Part of the process
Essay / Theory
Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ may give designers a new set of tools
The comment ‘Anything that cannot be marketed will inevitably vanish’ comes from French art critic and curator, Nicolas Bourriaud. In his 1998 collection of essays, Relational Aesthetics, he captures the mood of much visual communication today, which oscillates between the brand consultant’s wet dream and the critic’s worst nightmare.
For Bourriaud, spontaneous social relations are vanishing in the information age as communication becomes restricted to particular areas of consumption: coffee shops, pubs and bars, art galleries and so on. This is a world littered with the artefacts of graphic design.
The purpose of Relational Aesthetics is to explore art that concerns itself with creating encounters or moments of sociability within these ‘communication zones’ for non-scripted social interaction. Bourriaud’s writing tends to champion the work of a series of key artists with whom he has worked. One of these is Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija who, in the summer of 2005, created two identical versions of his New York apartment in London’s Serpentine gallery. In these, visitors were invited to make themselves at home – put on the kettle, cook a meal, take a shower. It was not the flat itself that was offered up for contemplation but the way people inhabit the space – a process made more noticeable in the move from one apartment to its identical but uncannily mirrored twin. Scribbles and Post-it notes started accumulating spontaneously on the walls to reveal people’s thoughts, developing like graffiti on a toilet wall.
The term ‘relational’ refers to art that not only situates itself within the ‘inter-human sphere’ but it is, in Bourriaud’s terms ‘a formal arrangement that generates relationships between people’ – Tiravanija’s installation, for instance. A unifying principle of relational aesthetics is that they are open-ended – negotiating relationships with their audience in a way that is not prepared beforehand. It is in this way, says Bourriaud, that they ‘resist social formatting’ – unlike the kind of scripted conversation that is designed to end in a sale. This is also in contrast to the more didactic dialogues of, say, a poster where the relationship with the audience communication is not open, but top-down.
The term relational offers a more complex understanding than the simple oppositional binary of much art and design – as either socially active or not. Are the processes at play in relational art practice, as Bourriaud sees them, also active in current communication design?
Over the past couple of years, a talking point of the UK’s Turner Prize has been the exit point – not the usual retail snare of postcards, souvenir espresso cups and umbrellas, but a space for reflection. An installation at Tate Britain, in London, created by graphic designers A2 provides a room for visitors to linger in, debrief, pass comment, swap notes and leave their marks. The room is simply walled by wooden panels with rows of loose-leaf A6 writing paper, hole-punched and hanging from what look like pieces of dowel. These are revealed to be the pencils with which to write your thoughts about the exhibition.
For the Turner Prize, debate is its raison d’etre. Over a decade on, the ‘controversial’ label attached to the prize has become jaded marketing rhetoric. A2’s Henrik Kubel and Scott Williams have discovered a way to re-invigorate a discussion about art at the level of the public but this time more quietly, more intimately, within the gallery rather than the tabloids – red crayon instead of red top. Crucially, discussion is directed by the visitor. Here A2 have combined the structure of ‘art debate’ with ‘the traditional comments box’. But this then becomes something else: it is more than a simple method of feedback; it is about meeting and creating a live community. Thus reconceived, it creates a space of encounter for the formation of micro-communities that are fundamental to Bourriaud’s idea of giving value back to the unmediated ‘consumer’ experience. In a sense it is a different exhibition – uncurated and independent of the show. One note even says, ‘The comments are more interesting to read than half that bombastic [unreadable] that we’ve all paid to marvel at.’
The fruits of interaction and encounter can be used to generate promotional material for more commercial needs. In an initiative by MendeDesign and Volume Design for the Southern Exposure gallery in San Francisco (2004), a project was created to promote ‘The Way We Work’, an art show which featured a series of collectives that facilitated art in the community with their focus on the making, not the finite object. The promotion was in two parts: almost blank posters were pasted up in strategic areas of the city while stencils were sent out to 5000 people on the gallery’s mailing list. Both posters and stencils were printed with the detail of the exhibition; information about where the posters had been put up was included with the stencil mail-out. Each group of posters had one trigger design – but that was it. By night, over a period of four weeks, the posters became stencilled.
