Designed relations: instruments for possible relational aesthetics in communication

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, graphic design has created a language, has achieved professional authority, has ventured to overlap with other disciplines and allowed other disciplines to model its development.
A special link between visual communication and visual art has always existed: if we look at visual art as a form of expression of society values, it is easy to understand its influence on the language the designer has to create to speak to the public at large, a revision of that of everyday life, that art tries to capture in its forms.
The intrinsic link between the two disciplines is particularly evident in this period: many are the personalities whose work can be placed in an intermediate field between art and graphic design. The mistake often made is trying to give borders, to define the two subjects, forgetting the interest in the work content and its communicative and social power. After all, the raw material used by the artist and the designer is the same and also the role society gives them today is similar: director, producer, stage designer, composer, programmer and we could add also DJ, called to organize, remix, give new function to existing cultural forms in new contents.
Art in its development, started to move slowly, at first only in the spectator’s retina, then by means of small motors, sometimes only moved by wind gaining more and more speed until it left the galleries as in Daniel Buren’s white and green striped paintings, invaded towns as in Nouveau Realism’s experiments, until it created experiences involving all the spectator’s five senses.
Gruppo T’s environments, GRAV’s experiments, Debord’s films but also Duchamp’s first ready made do not mean anything without the presence of the spectator. Today Marina Abramovic and Vanessa Beecroft’s performances, Rikrit Tiravanija’ dinners, Pierre Huyghe’s billboards, Sophie Calle’s projects do not live without the relationship with the spectator, but they also add something more: the relationship between the work and the space it takes and most of all the relations that will be established among the public. Relational art takes the last step towards the spectator. The spectator’s participation, theorized by happenings and performances, has become a constant of artistic practice: perhaps it is better to say that the relation between work and spectator is what makes an object a work of art, as Duchamp says ce sont les regardeurs qui font les tableaux.

Nicolas Bourriaud in his essay Estetique relationelle, is the first to define this new trend in contemporary art:
After its control over the relationships between humanity and divinity, and afterwards between humanity and the object, art concentrates on the sphere of interpersonal relationships, as the first works that have been produced since the early 1990s testify.1
The artist concentrates on the relationships his work will create with the public, or on the invention of models of society. Relational works welcome the attempt to establish intersubjective social gatherings, a new communication, outside consumption areas (bars, coffee houses, shops, etc.). Bourriaud believes that the widespread use of new communication technologies such as social networks is an answer to the growing need to find new spaces of conviviality: but what these means can offer is only the illusion of communication, the transformation of the society of the spectacle into a society of figurants. In an article titled The false myth of electronic democracy, Edmomdo Berselli brings the phenomenon of televoting to our attention: one of the simplest forms of participation that characterizes our times. Despite being a communication mechanism that may seem old fashioned, in fact it reminds us a world in black and white and curled telephone wires, it is widely used today thanks also to the possibility to vote via sms and Internet; the 1,900,000 voters for the final of the programme Amici, gives us an idea of the phenomenon.

It should be clear that these are techniques to fill in the wide open void in the public space, to tear down political anxiety and also to look for an opportunity of vicarious participation: something similar to joining a discussion group on Facebook, it doesn’t matter if they are admirers of the fiction about De Vittorio or thoughtful lovers of Nero di Avola. What matters is saying something about oneself, adhering, but also sabotaging; being for or against, anyway being there and being visible.2

The great danger of illusory participation arises in a society that has transformed the everyday, everyday life into a prime-time show: the revaluation of life in its meanest aspects, Debord and Fluxus and a large part of the art of the 1960s had hoped, has turned into a show of the everyday, leaving the spectator passively on the sofa. The problem is no more that of defining art boundaries but to experiment art resistance ability inside the global social field.
Bourriaud underlines that while in the past art linguistic developments focused on the relationship inside the artistic field, today what matters are the relationships outside it, in an eclectic culture where the work has to resist show business. The strength of relational aesthetic art is that it does not want to predict utopian changes, that can lead to easy disillusions, but to create daily micro-utopias: the criticism of society has proved vain because it has been absorbed and revised by society itself. With small revolutions in the everyday, mimetic but feasible, ordinary actions, art tries to reconstruct the texture of relations. These artists’ works stake the modes of social exchange. Most of the works of the 1980s focuses on the relationship with the media, experiments new languages and new channels, one example is Jenny Holzer’s work included in neon sign advertisements, with some incisive sentences such as Protect me from what I want, part of the Survival Series. Relational art looks for new communication outside the media, produces relational time-spaces, experiences that try to get rid of the constraints of mass communication ideology.

