Notes on Claire Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics

Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, by Claire Bishop, as it relates to my practice and the questions brought to the work going forward.

Bishop describes Bourriaud’s definition of Relational Aesthetics as it emerged in the 1990s, as art within which meaning was elaborated or created collectively through shared experience; not simply through interactivity, but by locating the work in in the ‘real world’, culture at large. It was also important that the audience was able to be physically present, participate or engage in some way, this means the Art could be taken to be in opposition to Art created for individual consumption (p.54).

Within Relational Aesthetics, Art intentionally became a collective, community experience, inseparable from the environment it inhabited and the audience present in the moment.

I consider; Unbound for Suffrage125, and I say a little prayer for you, both of which could be described as ‘relational’ or social / collaborative projects. My intention with Unbound was to document the coming together of a community for a special event. The process I designed inevitably created a space for social bonds to form or be reinforced, it happened in a specific place, and within an existing community. I say a little prayer for you was a collaboration with women, as they collectively and privately created work that I designed (giving them the materials and a process to follow). Women collaborated as individuals with me, anonymously creating the work. The wider audience and some participants were collectively present for my performance, which involved reading stories I gathered from participants in response to the concept. Performing the reading of stories both expanded the audience for the work and provided an encounter with me as the artist in a dual role; as an embodiment of the participants, and as ‘other’, reflecting back their stories to the work. Unbound was more of a public expression of community, while I say a little prayer for you was initially on a more intimate scale. It was the shifting from the private into the (slightly more public) gallery space that created some tensions for me, highlighting the boundary between public and private, I have to ask, what or who, is the community I’m seeking to work with?

One of Bishop’s contentions with Bourriaud’s position is around the notion that Relational Art would seek to set up situations in which utopian communities would gather for, or emerge in the work, and that the artist would be ‘seeking to inhabit the world in a better way’, describing these as microtopias (p.54). Bishop’s view of Relational Aesthetics could be considered broader, more nuanced and possibly less idilic. I see it as a pragmatic position; seeing the bigger picture and the politics around access to Art, questioning Art’s ability to effect change, suggest new solutions to pressing problems and the role Art plays in creating and reflecting culture and society.

Another problematic aspect of Relational Aesthetics that Bishop presents is around the blurring of the boundary between author and participant, author and audience; whose work is it? (p.55). This is further complicated when more than one artist is behind a work. The idea of authorship is important to me within some projects, I need to understand and define my role, even if it changes in response to the development of the work. As a I say a little prayer for you unfolded, the idea for the finished work needed to change, my intention was the same, but responses from participants meant that the emphasis shifted as new possibilities presented themselves to me. My role changed from one on one collaborator to space-holder and supporter, as I attempted to present collective intentions and stories which were as diverse as the individuals that shared them. My intention was towards inclusivity, diversity, and openness, however, these values are challenging to ‘hold’ publicly as an individual. And it was still my work. It is clear that opening up a project can bring impressive opportunities for learning and expanding a conversation, never the less, this comes with huge challenges not in the least maintaining clarity and focus around the original kaupapa, but in preventing discursive voices to attenuate the artist or authors intention.

Is it possible for relational and social practice to broaden the reach of Art via these intersubjective encounters; expanding the audience and stepping outside the reifying institutions of Art? Politics and social exclusions that relate to race, class, gender, economic status and multiple other divisive qualities of society exist in the public domain, a failure to acknowledge this as the context of Relational Art may lead to a more surface response and less critical questioning of the work and its ability to convey meaning.

In this paper, Bishop postulates that it is the quality of relations formed, rather than the aesthetic, political and ethical “relations” Bourriaud suggested as criteria for evaluating Relational Aesthetics (p. 65). Are the relations unintentionally reinforcing the status quo or opening up a more nuanced conversation? These are questions that may be asked of any work of art, yet it is the assumption that Relational Aesthetics has social and ethical concerns at heart that makes the question worth considering.

Bishop examines the work of two artists, Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn, who work within the familiar structures of Relational Aesthetics, who maintain what she terms an Antagonistic position (p. 70, 74). Describing Sierra’s work as “a kind of ethnographic realism”, by highlighting the reality of the world he lives and works in and the people he seems to feel connected with. Sierra acknowledges his complicity in capitalism, the role he and his work play, and believes art follows reality rather than makes change (ibid). It seems to be this recognition of the complexity of the context of social practice that gives agency in the work, and clarity of the position of the artist that holds the conversation. Hirshhorn’s work seeks to deliberately disrupt and destabilise social relationships, highlighting, again, a more realist view of humanity and community. Creating situations where disruption and dissent are felt by the viewer more honestly reflects a democratic society, one where individuals and groups are embroiled in conversation and disagreement, this is far removed from the mircotopias that might be more popular and less fraught to deal with. Any harmony in society and in a relational art work is fundamentally connected with, if not built on, conflict, oppression and political grapplings of dissenting voices (p. 79).

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An indication of Space, Luna Rosa Carter, 2013.


Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no.110, fall 2004, pp.51-79.

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