Review of Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World (with reflections on a post-relational art)

Review of Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

(with reflections on a post-relational art)

Palais de Tokyo

13 avenue du Président Wilson Paris

 on view through January 12th, 2014


Could my soul be dead? Is it then that you have reached such a degree of lethargy that you acquiesce in your sickness?

-Charles Baudelaire, Anywhere Out Of The World


Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

Relational art is dead. But its waggish ghost, le grand vide, is on full flaunt.

My cognitive encounter with Philippe Parreno’s vast but fey exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World was anything but otherworldly. Rather, I related to it by way of a psychic thump into an obtuse obstruction. That might sound peculiar, given the blow up relational art is treated to here (to the scale of 22,000 square metres), but it is precise.

With the officially sanctioned support and celebration of relational dematerialization (celeb-commodified into a brand – and co-opted by the star-state-socio-economic system that is its life blood) the relational aesthetic (established by Nicolas Bourriaud,[1] now director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts) is no longer an idealized mode of art activity that (supposedly) accepted the full range of all human relations as art in opposition to private objects and spaces. No, that shamanistic idea is now exhausted and has turned cold and cynical. With relational officialdom (other current prime examples being Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective at Le Centre Pompidou, the Dia Art Foundation sponsored Gramsci Monument by Thomas Hirschhorn, and Tino Sehgal’s win of the Golden Lion for the best artist in the International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico in the Venice Biennale) an exploration of the full range of all human relations is clearly untenable – and human intimacy pays the price.[2] The obscurantist artist as catalyst – by means of flighty creations of intentionally stuplime[3] works that fluctuate between sculpture, music, film clips and small Fluxus-like events – has turned the successful relational artist into star-impresario-entrepreneur: a very specific, limiting and quasi-domineering human relation. Coupled with lame fun-house-laboratory[4] work based in an aesthetic paradigm that is so cool it verges on cold, the relational art star (now draped in mystification) is placed firmly back at the center of things and torn away from artworks that create a social environment in which people come together to participate in a private/shared activity that is open-ended, interactive and resistant to closure.

The inherent detachment of pretentious work-in-progress post-medium practice, shorn of any deep commitment to medium specificity, seems to inscribe this condition of superficiality on the artist, yet guarantying a circular commercial success: a truly Mephistopheles-like metaphysical situation. Claire Bishop has suggested that such work “seems to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux.”[5]

Underlying this aim was once a miasmatic ideal that questioned linear and hierarchical structures and sought to replace them with atmospheric loose structures, keyed to a penetrable, reciprocal flow of events. This ideal (similar in part to Bruno Latour’s Actor–network theory) suggested a consideration of the enlargement of the audience’s normal participation; both in regard to the spectators ocular aptitude to instigate variations in the perceived optic, as well as her capability to produce kinetic and aggregate exchanges on or within the work of art itself.

Of course this was – and continues to be – the basis of Kinetic Art.[6] Indeed Kinetic Art ideals[7] play an unacknowledged, but important, part in relational aesthetics by pioneering the unambiguous use of movement and by fashioning links between science, technology and art relating to the notion of the environment. This linking set the stage for those relational artists, like Parreno, that blur and hybridize traditional categories and genres.

This historical link was well exemplified by Palais de Tokyo’s last mega-show, that of a precursor of Kinetic Art and Op Art,[8] founding member of G.R.A.V. (Visual Art Research Group): Julio Le Parc. Le Parc incorporated kinetic/optical research notable for its immersive attributes given its realization on an architectural scale.

The work increasingly became a co-operative production of the operation between the object d’art and the viewpant,[9] as the viewpant is enabled to sense the various spatial possibilities the shifting work suggests.[10] In terms of artists of the 1960s working in this new expanded-field, a great example is G.R.A.V. (Groupe de Recherche d’Art) (Research Art Group), a group of eleven artists who picked up on Victor Vasarly’s concept that the sole artist was outdated.