In the American pavillion of the last Biennale in Venice, the floor of a small room is completely covered with little candies wrapped in the classic golden shiny paper: a carpet of bon bons. Visitors look at each other in amazement and are bewildered when someone picks them up, unwraps them, without any reproach from the guard: is one allowed to eat the work? In this installation the spectator is responsible for the work dissolution: Feliz Gonzales Torres tells us a reality, the work dematerialization and underlines the central position the spectator has now acquired in the work of art. His Candy pieces are steeped in reflexions about man’s social behaviour: fetishism, possession desire, accumulation, transgression. The experience offered by this work is strictly connected to the museum context, to the museum guard’s presence, and most of all to the presence of the other spectators. The artist himself, in an interview of Maurizio Cattelan, recognizes its importance:
For most of the work I do, I need the public to become responsible and activate the work. Otherwise it’s just a formalist exercise.3

He goes on defining the role his work wants to have inside society also explaining why his first refusal to take part in Biennale changed:
At this point I don’t wont to be outside the structure of power, I don’t want to be the opposition, the alternative. Alternative to what, to power? No, I want to have power. It’s effective in terms of chance. I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution.4 His only possibility is to include his work in the capitalistic process so as to exploit its reproduction speed, and to stay within society, the only place where change can take place.
Relational art is basically democratic: it is interested in the everyday, in the sense of not going beyond everyday worries, it confronts us with reality through fiction, the peculiarity of the world representation. As Bourriaud writes these works choose a formula that does not establish a priori a presence of the artist over the spectator but negotiate with him open relations, permeated by chance, not solved. The public then lies between the state of a passive consumer and that of witness, client, guest, coproducer until he becomes protagonist.
The artist tries to create modus vivendi that allow fairer social relationships, more intense, more fruitful relations. It’s important to emphasize that Bourriaud doesn’t think his theory can be applied only to art. He thinks it is a cultural trend peculiar to our period; virtual relations and globalization have produced this need to go back to face to face communication, as, at the same time, a do-it-yourself culture is born in the attempt to revaluate a relationship with the artefact. The research field is human relationships but also a revision of the relation with the object not the consumption object, and with local environment, in contrast with the levelling due to globalization.

This theme has brought some interesting debates also in the field of visual communication. In an article on the magazine Eye in 2006 Monika Parrinder and Colin Davies are the first who investigate relational aesthetics by analysing some visual communication and design works, with various examples. The experimental aspect of these projects is not of formal interest but social, a social interest different from that typical of social design or production about political activism. The designer is not the starting or ending point of a finished product but he is a semionaut who connects different spaces, times and narrations, creating their interrelations. Parrinder and Davies assert that the reflexion induced by relational aesthetics can be seen as an approach of the communication world to the immediate effects it has on the real world.5 Andrew Blauvelt is another design critic who has drawn attention on the production of participative and relational artefacts in graphic design.
In his recent article published on Design Observer, Towards relational design, without referring to Bourriaud’s text he elaborates a vision that divides design in three main eras.6 The first, the ism phase, from the early 20th century to the 1960s, is a search for a specific discipline language and follows the principles of rationality, simplification and universality; the second phase, from the 1960s to the early 1990s is a period of exploration of design potentiality, it brings about the authorship issues and fills the form created in the first phase of contents.
The third phase described by Blauvelt is the contemporary era, that of rationally-based and contextually-specific design. This new practice based on rational design includes performative, pragmatic, process-oriented and participatory elements. In the parlance of semiotics one passed from a first syntactic design to a semantic one and finally to pragmatic design.
Blauvelt, as Rick Poynor pointed out, makes a mistake in not quoting the French critic he often draws from in formulating his theory; he asserts that he choose not to quote Estetique relationelle, because it doesn’t offer a comprehensive theory that could possibly bridge the interdisciplinary gap between contemporary art culture and design practice.
How can we speak about relational design starting from denying a profitable dialogue with the theories of contemporary art?
The error that led Blauvelt to omit quoting Bourriaud is that he undervaluates the importance of a text that has influenced cultural debates for the last ten years, as few others could do, in particular a theory whose aim was to embrace a wider field than that of contemporary art. In an article, written in 2000, where he describes the new participatory aspects of graphic design without using the term relational, he is more intuitive. In Towards a complex simplicity Blauvelt brings self expression sublimation, typical of some works of Paul Elliman, Anne Burdick and Daniel Eatock, closer to that of the minimalist movement. In their work one often assists to a suspension of the designer’s decisional task, he leaves his work open to the intervention of the spectator and of chance.7 The process becomes concept, the systematic nature of a predetermined process generates the project forms. Blauvelt himself refers to the poetics of Sol Le Witt, conceptual artist, who saw the idea as a machine that produces art. Le Witt’s works are guidelines that become works only by the work of others, not by the artist. Graphic design projects are complete only with the spectator’s intervention, the definitive artefact is outside the designer’s control. The casualness in the process is expression of a reconsideration of the everyday; Blauvelt himself asks if this attempt to pay attention to life, to activate the spectator, to eliminate the extraordinary can cause the end of the society of the spectacle but he comes to the conclusion that this everyday will probably be absorbed by the spectacle itself, until one does not recognize it any more.
Rick Poynor instead is skeptic about the matter, he believes there are few projects promoting social relations and they are not those identified in the above articles; he uses Claire Bishop’s thesis, a curator who believes that aesthetics is now being sacrificed on the altar of social change. Claire Bishop creates the term relational ‘antagonism’ opposed to Bourriaud’s aesthetics, stating that it is more important to show everything that is restrained when trying to support relational harmony. Poynor, in proposing the critics’ point of view again, points out that it is not enough to define democratic every kind of social relation, but it is necessary to show how these encounters produce cultural value. The open question is what type of relations, for whom and why are they produced? 8
Poynor’s point of view starts from the assumption that participation is an illusion. Refusing the participative objective in art and communication means abandoning the attempt of giving back the spectator an active dimension.
As the artist Paolo Rosa asserts:
This is what often occurs in reality, whose complexity, whose difficult penetrability reduces many people to become spectators of a fiction
world that revolves around them.

If one tries to eliminate participation from communication we will go back to a kind of unidirectional imposed culture. One speaks about participation not only in the sense of spectator’s involvement but also as collaboration among disciplines: if modern art participates to the cultural communicative process it will be to the benefit of visual communication and culture itself.
Arts take part in the construction and transmission of new communication languages; if global and democratic communication can be seen as utopian, its fragmentation into thousand small micro utopias can be instead a method for its achievement, or at least an attempt.
The method of interstitial invasion of relational aesthetics reality tries to give an opportunity to create these moments of real communication to which both interlocutors take part. Creating an experience in the public and among the public is the aim of a communication that wants to move the spectator out of the seat in the world of the spectacle.

As thumbnail: Pierre Huyghe, Chantier Barbès Rochechouart, 1994/1996, Billboard, Paris (1994), 4 x 3 meters. Offset printed poster (1996), 80 x 120 cm. © Pierre Huyghe, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. Via

  1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du réel, Paris 2002.
  2. Edmondo Berselli, Il falso mito della democrazia elettronica, in “La Repubblica”, 24 marzo 2009.
  3. Félix Gonzalez-Torres, interview by Maurizio Cattellan in “Mousse”, n. 9, june – august 2007.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Cfr. Monika Parrinder, Colin Davies, Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ may give designers a new set of tools in “Eye” n. 59, Spring 2006.
  6. Cfr. Andrew Blauvelt, Towards relational design, in “Design Observer”, December 2008.
  7. Cfr. Andrew Blauvelt, Towards a complex simplicity, in “Eye”, n. 35, Spring 2000.
  8. Cfr. Rick Poynor, Strained Relations, “Print”, April 2009.
  9. Lucilla Meloni, L’opera partecipata. L’osservatore tra contemplazione e azione, Rubettino Editore, Catanzaro 2000.