Altermodern: A Conversation with Nicolas Bourriaud



Independent curator and critic Bartholomew Ryan interviews Nicholas Bourriaud, author of the seminal book Relational Aesthetics and curator of the fourth Tate Triennial, Altermodern, which remains on view in London at the Tate Britain through April 2009.


BR: What is the ‘Altermodern?’

NB: First, it is an attempt to reexamine our present, by replacing one periodizing tool with another. After 30 years into the ‘aftershock’  of modernism and its mourning, then into the necessary post-colonial reexamination of our cultural frames, ‘Altermodern’ is a word that intends to define the specific modernity according to the specific context we live in – globalization, and its economic, political and cultural conditions. The use of the prefix “alter” means that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end, and alludes to the local struggles against standardization. The core of this new modernity is, according to me, the experience of wandering — in time, space and mediums. But the definition is far from being complete.

BR: You suggest in the Altermodern Manifesto that multiculturism and identity are being overtaken by ‘creolization’, that artists start from a “global state of culture”. This terminology could be said to describe only a new cosmopolitanism that is accessible to relatively few. How would you respond to this?

NB: I had a discussion about it with Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon and living in Belgium, whose work in the triennial reflects this cultural shift from the point of view of his native culture. For him, this ‘globalised state of culture’ is already a matter of fact: in every spot of the planet, you can see this new cultural stratus, coexisting with the layer of traditional culture and some local specific contemporary elements. Saying that it is the privilege of the artistic jet set is a pure denial of the worldwide violence of the capitalist system, or an extreme naiveness. I think that this theoretical resistance, which consists in sticking to the multiculturalist dogma, is hiding a paternalist pattern : it jails the individuals into their so-called ‘origins’ and their ‘identities’. Let’s face it: artists now have access to information, and they all use the same toolbox, from Stockholm to Bangkok. Or shouldn’t they? We have to get out of this dialectical loop between the global and the local, to get rid of the binary opposition between globalization and traditions. And what is the name of this third way? Modernity, whose historical ambiguity is directed against both standardization and nostalgia.

BR: Were the artists in the triennial finalized after you had developed the concept, or were they chosen in part because they helped resolve some of your thinking around the concept?

NB: I started to elaborate the concept with a series of lectures given in various places, like Bangkok, Sydney or Buenos Aires, in order to develop it through discussions with other artists, critics or curators. The idea of centering the triennial on this theme was an early choice, but the problem was to select artists at the same time than I was inventing the selection criterions… Hence, the process was really experimental: as curators, we are more used to define the exhibition frame, and then choose the artists. Here, it was like improvising an opera: my libretto had to be completed while the singers were already on stage. And, of course, the idea developed since the opening.  Altermodern  is not an exhibition that illustrates a theory, but a process of collective thinking. You can read my subtitles, but also concentrate on the artists’ voices.

BR: What prompted the decision to have non Britain-based artists for the first time in a Tate Triennial?

NB: With such a theme, it would have been absurd to curate a ‘national’ show. Those exhibitions are more and more absurd, as the fact that you are born here or there does not necessarily determine your frame of mind anymore. I am more interested in artists who produce singular itineraries within the different streams of knowledge, than in those who insist on ‘representing’ their cultures. The exhibition is more about London than from London: and ‘passers-by’ are part of a city at any given time, as far as I know.

BR: I am interested in the presence of Gustave Metzger in the exhibition. Amongst other things, he is the founder of Destructivist art. Is his work in some way an antecedent to the phenomena you wish to describe?

NB: Already in the 1960’s, Gustav Metzger developed the notion of sustainable development, and his work dealt in a very powerful way with the notion of destruction. Metzger is the father figure in Altermodern  — his work is actually located in the exact center of the space — because very early, he moved away from modernism, whose central patterns were the explosion, the energy spill and the fragmentation of representations.

BR: If the Altermodern is a new paradigm, did it change your approach to exhibition making? I am interested in how you approach space and material concerns – it is something I think you rarely get asked about though I have noticed some positive reviews relating to the installation.

NB: Thank you for asking this. I tend to think that the spatial organization of an exhibition has to be directed towards a specific effect, and has to be articulated in order to make a certain pattern appear. Here, it was a certain feeling: scattered or fragmented forms, archipelago-like, and the impression of a journey. One critic from a London newspaper wrote that he had the same feeling visiting the show as when browsing on his computer: he summed up what I tried to provide to the visitor. More concretely, I tried to organize the exhibition as a maze, with many pathways leading to smaller rooms, and a general plan in the form of a snail, that comes from and leads to the spacious Duveens’ Hall of the Tate Britain.