G.R.A.V. was active in Paris from 1960 to 1968. Their main aim was to merge the individual identities of the members into a collective and individually anonymous activity linked to the scientific and technological disciplines based around collective events called Labyrinths. Their ideals enticed them to investigate a wide spectrum of kinetic and optical effects by using various types of artificial light and mechanical movement. In their first Labyrinth, held in 1963 at the Paris Biennale, they presented three years work based on optical and kinetic devices. Thereafter they discovered that their effort to engage the human eye had shifted their concerns towards those of spectator participation; a foreshadow of interactivity. On April 19, 1966 G.R.A.V. created Une Journée Dans la Rue (Day in the Street) in Paris where they invited passing participants to involve themselves in various kinetic activities such as having them walk on uneven blocks of wood and/or experience a distorted world by wearing elaborate distorting spectacles. Their agreed dissolution in November 1968 was based on their recognition that it was impossible to maintain the rigor of a joint program.

As the blending between the artist and spectator took on greater and greater emphasis during the period of the late-1960s new forms of aesthetic immersion opened up. It is precisely in this blending that the question of art as ambiance arises.[11] With both Op Art (which is kinetic in that op situations employ optical illusion which effect an appearance of motion) and Kinetic Art (both conceptual descendants of the shifting perceptions initiated in 20th century painting with Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism) the artwork under consideration is no longer merely a categorical system but increasingly a relational aesthetic act.

In Parreno’s version of playful poetic relational art (as louche stage set – designed with “staged seeing” in mind)[12] spectators take up consecutive positions inside faux displays in hopes of detecting emotion within the shifting time frames. That means a lot of waiting around – as the dead time has its due. Indeed, the boredom of dead time and empty space seem dominantly linked here, as various pauses and visual lines of sight offer themselves up from within the vast void, lending equal weight to contrary and incompatible angles. Particularly at Pierre Huyghe’s show, one at times feels like one is waiting for a bus. This is the dominant emotion: a fearful sense of oppressive disempowering indecision where one hesitates to leave a boring situation out of concern that one will miss something delicately interesting that is coming along any minute now. But when it might become interesting, is never clear. (It never really does.)

This idea of placing the audience in loose and shifting time and points-of-view was once envisaged as the basis of forming community,[13] but when institutional wealth and NPD power[14] intervene, one cannot but help but coolly watch this detached mode of art fall feebly into a bottomless pit of hubris, enabled by the internet and its narcissistic social technologies.

The sad irony of this is the good intentions, based on the 1960s-70s humanist lost dream of the decline in the art object’s sequestered, fetishistic standing as object d’art. But dematerialized linked relations have now turned de-humanist, superficial and a little cliché robotic. Hello Edward Snowden.

DSC02583Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

After the Snowden revelations, what is required in art today (particularly in Europe, it seems to me) is a radical art of non-relational freeing, an art of loosening the audience (at least symbolically) from the relational model of databases with their relational classifications and procedures. In this new non-relational or post-relational context, Parreno’s once breezy mischievous art of ambiance has now become top-heavy official art that functions in a domineering relationship[15] to the (rather passive) audience. The need for a post-relational aesthetics seems evident to me, and I shall return to the idea below, for one might ponder just where do we go after the death of relational aesthetics. But as Charles Baudelaire says in his poem N’importe où hors du monde: “Anywhere, anywhere, as long as it be out of this world!” (“N’importe où!n’importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!”)

Parreno views the exhibition as a post-disciplinary medium, an event/object in its own right, an experience whose every possibility he seeks to explore – and I take him at his word. In Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World there were flicking lights (that resembled Le Corbusier lamps) that choreographed/corralled me through the network of vast galleries on three floors. Parreno’s choice of a Jumbotron (a/k/a Jumbovision a/k/a Jumbowank) a huge-screen digital-visual technology typically used in major commercial intersection like New York’s Times Square and in sports stadiums and concert venues immediately makes my point about forms of relational power. As does his installing an overwhelming huge wall of blinding white light located behind the reception desk. It assaulted my retinas as I had to passively submit (in mass) to wait in line for the privilege of visiting Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World.

