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Relational Behaviour - on Bourriaud’s Law of Relocation

This is what we might call the Law of Relocation. Art only exercises its critical duty with regard to technology from the moment when it shifts its challenges. So the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers. On the other hand, those who produce so-called computer graphic” images, by manipulating synthetic fractals and images, usually fall into the trap of illustration. At best, their work is just symptom or gadget, or, worse still, the representation of a symbolic alienation from the computer medium, and the representation of their own alienation from methods dictated by production. So the function of representation is played out in behavioural patterns.(Bourriaud, 1998: pp67-68)

Is Bourriaud unjust to say that “the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers”? When so much work is made by artists who do use computer technology? Is there not inevitably a convergence between artistic spheres, as the majority look at these effects and respond? When it is inevitable that a convergence will take place, it is just a matter of when.

We must examine in detail the claims that are made against art made using New Media; specifically computers. Firstly, their impermanence and volatility as machines, in the hands of engineers. The work is notoriously difficult to preserve: “A race is on against the fast pace of technological change as scientists search for ways to preserve today's most innovative artworks.

A team of experts is warning that some of Britain's contemporary artistic landmarks will be no more than memories within a decade unless conservationists can effectively archive digital works and stop them degrading.” (Lloyd, 2011) It is true, that operating systems constantly update, and storage formats and devices do the same. It is not possible at the moment to treat computer based work as anything other than performance art which needs to be documented for posterity.

Bourriaud: “ The whole difficulty encountered by artists keen to embrace the state of technology,… consists in manufacturing something that will last, based on general, life-producing conditions which are essentially changeable. This is the challenge of modernity: “ Taking the eternal from the transitory” , yes, but also, and above all, inventing a coherent and fair work conduct in relation to the production methods of their time.” (Bourriaud, 1998: p68)

Here, Bourriaud is clearly referring to the patterns of production of digital media, which also concerned Brian Reffin-Smith in the 1970s. It is the case that the production of computer technology is often exploitative and softwares that aren’t open source are extremely expensive, despite their short life-spans.

This is obviously a contrast to a work of art which explores social relations over a bowl of soup: “ In the worlds constructed by these artists… objects are an intrinsic part of the language, with both regarded as vehicles of relations to the other. In a way, an object is every bit as immaterial as a phone call. And a work that consists in a dinner around a soup is every bit as material as a statue.” (Bourriaud,1998: p47)

Here, is clearly a description of ‘object relations’ as is found in psychoanalytic theory; the difficulty of describing a goal achieved through ‘objects’ which are merely facilitating that end.

Secondly, there is a type of convergence occuring between the digital art world in terms of curator/critic Domenico Quaranta’s ‘Media, New Media, Post Media’ and from the side of the Art World (proper), Claire Bishop’s ‘Digital Divide’. Both look at the issues from either side of the ‘chasm’ and it would be fair to say, very accurately document the difference.

Quaranta looks at the sympathetic context of the digital art world, or “Turing Land” (Manovich, 1996) as an unrivalled context for experimental work in New Media. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account the sophistication in aesthetic terms of some of the work that he himself promotes through curation. There is therefore a potential division between the more technically experimental work, and that work which embraces a sufficient level of sophistication - as found in Net Art, amongst practioners such as Jodi or Vuk Cosic.

Bourriaud describes the work of relational practioners: “ What they [relational artists] produce are relational space-time elements, inter-human experiences trying to rid themselves of the straitjacket of the ideology of mass communications, in a way, of the places where alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out. It is nevertheless quite clear that the age of the New Man, future oriented manifestos, and calls for a better world all ready to be walked into and lived in is well and truly over.” (Bourriaud, 1998: p44-45)

This is a sophisticated relationality, based on the Law of Relocation, not found on the other side of the digital divide. Bishop meanwhile, relates the work in “Duchamp Land” (Manovich, 1996) to the ‘other side’ in terms of the digital processes so many artists use. “Most art today deploys new technology at one if not most stages of its production, dissemination, and consumption. Multichannel video installations, Photoshopped images, digital prints, cut-and-pasted files (nowhere better exemplified than in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010): These are ubiquitous forms, their omnipresence facilitated by the accessibility and affordability of digital cameras and editing software.” (Bishop, 2012). Even the artists she mentions are ‘crossing that divide’: Cory Arcangel, Miltos Manetas, and have been for many years.

