The Shifting Aura of Contemporary Art

Voz Alta

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voz Alta," 2008. Courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery.

As a research artist and digital media Ph.D student, I am constantly challenged to reflect critically upon the nature of the various forms which are emerging in contemporary artistic practices.  Is there a thread that connects the work of William Kentridge and Mel Chin or Tim Hawkinson and Ann Hamilton, for example? We were given two final texts to read and discuss in my seminar class this week: curator Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and art critic Claire Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (pdf).  It was also announced that electronics artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who was scheduled to lecture at the High Museum of Art, and his gallerist would be visiting our class prior to his museum lecture.  Excited by this prospect, I delved into the assigned texts hoping to find an idea that resonated with my own interests.  I think I might have found a connection but not in the way I had initially hoped for in the readings.

Claire Bishop names several curators who are promoting a model which, to a large extent, is a direct reaction to art produced in the 1990s, work she describes as “open-ended, interactive, and resistant to closure” that is often displayed as a “work-in-progress” rather than a complete work.  She critiques Nicholas Bourriaud and other curators who are reconceptualizing the “white cube” model of contemporary art exhibition and re-staging the art studio as an experimental “laboratory.”  This ideology takes shape in Bourriaud’s notion of “relational aesthetics,” which celebrates art that engages in “the realm of social interaction and content.”

A more socially engaged form of contemporary art?  Okay, I can work with that. But wait.  Critics like Bishop are actually criticizing current discourse about “relational” practices such as socially engaged, community-based, experimental, participatory, or research-based forms of art.  I really like William Kentridge’s tapestries, for which the artist collaborated with a Johannesburg-based weaving art studio.  Kentridge was recently honored with a Kyoto Prize awarded individuals who make “significant contributions to the betterment of humankind.”  Mel Chin was the winner of the biennial Fritschy Culture award, which is given to artists who “give shape to cultural diversity and make world citizenship the subject of their art.”  These are outstanding developments which place artists on a world stage, not solely within certain art circles.

tapestries

Production still from the film "William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible." © Art21, Inc.

Bishop points to a shift that occurred during the 1990s, when art critics were replaced by curators as the people who can make or break an artist’s career.  In an interview, she notes that although curatorial work is often “concerned with fair mediation (between artists, audiences and institutions), it is perhaps unsurprising that curatorial writing is oriented toward ethical questions.”  Bishop also highlights a “post-political” trend that emerged in the ’90s and “submits art and politics to moral judgments bearing on the validity of their principles and the consequences of their practices.”  In his book, Bourriaud pushes back against the “elitist attitudes of certain people in art circles” who loathe the public place and spirit of artistic collaboration.  This is evidenced in the recent criticism of the Brooklyn Museum.

The aura of artworks has shifted towards their public. — N. Bourriaud

Bourriaud writes about contemporary art and artists, such as Andrea Zittel who encompass in their working process the “presence of the micro-community which will accommodate it,” or Gabriel Orozco, whose conceptual works are inspired by his political engagement.  William Kentridge worked with a South African tapestry studio, which was featured in the recent Art21 film.  Mel Chin’s The Fundred Dollar Bill Project invites students of all ages to participate in art and collective creative action. In Zittel’s latest project, the Group Formerly Known as Smockshop (GFKAS) creates products that begin with artist-modified “panels” that have the capacity to contract, expand, or morph from single surfaces to fully functional objects.

Überorgan

Tim Hawkinson, "Überorgan," 2000. Woven polyethylene, nylon, net, cardboard tubing, various mechanical components, dimensions variable. Installation view at Ace Gallery, New York, 2002. Collection of Ace Gallery. Courtesy Ace Gallery, Los Angeles

Hotly contested debates regarding relational aesthetics aside, I found the informal and museum lectures of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer compelling for several reasons.  This artist, who was interviewed for this blog this past September, visited my class to discuss the “relational” aspects of his art which are actually different from Bourriaud’s examples and more or less similar to Bishop’s.  He did not argue for or defend a particular stance and instead wanted to talk about a larger platform of artists who are working successfully with new media.  Lozano-Hemmer creates art for two types of venues: the ephemeral, intervention in public space and the institutional space.  One of the major questions we have been exploring in my class is the status of digital art, or digital media art in galleries, museums, and collections.  The electronic, performative, and interactive features of Lozano-Hemmer’s work qualify him more as an digital artist.  However, his work also communicates to observers or participants using a fluent visual language.

Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican-Canadian artist who is interested in the empirical, or experimental side of materialized critical theories.  He is inspired by theorists such as Brian Massumi as well as artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko. In my class, he talked about Voz Alta from his Relational Architecture series, which memorialized the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City by inviting participants to speak into a megaphone which translated into light flashes in the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.  Anyone within a 10-mile radius of the square could watch the flashes and tune into a radio station (96.1 FM) to hear the recorded, corresponding voices.

Two qualities of Lozano-Hemmer’s work that resonate with my research take into account several related methodologies, materialities, alternate realities, and agencies.  His artistic practice prescribes a relationship between virtuality and viractuality — concepts which begin with what digital artist/theorist Joseph Nechvatal calls an understanding that “every new technology disrupts previous rhythms of consciousness.”  Viractual objects — as products of anti-modern communication and production — are subject to “constant semiosis, including resonances, or affinities between formal and conceptual opposites.”  Nechvatal refers to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the virtual as a “surface effect produced by actual causal interactions which occur at the material level.”  Lozano-Hemmer’s notion of virtuality involves amplifying and augmenting art forms in various physical or natural sites.  The point is to create and examine specific elements of art in order to discover what is connected to them.  These connections are not always political and are often technological, scientific, or literary in their formation.

Pulse Park

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Pulse Park," 2008. Courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery.

In the informal talk, Lozano-Hemmer shared other projects he has done, specifically with bitforms gallery in Chelsea, NYC.  He says that the platforms in which he installs his work are outside of his control.  This is a counterpoint to issues he feels are problematic, such as the site-specific category of art, based on prevailing studies of grand narratives in particular structures or spaces.  He is less interested in this type of work and more involved in establishing temporary relationships that are based on a social experience, as well as the social juxtapositions of disparate realities within sites.  Another distinction he emphasizes in his work is the participatory (relationship-specific) aspect.

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Lozano-Hemmer explicates three facets of relationality in his work.  The first is a type of objectivity that translates the experiences of Brazilian avant-gardes that produced work which could be manually manipulated and constructed.  These relational, environmental structures made use of materials that had agency and encouraged public participation.  Another side is inspired by Barbara Liskov‘s object-oriented programming that allowed for a dynamic system of classification and taxonomy (between databases) for relational connectivity.  The third aspect, “Autopoiesis,” is a term coined by Chilean neurobiologists, that inspired a recent project of the same name about which the artist writes,

When people look at themselves in this small mirror they see the word “Autopoiesis” projected on their forehead. The concept of self-creation described by Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela is an inspiration for all art that depends on participation to exist.

Literally meaning “self production,” autopoiesis refers to the way in which “living beings are seen as systems that produce themselves, or regenerate, in a ceaseless way.”  Lozano-Hemmer works from within a dynamic, transnational framework in which the public becomes the nature of the art.  The relational, virtual, and viractual aspects of this type of art reflect current knowledge or technological contexts and cultures of which many people all over the world are part.  The work resonates with sociopolitical issues such as surveillance and privacy and biopolitics.  Regarding relational aesthetics Bourriaud writes,

Contemporary art thus introduces a radical shift in relation to modern art, insomuch as it does not turn its back on the aura of the work of art, but rather moves its origin and effect.

In my opinion, contemporary artists such as Lozano-Hammer and others (mentioned here and elsewhere) thrive off of positive feedback loops —here positive refers to the direction of change rather than the desirability of the outcome. This is contrary to the kinds of self-fulfilling effects that plague some conventional forms. Materiality, virtuality, viractuality, agency, participatory, and unfinished-ness are all are aspects of a relational aesthetic that engages an active public.  This is what I think distinguishes the nature of emerging forms from what Lozano-Hemmer calls “alien art” (new is no longer a criterion).  Alien artistic and cultural practices support Bourriaud’s assertion that the “aura of contemporary art is free association” and that is something I can work with.

