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For the purposes of this text I will concentrate exclusively on principles of philosophical and cultural change at a time of global environmental and economic uncertainty. Throughout my practice on the MA Art in Public course I have been examining the increasing temporal appearance/disappearance or extensions of our contemporary built environment, society's inflated mobility and these resulting effects on the aesthetics of cities forever in flux. In response to research into (mobile) architecture, urban planning, theory: relations between politics, architecture and urban planning, I have built temporary structures that re-appropriate public space for a time, I, with others, have moved mountains and as part of my masters project and I will again explore permeating public space, this time using radio waves. Below I will examine situations where artistic interventions, acting as agents, have the ability to give commentary and often provoke social change, looking at what (if any) legacies can remain as a result. I will look at particular case studies which give rise to these concerns, which create minor revolutions under public contexts, in turn allowing me to discuss elements of my own practice. I will discuss issues of documenting, translating and evaluating such a practice; contextualising it within an art discourse. At this time I am less interested in drawing conclusions and so I write this as an ongoing, open process of critical enquiry into the field of making relational art in a public context.
Theory and references to my practice
We are in a transitional time according to Nicolas Bourriaud when he coined the term the Altermodern era, suggesting a shift from post-modernism towards an interconnected future. The Altermodern as a theoretical framework could be defined as a branding strategy, a tool used to group works of art which are made with the globalised context of the world in mind, that are against - or more of a reaction to - the commercialisation/commodification of the world today. In the essay in the Tate Triennial book, Bourriaud states that Altermodern is a ...
"positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space. In this sense, the artist turns 'cultural nomad' to generate creativeness and deriving knowledge for artwork"
This shift from the end of postmodernism in a time of cultural hybridisation is characterised by artists working in multidisciplinary roles, cross-cultural negotiations, with new and virtual mobility embedded in their practice. The global networked context artists operate within is forever in flux and the status of art created under these conditions must hence be readdressed.
It is worth mentioning here Bourriaud's own history, as co-founder and co-curator of The Palais de Toyo in Paris and editor of Documents sur l'art, his reputation has largely been based on his grand theory Relational Aesthetics. His book of the same name, first published in French in 1997, and then translated into English in 2002, suggested that relational art of the 1990's worked within
"the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space"
The "microtopians" Bourriaud alludes to within this text tend to attribute a sense of democracy, openness and dialogue; outlining an art practice heavily dependent on context and audience participation, leading me to question its true democratic nature. It can be said that this framework re-establishes another set of dictated unequal relations; setting the viewer, observer, or audience as separate but elemental components for the work. This is well summed up by Dave Beech, suggesting that, often the nature of the participation offered is merely 'convivial': projects fronting a friendly appeal, but creating rather bland social discourse. The participant here is generally powerless to question or critique the art or the art-concept, nor are they, in any real sense, a meaningful or true collaborator within the work. I the question the motivations around art that acts as an alleviator in this way, for what purpose do we need to coexist and be interconnected and for whom?
As a curator and polemic provocateur, Bourriaud approaches The Altermodern and Relational Aesthetics from a social rather than historical point of view; so that the art itself, created under these conditions is only vaguely dealt with, rather the framework in which it operates appears more crucial. Hal Foster in 1996 writes that
"...the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital and the director-curator becomes the star"
Foster writes similarly of the shifting role of the artist, a self-fashioning of artists as ethnographers, here he argues that the quasi-anthropological role of the artist can often result in a questioning of anthropological authority. For both Bourriaud and Foster the multidisciplinary position of the artist and ethnographer coexists and their modus operandi are comparable, however one can argue that Bourriaud's reliance on the mediation of the institution in creating these relationships becomes neutralised as a result. Paralleling Fosters concerns regarding Relational Aesthetics, Claire Bishop speaks about socially engaged art or relational practices in Artforum, 2006 having sacrificed aesthetic concerns to accommodate the collaborative possibilities of working in a social context. Here Bishop wishes to point to cases when artists adopt other guises or disciplines, are there alternative models of criticism or a history to which artists can reflect upon? In terms of language used to discuss this type of work, Jacques Ranciere has been very useful in opening this up - he talks about art's capacity to re-frame what he calls the distribution of the sensible and its role in making visible processes of all kinds, social and otherwise.
