The Communication Zone: Serving All Your Communication Needs

In “Relational Aesthetics,” Bourriaud defines the nature of the contemporary art exhibition, stating, “…it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the ‘communication zones’ that are imposed upon us.  The present-day social context restricts the possibilities of inter-human relations all the more because it creates spaces planned to this end…The automatic cash machine has become the transit model for the most elementary of social functions, and professional behaviour patterns are modeled on the efficiency of the machines replacing them, these machines carrying out tasks which once represented so many opportunities for exchanges, pleasure and squabbling” (16-17)

Although it is true, as Bourriaud suggests, that more and more jobs are being mechanized and automated, the value or quality of the exchanges that have become subsumed in technology is questionable.  Sure, the teller and I may have exchanged some pleasantries while he processed my deposit, but isn’t he just doing his job?  Equally often I would confront the disenchanted and hostile teller, who clearly doesn’t care about me, or his job.  And then, there is the teller whose language and tone give away the fact that he is mentally reading from a script, and I feel more inconsequential, more like a customer whose satisfaction their company depends on, than when interacting with the hostile teller, who at least is expressing some genuine emotion.

I would describe my interaction with the enthusiastic bank teller, which is obviously mediated by the bank that he works for, as a ‘communication zone’ (to use Bourriaud’s phrase) that is imposed upon me.  I derive no satisfaction from executing financial transactions with this script-reader as opposed to an ATM.  And with some participatory or interactive art, I feel exactly as if I am in a constructed ‘communication zone.’  In the Tino Sehgal piece at the Guggenheim this past summer entitled, “This Progress,” museum-goers were confronted by actors who posed various questions regarding the nature of progress.  This type of forced participation, (granted you probably knew what you were getting into if you decided to ascend the ramp) feels just as disingenuous to me as my interaction with the teller.  I am aware that the person I am interacting with is reading from a script, and is treating me no differently that the last person.  Although I am being asked a question, this is not communication.

Jed Perl, a professor at NSSR and contributor to the New Republic, wrote an article over the summer, which seems somewhat relevant to our discussion of politics and art, called “Social Action.”  Unapologetically in favor of a line to be drawn between social experience and visual experience, he is a harsh critic of Sehgal.  “I go to museums to have private responses to something that somebody else has made, not to become a part of their shtick” (29).  For Perl, Sehgal’s interactive piece conflicts with Perl’s rather classical definition and expectation of art.  Art is an object that an artist has made, and is something that the viewer can have a private experience with. “The expectation that a work of art is a stable fact to which the audience freely responds has been replaced by the assumption that a work of art is a speculative act meant to trip up or divert or otherwise grab the attention of the public” (29).  Thus, in Perl, we have a definition of art opposite to that of Bourriaud and Deleuze (although these two differ from each other), a definition that requires stability from the art, but allows freedom to the audience.  In other words, as Deleuze would say, Perl does not allow for art’s “becoming.”

Claire Bishop, in “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” speaks about the difficulty in evaluating social artworks that are indifferent to aesthetics.  For her (and through a paraphrase of Ranciere), the question is not whether social action or formalist painting is more valid as art, it is how the two push and pull on each other, unsettling, and upsetting, rather establishing stability on either end.  “As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has observed, this denigration of the aesthetic ignores the fact that the system of art as we understand it in the West-the “aesthetic regime of art” inaugurated by Friedrich Schiller and the Romantics and still operative to this day-is predicated precisely on a confusion between art’s autonomy (its position at one remove from instrumental rationality) and heteronomy (its blurring of art and life). Untangling this knot-or ignoring it by seeking more concrete ends for art-is slightly to miss the point, since the aesthetic is, according to Rancière, the ability to think contradiction: the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change, characterized precisely by that tension between faith in art’s autonomy and belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come. For Rancière the aesthetic doesn’t need to be sacrificed at the altar of social change, as it already inherently contains this ameliorative promise” (“The Social Turn” Bishop).  Initially sympathizing more with Perl than with Bourriaud, I appreciate the argument of Bishop and Ranciere, who seek to highlight the tension or the contradiction of these two seemingly opposing paths.  Because it is not in absolute autonomy or heteronomy that art will be most relevant, but rather, in this liminal space.

Hilary Price

One Response to “The Communication Zone: Serving All Your Communication Needs”

  1. Great points, especially as we all grapple with that “push-pull” relationship between art/aesthetics and social action/responsibility — whether in our own work or that of others.

    Similarly, in the debate over art’s ‘value’ — its relationship to market forces — it’s also key to put these debates in their historical context, because there’s always been this painful contradiction between artistic evolution and the structures of commerce/value that have supported artmakers. Since the grand tradition of Western painting owes its existence in part to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the market (see John Berger), it has experienced its greatest innovations either at the expense of this uneasy relationship or due to it entirely. And since modernism can be (grossly) distilled to an examination of what constitutes and defines art, we are naturally pushed toward examining these relationships and tensions — between artistic independence and commerce, between aesthetics and social change — in all their terrifying extremes, perplexing knots, and fascinating possibilities.

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