Bourriaud, interactivity, changing art

I haven’t really said anything about my PGPD in my blog. I learnt a lot from writing it. It would be a shame not to make more out of it in the wider context of my project. The essay was about participatory art in history and the lessons that can be learned from it for online participation in art.

A dot on a line

One of my key sources was Nicholas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics. At the heart of Bourriaud’s thesis is the idea that art is not to be found in static objects but in lived experiences. A key example of this is the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, who in the past has presented people with large canisters of thai soup and noodles in the name of art. Here’s a quote from the book:

The contemporary artwork’s form is spreading out from its material form: it is a linking element, a principle of dynamic agglutination*. An artwork is a dot on a line. (Bourriaud, 1998, p20-21)

*agglutination is the adhesion of distinct parts, apparently.

On first reading I really didn’t like the last sentence of the quote. I wondered what it meant. I read it again, though, after reading more of the book and developing my thoughts. The line is a bigger thought process. The art is an expression of that process. That counts both for the viewer and the artist. Both are coming to the work with a different texture. The quality of the art is in the degree of success the work has in referring to the rest of the line. Does the dot provide a good view of the process or movement of the line running through and around it? I think this is a profound, useful insight into ways of thinking about good artwork.

I think this is relevant to interactivity because it’s saying art has always involved a bit of to and fro between the audience and artist. The viewer must invest something into what they’re looking at in order to get anything out of it. They’re completing it.

Regarding my project, I’m increasingly thinking that all I can present people with is this dot on a line. I want them to fill in the rest of the line, as they would in their own minds anyway when looking at something they like. I like the idea that I can make something which will aggregate people’s thought processes. There is a sense in Bourriaud’s comment that while an artwork is merely a dot on a line representing a wider process, that process is still dominated by the artist. I’m getting more interested in the possibilities of opening up the drawing of that line.

Truncated channels

Bourriaud also makes the following rather prescient comment:

…the emergence of new technologies, like the internet and multimedia systems, points to a collective desire to create new areas of conviviality and introduce new types of transaction with
regard to the cultural object. The “society of the spectacle” is thus followed by the society of extras, where everyone finds the illusion of an interactive democracy in more or less truncated channels of communication. (Bourriaud, 1998, p26)

While it’s prescient, this is a bit inaccurate. It’s easy to say text messages are truncated, but they’re not. They’re short and people tend to abbreviate their language quite heavily in texts but they also open possibilities for a different kind of intimacy in communication that isn’t possible in ordinary conversation. With e-mails we can continue conversations in more depth, on a more thought through basis. With Facebook we can keep in touch with friends on the other side of the world. I think these channels of communication become truncated when we misuse them, or use them as substitutes for the original and best face to face conversation.

Online social networking as art

I like the look of this site called I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out. It’s asking people to do a random thing every day, evidence of which is then submitted. People can propose their own ideas for things to do which are then voted up or down by the site’s users. The thing that appeals to me here is that it’s a fun thing to be part of and I can do it in my own time. This is one of the things that’s key to the success of any good social networking site. It also means you have the flexibility to bring a bit of your own life to something, which is really important to a sense of agency and is one of the best things about the internet as a mode of communication. I’m a bit surprised there isn’t more art online that hasn’t realised this. Tweaktoday isn’t an art project but the barrier’s a soft one. Why shouldn’t you say it’s art? Clearly it’s not presented as such and it doesn’t have a particular theoretical or art historical framework.

I think this question is quite central to where art’s heading. For a while there’s been an unspoken definition of what art is. Traditionally, art has been defined in part by its placement in a pre defined gallery environment. This is becoming less true all the time and that’s partially down to the internet. Cultural boundaries are inevitably harder to distinguish now. In fact, the usefulness of such boundaries is increasingly questionable. In this environment we’ve got more and more reasons to wonder what art is. For my own reading, I’ve long since given up caring and am unsure that art needs to be defined. That’s an issue though. Walter Benjamin’s writing about the aura becomes interesting again here. We’re beyond the age of mechanical reproduction now. The age of digital production is more like it. PHP’s automated scripts are a fine example of that. Facebook has an online empire of sorts made by their users with the tools provided, via PHP. Facebook’s users are the producers, though mediated quite heavily by Facebook themselves. That’s interesting isn’t it? Is there a name for that kind of production yet? Is it a distinct mode of production?