The event curates the work
This example sits outside of Bourriaud’s pure definition of a relational experience in art – which not only involves the audience but is made real or materialises in and with the audience and is not to be confused with work that is ‘interactive’. A work such as the Southern Exposure project, participatory but with ‘rules’, is relational in a more generic sense. The public’s interaction at the promotional stage brought in more people to the show than the gallery had attracted before, but didn’t change the outcome of the show.
A more direct example of relational aesthetics could be found in ‘Cracked’ – a 24-hour show at La Vianda gallery by students of the London College of Communication (LCC). People were invited to come and present everyday problems from their work environment to a team of sixteen graphic designers who provided them with solutions to walk away with, free of charge. For instance, Ditched – an events magazine local to Shoreditch, the hub of London’s creative community – dropped in with the problem of how to promote themselves on posters without getting arrested. The solution was to put their logo to a ‘Billposters will be prosecuted’ poster.
The upstairs space provided a constantly updated display of these ‘problems + solutions’, printed out on cards and hung on the walls for perusal – a ‘while-u-wait portfolio and gallery. Downstairs, it was the client-designer relationship and the creative bustle of the working studio – always a process of dialogue both complex and fluid – that was offered for contemplation. What makes this relational is that it is the actual event that curates the work, not the other way around.
These examples provide moments or possibilities for social relationships that Bourriaud calls ‘social interstices’ – a term borrowed from Karl Marx. In contrast to a traditional leftist position Bourriaud insists that these interstices co-exist and live within the branded environment, rather than acting as ‘culture jamming’, which aims to disrupt capitalist activity.
The world of mass communications – which Bourriaud calls ‘looped information’ – is predominantly rhetorical. In many contexts this can be an alienating experience, compounded by a didactic signage system. A relational stance can work in this sphere, too. For his signage system for the Umeda Maternity Clinic in Osaka, Japan, designer Kenya Hara uses the traditional visual language of information design – pictograms, symbols, typography, etc. – but the signs are printed onto white cotton cloth. It is detachable and washable, allowing the signage to become part of the fabric of the day-to-day running of the maternity clinic, washed and recycled along with the general laundry. Here, the conviviality of many of Bourriaud’s examples of relational aesthetics is not literal. It is the cyclical nature of the signage, which inhabits what Bourriaud calls the ‘minute space of daily gestures’, that is of interest. The Umeda Maternity Clinic’s signage makes the impersonal world of a large hospital more human – allowing it to engage with the patients on a more personal level. Moreover, this is an open-ended process, in that the signage isn’t perceived to ‘deteriorate’ when it is used and washed, but to come to life. The signage has not been a target for graffiti. Unlike official ‘Modernist’ street signage, which is prone to the taggers’ aerosol wit, to graffiti Hara’s signage would be like tagging the back of someone’s shirt as he sits in the emergency waiting room.
One of the artists championed by Bourriaud is UK-born Liam Gillick, who, with his large, permanent signage installations for multinational corporations, takes relational aesthetics out of the gallery into real working environments. The shift leaves traces in his work as the size, enigmatic wording and unusual positioning of his work pitches it halfway between sculpture and signage. Specifically, it is the visual language of minimalist art – rendered so often benign in the lobbies of multinational corporations – that is conflated with that of corporate signage. In Interior Location Thing, at the Olnick Corporation building in New York, a ring of words is suspended: ‘. . . literally your place literally this place literally that place literally no place literally your place . . . ’ This reads like an endlessly repeated corporate mantra. The typography is perfectly pitched in the way it picks up on the ‘generic Modernism’ of multinational identity design – a bland sans serif typeface illuminated largely by a colour palette that fades from red through orange through yellow tones and back again as if animated by an over-zealous PowerPoint presentation. Minimalist art aimed to provoke thought, wishing that the viewer ‘inhabit’ the space of the work. Similarly, it seems that the intention of Gillick’s signage is to ask those that use the building to pause for a moment and think about the way that corporate signage, under the guise of neutrality, plays a part in directing the everyday movements and negotiations of people in the office.
