A Synthetic Man in Altermodern Times

Nicolas Bourriaud at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Ensba) in Paris in 2012.
Curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud is renowned for introducing the term Relational Aesthetic and the concept of the Alter-modern. One reason for inventing his own terms is that he considers using the prefix ‘post-’ to define tendencies in contemporary art to be lazy and cowardly.

(This text is previously published in the Norwegian art magazine Kunstforum, issue 4/ 2012.)

The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Ensba) in Paris is among the oldest art academies in the world. Founded in 1648 and situated by the Seine, just across from the Louvre, it has been a centre for the development of fine arts for centuries. In November of last year, curator and art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud (b. 1965) was appointed director of the school by Frédéric Mitterrand, the French minister of culture.

As I approach Ensba, a workshop is taking place in one of the courtyards. The students are working with clay, building sculptures on the ground. I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on there, as I’m heading for the office of Nicolas Bourriaud.

‘Did you notice the workshop outside?’ he asks, after we’ve sat down in his office.

‘That is a workshop taught by Urs Fischer. I’ve only been here 8 months and I’ve already started to make several changes and one of the projects I have going is that we invite an artist to work here and do what he or she wants for a year. I’m introducing more flexibility in teaching,’ he explains, as he opens a window and lights a cigar.

Bourriaud has the serious face of a French intellectual, but he is charming and his manner welcoming. He is eager to tell me more about his plans for the art school:

‘One of our goals is to reformat what an art school is. It’s taken from the DNA of Ensba because from an early stage in 17th century, and until the end of 19th century, the pedagogical aspect was based on observation of the artwork. But I’m twisting it another way – it’s not imitation, it’s how you can take advantage of the frequentation artists and art works to invent. That’s the challenge.’

But he has more projects going on:

‘We’re projecting our school into the outside world. For example, we are going to totally transform the building of the newspaper Liberation into a kind of museum only with our students and ex-students. It will be a kind of school project but highly visible and that’s the way I want to work.’

‘To make a long story short, I’d say that I try to reverse the relationship between the students and art. I want to build an art school that really corresponds with our times: an art center operating by pedagogy.’

«I want to build an art school that really corresponds with our times: an art center operating by pedagogy.»

Nicolas Bourriaud

The perfect place for synthesis

He is also opening a new exhibition space:

‘Next year, the Palais des Beaux Arts will open with a very specific programme that also reflects the DNA of this place. It’s going to be “google-curating”, in a way. Based on one key word we’ll have four different exhibitions, to examine that one word from four different perspectives.’

And he is clearly content with his new job.

‘At this time of my life, this is the perfect place for me to be: there is pedagogy, exhibitions, print and collections of thought, all in the same place. And those are three of my biggest interests in life.’

He’s talking about the synthesis of his three main interests: teaching, curating, and writing. Synthesis seems to be an important word in Bourriaud’s vocabulary:

‘I think the essays and books I’ve written are synthetic. Everybody wants to be analytic, but it’s important to have both. At some point we have to freeze the image and say, “Well, what did we see? Let’s move this and that around so we can understand a bit more.” We have to transform reality a bit in a way to achieve the proper synthesis, cut some aspects that are not so important.’

‘Synthesis’ refers to a combination of two or more entities that together form something new. In a concept ascribed to the German philosopher Hegel, synthesis solves the conflict between a thesis and its negation, or antithesis, by reconciling their common truths, and forming a new proposition. That could easily be applied to Bourriaud’s theories, which seem to develop as a synthesis of doing and thinking, curating and writing. And now pedagogy.

«It would, of course, be wrong and pretentious to say that relations didn’t exist in art before, but these artists at the beginning of the 90s brought them to the fore, and that was totally new»

Nicolas Bourriaud

Between action and reflection

It started when Bourriaud was eleven and he received a book about French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). That was the first time he became intrigued by the world of art. Gauguin was an influential artist in the French avant-garde and considered part of the Synthetism movement (a term Gaugin himself used to distinguish his work from the Impressionists). To Bourriaud Gauguin

is still an important influence, and considering Bourriaud’s interest in synthesis, globalism, and modernism, that should come as no surprise.

Another important moment in the life of the young Bourriaud came when he discovered a book on the life and times of Marchel Duchamp. The character Duchamp and the Dadaist movement made a huge impact on him. Some years later, art critic and cultural philosopher Pierre Restany was to be another character that inspired him deeply:

‘I remember coming back from a trip to London in ‘83 and going to visit an exhibition by Yves Klein at the Centre Pompidou. I bought the catalogue and was really fascinated by this strange guy who was situated in between words and images, action and reflection, theory and organisation. I thought: “That’s exactly what I want to do!”’ Bourriaud says, snapping his fingers.

