Michael Shiloh

Artist - Engineer - Educator - Weird stuff aficionado

Relational Aesthetics and Participatory Art

In this category of my projects, the work displayed must be understood not as objects but as sites of interaction. Relational Aesthetics is a phrase coined by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Relational Aesthetics (1998). Bourriaud asserts that the interpersonal relationships that develop in the context of these projects have formal qualities, and it is these formal qualities that can give such a work of art its value.

For reasons discussed later, I use discarded electronic devices as my raw material, setting up situations in which visitors, now participants, disassemble these devices, and, optionally, can use the salvaged parts to create new devices. Visitors will often claim that they don't know how to do this, but after awhile, with very little, or sometimes no prompting, will timidly pick up the tools and get started. Once they start, they often stay for much longer than they expected. They describe getting completely absorbed and becoming focused on the task at hand that they lose track of time. Strangers find themselves talking with and collaborating with each other. Taking things apart is a puzzle of sorts: trying to find the right order of fasteners to be removed to free a part. Participants become intrigued by the parts revealed, wondering what they are and what role they played in the device. These experiences, conversations, questions, and discoveries are the elements that make up the formal qualities of the work.

The use of discarded machinery is a subtle critique of our appetite for increasingly sophisticated technologies at low prices. Manufacturing costs are reduced by removing features allowing maintenance and repair, resulting in a high rate of replacement. As the vehicle for creating my artwork, the discarded machinery is proven not useless.

"... Bourriaud identifies political significance in these relationships as models of interaction that critically reflect upon wider society. Bourriaud argues that by setting up real interactive situations in the gallery, relational works of art do not ‘represent utopias’ but actualise them, creating positive ‘life possibilities’ as ‘concrete spaces’ rather than merely fictional ones." (Mark Windsor, Art of Interaction: A Theoretical Examination of Carsten Höller’s Test Site, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/15/art-of-interaction-a-theoretical-examination-of-carsten-holler-test-site)

“Drawn on Marxian language and repurposed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his text Relational Aesthetics, the term social interstices refers to a space that facilitates human social interaction. Marx refers to the term interstice as a pocket of trading activity that stands outside the capitalist framework. Similarly, social interstice as Bourriaud uses it references a similar defiance of the dominant system. In this case, social interstices are those spaces of free interaction that provide opportunities for social engagement outside of the norm.” (Social Interstices, Indrani Saha, https://mjsymuleski.com/artofthemooc/social-interstices/)

Many of my Relational Aesthetics projects involve disassembling discarded devices. For one, these resources are often free, although getting access to them is not always easy. There is also something subversive about taking something that has been deemed "useless" and making new use of it. For more about this, read Salvaged Machinery How is permission given to open an appliance or to create art? Exclusion is implicit in how we identify ourselves or are identified by others ("I'm not good with tools", “I’m not good at math”, “Girls don’t build”, “you’re not a real artist”, etc.). In the social interstice and actualized utopia of this work, visitors may challenge these identities.