Art’s New Transactions

Sylvette Babin

Art’s New Transactions

To begin, it is important to clear up the ambiguity that may be suggested by our title, Commerce | Intercourse. The French term clearly evokes monetary exchange, whereas the English calls to mind human relationships, even sexual ones. It is precisely this double meaning that is tackled in this current issue, dwelling as it does on the “transactions” implicit in what has meanwhile become known as relational aesthetics. More than a decade has passed since this theorization on a (perhaps less recent) practice first appeared, unleashing a truly pivotal reaction in the art world. Initially focused on the principles of encounter and community by attempting to rethink the relationships with institutions and to free itself from the economy of the art market, with the benefit of hindsight, relational aesthetics is now giving rise to new avenues of thought.

In approaching the subject, we asked several questions in order to know if — in practices so dependent on the participation of another — the individual had not become a new kind of material, if we were not demonstrating how even participation can be monetized, and whether or not these two phenomena were actually contributing to an undermining of the relational utopia. Such questions, which have their source in the many critiques formulated by certain American authors (Claire Bishop and Rosalyn Deutsche, for example), have led to extremely diverse ideas. We should stress that we in no way wish to invalidate the manifestations or work arising from relational aesthetics, nor do we wish to call into question the motivations underlying them. Rather, we would like to examine, via different voices, certain less widely discussed issues or ones that were perhaps not considered when such practices were emerging.

A transformation of the paradigms of relational art was foreseeable in order to ensure the works’ continuity and to all intents and purposes their symbolic efficacy. (1) Consequently, one notes the appearance of certain “declensions” of relational aesthetics (resulting also, perhaps, from changes simultaneously taking place in the art world, like the revival of object artworks and the rapid development of the art market). If at the root of relational practices the trace was often voluntarily absent or considered a mere archive serving as memory, new proposals are emerging in which artists create situations with the specific aim of making a plastic work. And so one observes that the meeting with the other has well and truly become a (sometimes monetized) transaction, thus restoring the economic dimension to a term that had generally been used metaphorically. Asserting and distinguishing themselves thoroughly from the pastoral intentions specific to many conviviality-based actions, these works propose a new approach in relational art worthy of observation.

Commerce | Intercourse thus takes a critical look at multiple facets of the relational economy by questioning how such works position themselves in the logic of the market, by reflecting on the ethics of these practices and the risks of involving participants, as well as by analyzing works that voluntarily adopt different financial models, be it in parody or for profit.


1. I am referring here to Jacques Rancière’s idea that the symbolic efficacy of art essentially arises from its exhibition: “The dispersal of works of art into the multiplicity of social relationships has value only when seen, whether the ordinary ‘nothing-to-see’ relationship is exemplarily accommodated in a space normally destined for the exhibition of artwork: or whether, contrarily, the production of social ties in public space is done by a spectacular artistic form.” Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: La fabrique, 2008), 78. [my translation.]


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