main distinction? How could people understand relational aesthetics as different from the previous styles?

NB: You know, this problem is the same for the whole of history of art. Most of the works of art actually came from the works of the 30s. And it’s the difference which is interesting. What’s coming to the fore? If you take Stuart Davies or Joanne Murphy, the 30s America, you have Pop Art already. But it wasn’t called Pop Art because the dynamics of the work was totally different. Their concern wasn’t consumerism, it wasn’t about many things that made Pop Art. That’s the same for relational aesthetics. Its forms are sometimes taken from the 1960s, sometimes from Minimal and Conceptual Art but the meaning is totally different. That’s where the interest lies in terms of repetition.

MK: What about Helio Oiticica? He was creating a living or lived situations already in the 70s and his rhetoric was very similar to yours– he would talk about an anti-capitalist stance and liberation of the spectator. His works require participation, too…

NB: Yes, but the number of corresponding points equals the number of the differences. And the thing is nobody talked about it before and nobody knew Oiticica. Why? Because the discourse wasn’t ready for him.

MK: So you think his work is very different from…

NB: No, he’s an ancestor to relational aesthetics. But it’s the same if you take Marcel Duchamp and Conceptual Art. Marcel Duchamp doesn’t spoil conceptual art, he just did that before. So many things in conceptual art actually come from Duchamp. The positive aspect of relational aesthetics is that it made people see Oiticica finally. Because at the time, he was considered as only a kind of participatory artists among thousands. But a few aspects of his works were actually super close to the works of the artists of the 90s. We could also mention Lygia Clark or Tom Marionni whom I didn’t know at the time. And they were discovered through the lens of relational aesthetics. You see here that the history of art evolves on two sides – and similarly any kind of theory– any artwork or an artistic event creates something in the future, an influence for the future artists but also gives us something that goes backwards and makes us see the history of art in a different way.

MK: The cyclical movement within art history is completely normal and the same or similar interests resurface in certain periods. 

NB: Yes, absolutely – somehow. Maybe tomorrow, somebody will discover something super interesting about the works of Matisse which we wouldn’t normally see.

MK: Why would you say these interests resurfaced then in the 1990s? Why did participation and connectedness become such an important concern for the artists?

NB: That’s the only sociological terrain I can go into because it was interesting for me to understand why such works were developing and why this generation was sharing more or less the same ideas. You have the technological progress, the evolution of the Internet which was not a shopping mall at the time, it was lived more as a kind of utopia. It was a very utopic thing because nobody had it in Europe (laughter)– the first Internet connection was ’96, ’97. I was living in New York then. I had no Internet connection, it was very complicated. Another big reason for the artists’ concerns was the big shift in the economic structure of the western countries. It was the explosion of the service economy. Immaterial economy was becoming, even without the Internet actually, very important at that time. And the only thing which was not commodified was human relations so it became a kind of frontier for the artists.

MK: But capitalism and consumerism do commodify our relationships, too.

NB: Yeah, but they were not completely commodified at the time. The process had begun, the tertiary sector became more important than production itself. So it was immateriality that was driving the economy.

MK: If capitalism threatens our relationships with commodification, were relational artists trying to protect them? To preserve them in the not-fully-commodified state?

NB: I cannot put myself in the mind of the artist. It’s important to understand that.

MK: Of course, I don’t want you to speak for anybody else. Give me your perspective.

NB: For me, yes. Obviously, at the very beginning of the book, I talked about reification which is the Marxist concept and the process of commodification is contained within it. In the works of artists, I could identify a kind of fighting, in a way. So for myself, I can say yes.

MK: I’d like to go back a little- I’d like to return to the concept of utopia. I often read in reviews of relational artists’ works that they feel like utopia. However, you repeatedly mention that the works are not meant to represent any utopias.

NB: Not necessarily utopian. They’re actually quite contradictory to utopias because they are realized. Utopia is not supposed to be realized, it can’t be realized. It’s a sketch. Most of the spaces, most of the works by artists were actually concretely implemented. So it’s not utopian any more, it’s interstitial. That’s the word I use in the book.

MK: So the works are not aiming for some ideological or conceptual heights but…

NB: …they are more down-to-earth. I wrote something like ‘shaking hands with your neighbour is the most complete utopia today’ because it is more important than to imagine tomorrow’s world.

MK: Yes, it is that statement about neighbours and not betting on happier tomorrow. It is frequently cited (smile).

NB: (laughter)

MK: We’ve talked about lots of relationships, about consumerism and the aesthetic, but there’s one thing I still wanted to discuss with you. When one is in a gallery space in which Höller’s slide or Tiravanija’s dinner is installed it is sometimes commented that such situations look like extensions of the capitalist system, that one cannot distinguish between the spectacle and the artwork and therefore the ‘alternative’ you often talk about cannot be experienced.

