The ontological factor: On community-based and relational art

This past Friday, Nina Möntmann held a lecture on ”Transforming Communities” at the seminar for advanced art theory at the Valand School of Fine Art. Below are some of my own thoughts on the rise of community-based art.

In ”Community service” (Frieze Magazine, issue 102), Nina Möntmann states:

Recent models for community-based art that incorporate social relations as an element of the art work itself need to be considered against a broader historical background: the rolling back of Western welfare systems, the collapse of state-organized social infrastructure in Eastern Europe and the chronic lack of institutional networks in various regions of the Southern hemisphere. The specific notion of ”˜community”™ brought to bear in a given art project is, hence, inseparably linked to the views on action and co-existence prevailing within the respective societal context.

Similarly, in Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud contextualises relational art in the commercialised and marketised Western societies:

We feel meagre and helpless when faced with the electronic media, theme parks, user-friendly places, and the spread of compatible forms of sociability, like the laboratory rat in its cage, littered with chunks of cheese. The ideal subject of the society of extras is thus reduced to the condition of a consumer of time and space.

For anything that cannot be marketed will inevitably vanish. Before long, it will not be possible to maintain relationships between people outside these trading areas. […] The social bond has turned into a standardised artifact. The relationship between people, as symbolised by goods or replaced by them, and signposted by logos, has to take on extreme and clandestine forms, if it is to dodge the empire of predictability. […] Herein lies the most burning issue to do with art today: is it still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field art history traditionally earmarked for their ”representation”? (8-9)

Thus, both authors finds it useful to situate – and to some degree explain – the rise of community-based and relational art with reference to the notion of the ”social environment”, introduced by sociologists during the 20th century: Contemporary modes of artistic practice are to be understood as resonant with a certain ”social condition”, sketched in somewhat sweeping terms.

New ontologies

It is, nevertheless, curious to see such ”sociologising” exercises conducted within art history and art theory, at a time when sociologists are abandoning the notion of the social milieu. For instance, Bruno Latour has spent the past few years promoting Gabriel Tarde – the original critic of Emile Durkheim’s hugely influential ideas about the ex nihilo existance of the social environment – within social theory, sociology and anthropology. This renewed interest in ”social ontology” is not only reflected within the work of Latour and other scholars close to ANT and the STS field, but also within the growing community of Deleuze-inspired theorists (Manuel DeLanda being the foremost one).

In reference to the above-mentioned art practices, the social ontologies currently evolving are not only interesting because they challenge the old-school ways of ”sociologising” the world. More interestingly, these social ontologies dovetail quite nicely with the worldviews expressed in these artworks themselves. In these works of art, as well as in social theory, there has been an ontological shift: substituting ”being” with ”becoming”, and – as Bourriaud writes – substituting ”form” with ”formation”. Similarly, the notion of ”the political” is re-construed: Politics is no longer related to battles between certain groups or perspectives, or the representation of such perspectives; the political is to be found in the very construction or assembly of (new) political agencies.

The fact that this new ontology has political implications is not only explicit within social theory. It is also a prominent theme within art theory. Thus, Bourriaud writes:

Contemporary art is definitely developing a political project when it endeavours to move into the relational realm by turning it into an issue. (17)

The approach of this text – relating contemporary notions of social ontology to contemporary art – allows us to explore new perspectives on community-based and relational art practices. In other words, these art practices do not have be seen as consequences of (or comments upon) a neoliberalised, commercialised and marketised social environment where communities are not granted a voice, and where ”genuine” relationships among humans are usurped by artificial, standardised and commodified ones. Rather, they may be seen as a part of an ”epidemic” of new ontological positions – a contagion of new ”conceptual machines” – spreading concurrently within art, social theory, architecture/urban planning, design, political science and elsewhere.

While the this conceptual machine has spread across many disciplines, this text will focus solely on art practice and social theory. Below, the work of one-time actor-network theorists Bruno Latour and Michel Callon will be discussed in relation to Möntmann’s and Bourriaud’s analyses of contemporary art.

Latour’s assemblies

As already mentioned, Bruno Latour has recently written (and talked) at length about the Tardian approach to the social, construed as ”nothing” but associated individuals that spread behaviours, tastes and desires through imitating each other. This, he argues, radically changes the notion of the political: The political is not to be found in the ex nihilo structures put forward by Durkheim, but in the assembly of those structures (through the three Tardian universals – association, invention and imitation).