BR: Your first book, Relational Aesthetics, collected essays and written responses to tendencies in art that you were approaching in your curatorial work in the 90’s. You were not writing with the benefit and safety of hindsight. Published in French in 1998, and in English in 2002, when it arrived in the U.S. it was approached as if your claims for an aesthetics that judged art works on the basis of ‘the inter-human relationships they produced’ had just been invented. The vulnerability of ‘responding in the present’ was rarely acknowledged. American academics largely aligned against the book, declaring your claims for the political potential of the work were overstated. Would you agree with my account of the book’s reception in the U.S.? Do you look back on Relational Aesthetics as a necessarily flawed project that usefully began the mapping of a new paradigm?

NB: When I published the first text of what was to become Relational Aesthetics, in 1995, I was trying to portray a generation. As an observer of the works of about twenty artists who were loosely working together regularly, I discerned that the common denominator in their practices (as heterogeneous in style as they may be) was found in their link with the relational sphere. They all were working within the inter-human in all of its dimensions. It was the theme of my exhibition Traffic, in January 1996, gathering artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Gabriel Orozco, Jason Rhoades, Angela Bulloch, and so on. So, what I termed “relational aesthetics” was based on a typology comprising a large number of stylistic elements and extremely diverse attitudes, from Tiravanija’s ephemeral models of sociality to Liam Gillick’s combination of narratives and structures, via Beecroft’s cold human landscapes or Cattelan’s manipulative ‘slapstick’ spirit. I have no idea why some critics picked “participation” in it: maybe that is what they were able to understand, because they already knew it from 1960’s art history books. In general terms, I try to understand and explain what I see emerging, not to produce afterthoughts and theorize what has already happened… Altermodern goes into the same (difficult) direction. I only hope that my thesis will be heard “live” this time, not with a 10-year delay that generates misunderstandings.

Postproduction, your second book, seemed to refine and expand claims made in the first. Missing was the degree of faith in the potential of ideas such as “conviviality”. Yet it retained a sense, clear within Relational Aesthetics, that art had entered a new paradigm, (fueled in part by the Internet). A realm where the older tensions that had been used to measure value and quality, ones linked to Modernism and certain notions of criticality bound up in the Culture Industry (via Adorno) and Spectacle (via Debord) had to be abandoned. Rather than fret about the relative merits and demerits of given ‘appropriation’ strategies, it famously describes a cultural landscape positioned between the twin polls of the programmer and DJ, both of whom have the task (like the contemporary artist) of “selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new concepts.”  How does your new book The Radicant take up Postproduction’s claims, or does it represent a break from previous thinking?

NB: As I said, conviviality was part of the typology I proposed in Relational Aesthetics, not the center of the book – again, it is not an essay about “participation”, which is only one of the elements I gathered then. And it was important to me to write this second book mainly about the same artists, in order to show that their work could not be summed up to one particular level of understanding. The Radicant , which is now out, is a more panoramic scenery. It is a critique of postmodernism as an ideology and as a historical narrative, and an attempt to define what’s next, that I name the ‘altermodern’. But to answer your question, The Radicant also prolongates and deepens some aspects of Postproduction, clarifying the political statement of this earlier book. Basically, it insists on the difference between appropriating and what I call ‘formal collectivism’, and attributes a positive value to precariousness as a cultural phenomenon. In a way, it is about the value of programming and deejaying as methods: what does it mean? What do artists actually do when they use already existing forms? What ideology does it relate to?

To cut a long story short, what we traditionally call reality is in fact a simple montage. On the basis of that conclusion, the aesthetic challenge of contemporary art resides in recomposing that montage: art is an editing table that enables us to realize alternative, temporary versions of reality with the same material (basically, everyday life). Thus, artists manipulate social forms, reorganize them and incorporate them in original scenarios, deconstructing the script on which the illusory legitimacy of those scenarios was grounded. The artist de-programs in order to re-program, suggesting that there are other possible usages for techniques, tools and spaces at our disposition.

The cultural or social structures in which we live are nothing more for art than elements to be used, objects that must be examined and formally addressed. That, to my mind, is the essential content of the political program of contemporary art: maintaining the world in a precarious state or, in other words, permanently affirming the transitory, circumstantial nature of the institutions and the rules that govern individual or collective behavior. The main function of the instruments of communication of capitalism is to repeat a message, which is: we live in a finite, immovable and definitive political framework, only the decor must change at high speed. Art questions this message, and reverses it. It is an idea that was actually the core of Relational Aesthetics already, the Marxist idea that there is no stable “essence” of humankind, which is nothing but the transitory result of what human beings do at a certain moment of history. I think this might be the cornerstone of all my writings, in a way.

From the top:  Bob and Roberta Smith, Off Voice Fly Tip 2009, Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. Photo: Tate Photography; Charles Avery, Aleph Null Head and Installation of drawings 2008, Courtesy the artist. Photo: Tate Photography