NB: Whoever says that doesn’t understand the work. Let’s take a particular example…Carsten’s slides?

MK: Ok.

NB: What does it have to do with consumerism in that way?

MK: I read a review that saw Höller’s work as complicit with the consumerist practices because of endless queueing, charging a lot of money to get into it only to constantly wait (for goggles, for the carousel, for the slide) which resulted not in social interaction but had underwhelming effects.

NB: The first two points relate to all exhibitions. You have to queue and pay.

MK: However, you queue and pay before you get in and then you’re free to walk around and observe whereas with Carsten, this is not possible and one feels like an annoyed customer in a mall.

NB: I don’t understand- when you go to the Louvre you queue in front of ‘La Joconde’. What you’ve said so far are very banal reasons and they’re everywhere, not just in Carsten’s case.

MK: Well, maybe the reviewer imagined that because relational art is normally such a free space and participants are usually invited to do whatever they want there won’t be such obstructions. With some works, you have to sign under health and safety rules that you’re responsible for yourself, for example, on the slide, and that, to some, could look like an extension of…

NB: …control.

MK: Yes.

NB: That is totally stupid. It is the problem of the institution, not the artist. Carsten doesn’t give a sh*t about it, I’m sure (laughter). And he probably never thought that there would be people queuing. When he was doing his first exhibition there were no queues, it was ten of us in the gallery.

MK: So these kinds of accusation, you’d say, are misdirected.

NB: It says something about the Tate, not Carsten Höller.

MK: Well, you just shot down someone’s review in a couple of words.

NB: Yes (laughter). No…you see, here it shows how important it is to take precise examples and look at the construction of the ideological. This is clear mixing of the artist and the institution. This is not critical thinking at all. It’s simply a matter of how works are mediatized by institutions.
You don’t share this negative experience when you go to see Gillick’s or Huyghes’ work, you don’t feel like in a shopping or entertainment centre.
Sometimes yes but that is the critical load of that work, they want to show us this aspect of things. That’s what art is supposed to do, in a way. What did Andy Warhol show to us in the 60s? Death by seriality. The serial aspect of the image and the huge banalization and the process of emptiness which brings us back to death and void. But to show that, he has to show things we don’t like to see. That’s exactly the same as Liam Gillick. Liam is showing these crazy bureaucratic structures that are absolutely everywhere, evoking abstraction that is also everywhere and we don’t like to see that- first because it’s somehow ugly and it’s also embarrassing.

MK: He’s exposing the apparatus?

NB: He makes something interesting out of it. You can make compelling things out of garbage. It is garbage that Carsten uses, no? Or Liam. It is really coming from the garbage of consumerism.

MK: Well, I tried to listen to what Liam Gillick has to say but to be honest, I just cannot understand.

NB: You’re not the first one (laughter). I wrote an article about him. I also wanted to understand the true logic of his work. I’ve seen everything and I wrote a text which is a way, also for me, to see what was going on. And the more I was writing, the more I was thinking ‘Sh*t, he’s a really good artist!’ It would be good if you read that text. It’s in English and I did it for his exhibition in Bonn. It must have been a retrospective two or three years ago. I tried to explain the work based on Courbet- what is realism. What Courbet thought about realism at the time and if you apply it to now it’s exactly like Liam Gillick. I tried to be convincing. You tell me if it worked.

MK: I promise I will read it. Can I, however, address another issue? I’d like you to talk about relationships one more time. You see, sometimes the artist seems to be working along the lines of ‘re-stitching the relational fabric’ as you put it but sometimes, such relationships are quite obstructed. For example, Santiago Sierra and a tattooed line across four people’s backs. It seems to recreate the pressing and humiliating system…

NB: Restitching is just one side of the coin.

MK: So some works intend to point at the negative in order to…

NB: …exactly, such like Sierra does and he’s obviously showing the most horrible human relations- you know, you couldn’t get any worse. I mean, you could but that would not be allowed by the law (smile). Anything that is vaguely possible- he does it.

MK: Vanessa Beecroft would be the same.

NB: Yes, just in a subtler way. She’s showing the vacuum related to the use of bodies and fashion, for me. But it’s still about the human relationships because it’s the human as an object. Void-object, you know.

MK: And this could be an example of an artwork as opposed to the happy, convivial aspect…showing discomfort…

NB: I’ve been talking about Vanessa since ’96 and then Claire Bishop says there’s no negativity. If this is not negativity then I don’t know what is.