ImageInstallation photo taken by the writer of the blinding white light wall behind the reception desk

ImageInstallation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

ImageA player piano taking up a vast room playing Petrouchka by Igor Stravinsky

ImageInstallation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

DSC02575Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

For me the choice of a Jumbotron as vehicle for exhibiting a collection of Parreno’s rather undemanding and almost flippant video clips, such as a fake protesting throng of school children shouting and waving banners in support of “No More Reality”, could even be, if I wanted to be nasty, theorized as a form of relational aggression[16] (also known as covert bullying), a type of social aggression in which harm is caused by damaging someone’s psychic relationship to themselves via the other. This was almost so, as Parreno appeared to try to intimidate me with his display of empty grandeur; signifying luxury, mystification and wealth. As I will explain below, this ties into relational data mining, the data mining technique for relational databases and the need for a post-relational art.

Such bogus grandiosity by the puppet master is encountered over and over through the extravagant exhibition of objects, such as human-less player pianos, one taking up an entire room (there are a total of four player pianos, all playing Petrouchka (1911) by Igor Stravinsky). This spurious grandiosity is especially evident in the form of some of his video soundtracks, soundtracks that call to mind the worst moments of sham solemnity and kitsch romanticism found in the epic space opera franchise Star Trek. Recall to your mind, if you dare, the most pretentious moments of such films: when the enemy star craft is ominously lurking behind some corny dark star while preparing its devastating attack on the good guy’s Enterprise. While such bombastic relations with the visitor seem a ludicrous hypocritical inconsistency within relational aesthetics (and laughable) I am certain that it will not harm Parreno, for Parreno is now a celebu-artist and so peu importe qu’il le fasse. To be fair, at times I was nodding in accord with this freedom, and in the next moment I was aggravated, shaking my head wondering how it all ties in together. But I like to have my prejudices exposed and challenged and it seems that this exhibition did just that.

For close to three hours I explored. There was a mammoth room full of his blinking marquee light sculptures, his marquees electric tiaras, based on landmark cinemas and theatres. These light sculptures are particularly unimpressive yet still suggestive of relational aggression, as they call to mind a tender opposite: the melancholy light sculpture Untitled, (North) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1993).

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, (North), 1993Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, (North), 1993, 12 light strings 22 lightbulbs each, extension cords, porcelain, as installed at Milwaukee Art Museum.

DSC02582Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

Again it must be recalled that Parreno rose to prominence in the 1990s by taking the exhibition as an art medium in itself,[17] thus gaining the attention of curatorial practice, so I think that my critical observations of the installation as relational aggression are pertinent. He conceived this show as a scripted space where a series of events unfold.[18] That is why relational art as a medium is dead to me. It has unfolded. By taking up where Kinetic Art left off concerning the element of scripted areas where limited physical motion is expected of me within a (seemingly) public space. This meant a desired decline in the art object’s sequestered (some would say fetishistic) standing as an object d’art. But thanks to Mr. Snowden, I have realized that I do not want that anymore. I want a psychic escape from cybernetic-like[19] circularity and causality that surveys me and links and groups me together with masses of others. I want contemporary art that sequesters – one that encourages and honors my private feelings and thoughts.

I believe what that means for art is a post-relational, post-de-materialized personalized art object that can be lived with over extended time. Such a post-de-materialized art seems timely,[20] as now, due to offline computer processing, a new flexible and malleable aspect has been brought to art production. This has been exemplified recently by curator Ronald Labaco, with his show of computer assistance art Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.[21] That kind of computer assistance malleability results in the post-relational art object that still places an emphasis on contemporary artistic and curatorial practices as being temporary effects of processes of negotiation between subjects, contexts and their relations.

