Pablo Helguera, an artist, performer, and author, is director of adult and academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The adjective relational refers to the way in which two or more persons are connected. While employed in a variety of disciplines, in art theory and practice, this term has appeared to refer to a particular kind of activation between the artist and a viewer or participant or among participants as facilitated by a framework invented by an artist. The word was used by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark in the 1970s to refer to objects (objetos relacionais) that she employed in her therapeutic practice, which she considered to be separate from art making.
Relational acquired its greatest visibility and resonance in visual arts discourse through the publication of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics, 1997). In this book Bourriaud discusses the emergence of a kind of art in which the production of the experience is inextricable from the artwork, which depends on the presence of participants and often of the artist. He describes the works of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Christine Hill, and Philippe Parreno, among others, as establishing these kinds of intimate relationships. Bourriaud defines relational art as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”1 Yet in this introduction of the concept, he takes a very elastic view of the interactive nature of these works, allowing projects that may include straightforward voyeurism (such as a performance by Vanessa Beecroft) to qualify as relational. Most importantly, while he places certain ethical and democratic parameters on relational art, tying them to then current cultural shifts in global communication, his excavation does not consider earlier performative or participatory artworks such as those of Fluxus or actions by Joseph Beuys.
Perhaps because of Bourriaud’s expanded initial usage, the term relational has been applied in a variety of contexts, often inappropriately. In its more common and generic form, the term is used to reference forms of art production between the 1990s and today that place special emphasis on the direct involvement of the individual in the creation or consummation of a particular artwork. Relational has sometimes been used as a synonym for terms that gained currency in the last decade referring to participatory practices, such as social practice and socially engaged art. However, the kind of works referred to by these two descriptors often depart from the general idea of human interaction. In fact, most works termed “relational” in the 1990s existed in a gallery setting and revolved around a largely symbolic exchange. This is why relational as a term is usually more appropriately employed when referring to participatory projects of artists who emerged during the 1990s rather than as a blanket term for any kind of interactive art.
Some of the different types of art that can be typically described as relational include works in which a particular communal experience takes place (e.g., the sharing of a meal), in which a ritual is enacted between two or more individuals (e.g., a dance party or a business transaction), in which the viewer is invited to contribute in some fashion to an activity as part of an artwork, or in which the viewer joins in a conversation or other form of exchange. Relational art typically is not an adequate term to refer to coauthorship or to the production of a critical situation. Finally, we need a wider variety of terms to describe work that questions its own nature as art and that allows itself to be modified by participants other than the instigator.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon: Presses du Réel, 2002), 14. ↩