Here, we can briefly note that Deleuze and Guattari make a similar comparison between Tarde and Durkheim in A Thousand Plateaus:

Durkheim”™s preferred objects of study were the great collective representations, which are generally binary, resonant, and overcoded. Tarde countered that collective representations presuppose exactly what explaining, namely, ”the similarity of millions of people”. That is why Tarde was interested instead in the world of detail, or in the infinitesimal: the little imitations, oppositions, and inventions constituting an entire realm of subrepresentative matter. (218)

As we shall see below, Tarde’s ”molecular” approach to the ontology of social structures dovetails with the molecular politics that D&G espouses. More specifically, it resonates with the Guattari that Bourriaud draws upon in Relational Aesthetics.

Latour has also explored the idea of ”the political as the process of assembly” in relation to the exhibition Making things public, at ZKM in Karlsruhe. However, in this project, the topic was approached from the perspective of John Dewey’s notion of ”publics”. As philosopher Noortje Marres writes in the Latour-edited book that accompanied the exhibition, Dewey

defines a public as a grouping of actors who are affected by human actions but who do not have direct influence on those actions. Lacking such influence, these indirectly affected actors must get organized into a public if they are to address the problems ensuing from these actions. (213) 

Thus, it is the existence of a particular, tangible issue – say, pollution levels in a neighbourhood – that ”spark a public into being”. A public, Marres emphasises,

is precisely not a social community. [John Dewey and Walter Lippmann] propose that democratic politics is called for when no social community exists to take care of an issue. (214)

As such, it is not determined by any supposedly essentialist properties of certain individuals. The only thing that the members of the public in question necessarily have in common is the (subjective) perception of being affected. As such, they can be seen as ”a community of strangers”. The political is to be found in the process by which these strangers assemble so as to form a collective agency. Indeed, for Dewey, a well-functioning democracy ought to be judged on the basis of its ability to spawn an infinite number of such publics.

Thus, the notion of the Deweyian public dovetails nicely with Möntmanns ideal of ”experimental communities”

the challenge for art is to create a temporary model situation of community – one that can be experimental, provisional, informal and maybe prototypical, even Utopian. […]
The virtue of these communities as compared with earlier models, which often assumed fixed identities for those involved (as patients, migrants etc.), lies in an openness of process that is based on the temporarily shared interest of the participants or simply their physical being in the world.

Also, the notion of the ”physical being in the world” is symmetrical to Latour’s focus on bringing objects into the sphere of politics. In the introduction to the Making Things Public publication, he writes:

Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new occasions to passionately differ and dispute. Each object may also offer new ways of achieving closure without having to agree on much else. In other words, objects – taken as so many issues – bind all of us in ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of ”the political”. (15) 

Callon’s experiments

While Latour has focused on Tarde, Deweyan publics, and object-oriented politics in recent years, Michel Callon has set off to study the economy anthropologically, using the ANT approach he once developed together with Latour. (Callon, 1998) Nevertheless, Callon ends up in a similar approach to where to locate ”the political” – in the assembly of economic actors, be they individuals or larger scale assemblages (such as organisations).

Callon’s analysis of the economy takes its cue from ANT’s emphasis on the ”radical indeterminacy of the actor” (Callon, 1999): the actor has no a priori properties, but its agency is ”configured” by the networks of human and non-human actors through which the action is achieved. In particular, ANT explores how non-human elements – technologies, artefacts, and scientific theories – functions as ”prostheses” in the creation of human agency. Thus,

forms of agency are variable and, to some extent (but only to some extent), plastic and adjustable. Not everything is possible, but there is no universal rule to indicate a priori what is possible and what is not. (Callon, 2005)

Thus, construing theories themselves as one type of element that configures for economic action – ie. that economic sciences are performative – opens up a hypothetical space for experimentation. ”What is possible is determined in the test of performation”. It is only through experiments – albeit small ones – that the limits of the possible can be found.

From this perspective, a critical approach to the economy should not be constructed on the basis of preordained, essentialist categories of antagonists (worker vs capitalist, consumer vs producer). Rather, critique should be a productive endeavour, aiming to support the bourgeouning assemblies of actors who wish to build alternative economic solutions – in other words, the social scientist ought to assist 

all Davids dreaming of ousting Goliaths. How can one ensure that the success of Linux and its anthropology of applied econom(y)ics, which is causing Microsoft so much concern […] does not remain a miraculous exception served by exceptional circumstances? […] This implies that the agencies which do not have the required tactical competencies, nor the adequate material and discursive resources and social relations, obtain the compensation and aid needed to avoid a premature disappearance.