So for me, post-relational art is that contemporary art that builds upon the legacy of relational aesthetics, but where off-line non-relational digital processes take precedence over traditional relational aesthetic concerns. So this is art now, more often than not, connected to digital art production where the computer code sets the conceptual rules for a physical production. I have identified this post-convergent and post-relational trend in 1999 as one of viractuality.[22] [23]

The post-relational art object shows us that a lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art that correspond to how we now live: in an open area of vast connecting links we want out of. The keystone of the post-relational art is that virtual producing rule-based computer technology has become a significant means for making and understanding contemporary art and that this brings us to a place where one finds the merging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This blending of computational with the object indicates a subsequent emergence of a new topological cognitive-vision of links between the computed virtual and the uncomputed corporeal world. Thus this is not a simple return to hand made art but a technological art that respects human individual imagination. So we must consider now that, in contrast to our frenzied data market surveillance culture,[24] that which trains us to fear the atrocious eyes of outer perception, a protracted gazing at a post-relational art object could encourage the development of noisy exchanges[25] based on the individual intuitive eye in conjunctive contact with an abundant optical-mnemonic commons (not cloud)[26] that shares a sensibility for building personal freedom assemblages; new modes of organization of the individual-collective from which all could benefit. Of course the post-relational aspect is what allows art to construct unstable distinctions between subjects and objects that embraces the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces; from the infinitude of actual forms to formless voids of virtuality. The question is: how do artists and dealers and critics prevent the market from eliminated that quality from art?

Certainly globalization is all about world space, so noisy post-relational aesthetics must be thought of in terms of spatialization: dimensions, areas, and territories. What space does post-relational art clear and what space does it clog? How does the post-relational art object function as an attractor for a gazing-commons and as a repellent in the monstrous era of global data mining and the digital surveillance state? How can post-relational aesthetic thought help us to think and live differently within our smooth and surveyed spaces through art? How can we live more intently and intensely in our imaginary cosmos of pleasure rooted in the non-closure of a post-relational aesthetic? Perhaps by not ignoring the differences between the intimate and the political, but on the contrary, by showing how these differences resonate together in unpredictable and contingent ways to form, in the words of Gilles Deleuze: planes of consistency from which new art concepts can be formed.

The principle of constructing patterns of infinite becomings through noise is perhaps inherent in avant-garde artistic traditional values. But a post-relational art, I think, should be considered in terms of noisy invisibility not ontology. This is so as deviating from the regularities of visible normality of relational art provides new sources for artistic production. Certainly, the values of relational art have always been interfering with the channels of artistic production and reception – and these values are responsible for expanding the forms and definitions of art itself. But like in nature, noise as post-relational art object plays a productive role in the invisible life of a system when it stresses becoming-imperceptible.


DSC02578Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

DSC02579Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

DSC02580Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

DSC02593Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

DSC02576Installation photo taken by the writer during the Philippe Parreno exposition Anywhere, Anywhere, Out Of The World

Joseph Nechvatal

Paris 10/26/2013

[1] Artists included by Bourriaud under the rubric of Relational Aesthetics include: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, Henry Bond, Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe.

[2] Actually I thank Parreno for sprucing up the Plais de Tokyo and lowering the ceilings.

[3] In her chapter on “Stuplimity” from Ugly Things, Sianne Ngai offers this term as a necessary reaction to new, primarily postmodern, objects of analysis, a term that acknowledges stupidity and boredom as part of the sublime expression connected to the postmodern art experience.

[4] curators promoting this “laboratory” paradigm include Maria Lind, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Barbara van der Linden, Hou Hanru, and Nicolas Bourriaud

[5] Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October (Fall 2004, No. 110): 52

[6] Simply stated, the term kinetic means the study of the relationship between moving bodies, hence the term Kinetic Art is usually used to describe either three-dimensional mobiles or constructions which move in either foreordained or unplanned ways.

[7] Artists increasingly aimed in this era to evoke possibilities within the imagination of their audience and to engage their active participation and to release art from its previous obligatory fidelities to the hypothetical and material status quo.

[8] Much of the disappearance (Popper), de-definition (Rosenberg) and de-materialisation (Lippard) of the art object that went beyond Modernism (Burnham) in search for a total art (Henri) developed out of the visual spectator’s participation called for in viewing Op Art: a hard-edge geometrical movement which flourished in the early-1960s (largely inspired by various optical experiments of Marcel Duchamp) in the work of Jesus-Rafael Soto, Bridget Riley, and others.