MK: Speaking of Claire Bishop, she criticized your work for the lack of antagonistic potential…

NB: Vanessa and Carsten are both about antagonism.

MK: I agree but I wanted to mention where she found the necessity for that point…

NB: …lack of information…

MK: …she used Laclau and Mouffe’s book Hegemony and Social Strategy.

NB: No, really, sometimes when you want to oppose something you need to erase the parts that disturb your argument.

MK: She documented it and turned to this book which I’m sure you’ll recognize.

NB: Chantal recently published another book. Yes, and she’s a very good friend of mine. Laclau and her– Ernesto just died, he passed away last year– last time they were together they had a dinner at my place.

MK: Claire uses their antagonism as conflict while I found another definition, connoting antagonism as the experience of the limit of objectivity. And that made me think of your often mentioned precariousness. Am I making the right kind of connection?

NB: Sure. I mean, it’s a possible connection. It’s not obvious. What’s interesting is that Chantal thinks that Bishop totally misunderstood agonism and just mixed it up with antagonism (laughter).

MK: What could the experience of the limit of objectivity mean then?

NB: It depends on the context. Limits imposed by which forces? Limits of objectivity are everywhere, you know, as are the limits of subjectivity. None of them are absolutely universal and valuable, it really depends on the situation. But what’s totally wrong is to say that there is no antagonism in relational aesthetics. That’s totally absurd. If you just take the examples and exhibitions I talked about, for instance, Hans Jeening. He tells Turkish jokes in the middle of the city in Bordeaux – it’s very violent. Nobody could understand except the Turkish. So he created an artificial gathering in the street in the middle of which was conflict based on all those who were expropriated. This is social violence and if you look at Jeening’s work there are hundreds of examples.

MK: You are resolute on that point. Have you had a chance to talk to Claire Bishop in person?

NB: Not really because I have many more things to do. I tried not to answer this because her essay came a long time after the book was published and it was completely ridiculous. Liam Gillick answered in October. He listed the huge amount of mistakes and misunderstanding on her part which made her look not serious, I think. And I answered a little more in the Guggenheim show.

MK: Yes, the anyspacewhatever.

NB: Exactly, my answer is there.

MK: I remember that text. But you have never sorted these things out in person.

NB: No, we haven’t had a chance. Maybe one day.

MK: You’ll be there with your guns.

NB: Nooo…I don’t have guns, she does.

MK: On a more serious note, on the page 58, it is said that ‘exhibition situations are governed by a concern to give everyone a chance.’ And I understood it as a call for a more democratic approach to art. Could I be right?

NB: Yes, sure. It also has to be taken in a metaphorical way. But yes, it’s the transcription of democracy in the universe of forms.

MK: Claire Bishop also has a comment about the democratic here. She says that such a gathering cannot be democratic because all the people in the gallery space, let’s say, have something in common. There’s no exclusion, everybody is already engaged on some level.

NB: Then what she is saying is that there is no possible democracy, except on the streets. That is what she logically should be saying afterwards, right?

MK: Ehm.

NB: Ok, so art in the street – very interesting. My experience of these things which is now becoming quite wide tells me that it’s the opposite actually. To create a discussion, most of the time some kind of a frame is necessary. And if you just install an artwork in the street or wherever it is and nothing else, the best thing for it to happen is to be destroyed (laughter). Because you just confront people with a complete mystery, they have no idea what it is about, they don’t have the keys to understand it, there’s no dialogue at all. So what you get is the negation of dialogue. I think the dialogue can happen in a museum, can happen in an art centre, anywhere where people are. Thomas Hirschhorn, for example, and his monuments– they are in between, they are in the street but also very strongly framed. First you have to get people to engage in a discussion, only then things can happen. But if you confront people with a rough aesthetic phenomenon, whatever it is, or it’s very prescriptive, then it stops to be an artwork and turns more into activism or militantism. That would be fine, too but it wouldn’t create the same kind of feelings or reflections among people.

MK: So you’re saying that for a dialogue, there needs to be a frame.

NB: I think so. What’s the dialogue without any frame at all? That would be art in the streets with no frame at all. I understand her point that people who go to see an artwork or an exhibition are already a part of it. For me, it’s not necessarily this way. I’ve been heading Palais de Tokyo for six years and I know that many people who went there were in such a place for the first time. So it’s just laziness, laziness of some institutions which is a very different topic.

MK: Can we say that relational aesthetics increases chances for true democracy based on its premise?