Contributor
Nettrice Gaskins is an artist and educator who holds a Ph.D. in Digital Media. Gaskins compiles the Magazine's "Weekly Roundup" and occasionally contributes articles on afrofuturism.
  1. Thomas Lodato says:

    First off, I really appreciate your treatment of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work. As part of both of his discussions in Atlanta, I found the frankness and humor with which he approached his work refreshing. It is rare to hear an artist actually address how art and money actually play out in the production process, as much as how theory and empiricism interplay within what he does.

    I do, however, feel you are misreading the writings of Bourriaud and Bishop in how they could possibly relate to Lozano-Hemmer as well as other contemporary artists like Andrea Zittel and William Kentridge. The main issue here is the constitution of relationships within the concept of relational aesthetics. As much as Bourriaud speaks about the forging of relationships through works such as those of Rirkrit Tiravanija, he is does not mean a true social bond in the sense that Bruno Latour means (even though he sort of says this). Instead, relationships for Bourriaud are synthetic; that is to say, the intersubjective and interobjective relationships of a relational piece are constantly imbued with an awareness that these relationships are not real. Partly this reflexivity is what allows Bourriaud to claim the existence of a contemporary avant garde.

    Bishop, in critiquing Bourriaud, does not reconstitute the relationships but only the sites where these relationships take place. Where Bourriaud speaks of works that are exclusive to galleries (maybe appropriately so as he is a curator), Bishop extends relational aesthetics out into the world by way of Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra. These artists’ works (which she doesn’t use to dispute Bourriaud’s theory but simply provide better examples of it) clearly stitch relationships that are in part self-reflexive. As people are shuttled out to a Turkish neighborhood for Hirschhorn’s “Bataille Monument” (2002), they are forced to reflect on a series of relationships that are situated within the work’s content and the work as contained within the art world.

    The aforementioned works of Zittel and Kentridge produce relationships in a very different manner. Where Rirkrit produces pad thai, the audience never confuses the artist with a chef or his exhibit with an actual restaurant. Bourriaud calls this operational realism–the enacted dinners are realistic enough to produce the effects of actual dinners, while remaining dining-as-art. On the otherhand, the relationships produced by the artworks of Zittel and Kentridge (predated by Joseph Beuys) actually negate or confuse the title of artist, thereby producing a functioning relationship very different than that of relational aesthetics. While one might be aware of the clear and deliberate construction of these relationships through a work, the character of the relationships themselves never call attention to their construction resulting in non-reflexivity. Art historian Grant Kester cites WochenKlausur’s “Shelter for Drug-Addicted Women” as the prime example of this aesthetic of actual operationality (what he calls dialogic aesthetics) that casts the artist into the role, whether that role is social advocate, or chef, or party planner. Important here is that the artist and the artwork are self-effacing with regards to the practice and relationships.

    The mentioned works of Zittel and Kentridge fall into this latter category where the success of the work is not so much the reflection but the enactment of true functioning relationships that are difficult to identify as art at all. For Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture series, especially “Voz Alta” and “Vectorial Elevation”, a similar functioning occurs (albeit very different). He pointed out in both talks that the former work was successful in so much as it actually gave people the ability to speak up against a silenced atrocity; the latter work succeeded in encouraging people to promenade in Zócalo Square. In both cases the work fell aside to the relationships produced, and never demanded self-reflexivity.

    Reply

    Nettrice Reply:

    Hmmm… I’m sure we’ll discuss this later but I don’t think I misread the assigned texts. I denied their relevancy in certain contexts. Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar once rejected the universal embrace of avant-gardes and wrote, “The concept of a avant-garde has no universal validity.” What is regarded in one place does not automatically mean the same thing in another. He suggested that art stop speaking about itself and begin to speak of the world (“art should again speak about life”). Lozano-Hemmer’s work does not come from a consolidated, modern, differentiated and autonomous system which experiments with forms up to the limits of being recognizable as art.

