How should the artistic production of the current period be defined? The aesthetics of the neoliberal age have proved difficult to pinpoint. In architecture, typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms—albeit emptied of political or theoretical content—in the showpiece buildings of figures such as Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind. In the realm of art, meanwhile, the wilful amorality and egoism of the 80s and 90s, whether of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, has given way to an ostensibly more serious, high-minded tone and a revival of interest in 20th-century avant-gardes. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism—or does it merely mark the arrival of a pseudomodernism of the gallery, to go with the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?
The work of the writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud is one of the most prominent attempts to define, defend and evaluate the art of recent years. Bourriaud is best known for his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics, translated into English in 2002, which treated the interactivity and audience participation of late-90s conceptual art as a significant artistic paradigm in itself. Works by Pierre Huyghe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Liam Gillick and others were held to ‘produce relations’ with the viewer which supposedly transcend the divide between artist and consumer. Here ‘the beholder contributes his whole body’—as with the winding slide installed in Tate Modern by Carsten Höller—in a setting described as ‘convivial, user-friendly . . . festive, collective and participatory’. This was an art of enclaves, of ‘micro-utopias’ which replaced any notion that the world (outside the momentary relation reproduced in the gallery space) could be transformed.
The term ‘relational art’ was rapidly taken up in the art-world, to the point where it became a cliché. Despite the unappealing qualities of Bourriaud’s style—a mix of unlovely prose, sententious theoretical reflections and noxious flattery of favoured artists—his concepts were even taken seriously by theorists and critics outside the gallery circuit; there was a notably ill-tempered exchange around them in the pages of October. Bourriaud’s interest in works that produce ‘relations’ might be seen as a depoliticized version of Situationist attempts to disrupt consumption and spectacle; as Bourriaud himself puts it, relational art ‘updates Situationism [sic] and reconciles it, as far as it is possible, with the art world’. The impression of postmodern fatalism was reinforced by Postproduction (2002), in which Bourriaud rebranded contemporary art as ‘a set of activities linked with the service industry and recycling’, with the artist akin to the ‘dj or the programmer’, a ‘semionaut’ who ‘inserts their own work into that of others’. Among examples of artists referencing and ‘remaking’ works from the (often recent) past, he cites Pierre Huyghe’s banlieue-set remake of Rear Window or Douglas Gordon’s Hitchcock tribute, 24 Hour Psycho. Comparisons between this kind of citation and the sampling of hip-hop, techno or jungle are unconvincing: no acquaintance with the originals is necessary for listeners to appreciate the hundreds of tracks based on them, whereas the allusions of video artists to Hitchcock or Fassbinder are relentlessly tedious for anyone who has not seen the films in question, and frequently for them also. Besides, even with the participatory relational trimmings, the most immersive gallery environment is unable to compete with the coldest of clubs.
Postproduction was symptomatic in its unashamed praise for the derivative nature of contemporary art, where ‘the issue is no longer to fabricate an object, but to choose one amongst those that exist, and use or modify it according to a specific intention’; the ad hoc pile-up of goods of the flea market became an artistic paradigm. Again we find a deliberate depoliticization of the Situationists, this time with reference to their theory of détournement, here made over into a ‘utilization’ of that which already exists rather than its ‘devalorization’. Bourriaud also expressed a marked hostility to modernism as anything other than source material, in a manner wholly familiar after thirty years of postmodernism:
The end of the Modernist telos (the notions of progress and the avant-garde) opens a new space for thought; what is now at stake is to positivize the remake, to articulate uses, to place forms in relation to each other, rather than to embark on the heroic quest for the forbidden and the sublime that characterized modernism.
It is all the more surprising, then, to find Bourriaud now declaring postmodernism dead and buried, and attempting to put a rejuvenated modernism in its place. ‘Altermodern’ is his term for this new art-historical moment, and also the title for Tate Britain’s fourth Triennial exhibition, which he curated earlier this year. In what does it consist? Bourriaud and his stable of artists and essayists go some way towards defining the Altermodern in the catalogue for the exhibition, but a more sustained attempt can be found in The Radicant. This slim book takes its title from an opposition Bourriaud sets up between ‘roots’ and ‘radicants’ in order to criticize postmodernism, globalization and (a certain kind of) multiculturalism, all now held to demand an identity politics of groundedness and nationality. He defines the radicant as:
a term designating an organism that grows its roots and adds new ones as it advances. To be radicant means setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them the power to completely define one’s identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing.