Fot evidence of art’s recent love affair with “interactivity” and “connectivity,” one need look no further than the pair of digital art surveys currently playing at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For less literal proof, however, one might consider the recent appointment of Nicolas Bourriaud as codirector, with Jerome Sans, of the newly created Palais de Tokyo contemporary art center in Paris. As a young critic in the ’90s, Bourriaud offered one of the earliest readings of the emergent metaphors of artistic production engendered by information culture. The name he coined for his ideas–”relational aesthetics”–would become the title of his first book of criticism in 1997 and one of the more frequently heard catchphrases, at least in Europe, when it came to the practices of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Maurizio Cattelan, and Vanessa Beecroft, all of whom were included in Bourriaud’s 1996 exhibition “Traffic” at th e capcMusee d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux.
Relational aesthetics was formulated at an auspicious moment in the technological arc of ’90s art. Midway between the critical and socially diffuse ethos of institutional critique at the beginning of the decade and art’s full-tilt into entertainment and digital production by decade’s end, it might be said that Bourriaud anticipated the future by looking backward. Hardly a techie, Bourriaud was greatly influenced by critical art’s focus on the sphere of reception, which had newly privileged questions of site and audience, and on the social network of art itself. By the mid-’90s, however, the artists with whom Bourriaud worked most closely tended to locate their practices not in relation to art’s own apparatuses but in the metaphorical (and often literal) spaces colonized by mass media and spectacle culture. In Bourriaud’s framework, artists like Tiravanija and Beecroft had become postpolitical producers of cultural services: get people together, give them some terms, provide an experience. Indeed, against the quintessentially late-’90s backdrop of dot-comism and user empowerment, relational aesthetics seems most a product of its time. With Bourriaud’s third book, Post-Production, due out this fall (Lukas & Sternberg) and the English translation of Esthetique relationnelle (les Presses du Reel, 1997) set to appear later this year, I sat down with the curator in February in the start-up-style offices of the Palais de Tokyo to ask him how his ideas are evolving.