When I was first offered a project of relational art as part of my graduate poetics seminar in art, technology and practice, I noticed a near-immediate surge of ― not misgivings, per se, but definite resistance — to creating an art project that falls under the “really cool/weird/interesting/unexpected social experiment” umbrella.
I had been studying Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which he defines as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” In other words, art is re-positioned as not a still life on a wall that one should gaze at, alone, in a museum gallery, but as a social experience.
Personally, as a viewer, I am pretty attracted to these types of public/social art experiences, which can range from a disrupted public space or environment to a meal cooked for participants to nightmare inductions.
But when it came time to think about my relationship to art as an artist, I found myself feeling a contrary tension summed up as: I am a writer, so why do I need to create a social experiment to fulfill an assignment ― or to engage the public in my art — when my main drive as an artist is to simply write in a way that will connect with people, something that on its own is challenging enough? Could this be a version of rejecting the concept of poetics entirely, as a statement of one’s poetics? I wondered. Even as I did, I toyed along with my collaborator, Dave, with some ideas for a relational art project that seemed interesting to me as a consumer, or experiencer, of art, at least: Engaging the public in a group storytelling project, whereby we would use a social medium such as Twitter or Tumblr to construct one story written by as many contributors as we could involve. Or a confessional project (my current major theme is mining the personal unknown) that would invite strangers to submit secrets anonymously that would then be released in a public/digital unburdening. At first I felt drawn to these ideas, but I realized quickly I was feeling drawn to them as an art consumer, not as an artist/curator/creator. I felt resistance at the thought of morphing from writer to event curator. Interestingly, some of the key criticism of Bourriaud’s theories argues that relational art is in fact simply another form of capitalism of artistic expression because it in effect turns artists into directors, curators, project managers and, as such, stars, of their “event”; the directorial act then becomes the spectacle, collecting the cultural capital — the event becomes an institution overshadowing the work itself.
I don’t reject poetics, and I don’t believe the artist must disappear (Barthes’ death of the author). But I did begin to feel that the ideas I hatched early on would train attention and focus on myself as curator or project manager of a project/event and that ultimately wasn’t central to the message I wanted to project about my art. I thought about how I feel about writing, how I am engaging with the act and form of it at this point in my life and career. I think of writing as a solitary, hidden event, an alchemic activity that leads eventually to some words filling pages and screens and eventually human minds. I thought about my challenges writing ― attributed too often to “not enough time” or “it’s lonely.”
Dave and I spoke at length about our similar approach to work, and our thoughts particularly on autobiographical writing and on engaging audiences as a means of interpersonal connection ― the experience of connecting to the art viewer or experience is important to me and to him. With more thought, the project idea changed from a confessional or Twitter content experience to one focused on helping the public see the writer, and allowing the writer to be seen.
We created a writer’s studio, complete with stereotypical trappings — lamp, stack of writing how-to books, thesaurus, and supplies ― and placed it into a public park in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The studio was carefully thought-out and designed to communicate the project at hand (without the artists having to speak). The desk, which we purchased at Goodwill and then refinished, was covered during the first part of the day with black Sharpie in pithy sayings about writing, favorite quotes, and excerpts from known and unknown works.
A public call was made for a write-in: Our writing community, and the general public, could join our writing session for any amount of time; writing materials provided. Passersby and participants — both remote and in person ― were invited to add their Sharpied words to the writer’s desk.
Endurance was a factor in our decision to spend one full work day writing in the park studio: This directly addressed my oft excuse, “I have no time.” What would happen if I devoted 9 hours straight to creative writing — something that as a full-time worker, mother and student, I rarely if ever have had the opportunity to do (my writing time comes in bits and pieces)?
For me at least, positioning a writing desk in a public/social space and then sitting there writing seemed to be engaging with my poetics more than another exercise more removed from my own most authentic art ― the act of writing. Even when it is boring (because it often is), even when I want to distract myself or get up and leave, or procrastinate, or run out of time, to be a writer I must write. Art is sometimes boring. Art is hard work. Art is isolating. Forcing people first and foremost to see what making art really looks like, then, and secondly, encouraging them to participate parallel to the artist, seemed a most real and authentic approach to relational art, to me. I considered to a good extent my audience (Bourriaud believes the viewer experience should become the art) and felt viewers had much to gain from my project: A chance to engage with an act of art that often remains hidden; an invitation to consider their own relationship to writing (which some did), and an opportunity to contribute to the project via the collectively scribed writer’s desk ― the sum total a communal act of both seeing and supporting the artist.
The purpose of relational art, according to Bourriaud, is to create a social circumstance; “art is a state of encounter,” he writes. Measuring by this, we succeeded. Over the course of the day, many people engaged with us. Passersby slowed or stopped and looked curiously at us. Many read the desk writings from near and far. Many people asked, “What are you doing?” We began by answering simply, “Writing,” and we were surprised to see that satisfied most people, who then slowly moved on. The park was frequented by several dozen homeless residents on the neighborhood over the course of the day, and many of them engaged with us. We were asked if we were providing psychiatric services, and if we were where to “sign up for a trip to Bora Bora.” One gentleman passed by no less than 6 times over the course of the day, finally on his last pass speaking to us to say he began reading Ray Bradbury (quoted on the desk) as a boy and was deeply impacted by him. Writers sent us quotes, and came by to write on the writer’s desk themselves. A small coterie of writers sat with us at various times of the day and wrote. Over Facebook writers and observers sent thoughts and expressed their interest.
Certainly secondary on the Bourriaud scale, where experience is primary (is the desired product), my day resulted in less written product than I thought it would. The park, with its many outside noises, people-turned-audience and purposes, was distracting, more so than say a coffee shop, which typically I have no trouble being productive in. I was focused on the space and the experience of the observer, ironically becoming an event curator, a director, anyway. I learned that, for me, a long swath of time to write does not necessarily mean I will write what or how I decree I will. In the end, on the traditional “product” front, I confirmed that writing is an enchantment that cannot be commanded, but can be performed.