“I can’t change anything,” Santiago Sierra says quoted in Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (October, 2006). “There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe art should do something, something that follows reality. But I don’t believe in the possibility of change.”
After a morning browsing through Sierra’s work on his website, the world seems about as bleek and grainy as his B/W documentation photos. Orchestrated jams, tires burning in a quiet street, cars rented and scratched, people rented and tattooed, lots of people paid to do things or have things done to them (many of which NSFW).
ASIDE: What is the difference between the NSFW of 4chan and the NSFW of an artist?
The walls of the gallery are coming down. Sierra pays people a few pesos to keep it up. That’s a fair bit more relationally antagonistic than say a cookout in a gallery, as Bishop points out, because it exposes “that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of [social] harmony” – a harmony sustained by much of artistic, participatory art production (79).
For the 2003 Venice Biennale Sierra produced the Wall Enclosing a Space. In this work, the main entrance of the Spanish Pavilion was walled off with only a concealed back entrance open to passport wielding Spaniards. Bishop uses this work to elaborate and critique Nicolas Bourriaud’s conception of relational art – art that is incomplete and that through its facilitation of collective interpretation finds completion. The dynamic element of participants and context complete relational art. Of Wall Enclosing a Space, Bishop writes, “it problematized any idea of these relations being fluid and unconstrained by exposing how all our interactions are, like public space, riven with social and legal exclusions” (74). There isn’t the “feel-good position” as one might have eating Tiravanija’s pad thai. Rather there is a working out by the viewer in Wall Enclosing Space of the limits that define their necessary exclusion.
ASIDE: I often get an acute awareness of these same social barriers when I read an artist’s statement.
I’m interested in Wall Enclosing a Space, because it reminds me of many privately-owned public spaces in New York. Some of them actually look like Wall Enclosing a Space. Many actually simply are a wall enclosing a space.
It is this curious (and uncomfortable) production of exclusive spaces expressly for the general public that places privately-owned public spaces in with the sublime works of art and installation that Claire Bishop challenges artist to consider producing. These spaces are relationally antagonistic. Can I really sit here? Am I sure the rent-a-cop will let me eat my pad thai? These spaces also expose any semblance of social harmony as mere landscaping – the space is only complete when there is no-one in it. Humans and their ungodly proportions are an abhorrence.
POPS may very well be a subconscious production of relational art by capital and legal code. Although, the wide spread sanction for this kind of art does suggest something more deliberate. Event the worst kind is celebrated as a landmark artistic achievement. Wall Enclosing a Space is POPS at MoMA.
So then, perhaps we should embrace these spaces. Perhaps we should celebrate them as the Untitled productions of repressed corporate imagination, capital, and neo-liberal free market governance.
“When confronted by a relational art work, Bourriaud suggests that we ask the following questions: ‘does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the space it defines?’ … could I live, for instance, in a world structured by the self organizing principles of a Mondrian painting?” (64)
We ought actively engage these art forms, the POPS, not because they clearly are completed when we engage them as active art, but to challenge ourselves to imagine new social horizons. Horizons that can open up when we frequent these spaces, take friends to these spaces, eat pad-thai in these spaces – to confront our repressed desires for social harmony by sitting on awkward benches and shallow stairs.
What strikes me as the scene in Zuccotti Park was that of social harmony rather than disharmony. The picture was perfect. People ruined it. It was the arrangement, the camping, the sanitation, the bodies, the presence of the body that was found repulsive. This was the stain on the block. It was the tent in the grid.