"Fondu Aesthetics" and/as "Relational Aesthetics": Its Un-Doing and Aftermaths

Nicolas Bourriaud first coined the term "relational aesthetics" in his 1996 exhibition at the CAPC and its attendant catalog "Traffic" – but it was fully articulated in a series of essays, which were first published in "Documents sur l'art," and then published in France titled "Esthetique relationnelle" in 1998, which was translated into English in 2002. Without a doubt, "relational aesthetics" took the "art world(s)" by storm -- many taking it up as a crucial and new theoretical insight and practice, while others critiqued it for is art-historical amnesia, participation in neo-liberal ideas and capitalist agendas, nepotism, and its lack of taking into account various feminist and queer interventions that have created other "relationalities" in the art world(s) and beyond -- for example see empyre's ongoing discussion for the month of July, 2009 on "queer relational": http://turbulence.org/blog/2009/07/03/empyre-july-2009-queer-relational); and see the numerous critiques launched -- as well as a series of upcoming panels at the College Art Association in Chicago. Indeed, "relational aesthetics" is still being reckoned with in the "art world(s)" and beyond.

Bourriaud defines "relational aesthetics" as "a set of artistic practices that take place as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context -- rather than an independent and private space or discrete art objects as such" (15). He goes on to explain "relational aesthetics," "relational art," and what it (ostensibly) does; he states, "relational art is not the revival of any movement, nor it is the comeback of any style. It arises from an observation of the present and from a line of thinking about a fate of artistic activity. Its basic claim -- the sphere of human relations as art work venue ..." (44). More importantly, Bourriaud states, relational artists consider "inter-subjective and interaction neither as fashionable theoretical gadgets, not as additives (alibis) of a traditional artistic practice. It takes [relationality] as a point of departure and as an outcome, in brief as the main informers of their activity" (44). Indeed, as Bourriaud has articulated, "the artwork is presented as a _social interstice_ within which these experiments and these new 'life possibilities' appear to be possible. (45)" I argue that Michael Ano of ASAP and Kate Hers took up Bourriaud's theory, rethought it, and democratized it; thus, they expanded its terms, conditions, and trajectories -- all the while "camping it up."

On July 12, 2009, Michael Ano and Kate Hers organized "Fondue Aesthetics," which was an instantiation of "relational aesthetics" (otherwise) -- as well as a "participatory aesthetics," or emancipatory re-thinking of "relational aesthetics." For this event, the "Hess brothers" (Nic and Joshua, who are both Swiss, and thus parodying Bourriaud's deployment of Rirkrit Tiravanija's art practice) taught and made "authentic swiss fondu." All participants grated cheese, cut bread, as well as mixing other ingredients, poured wine, and drank and ate.

Without a doubt, it was a relational (and participatory) event and/as aesthetics. To draw from -- but also alter -- Bourriaud's theory, there was an activation and engagement with art (as a "techne") that instantiated and made evident "the sphere of human relations _as_ art work ..." (44; emphasis mine), and what took place at "Fondu Aesthetics" fostered and nurtured art as a practice of inter-subjective relationality and interaction between friends and others who would become friends, and, as Bourriaud has stated, relationality is "a point of departure" (44). This "departure" is worth thinking about because it did not leave, but rather it gathered together friends, acquaintances, strangers, and passer-bys.

That day I was to give a brief talk on Bourriaud's theorization of "relational aesthetics" and the critiques that have emerged, but as I saw, as well as participated in, the fondu making and eating, the conversations, the meandering and intricate conversations between close and superficial relationships (and I am implying no hierarchy) that ranged from gossip, to politics, to art, to the likes and dislikes of new books and movies, I realized that a form of "relational aesthetics" was _taking_ place in this space. I did not want to interrupt this event, these conversations that were taking place with a talk on what we kind-of already know, and what we were all already doing. I thought hat it would be best to have this relationality continue by skipping my talk (and no one seemed to mind. Indeed, the precarious role of the art historian: others do it better, and life makes better artistic statements).

That day I learned that "relational aesthetics" -- if we still want to call it that -- can, and does, take place on a daily basis: at lunch, over the phone, at the dinner table, walking down the street, in a gallery, in a supermarket. In sum, "relational aesthetics" takes place in and as life itself. I realized that this _was_ "relational aesthetics" -- but one without all the trappings of the gallery, art-historical histories, and institutional affirmations. It was _one_ (among many, to be sure) modality of an "aesthetics of existence," to draw from Michel Foucault. Yes, life and interaction is an art (a techne), and friendship is probably the highest form of "relational art" and "relational aesthetics." So, "relational aesthetics" was (and does) take place without the need of the art historian, critic, and/or curator -- let alone the gallery and/or museum. "Relational aesthetics" is something anyone can do, at any time, anywhere, anyway, and everyone, in fact, has enacted it. And, I argue, "Fondue Aesthetics" proved my position, my insight -- which is to say that the relationality and relationships we have are always various, multiple, and in and of the world, which is always to say with and for others -- relationally. Finally, "relational aesthetics" thought otherwise is an "aesthetics of existence." I think we need more of this in the world we inhabit, and more than this we need to nurture and cherish such aesthetics.

Robert Summers, PhD/ABD
Art History and Visual Culture
Otis College of Art and Design