In that sense, Bourriaud’s Law of Relocation is holding on, just. His claim for it as superior to ‘artists who actually use computers’ is a difficult call to make. Meanwhile, "The threat is very real that, unless we do something, we will have a 'lost generation' in terms of our cultural heritage," said Dr David Anderson, who, together with his colleague Dr Janet Delve at the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth, is leading efforts to save the more complex artworks of the digital age from oblivion.” (Lloyd, 2011)

So, on the one hand we have Relational Aesthetics, while on the other Post Media. As Quaranta puts it: “It [New Media Art World] needs to recognize and proudly accept the entrance of some of the fruits of its labours into the contemporary art world, and not condemn this as a deplorable surrender to market pressures. It needs to recognize the cultural necessity of the practices it cultivates. And, like every other art world, it needs to take a look outside of itself, because only an unprejudiced dialogue with contemporary art can stop it from becoming fossilized as an ingenuous “exaltation of the medium,” as has happened all too often in recent years.” So, Quaranta is encouraging a ‘crossing’, by some of the work. And Bishop seems receptive to that possibility, as she ‘finds it strange’ that there aren’t more works that “do seem to undertake this task: the flirtations between Frances Stark and various Italian cyberlovers in her video My Best Thing, 2011; Thomas Hirschhorn’s video of a finger idly scrolling through gruesome images of blown-apart bodies on a touch screen, occasionally pausing to enlarge, zoom in, move on (Touching Reality, 2012); the frenetic, garbled scripts of Ryan Trecartin’s videos (such as K-Corea INC.K [Section A], 2009). Each suggests the endlessly disposable, rapidly mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our consumption of relationships, images, and communication; each articulates something of the troubling oscillation between intimacy and distance that characterizes our new technological regime, and proposes an incommensurability between our doggedly physiological lives and the screens to which we are glued.” (Bishop, 2012) Bishop can see how art practices have addressed the effect of the digital on culture: “But when we examine these dominant forms of contemporary art more closely, their operational logic and systems of spectatorship prove intimately connected to the technological revolution we are undergoing .” - Bourriaud’s Law of Relocation.

And so, “In the contemporary art arena New Media Art is only allowed to exist if it abandons its techno-centric outlook and the very term that identifies it.” (Quaranta, 2011) Back to Bourriaud and the sophistication of Relational Aesthetics.

And yet we can see the limitations of Bourriaud’s thinking in terms of New Media Art: “ The fate of the cinema (or computer science), as a technology that can be used in the other arts, thus has nothing to do with the form of the film, contrary to what is maintained by the horde of opportunists who transfer onto film (or computer ) lines of thinking hailing from the 19 th century… [there is] more computer graphic thinking in the rhizomes of the Ramo Nash Club and Douglas Gordon’ s activities than in those cobbled together synthetic images driven by a craftsmanship labelled as the most reactionary of the moment.” (Bourriaud,1998: p73) Here, Bourriaud seems to be referring to the Computer Graphics Industry, rather than art made with computers.

It therefore seems to be a matter of seeing the digital art as relational, performative and mostly impermanent and not ‘ technocentric ’ - although in contemporary culture this is perhaps increasingly difficult - for it to be integral to the art world proper.

Sarah Thompson 02.10.12





Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses Du Reel, 1998



Claire Bishop, Digital Divide, Artforum, September 2012, last accessed 07.09.12


Hilary Lloyd

last accessed 10.05.2011


Domenico Quaranta, Media, New Media, Post Media,

last accessed 29.01.11