Why I don’t like a lot of online art

With this cultural boundary blurring and some of the most exciting digital art being shown on youtube, this pre-defined gallery environment is up in the air.

The question I keep on coming back to is, why isn’t art taking advantage of all of this? Why doesn’t interactivity seem to work so well in art? I wrote this in my PGPD, listing the issues I thought there were with the work I looked at:

  • My sense of agency is limited.
  • The parameters set by the artists bore me. Should I have the option of proposing new parameters, or at least expanding the existing ones?
  • The balance between artist and participant is off kilter. I can’t really contribute anything of myself, breaking any sense of immersion.
  • A key advantage of online communication is the fact that I can contribute in my own time. Online participation works well when people connect a little of their lives to it.
  • This work only functions in a set space (the screen). I can’t reflect on it when I’m not looking at it, or at least I wouldn’t want to.
  • The internet has the advantage of offering the opportunity for “inhabiting the edge of the abyss” as quoted above, but it can also if so desired provide a monument to it.*
  • Bourriaud’s idea that the work is in the experience, the moment shared, is disappointingly absent here.

*This point was referring to a part of Relational Aesthetics where he argues against the supposed problem with relational art saying it’ll never add up to much because it has no ‘monument’ or lasting artifact that people tomorrow (or in twenty years) can enjoy as much as people today. Bourriaud argued (and I laughed, verily, as I read this) that this was irrelevant because relational art “inhabits the edge of the abyss”, meaning it creates a moment right at the edge of the possibilities of consciousness. That creates its own monument, as it brings about a new state of being in the viewer. The man’s a genius.


Looking back at it, the things I looked at were all in fairly set artistic channels. I looked at node london and also books about digital and internet art. I’d thought these sources would pick up the best participatory art on the web for me. On reflection, I’m really not sure this will ever be the case with internet art. These sources are the establishment. The internet in its current state is bound to throw up all sorts of new and interesting things all the time. Many of them will be very difficult to track. I’m inclined to think whole new definitions (or widening thereof?) of art may be needed. Many of them won’t feel the need to carry the art tag. It’s too cumbersome and doesn’t help anyone. I think tweak today is a lot closer to being on a good track toward taking advantage of what the internet is in an art context, whether it calls itself art or not; and it has no need to. Why should it? I’ve just (finally) started reading Walter Benjamin’s ludicrously famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ so I’ll be able to comment on it from a position of first hand knowledge soon. He’s already made a very useful comment though.

The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production.
(Benjamin, Illuminations, published 1999, p212)

In other words, when the whole world goes pear shaped, it takes a while for people’s minds to catch up. I’ve got lots of questions here. Will the internet (the superstructure) ever stop changing? If so, will the substructure (our minds) ever get the chance to stop for a breather? No? We’re going to have to run forever? And ever?

One way of looking at this redefinition is that art is like a glass of water. Liquid that comes in a glass. You want the liquid so you need the glass. But there are other ways of holding liquid. Art culture as it stands – meaning galleries, the Turner Prize, Nicholas Bourriaud and so on – is the glass. The water is mental stimulation, experience of beauty, challenges to existing assumptions regarding the world around us and all of those other things we love getting out of art. Art, then is the combination of water and glass. Anyway. Art is dead. Long live all that stuff that gets people thinking in new and interesting, (hopefully more kind?) ways.

Some other things that interested me

Further to the above, I just read this article suggesting the media industry is ‘on the brink of carnage’ Here’s a choice quote:

The traditional news media are failing to produce ‘differentiated’ content online amongst a ‘hurricane of knowledge and publishing’ caused by the growth self-publishing online, such as blogging, she added.
To address this outlets should move away from the editorial models of the ‘age of representation’, where news organisations published what they thought readers should know, she said, to an age of participation and a better understanding of who the audience is.

But here’s a slightly opposing view detailing the perils of the internet message board.


Right, that’s it from me for now. If you have been, thank you for reading. When I finish this course I think I might become a monk. Or live in the mountains growing vegetables and a beard. It’s all too much. This post has been even more of a thinking aloud rambling session than usual (which is saying something) but I feel like I’m slowly teasing my way through something. Which is good.

Category thinking aloud | Tags: ,,

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