NB: I never said that. I’m just saying that it incorporates the vocabulary of democracy within the form. I don’t understand what the problem is and where the criticism comes from. If it’s bad to gather in a place if you’re already in the field of interest, give me a counter-example. When do people gather into a place for no reason? Train station? They are there to catch a train, right? So if I reverse their argument I logically cannot find it working.

MK: What the critics could say is that there is a difference between an artwork that brings together people within a community, people from different ethnic backgrounds, and an artwork that in a limited way and maybe in an elitist fashion unfolds in a gallery. I mean, there’s a difference in how they represent democracy.

NB: But democracy is not only about participation, it’s much more complex, I think. If you’re in really bad faith you would say this is a colonialist process, you want to impose some values on a community which doesn’t want them. So it can be considered as very negative if you’re really in bad faith. But frankly, I don’t believe this. That’s exactly the same type of logic that they use to criticize the gallery.

MK: When we are dealing with criticism I have the last thing to mention here. I’ve come across people’s experience of some of the relational works that focus on what the work is like for the secondary audience. Being in the gallery and sliding down a slide or talking together is one thing but after this dies down and the social part is over, what remains is more like a traditional exhibition. The ones who come to the gallery after the social moment or after the process don’t experience the relational and the interrelational to a great extent. Is that not a kind of detriment?

NB: No, it’s not actually. I experienced that myself and there is no problem in this at all. I went to see Philippe Parreno’s exhibition at the Consortium, a party which was accompanied by a book by Liam Gillick and this party was also a process to create forms. I couldn’t attend the party opening and arrived the day after. So what I saw was the remains of an event but I never felt alienated by it. I just missed the moment but I also missed the moment when Leonardo da Vinci painted Mona Lisa.

MK: In my research, I may also look at the work of Marina Abramovich through the lens of relational aesthetics.

NB: Why not? She’s from a different generation but she uses some relational devices. I just think at the time [of the book], the focus wasn’t on this. It wasn’t about the extension of the limits of art, for example, which is what many artists in the 60s had in mind. That was more important to them than to use the relational sphere as a project.

MK: You’re saying she has a different departure point?

NB: Yes, absolutely. But the forms between the two could be mixed. You know, I was describing a moment, a moment when a set of values and principles for making art just settled down. This is the 90s and this is what the book is about. It’s not a historical account of participation, it’s not a history of use of interhuman relationships. It would have been a totally different book then. The purpose is much narrower now and it’s all about a generation of artists and their moment.

MK: Is relational aesthetics ‘usable ‘ now? Do you still feel its circulation within the art world?

NB: The thing I feel is that every year, it gets translated in a different country. This year, it’s Russia.

MK: And as a concept? Do you still perceive curators thinking about it?

NB: Absolutely.

MK: How does that make you feel?

NB: It’s strange. First, I was really embarrassed, you know? I just thought: ‘Give me a break!’ So I wrote Postproduction, I did a lot of lectures and exhibitions about postproduction, then I published The Radicant. I didn’t want to be a person trapped in one idea.

MK: But things are a success for you. Is it overwhelming or…?

NB: It’s both (laughter).

MK: You’re okay living with your fame. (smile)

NB: Yes. Quite (smile). If I would focus just on that, things would be boring. But I just curated the Taipei Biennial and there were totally different topics.

MK: You’re moving on.

NB: Yes, but I also try to be coherent and not say totally different things from one book to another.

MK: Am I right in thinking that you’re coming from the left? You refer to Marx a few times in your writing.

NB: Yes, that was a very interesting source of thoughts for me. Most of all, I’m a nominalist and a materialist. Which is two words for the same thing, in a way. You cannot be one without the other.

MK: I’m sorry but could you remind me what a nominalist concerns himself with?

NB: There are no spaces, there are only individuals. It’s the exact opposite of Plato. There’s no concept of a chair, there’s only this chair. Big categories which impeach us to think, actually. You have to make categories but you have to know that they are completely artificial. That’s more anarchist than Marxist, in a way (smile).

MK: My last question: I sense a certain amount of ambiguity in your theory. Lots of things are covered, sometimes maybe even in a contradictory way. There’s the material versus the immaterial, aesthetic and social, gallery and consumerism. Is this ‘vagueness’ purposeful or is it just necessary in such a big theory?

NB: The problem is that I was not writing a philosophical essay which works by itself and refers to itself and which has to be 100% purely logically articulated. I referred to something else which was the life of art and art forms. Those were the goals of my thinking. My thoughts were coming from the exhibitions and the studios and went back to it. So I can be ambiguous if the work is ambiguous. I’m not embarrassed by this. Our society is ambiguous, in a way. People’s thoughts sometimes reverse and find that the shape is shifting all the time which also happens in art.

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