    I wrote that I found a connection but not in the way I had initially hoped for in the readings. I sensed superficiality regarding relationships, so I highlighted work which I think challenges the idea of relational aesthetics. Kentridge, Lozano-Hemmer and others, in my opinion, explore relationships that exist outside of Bourriaud’s notion. The qualities of art that interest me are identified as “alien” by Rafael. Self-reflexive art such as memorials serve as an example of autopoiesis (auto self creation), no? How can a memorial not have some degree of self-awareness even when its purpose is to speak to the world? This type of objectivity (as well as auto ethnological expression) poses a basic argument between structure and function.

    I fought the temptation to mention artist Matthew Ritchie’s “Universal Cell” (in the post) as an example of how the body becomes an extension of an invisible, yet real life presence of the self. However, I do think his work supports the self-reflexive art form argument. Ritchie states that, “Each of us is in our own prison.” We drag it with us wherever we go. An example of an autopoietic system is the cell which, in its simplest form, constitutes a concrete unity in space. The idea that what is ‘out there’ may be totally different from what is inside is what this kind of contemporary art is about. Autopoiesis as a counter to relational aesthetics opens the door to new ways of thinking about art such as the contributions of the Brazilian avant-garde and Afrofuturist artists from across the Atlantic.

    Reply

  2. While understanding Nettrice Gaskins’ discourse, I fear that a dialectic conducted within meaningless ideological parameters is a meaningless discourse. (Two key paragraphs of Gaskins’ I focused on are at the bottom of my comments.)

    Curators, critics, and the art world they drive are playing a game, a game that does not relate to the larger audience of humans. They probably feel that they are at the apex of Kandinsky’s pyramid of progress; but, while having a point, they are pointless regarding humanity.

    Until art respects the pleasure of the senses through which it is perceived, it is a privileged playground. (By pleasure, I do not mean Disneyized tickle, but that Beauty associated with Truth.) Having no benchmarks but group meander, critics, curators, and artists are dismissed by the audience they could influence. Wanting “to make the world better” is no standard of judgment, compared to the difficult, often flawed, but perfectly acceptable Beauty.
    Nettrice Gaskins,from the essay:
    “I really like William Kentridge’s tapestries, for which the artist collaborated with a Johannesburg-based weaving art studio. Kentridge was recently honored with a Kyoto Prize awarded individuals who make “significant contributions to the betterment of humankind.” Mel Chin was the winner of the biennial Fritschy Culture award, which is given to artists who “give shape to cultural diversity and make world citizenship the subject of their art.” These are outstanding developments which place artists on a world stage, not solely within certain art circles.

    “In my opinion, contemporary artists such as Lozano-Hammer and others (mentioned here and elsewhere) thrive off of positive feedback loops —here positive refers to the direction of change rather than the desirability of the outcome. This is contrary to the kinds of self-fulfilling effects that plague some conventional forms. Materiality, virtuality, viractuality, agency, participatory, and unfinished-ness are all are aspects of a relational aesthetic that engages an active public. This is what I think distinguishes the nature of emerging forms from what Lozano-Hemmer calls “alien art” (new is no longer a criterion). Alien artistic and cultural practices support Bourriaud’s assertion that the “aura of contemporary art is free association” and that is something I can work with.”

    Reply

    Nettrice Gaskins Reply:

    Ha! This was discussed via Facebook, so I summarize my response (from there) re: the meaningless-ness of ideological discourse. I sort of agree and I added that there really is no unified sense of beauty with a ‘capital B’.

    Occasionally, from academic discourse comes experimentation which is what my post is about. I’m inspired by the idea of an active public esp. in the United States but also across the globe. I’m inspired by counteractions and contra-objective art forms, especially ones that cross boundaries and disciplines. Being immersed in alternative realms is beautiful to me because the real world can be elitist and closed. Some types of beauty (in art) exclude the public and are labeled “serious” but lack meaning for others like me.

    There really is room for an active public being fully immersed and engaged in contemporary art.

    Reply

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