‘The profile of Pierre Restany, curator and art critic, determined my whole career. At the time, this was not a profession at all, it was more like a function that you would try to fulfil.’

Talking about my generation

At university, he studied something equivalent to what curatorial studies is today: at the time no such programme existed. Towards the end of his studies, he became editor of the art magazine New Art, and in 1987, he became Flash Art’s correspondent in Paris. Bourriaud was only 22 years old at the time and was one of a new generation who were beginning to define their positions:

‘One important moment at the end of the 80s was the exhibition by the first curatorial school in France – that was in ‘88.’

There he met Esther Schipper, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Joseph, and Mark Dion, all people he would collaborate with later.

‘They organised the exhibition 19&&4 and it was a quite important moment for me because there I discovered artists from my own generation. I had the feeling of being part of a generation and also discovered new problematics.’

Rikrit Tiravanija: Untitled 1992 (Free)
VB61, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf? a 2007 artwork by Vanessa Beecroft who was included in the Traffic exhibition.

A European network

Around this time, Bourriaud also started curating his own shows:

‘I curated a few exhibitions around Paris, but the first really important exhibition I did was in 1990, at the Venice biennale. I was invited to do the young artists’ exhibition for the French pavilion. I made an exhibition called Unmoving Short Movies, which was about the relationship between art and cinema.’

Bourriaud was just 25 years old at the time.

‘There weren’t so many people around at the time, to be honest. We were three or four people between 25 and 30, working as curators and art critics. It was not very trendy at the time,’ he says, smiling.

It was the same with young gallery owners; they didn’t really exist.

‘We had to build a network of our own. It was also quite important to be friends with young gallery owners and to create a European network together.’

He calls it ‘a generational thing’: art institutions were run by older people and they were a group of young people, like Éric Troncy and Jean-Yves Jouannais, who realised that they would need to build their own universe if anything was going to happen for them. Contemporary art was changing, but there was nowhere to exhibit work by the emerging new artists.

‘We needed to invent new formats and new methods for exhibitions,’ he explains, citing the example of the gallery Air de Paris, an important venue in 1990. It opened in Nice, and the younger generation of artists, curators, and critics spent a lot of time there.

‘An important exhibition was Les ateliers du paradise [The studios of paradise], which was a kind of living workshop. It was run by the three artists, Phillip Parreno, Pierre Joseph, and Philippe Perrin, and they invented the idea of an exhibition as a kind of training for them, for their own use.’

At the same time, popular culture was investigated in various ways by artists, something Bourriaud found inspiring. He remembers a show by Mike Kelley at Metro Pictures in ‘89.

‘I was really moved by this show, and I thought: “This is it!”

‘Artists from this generation were able to address art with formats or ideas coming from the musical world. And don’t forget, it was the beginning of the techno music. So the figure of the DJ, the sample, even rap music, the spontaneity, all these elements were slowly introduced to the art world at the time.’

«The idea was to bring to the art world the type of energy you have in social nightlife»

Nicolas Bourriaud

Portraying the 90s

In 1998, Bourriaud published the book Relational Aesthetics. In some ways, it was the culmination of what Bourriaud had observed and been involved in during the 90s. In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud was aiming to portray a generation of artists, artists that he knew and had been working with as a curator and critic. As he tried to find a common trait among them, he invented the term ‘Relational Aesthetic’ and ‘Relational Art’.

‘I remember seeing the works and trying to find the theoretical point of view, the angle, from which I could envision their work in a different way than saying it was “neo-conceptual”, or «neo-fluxus» or «postfluxus», or whatever people said at the time when looking at the work of these artists. I’ve always had a problem with lazy prefixes, which is what “post-” is.’

The term ‘Relational Art’ was applied to artists as different as Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Pierre Hyeghe, Maurizio Cattalan, Douglas Gordon, Peter Land, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Henrik Plenge Jacobsen, and Felix Gonzales-Torres. In the book, Bourriaud described relational art as ‘a set of practices, which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’.

One example could be Ririkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 exhibition at the 303 Gallery, where he made the gallery in to a kitchen where he cooked and served free Thai curry to anyone who entered the gallery. Another example, showing the heterogeneity of this group of artists, could be Maurizio Cattelan, who designed a phallic rabbit costume for his gallery owner, Emmanuel Perrotin, which Perrotin had to wear throughout the exhibition. Yet another example could be Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “candy-pieces”: piles of candy – for example Untitled (blue placebo) (1991) – put on the floor in imitation of minimalist sculptures and at the same time offered to the public to pick up and eat.

