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    Relational Art and Social Value

    Vytas Narusevicius

    (This is the sixth in a series of research projects being developed by Graduate Students at Emily Carr Institute.)

    Recent artistic practices employing relational aesthetics have re-legitimized socially driven and performative artistic works. These artworks create situations where face-to-face relationships between people develop and where communities beyond prescribed commercial or institutional forms establish themselves. My research for the next two years investigates how relationally derived art can have social value. Through free discussion groups centered on the viewing of polemic films or debating social issues, I am experimenting with the possibility of creating communities where participants engage in conversational practices for their own purposes. The idea is to examine how relational artistic situations provide for positive social interaction through the discussion of informative issues. My research focuses on face-to-face discussion groups to open new windows for discourse, and to determine if communities and their socializing effects can emerge in the provided artistic spaces.

    In November 2006, my research will start with a planned discussion group based on the viewing and the discussion of La Commune, Peter Watkins’ rarely seen 1999 film. La Commune is a film about the Paris Commune of 1871, when the citizens of Paris took control of the city in attempt to transform everyday life in a non-hierarchical way. The film bridges the past and present as it investigates issues that are just as relevant today as in 1871, such as urban displacement and gentrification, public/private space, what defines a community, discrepancies of wealth, and globalization. La Commune Discussion Group will introduce the movie to viewers and offer the opportunity to build a new community of interested people who would like to explore the questions raised by the film. Admission is free and everyone is welcome. The goal is to create the relaxed atmosphere of an everyday movie and snack that includes a discussion. Additional discussion groups will be created on an ongoing monthly basis.

    Investigating the value of face-to-face social interactions is central to my research. There are three major areas that I wish to examine. First, I will use the relational aesthetics model where the art is in essence the establishment of a community through the vehicle of face-to-face conversation. The objective is to setup situations where discussion deepens the collective dynamic and the group identity. Second, I will study how effective spaces of resistance can be set up to debate issues that are typically not addressed in the mass media. A space will be provided where people can come of their own free will, where there are no economic or institutional barriers to entry, and where real human contacts are still possible. This space is outside the structuring mechanisms of both institutions such as schools and commercial places such as pubs or cafes; it resides instead in-between them. The safety of such a space promotes the everyday tradition of spontaneous and diverse communication. Lastly, I will question whether this type of intersubjective discourse is helpful in activating the communal debating habit of reassessing one’s opinion within the community of others. The outcomes of the research will be summarized from the discussion group notes in the form of comments, writings or drawings that the participants will be encouraged to make during the meetings. Web forums will be set up to solicit comments and thoughts in between scheduled events for an ongoing dialogue. While I view the conversation in these discussion groups as the artwork itself, my objective is to also build other visual interpretations of the dialogues in the form of multimedia installations. These installations and the final research will be displayed at the Emily Carr Institute.

    Informing my research is the notion of relational aesthetics, first introduced by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the late 1990s. Today international artists such as Rirkrit Tirvanija, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe and Thomas Hirschhorn employ relational strategies. Relational art works seek to establish face-to-face encounters where the viewers are not just a passive audience, but are given the opportunity to create a community, if only for a moment. The utopian sounding objective of relational artists—to inhabiting the world in a better way, is really about finding solutions in the here and now. They are interested with setting up functioning microtopias in the present instead of all-encompassing utopias in the future. Face-to-face interactions are more than the exchange of language; they are performative in that they engage all of the human senses and incorporate a whole host of gestures such as looking, touching, learning, sharing, lending and giving support. Relational artwork represents a social interstice through the creation of free areas of dialogue that encourage participants to ask questions, to respond, to disagree, and to rely on the possibility of mutual understanding.

    Clearly dialogue is also an area that can be filled with potential dangers. The games played within discourses are extremely complicated, and as Michel Foucault claims, the discursive moment is indistinguishable from the exercise of power itself. However, I hope to show the productive and liberating dimensions of face-to-face relations and the fact that there are many different ways to creatively employ language in the process of social discourse. The philosophical grounding of this notion is found in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Jürgen Habermas, among others, who argue that all meaning comes about only as a result of the relation between subjects. The exciting part of this research is that it is experimental and that genuine intersubjectivity is open ended, risky and unpredictable.

    I have just begun the Masters of Applied Arts program at the Emily Carr Institute. This demanding program requires courses in research methods, advanced studio theory, a collaborative project, a written thesis and visual project, as well as a four-month internship. The internship will allow for the practical application of my research methods in a professional context. The background I have in the technology business attests to the fact that I am very dedicated and motivated, a natural self-starter, and very capable of completing whatever I start. I have chosen to undertake my MAA at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design because of the shared importance given to both the conceptual and technical development of visual art and the possibilities available for innovative interdisciplinary research. I see completing a Masters of Applied Arts at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design as an essential way to enrich my artistic practice and to provide me with the skills and qualifications necessary to pursue both a career as an artist-researcher and an educator.

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