David Burrows

Dean Kenning

Peter Lewis

Simon O’Sullivan



Beyond Relationality - Simon O'Sullivan

A typical critique, increasingly made, of Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics is that it substitutes a general model of ‘conviviality’ for any criticality, or, more specifically, forms of dissent. My take on this (following Jean-Francois Lyotard) is that such dissent – which critiques of relational aesthetics takes as the very modus operandi of a radical contemporary art practice - can be caught by the very thing they dissent from. They are forced to operate on the same terrain as their ‘enemy’ and, as such, these forms of dissent can merely reproduce more of the same albeit this might be dressed up as opposition. A different take on Bourriaud might be to accelerate his concepts. For example, to articulate, following Spinoza, a kind of super-conviviality that is do with productive joyful encounters that occur when two or more things come together in a relationship of general agreement (this could be an art practice and participant, a collaboration, etc). This is not to foreground a liberal ideology of consensus (Spinoza’s ‘joy’ is not ‘happiness’ in the sense of an individual ego-state or set of values) but it is to choose affirmation over negation and to understand the former as the basic building blocks for an ethical life and a political ontology (this being the argument of Spinoza’s Ethics and his other more political writings). In passing it is worth noting that Felix Guattari’s ecosophic paradigm, especially as it is mapped out in his future-orientated book, Chaosmosis, has much in common with Spinoza’s Ethics in that it moves precisely towards this expanded chemistry of subjectivity. It seems to me that an expanded and engaged art practice might do well to attend to this more molecular ‘relationality and connectivity’, or what we might call simply a register of becoming. This is an ethico-aesthetic model for life as well as art – and for ‘life as a work of art’ (as both Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze portrayed it). Another name for this, following Deleuze and Guattari, is schizoanalysis. Without doubt such practices are occurring all around us; equally without doubt the majority are invisible to an art world and market that trades on atomised and competitive individualism (however this might be dressed up as ‘relational’, ‘participatory’ and so forth).

How might all this relates then to what Rosalind Krauss has called the ‘post-medium condition’ of art practice today? Well, if an expanded art practice were to be understood in the terms laid out above, to repeat the point above, life itself would become an art – or more generally an aesthetic - practice. This is not, however, to deny other medium specific practices which might well also be involved in this register of becoming (and this medium specificity will always take place in a ‘post-medium condition’ that is today the general condition of art practice (a post-Duchampian condition we might say)). A third point here is to affirm those practices that aspire to a kind of ‘total art’ – following Olaf Fahlstrom’s term. Installation, and more particularly Performance, in its deployment of alternative and often non-sensical ‘narratives’, in its various technologies of bodily transformation and experimentation, and in its more general exploration of different spaces and places, but also different times – especially of the event – would be such a practice of what we might call post-medium medium specificity (i.e. an expanded practice that moves towards the condition of life in general but remains art). It is perhaps worth remarking here that such practices are not to do with ‘communication’, or at least such communication is not their sole aim. Indeed, there is never anything, ultimately, to ‘understand’ with such practices (nothing to ‘read’ as it were). Often they operate on a register of affect, or intensity, that operates parallel to, but also interferes with more dominant coding and signifying systems (although this is not to elide the very real power art has to produce alternative signifying systems; this being art’s mythopoetic character). Is this collapsing of art into life anything more than a reassertion of the Modern claim that terminated with the Situationists? Perhaps one might think of it in fact as working the other way around – of life collapsing into art – especially in the foregrounding of a general aesthetics of existence.

Often one hears the argument that contemporary art should be a ‘new’ (or ‘counter’) form of ‘knowledge production’. It seems to me however that if art practice becomes just another form of such ‘knowledge production’ then, strictly speaking, it does nothing (except add another category or classification for art, another marketing strategy). Art, when it truly is art, interrupts or literally ruptures this kind of knowledge. Indeed, it stymies our desire for knowledge – when this is understood as a desire for that which reassures us of our subjectivity as it is already in place (this is why art can be bothersome, irritating, positioned as ‘irrelevant’ and so forth (art is, we might say, ontologically difficult orientated as it is to that which is yet to come)). It is also why art’s ‘uselessness’ is so important, allowing it to operate away from typical circuits of information and exchange (ideally at any rate). Art’s productivity comes from this specifically non-productive character. Does this kind of practice then contribute to a better and more political understanding of the human condition as it were? Well, I would argue that it aspires more to a ‘post-human’ condition (where ‘human’ is always already defined and captured in a series of discursive and signifying formations (and a market) that stymies creativity and experimentation. We might say then that art has (at least) two orientations: First, the triggering of new models of life and thought, when these are not just more of the same, i.e. previous models that have merely been tweaked (and such new models, as suggested in my first paragraph above, might be taken from philosophers like Spinoza and Guattari, both of whom have yet to have a sustained impact on the expanded field of contemporary art theory). And second, the breaking of models (and indeed the desire for modeling when the latter is also a desire for capture and classification (and for curating and careers)). This is to suggest that art creates a world and breaks a world, and that these two always come together. Crucial here, however, is what one might call a general intention - or what Deleuze, following Nietzsche, called ones style of life: whether one is drawn to affirmation or to negation. Such affirmation will involve turning away from ‘what is’ and thus will lead to practices of dissent and refusal, but the latter will be determined by a certain kind of joy that is primary and I think will be marked precisely by that determination.