The social contract, relational art and autómata: Reactions and Interactions
Although we may consider ourselves tolerant people, when our neighbors seem to transgress certain social norms, we may see a break that leads us to call for our rights. If the neighbors are from another culture, or “tribe”, their rules are probably different from ours.
When I was 12, my favorite TV show was “Las reglas del juego” (The Rules of the Game) (TVE, National Spanish Televisión, 1977) a series of anthropological documentaries that analyzed the principles by which modern societies are governed. Directed and presented by José Antonio Jáuregui, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, he thought that the behavioral mechanisms related to social life, such as shame, language, social norms and even religion, are innate and universal in the human species.
Many years later, during a visit to London in 2000, I attended the exhibition "Intelligence: New British Art 2000" at the Tate Gallery. I discovered with surprise a project called "The Folk Archive", a visual account of contemporary popular British culture that artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane had begun the previous year. This project culminated in 2007 with its acquisition by the British Council and the creation of a virtual museum (http://www.britishcouncil.org/folkarchive/folk.html).
Deller and Kane had transformed their own artistic work into something which could be labelled an anthropological study of British customs.
Deller is considered one of the main figures of “relational art”. This art practice places greater emphasis on the relationships established between, and with, the audience of the artistic dynamic rather than on any artistic object. Works that are identified with this artistic movement tend to be situated in everyday activities and contexts.
The first uses of the term "relational art" are attributed to Nicolas Bourriaud, former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, who used it in the title of his book, Relationnelle Esthetique (Relational Aesthetics) ( Les presses du réelle, 1998) and in 1996, in the exhibition catalog "Traffic" curated by himself.
Bourriaud posited that the close relationships that the city generates have transformed the conception of artistic activity. For him, the presence of the relational factor in artistic practice responds to a pressing need to encourage the recovery and reconstruction of social nets in a society of split subjects, isolated and reduced to the status of mere passive consumers.
Luckily, for the viewers of our exhibition we do not ask him or her for any action, so the critics of this art form, led by Stephen Wright, can relax. Nothing is needed beyond a reflection upon our behaviors. Or not even that: mere contemplation is also worthwhile.
One of the things we may choose to contemplate are the terms of the “social contract” that structures some of our relations. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique), a work on political philosophy that primarily speeks about the freedom and equality of “men” living under a State established by a social contract. To live in this society, so the theory goes, human beings agree to an implicit social contract that gives them certain rights in exchange for giving up the freedom that would otherwise be available in the state of nature. As such, the rights and duties of individuals constitute the terms of the social contract, while the State is the entity created to enforce the contract. But the rights and duties are not immutable or natural. And a greater number of rights implies greater duties, whilst fewer rights means fewer duties. This is a very contentious area of discourse in Europe at present.
Mauro Entrialgo’s profound knowledge of human relationships, as seen through his comics – we have a little sample in the exhibition – presents the vision, "From my windows", of what happens around him. For him, these “reactions/interactions” are just “little moments of my life”. Situations and attitudes that clash and that he reveals, seeking our complicity in a shared laugh.
Pilar Baizán has similar concerns, but to analyze the quarter (or “community”) where she lives, she prefers to rely on sociological studies to support her thesis. Both Baizan and Entrialgo live in neighborhoods that being gentrified. They analyze this process with compassion and without bitterness.
In the exhibition we also present a fanzine, “Sanfranzine” made in this neighbourhood during a workshop designed to empower a local community under pressure. We present a book “El barrio de San Francisco en Bilbao. Un polo artístico” (The district of San Francisco in Bilbao. An artistic kernel)
Jai Du also presents an autobiographical view of a European town, but if Baizán and Entrialgo are part of the regeneration of degraded neighbourhoods undergoing gentrification, she speaks from the other side. She is part of the immigrant community – in her case, living in Germany – who are denigrated by the mere fact of being. Through her poetry she tells of her bitter experience as such. A painful experience that reminds us of the people who may never have a voice.
I wonder if “the Turk”, the automaton chess player of Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), that interacted with chess masters around the world would have worried about all this if he had not been himself a fake. Jacques de Vaucanson’s “Le canard digérateur”, hailed in 1739 as the first automaton capable of digestion was also a fake. The city buses in the work of Daniel Romero that we see interacting in the exhibition are real. Do they dream of electric sheep like Philip K. Dick’s androids?
Finally, turning to the music-making plants of the artist collective uh513, we could ask ourseleves the classic question of whether plants suffer when eat them. We cannot say for sure that they are suffer, but we can be sure that they react. The sun, irrigation, wind, and so on generate different flows of electricity depending on the circumstances. Through electronic interfaces these artists give the plants the possibility to interact with us.
We communicate through our behaviors.
Txema Agiriano, March 2014
Publicado originalmente en el catálogo de la exposición Reactions and Interactions,
Verge Gallery, Sydney (Australia) Abril 2014