Bourriauds Altermodern manifesto describes a privileged, middle-class, largely western, mobile position; essentially a cosmopolitanism ideal that has affinity with few artists today. Paralleling the concerns of Relational Aesthetic to his latest Altermodern framework, I make observations that the status of the contemporary artist, however predominantly Bourriaud aligns it to the Eurocentric practising creative, is an unashamed direct construct of an academic view not plausible as a universal observation but rather a conjecture born out of an elite perspective. Despite its inadequate coverage in many art-market orientated publications, the debates and discussions provoked by the defining Relational Aesthetics theory have provided great insight into the limitations and potentials of art discourse itself. All the same it has influenced a growing trend amongst artists to pursue the utilitarian ideal of art being a useful, omnipresent element; existing within society, relational art that can take many forms and directly challenge the status quo. I will furthermore identify it's worthiness of experimentation during this moment of change; the Altermodern. Below I will outline case studies that supersede the representational and symbolic, towards having a real-world function and importance, entering society at an everyday level in response to real-world scenarios, while retaining critical, aesthetic and conceptual concerns, discussable within a fine art discourse.
The yellow bandstand played host to a specially commissioned musical composition by Ian Wilson, performed by saxophonist Cathal Roche, the composition of which reflected the developments of the Irish economy over the last ten years. The performance included inflating and deflating the structure on site, on mostly barren, disused plots of land or car parks in these counties. The bandstand's lemon-yellow colour reflected the overuse of this shade of paint on new housing estates that sprung up in rural locations during Ireland's economic boom, which now largely stand uninhabited. The bandstand offered a frame to house the artist's social concerns regarding the lack of civic amenities or gathering places for people in these areas, in light of the disappearance of such bandstands in order to accommodate new property developments. These 20 minute, one-off events proved a modest resistance against the commodifcation of the rural landscape, by existing as a marker to highlight the possibility of mobility and the impermanence of architecture during a time of economic uncertainty. In offering a temporal intervention throughout an Irish rural landscape, Kennedy succeeds in creating both an aesthetic and conceptual contribution to a more socially engaged art discourse. However it is difficult to asses the effectiveness of this project as we now examine it through mediated documentation. Understanding if the fleeting presence of the yellow bandstand really did leave an impression on the places and people who witnessed it or if its real legacy is now bound to such academic analysis and discussion as this?
September 2009 saw Hideous Beast and some helpers build a simple four-walled structure with a chimney on a community garden, the Eglantine Anarchist Plot, in Belfast as part of the Live Art Biennial FIX '09.
This idea was based on what is known as Ty or Caban Unnos in Wales or Gecekondu in Turkey. It literally translates as a "house in a night", a term that exploits a legal loophole that says if you can build a four walled structure with a smoking chimney between the hours of sunset and sunrise on common land, then the structure can legally remain and you can claim that land as your own. At the time and in doing this project I was quoted as saying:
The gesture of building one of these shelters here, I think is appropriate for how the Eglantine Community Garden acquired it's plot, existing without permission, between the lines of the law, having turned a space into communal private/public land'.
In a modest attempt to profile this phenomenon that takes place every day in Turkey and in former regions of the Ottoman Empire, this work chose to articulate an ingenuity that exists within people driven by social deprivation and economic circumstance, who are ultimately forced to operate outside of modern law to attain a basic human right - shelter. As with Gareth Kennedy's Inflatable Bandstand, it could be said, the success of this work balances on the evaluation it underwent and by whom. In order to be able to answer if the objectives it laid out were achieved, appreciated, communicated and understood by its audience some sense of appraisal must be made. However without any form of peer or audience assessment this is difficult to ascertain. "Knowledge and reason are not enough to affect change", hence the need to open up dialogical avenues in order to accommodate this level of critical discussion during post-project time. Ultimately, what remains of either of the above projects is sub-sequential, yet elemental to the works. For an artwork to survive or translate into the history of a discourse some aspect or trace of it has to exist despite initial conceptual intentions; paradoxically documentation can never actually reinstate or fully represent the original work to us. Rhetorically I wonder if documentation then becomes another work of art, separate from the original event or if objects that served a function in happenings/actions should be represented as object-based artworks in other contexts? Nevertheless, highlighting these problems is easier than prescribing solutions but perhaps it is something as creative practitioners we need to find creative solutions to.