Nearby in New Jersey, nArchitects have created Vital Signs – a dramatic interactive installation that spirals down through the atrium at the Liberty Science Center. In a departure from the usual ‘closed’ information disseminated by analogue signage, the strip of LEDs and projections is designed as a conduit for breaking news about science. Visitors can intervene in the information stream by uploading information from interactive points built into the mezzanine handrails. Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang of nArchitects say ‘We re-write each program or project brief to simultaneously stage expected events as well as allow for the unexpected – neither pure choreography nor pure responsive interactivity.’
Humanising the ‘non-places’ of super-modernity
Jason Bruges Studio uses beautifully designed lighting to create moments of contemplation in the rush of everyday life and to personalise otherwise rather empty or alienating environments – from hotel lobbies through suburban flyways to urban back alleys. Elsewhere, these have been called the ‘non-places’ of super-modernity – transitory places – in which we wait or we pass through, and pass others on our way through making little contact. Memory Wall, a recent project for the Puerta America Hotel in Madrid, Spain, is an installation that goes some way to turning this relationship around. According to Bruges, it works like electronic blotting paper and soaks up the colours people are wearing, leaving real-time colour silhouette traces on the wall as they pass. If you sit and read a while, your image burns in and leaves a trace for up to an hour. The wall provides an open-ended series of memories of different people – their actions and, perhaps, their narratives – in relation to a particular space and time. He adds that as you enter the lobby again and again, in contrast to that of the usual bland international hotel, your experience of the space will change.
Digital Turnstile, a project proposed for London’s Camden area puts this to more social effect. An otherwise dark alleyway, a notorious area for drug users, is lit up as a person approaches, setting off an animated wave of light along the pavement to lead them through. Here, Bruges’ interest was in the interaction between ‘people’s physiological and psychological perceptions about a place’ and ‘legislation about how well a space should be lit’. Well placed lighting, it is recognised, can reduce crime – as can a more populated street environment. This positive approach, contrast with the usual paraphernalia – CCTV, anti-climb paint, signs that say ‘No Loitering’ – that the council provides to ‘make the streets safer’, and which instead so often highlight a breakdown in relations and create a stand-off between locals and the street.
Vital Signs, Memory Wall and Digital Turnstile are interactive, and although, for Bourriaud, the interactive is of secondary importance to the creation of convivial social relations, it seems that in communication design it is still a potent force when placed in a more relational context. These installations draw the individual into a relationship with a space, the information it disseminates and the ways in which both are used.
Stripping the street bare
A more faithfully relational interpretation of information design, which creates and relies on human relations, are the experiments in traffic signage devised in Holland and now seen in London, Washington and other communities around the world. In Holland, traffic engineer Hans Monderman has overseen the removal of all traffic lights, signage, speed-limit signs, speed bumps, bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. In his view it is when ‘drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer’. He goes on to say that ‘all those signs are saying to cars “this is your space, and we have organised your behaviour so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you” . . . That is the wrong story.’ The primacy of the ‘traffic world’ is interrupted by repositioning the relationship between cars, other motorists and pedestrians and making them aware of operating in a shared space. In the most radical scenarios, this space is literally shared as the kerb traditionally separating them has been removed. Drivers can no longer merely act on signage or a green light automatically, but have to act and react – mingle – as part of a momentary micro-community of pedestrians and other drivers at each road junction.
