Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

Now We Collect Situations
Lindsay Brown

It is hard not to wonder, when a book falls apart the instant you remove its shrink wrap, whether its physical inferiority might not be a sign of other inadequacies. As it turns out, Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation is not the useful survey text of “post-studio” situated contemporary art it might have been. It has too many of the earmarks of a rush to jump on the relational aesthetics bandwagon, leaving shreds of low-grade binding glue everywhere behind it. And that particular bandwagon may in fact have left much earlier than 2004.

Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation is the product of the “Situations” lecture series and conference held in Bristol between 2003 and 2004. The series, led by Claire Doherty, curator of the Bristol “Situations” project, broadly “investigated the significance of context in the commissioning and production of artworks.”1 By “context” Doherty is referring not merely to artworks produced in a social context outside the traditional studio, as the book’s title suggests. Her use of the term “situation,” in part, signals an interest in the increasingly widespread conceptual category “relational aesthetics,” with its faint suggestion of Situationist tactics and its promotion of art that takes active, situational social relations as both its artistic material and its product. Art thus implicated in “situation”—a term which carries with it a more active and fluid sense of functionality rather than the more static terms “context” or “location”—may aim to supersede older context-sensitive artistic strategies such as site-specificity, installation, community and “new genre” public art, institutional critique, and political activism.

Doherty attempts to anchor the book’s various concerns in three critical essays, all reprinted from other publications: Daniel Buren’s famous 1970-71 essay “The Function of the Studio” (first published in English in 1979 in October); Miwon Kwon’s essay “The Wrong Place” adapted from her 2002 book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity; and Nicolas Bourriaud’s 2001 “Berlin Letter about Relational Aesthetics” in which he recapitulates and loosely updates his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics. The essays are followed by interviews with artists Rod Dickinson, Aleksandra Mir, Nathan Coley, Jeremy Deller, Richard Wentworth, and curator Catherine David. The book’s third section is comprised of “case studies” of various artists and group projects: Oda Projesi, “FURTHER up in the air,” Thomas Hirschorn, Adam Dant, Mejor Vida Corp, Kathrin Bohm, Becky Shaw, and Jimmie Durham. This is a scattered and idiosyncratic collection, but in fairness, the publication does claim only to be suggestive of broad tendencies within current situated practices, “from the spectacular re-enactment, to the quiet intervention, from remedial collaboration to dialogic, open-ended process.”2

The essays by Buren, Kwon and Bourriaud, which provide critical context for the artwork under discussion, are an odd but interesting combination and, perhaps on the strength of these alone, the book may at least serve as a worthwhile pedagogical tool. Buren’s well-known analysis of the flattening ideological pressure that museum institutions exert on the studio-produced artworks which they exhibit—and of the subsequent inextricable linkage between the isolated studio and the museum—is in many ways as interesting as it was in 1971, especially considering Buren’s influence on subsequent site-specific work and institutional critique.

Miwon Kwon’s essay outlines the increasingly disturbed meanings of the concepts of “site” and “place” under global capitalism, of the erasure of any meaningful sense of “locatedness” thanks to the new logic of commodity exchange and network culture, and of the contemporary experience of every place as “the wrong place.” The essay is a lucid, readable review of issues of psychogeography and postmodern space, with an emphasis on Frederic Jameson. In particular, it helps to make clear the inadequacy of—and even nostalgia inherent in—older conceptions of site-specificity in art.3 Bourriaud’s short essay on relational aesthetics summarizes what he perceives as “relational” works—those whose core is social exchange rather than representation, that is, works that operate formally within the realm of interpersonal relations. As he puts it, such works “aim at the formal construction of space-time entities that may be able to elude alienation, the division of labour, the commodification of space, and the reification of life.”4

Despite the crucial inclusion of Bourriaud, Doherty’s choice of artists represents a departure from the usual European relational aesthetics cast. This may be by virtue of the greater presence of British rather than European artists. It may also reflect a more classically British left political bent on her part and an implicit critique of the new formalism of relational aesthetics. As critic Claire Bishop (also English) has pointed out in her influential attack on relational aesthetics, its new relational “forms” are prioritized at the expense of any content the work may or may not involve, and she wonders how one is supposed to make a judgment about whether and how much these relational forms have any emancipatory effect.5 Thomas Hirschorn—one of the most notable of Bourriaud’s omissions—is included here, as are several artists working more overtly with specific political content and representation. In an interview with Doherty, Jeremy Deller provides a compelling description of the making of his 2001 piece The Battle of Orgreave, in which he and others staged and filmed a historical reenactment of the 1984 miners’ riot in Britain. In the work, arguably one of the strongest in this collection, the artist engaged hundreds of inhabitants of the village of Orgreave, including a group that included some of the miners and police who had fought in the riot seventeen years earlier, to take up various roles from planning stages to performance. Deller’s method, in terms of form and content, is not classically relationally aesthetic, but feels at least as functionally “emancipatory” in the current social climate as other more typically relational aesthetics work in the book, if not much more so.

Works operating in the relational aesthetics mode of complicity or generosity include the less overt and more low impact project of Oda Projesi, the Istanbul group that provided an empty apartment for whoever might like to use it, whether that be artists or neighbours, and then let news of its availability travel by word of mouth. Oda Projesi’s claims regarding the “emancipatory” effects produced by, say, a group of neighbours eating together in the small room provided by the artists, come off as entirely specious. This may be a defect only of Maria Lind’s rather vague essay, which does not manage to suggest what formal and political value the piece may have, nor, despite its best efforts, does it manage to distinguish the piece from social work. There’s nothing wrong with social work, but none of the artists in this collection actually go so far as to say they want to collapse the distinction between art and social work. And many of them, most notably Hirschorn, specifically claim the opposite.6

Had Doherty not introduced this collection of artists as “The New Situationists,” clearly a sloppy use of that term, the collection might have come off as more rigorous. Her only mention of the Situationists or Guy Debord appears near the end of her introduction, in which she herself then freely admits that the political “resistance” in the work in her collection does not necessarily reveal itself in processes of dérive or any other usual Situationist tactics.7 She argues instead that the special status of the artist is what allows many of the projects, collaborations, and interventions to take place, since this “allows them to circumnavigate predictability” and engage in their various processes of “resistance.” She may be right, but to hang together this collection needed a much tighter conceptual framework than that. Interestingly, the book was published at virtually the same moment as Claire Bishop’s attack on relational aesthetics, which would have been an interesting inclusion had it only been published earlier. The alignments between Bishop and Doherty, whether or not one sees either or both of them as tainted by a nostalgic, British position, might have clarified matters. As it is, Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation continues to fall to pieces.

  1. Claire Doherty, ed. Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), 7.
  2. Ibid., 10.
  3. Miwon Kwon, “The Wrong Place,” Contemporary Art, 30.
  4. Nicolas Bourriaud, “Berlin Letter about Relational Aesthetics,” Contemporary Art, 48.
  5. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 64.
  6. Thomas Hirschorn, “Bataille Monument,” Contemporary Art, 137.
  7. Doherty, Contemporary Art, 11.

Image: Jeremy Deller, Battle of Orgreave (2001)

About the Author

Lindsay Brown lives in Vancouver and writes intermittently about art. She is working on her first book of fiction.

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