A courageous example of blending an acute social awareness with aesthetic concerns, Hans Haacke's work entitled Sapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, 1971 to give commentary on a questionable situation that deals with the property market, urban planning and New York at the time. This work comprises 146 photographs of New York apartments, 8 of which documented financial transactions undertaken by Harry Shapolsky between 1951 and 1971. Each image is accompanied by a text, referencing there location and describing the dubious financial transactions involving each building.
Haacke's solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971 was to include this work, doubly proving to disclose personal and business information about some of the museums patrons. The show was cancelled by the directors of the museum, six weeks before it's date of opening. However, Haackes singular clarity and challenging stance proved to expose the Manhattan real estate tycoon Harry Shapolsky's morally questionable dealings and despite the much publicised sensationalist literature and activity surrounding this inevitably doomed exhibition, Haacke proved that without any public engagement, without the show having taken place, the work itself had the power for radical change. The hidden power structures of the museum and the limitations of what can be achieved within the context of the politically-charged environment of the gallery were revealed precisely by crossing these borders. Haacke's effort to crack open these truths about Manhattan real estate was done using a brave and innovative methodology, using art to articulate a difficult subject, using it as a device to provoke a form of resistance amongst people. In conversation with Pierre Bourdieu, Hans Haacke discusses patronage and the insensitivity artists and writers attribute to this relationship between institution and artist.
"Patronage is a subtle form of domination that acts thanks to the fact that it is not perceived as such. All forms of symbolic domination operate on the basis of misrecognition, that is, with the complicity of those who are subjected to them."
Reflections on a working project re:REM
The need to look for flexible and temporary alternatives to spatial planning and architecture, is evermore important at this time. Baudrillard's The Painter of Modern Life captures the rise and spectacle of modernity, describing the figure of the flaneur during an increasingly homogeneous society. The idea that you could have it all was rife. Today, in late post-modernity, there is no single homogeneous spectacle, instead we are becoming fragmented due a rise in disillusionment with the modern state. At a time when global economic, environmental and financial stability is seriously under threat, we must find new was ways of dealing with the flux, disjointed, transient nature we find ourselves. One way to address this is to look at modes of art practice that allows us to enter into society at an everyday level - one such way is radio.
In a recent BBC production Jonathan Meades poetically comments on the rapid process of change contemporary cities and city dwellers deal with saying:
"We are mere squatters, at best mere stewards of buildings that have become unwitting tombs, that time has changed into accidental monuments to forgotten lives"
Speak about the need to look for flexible and temporary alternatives to spatial planning and architecture - introducing REM Island story here? - Artistic non-linear narratives and reinterpretation and appropriation of existing events - give an example maybe?
"In 1916, the Irish Volunteers carried a transmitter on an up-turned table into the General Post Office to attempt to inform the outside world of their Rising in Dublin. It has been suggested that this represented one of the world's first radio broadcasts."
In this epic retelling of one of the most significant events in Irish history, radio transmission proved successful in combating the occupation of the airwaves by British forces. I can't think of a better example of radio as form of resistance. Having proclaimed the Irish Republic in Dublin, the Irish Volunteers persisted in transmitting their news via Morse code eventually reaching America with their message.
- Baudrillard, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, translated and edited by Jonathon Mayne, Phaidon, 1978.
- Bishop, Claire, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, Artforum, February, 2006.
- Bishop, Claire, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October (magazine), 2004.
- Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange, Cambridge, Polity Press in association with Blackwell, 1995
- Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
- Bourriaud, Nicolas, Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, London: Tate Publishing, 2009.
- Bourriaud, Niccolas, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.
- Farrell, David, M., Public broadcasting in a new state: the debate over the foundation of Irish radio, 1922-1926, Manchester: Department of Government, Victoria University of Manchester, 1991.
- Foster, Hal, The Artist as Ethnographer, in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.
- Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, 1992.
- Hickey, Dave, Air Guitar - Essays on Art and Democracy, Art Issues Press, 1997.
- Meades, Jonathan, Off Kilter, BBC Production, as shown on BBC 3 September 26th 2009.
- Miwon, Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2004.
- B. Jones, D. Petrescu, Jeremy Till, (eds), Architecture and Participation, London: Routledge, 2005.
- Ranciere, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill, London: Continuum, 2004.
- Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left - Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politis, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000, p.165.
- http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2009-03-17/altermodern-a-conversation-with-nicolas-bourriaud/ accessed, 12.11.09