[9] My term for viewer participant. Joseph Nechvatal, Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (2009) p. 56

[10] For more on this see Frank Popper’s book Art – Action and Participation, where he shows (with particular reference to post-kinetic research) the convergence and specificity of the notions of environment and creative participation which combined to form the principal direction of art research in the theoretical and practical domains. In Art – Action and Participation, Popper found that mixed-media expressions that involve all the senses, are conducive to the more complete involvement of the spectator and that science and technology can act as creative stimulants.

[11] The term ambiance used here follows Frank Popper’s definition of the artistic environment as a meeting ground of physical and psychological factors which implicate the spectator’s inherent participation in the art’s fulfillment in a delicate, atmospheric way. (Popper, F., 1975)

[12] In response to a carte blanche invitation, Parreno devised his exhibition with the notion of the exhibition as a medium in its own right.

[13] See Popper, F. 1975. Art – Action and Participation. New York: New York University

[14] Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder in which the individual is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.

[15] By exposing the public’s actions and external choices to authority where events are measured in terms of objectification (to some extent), and thus to the participation of the public in more or less advanced forms of control and reification.

[16] Relational aggression is defined as a type of aggression that is intended to harm others through manipulation of their social standing.

[17] Parreno has supposedly radically redefined the exhibition experience by exploring its possibilities as a coherent “object” rather than as a collection of individual works.

[18] From the PR: “Philippe Parreno orchestrates his exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo along the lines of a dramatic composition where the spectral presence of objects, music, lights, and films guide and manipulate the visitor’s experience, offering a journey through his works, both old and new, transforming this monologue into a polyphony. Philippe Parreno plays with symbols, words, and sounds, to alter the visitor’s perception of the space. His meticulously mastered script metamorphoses the building itself into a quasi-living, perpetually evolving organism, into an automaton.”

[19] As pointed out by John Johnston in his The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI, a special feature of cybernetic theories (theories of feedback systems primarily based on the ideas of Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964) is that they explain processes in terms of the organization of the system manifesting it (e.g.,the circular causality of feedback-loops which enables cybernetics to elucidate complex relationships from within.

[20] However, as historical precedent, in 1954 Yaacov Agam began to undertake research into what he called transformable structures (the equivalent of paintings and reliefs) and transformable objects (the equivalent of sculpture) where the spectator was obliged to take up successive positions in front of the reliefs in order to discover the sequence of changing lines, forms, colors and structures which offered themselves from different exclusive angles. Agam himself pointed out that all his works are in fact transformable, but he reserves the term in particular for those in which the basis of the transformation lies in being able to modify the pictorial structure; for example in the 1953 piece, Nuit. He extended this premise immersively with his Total Picture Environment Salon at l’Eysée in Paris.

[21]  Out of Hand is mainly a design show with an aesthetic point to make. It defines the “postdigital” style as algorithmic baroque. But that is only one option.

[22] Joseph Nechvatal, 1999 PhD thesis Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances. Published in book form with LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, in 2009, p. 56

[23] Christiane Paul, in her seminal book Digital Art, discusses my concept of viractualism on page 58. One of the images she chooses to illustrate that section of the book is my painting entitled the birth Of the viractual (2001). Joe Lewis, in the March 2003 issue of Art in America (pp.123-124), discusses the viractual in his review Joseph Nechvatal at Universal Concepts Unlimited.

[24] For example take the fact that now under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, is the blandly named Utah Data Center, being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital transactions. It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy. For more on this trend see James Bamford’s book The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Anchor (2009)

[25] My interest here is in post-relational art objects that challenge and sometimes exchange the hierarchy of figure and ground (figure and abstraction) through struggles with noise.

[26] The term “cloud” is often generally used to describe a data center’s functions. More specifically, it refers to a service for leasing computing capacity.

[27] Perhaps this should not be surprising given the hidden complexity of a basic internet transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the stre


About josephnechvatal

Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois, France on The Computer Virus Project: an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002 he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Dr. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) University of Wales College, Newport, UK and occasionally teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA). His book of essays “Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006)” was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book “Immersion Into Noise” was published by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press You can follow him on Twitter at @twinkletwink Homepage here:
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