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What is actually going on when objecthood suddenly reappears as obsession, as a component of art’s currently most fashionable hypes?

November 2, 2013

The Obsession with Objects: Relational Art and Objecthood as Farce

The obsession with objecthood first appeared in the guise of tragedy, the tragedy of modernist art, as put forward by its pathetic warrior, the art historian Michael Fried. Conceived as an apology for modernist painting and sculpture, his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” involuntarily marked its definite decline. In the spirit of Fried’s own militaristic rhetoric of victory and defeat, one could say that his essay was an indication that modernist painting had indeed lost the war to the emergence of “theatricality” in art. For Fried, minimal art’s “specific objects” – and he was not even concerned here with the radical performative and interventionist techniques of the 1950s and 1960s as developed by the Fluxus and Situationist movements – were the markers of theatre, of a “literalist art” that served as nothing short of a “negation of art.” the past 46 years we have experienced countless discourses on the immaterialisation of art from Lucy Lippard to Jean-Francois Lyotard, the post-Fordist appropriation of this immaterialisation, the recurring reappearance of performative encounters in radical activist art practices, and their domestication under the label of relational aesthetics. What is actually going on when objecthood suddenly reappears as obsession, as a component of art’s currently most fashionable hypes: Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology?

We suspect a certain complementarity between the two major theoretical obsessions of the contemporary art field over the past few decades: relationality and objecthood. It appears that their relationship is one of strict opposition (on the one hand, the in-between, the exchange and the infinite flows of relationality; on the other, the strictly confined and finite shape of the object). Actually, we observe a certain hidden complicity between the two apparent opponents in the reproduction of the dichotomy of subject and object and its old hierarchies.

Obviously, relations are not only of interest to relational aesthetics, but also to theories of networks and dynamic economic market analysis researching on questions like: How does one thing or movement relate to another to yield particular, ideally predictable results? Such is the logic of simple causality, of relations as connections with attributable value for the terms they link. If relations are of common interest one may wonder why they are so often reduced to their mere functioning rather than their operational qualities. One may be reminded of Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) and the critiques thereof. While Bourriaud proposed thinking of aesthetic propositions as constituting situations in which social relations could emerge, his critiques have focused on rejecting the network of artists and institutions profiled in his examples.

In the critiques of Relational Aesthetics one network often replaces another to supposedly stimulate different effects. However, Bourriaud’s critics never wonder what a relation might actually enable other than its quotidian association of connecting things or subjects. This becomes even more puzzling when we realise that Relational Aesthetics contains a 30-page section on Félix Guattari’s “aesthetic paradigm”, which was first published by Bourriaud in 1994 in the journal Chimères, dedicated to the memory of the late Guattari (including contributions by Anne Querrien, Pierre Lévy and Isabelle Stengers).

After the so-called “winter years” of the 1980s, in which society and politics were characterised by a claustrophobic conservatism, Guattari embarked on his last writings on relational and machinic thinking His attempt was to constitute an ethics and aesthetics of expression in language, art, psychoanalysis and socio-political practice including virtual and mental universes of value co-emergent with the process lines of human and non-human existence. His term chaosmosis defines such a processual and heterogeneous complexity cutting across material and immaterial strata of life. Guattari considered relations to be the productive force of life. At the same time, a relation is the actual entity’s self-sustaining force of time as much as it resonates in relation to other entities. Thedisagreements about relations as externalised connections or internal (narcissistic) withdrawal eventually disappear as long as the conceptual and pragmatic embrace of relation’s force and tendency is not reduced to links between previously unrelated things.

Bourriaud, probably working through Guattari’s insistence on virtual ecologies, understood that this pragmatic experimentation requires a shift toward the emergence of actualised expression or enunciation: Relationality as flux and as a vibrating middle would be reduced when conceptualised as relations proposed by different individuals involved in a participatory practice or a setting of “relational art”.

Christoph Brunner works as a researcher at the Institute for Critical Theory at the Zurich University of the Arts. He is finishing a PhD thesis on research-creation and aesthetic politics at Concordia University, Montreal. He participates in the editorial collective and is a member of the
Gerald Raunig is a philosopher and art theoretician. He works at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHDK) and is a coordinator for the eipcp (European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies) of the international research projects, and Recent books: A Thousand Machines (2010), Critique of Creativity (edited with Gene Ray and Ulf Wuggenig, 2011) and Factories of Knowledge. Industries of Creativity (2013).