Callon’s approach does however clash with traditional theories of the economy; theories that describe the economy as a grand motor rife with contradictions. After all, this analysis of the political in the economy takes us ”far away from the world of social classes, new social movements and primary and secondary contradictions”, as such categories rest on rigid specifications of the nature of a certain actor.

One of Callon’s critics, anthropologist Daniel Miller, has argued that this ”performativity programme” is not duly critical of the worldview of neoclassical economics. In Miller’s view, Callon too readily accepts the notion of homo oeconomicus, and fails to bring the macro-level contradictions of capitalism into his account of the economy. On both of these points, Miller claims to speak from empirical evidence – homo oeconomics does not exist, whereas the macro-laws of capitalism do.

To such criticisms, Callon replies with an appeal to modest, micro-level experiments. Social scientists ought to abandon the arrogant belief in their detached scientific capacity

to tell the (almost whole) truth on man in society, and that by telling that truth it combats the illusions masking the strength of the powerful. I, on the other hand, think that anthropology can only participate, along with the actors, or rather with certain actors in a position to produce small differences, in showing that other worlds are possible and that humans in society (in markets) have multiple and uncertain forms that emerge through trials. It is up to social scientists to recognize the moment when, still fragile and enigmatic, they appear.

While there are many things that Callon and Guattari would disagree about, it is nevertheless interesting to compare the former’s call for the production of ”small differences” with the latter’s ”micropolitics”. In Molecular Revolution, Guattari writes:

Just as I think it is illusory to aim at a step-by-step transformation of society, so I think that microscopic attempts, of the community and neighbourhood committee type, the organisation of day-nurseries in the faculty, and the like, play an absolutely crucial role. (Cited in Bourriaud, p. 31)

Again, this focus on the molecular – and on the strategies of creating ”micro-utopias” – resonates closely with Callon’s anthropological studies, that

reveal the micro-differences that end up being more important than the supposed macro-contradictions. […] These analyses are worth generalizing. Force is acquired through weakness or, rather, by successive compositions of small weaknesses, reversed one by one and not in one fell swoop. Strength is the outcome of a long process of accumulation, weaving of alliances and relations, from micro-positions constructed first as little gaps or differences lodged in the interstices of existing configurations. […] The examination of these small differences is consequently theoretically important and practically strategic.

Mapping the contagion

The above only relates art practice to social theory. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that this – from ”the political” as battles between groups, to ”the political” as the assembly of (new) political agencies – is detectable in other disciplines.Political scientists have discussed the politics of identity (in somewhat more fluid terms than the analysis of class politics). Designers, urban planners and architects have discussed ”small change” and ”participative planning” – emphasising the merits of creating new assemblies. Where else can such a shift be detected?

There may be no such thing as an ”original source” of the contagion of this ”conceptual machine”. One source may well be the resurgence of a ”flow ontology” that draws upon epicurean thought – indeed, Bourriaud, Latour, D&G and others draw upon Lucretius’ clinamen. Another source can be found in the thought that emerges when computer logics are abstracted from actual computers (ie. ”99-thought”): It is noteworthy that several of the authors mention use such abstracted computer terms in their language.

In any case – nevermind the ”origins” of this thought – the very idea of seeing contemporary art in these terms holds one key promise: As a way to move on from old-school sociologisation of contemporary art practices.

1 tanke kring ”The ontological factor: On community-based and relational art

  1. Christopher Kullenberg

    Molar overcodings are but secondary to molecular intensities. This is why we must get rid of the concept of ideology once and for all, and instead seek out and analyse what is de-territorializing with a revolutionary potential and what produces strata as re-territorializations.

    As sociolgists we must sociologize in the right way. The Durkheimian model is already stratified as it has constructed a binary model of what is social and what is not. Instead we must sociologize even more, to the extent that non-humans and their relations become as social as the slime-mold between men. Then we might be able to explain the social aspect of art without overdetermining with 68-concepts; because this is where we end up in improductive identity politics (taking social identities for granted) or even worse, in de-constructivism rendered impotent by fearing to construct anything at all… castrated by hermeneutical feed-back loops that can only attach to some heavily historically-determined master ideology of anti-theses. At some point we must forget about ourselves because the world in its immanent planes doesn’t care much anyway. Detachment is the worst form of elitism, since what is left then is only thought.

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