Dubbed a Dutch ‘naked road’ experiment by the media, the Shared Space initiative is currently being developed by at least five European countries. In Wiltshire, in the west of England, removing the white lines that separate drivers on one side of the road from the other has reduced accidents by 35 per cent. In London’s Kensington High Street, there has been a 69 per cent reduction in accidents in three years through the removal of railings, pedestrian guard-rails and signs. Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British architect and advisor for Shared Space, suggests this makes the street ‘legible’ – not through signage but as an elegant, live urban environment. ‘Signage is, contrary to popular belief, a very poor way to influence behaviour,’ says Hamilton-Baillie. ‘It may work in a car-only space like a motorway, but it is the least subtle and effective form of communication in the public realm. When we are talking about complex communication between two people – inter-human situations – everyone knows that the more indirect communication is, the more effective the message. Women know that. Musicians, artists and architects know that.’ An image that Hamilton-Baillie uses to illustrate the point is of a road accident where a car is wrapped around the cause: a street sign saying ‘Thank you for driving slowly’.
Scenarios that foster spontaneous human relations, in the way that Bourriaud describes them, are what he would call ‘microtopias’. For him, this is the core political significance of relational aesthetics – and his most contested claim for them. In contrast to a classic, Utopian / Marxist stance that strives to change the world, Bourriaud argues that relational aesthetics create achievable micro-Utopian moments, embedded within the everyday to make the now more pleasurable. Gillick claims that ‘The phrase “literally no place” can be understood as another way of saying Utopia.’ Might pausing at a Gillick signage-sculpture provoke a micro-Utopian moment in the mindless rush of everyday work life?
The examples here go beyond a simple diagnosis of design as good or bad, socially responsible or not. They might not be socially active in the sense of a protest poster, but can still be seen to activate the social. Here, the designer is not the starting or end point of a finished product but, to use Bourriaud’s term, a ‘semionaut’ who connects new spaces, new narratives. For him, ‘The “semionaut” imagines the links, the likely relations between disparate sites.’
In Postproduction, the follow-up book to Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud ‘moves on from the convivial and interactive’ to the matrix of relationships between cultural products in the Internet age. His interest is in ‘how to find one’s bearings in the cultural chaos and how to extract new modes of production from it.’ It is here that the semionaut comes centre stage. Graphic designers Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak of M / M (Paris) have worked in collaboration with many of Bourriaud’s key artists. They are practitioners who re-assess the models that structure graphic design negotiating the matrix of information in art, design, fashion and community. They have tried to create political spaces where, acting as semionauts – ‘inventing trajectories between signs’ – they try to provide a topography of where these communities interlace. In the summer of 2005, the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, invited them to put on a display of major artworks from a prestigious European collection of contemporary art which will be ‘Plunged . . . into an unexpected multiform graphic context, essential works of art will go through multiple translations . . .’
The relational model of enquiry is broadening in its remit as we take this approach away from the sphere of contemporary art. Out in the so-called ‘real world’, it is clear that the relational – as we have come to use the term – is already being used to flesh out current thinking about communication.
For others – visual communicators who have been working in more direct contact with artist-practitioners – relational aesthetics deal with some of their own current concerns. Daniel Eatock, formerly of Foundation33, worked with Rirkrit Tiravanija on the book for the Serpentine gallery show in London. For Eatock the term relational does not intrinsically relate to his oeuvre as a whole, yet what’s interesting to him is the idea of ‘dematerialisation’. In relational aesthetics, this is found in the way it considers ‘interhuman exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself.’ For Eatock, it is important as a new mode of thinking about visual communication. ‘“Graphic Design” is misleading as a term as it is about surface. I’m interested in how graphic design can be dematerialised away from the aesthetic to a process – it seems that now people are interested in re-investigating graphic design that’s more than making surfaces.’
The core concepts, then, behind relational aesthetics can open up a broader way of thinking about communication and the effects of its dissemination in the world. Where visual communication might come into its own is that it can develop these ideas beyond the aesthetics of the relational.
See our feature on A2 / SW / HK in Eye 67.