‘I tried to find what was specific, what did these artists do that hadn’t been done before. It would, of course, be wrong and pretentious to say that relations didn’t exist in art before, but these artists at the beginning of the 90s brought them to the fore, and that was totally new.’

He sums up:

‘And that’s how it started, as an attempt at synthesis.’

Palais de Tokyo Site de création contemporaine 2

Unconventional distribution

When Bourriaud moved to New York in 1995, he realised that the same ‘relational’ movement was going on there. From New York, he curated Traffic at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux that opened in 1996. The exhibition was an attempt to map the movement and showed artists like Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Miltos Manetas, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Bourriaud describes the exhibition as a confirmation of the theories he was simultaneously developing in two texts published in Documents sur l’art [Documents on Contemporary Art], a journal he started with Éric Troncy, Philippe Parreno, and Liam Gillick.

The concept of a relational aesthetics was developing slowly and was not really picked up in art centres like Berlin, London, or New York. But in Scandinavia, there was an interest for the new concept. When Bourriaud met Asa Nacking, editor of the Swedish art journal Paletten in 1995, she decided to devote an entire issue on the subject.

‘That issue contributed to relational aesthetics spreading out across Scandinavia in a big way and played a role in its overall dissemination,’ Bourriaud recalls.

When the book came out in French in 1998, it didn’t receive any reviews in France, nor in international art magazines like Flash Art or Art Forum either. It was distributed in unconventional ways.

‘Nobody seemed to be interested in the book at all. It was actually through artists’ studios that it spread. It was picked up by artists, and a few curators, and translated to Serbian, Japanese, and so on. I’m very happy about the way it spread.’

«This art of postproduction seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age»

Nicolas Bouriiaud

A palace for contemporary art

Bourriaud had been freelancing as curator and critic through most of the 1990s and when he came back to Paris from New York in 1997, he was eager to do a big project and to create a space for showing art.

‘It was the first time in my life that I felt compelled to have a space,’ he remembers.

‘I met Jerome Sans in the street. We didn’t know each other well, and because we were different we became a kind of synthesis. So we felt it was a good idea to collaborate and show that people who don’t necessarily have the same aesthetic or interest could run an art centre together. In February of ’99, we heard that the Palais de Tokyo was going to be reopened and devoted to contemporary art. We applied and won the contest. And so the story began.’

Through the Palais de Tokyo, they wanted to introduce something new to Paris.

‘We brought a kind of mosaic of ideas to Paris, and we thought that the place could be open in a kind of am/pm situation. Like grocery stores in Asia that are open all the time. We decided to be open from noon to midnight. The idea was to bring to the art world the type of energy you have in social nightlife, ‘to get as many tribes as possible in the same place’. And it worked. So well, in fact, that Bourriaud and Sans’ private lives were affected by the success:

‘It was difficult because we really had to spend all our time there. It’s not the same as with a bank or post office where you can take your leave and go to bed. We had to be there most of the time. So we both got divorced. It was a disaster.’

A relational institution

Most of the people would come to the museum after seven or eight in the evening, and it was a different type of audience than one would normally have. The new audience gave them the idea to develop a new type of relationship with the audience:

‘We hired 16 young guys to interact with the audience – art historians or specialized in architecture – to explain to the audience. It created a casual atmosphere.’

The exhibition space functioned as a laboratory for different ways of exhibiting and interacting with art, and it embodied the notion of relational aesthetics at an institutional level. To maintain a dynamic and energetic space, it was crucial they didn’t do a white cube.

‘The first exhibition was a huge mess. We cleaned the place out but left marks from its past. The space transformed itself according to the desires of the artists, not the opposite, which I think was important. We created a new standard, I would say.’

The opening exhibition was without theme or title:

‘That was the only way we found that could be a good way to share both our universes. I’d say a name and he said yes or no, then he’d say a name and I’d say yes or no. And that’s the way we progressed.’

It was a group show, comprising twenty emerging French and foreign artists who, according to the press release, unlike their predecessors, ‘do not undertake a direct critique of the society in which they live: since that society has “gone crazy”, they just borrow its defining features and exaggerate them’.’

The Palais de Tokyo (modern art museum) taken from the Eiffel tower, Paris.
The Palais de Tokyo, the main hall, with artwork from Michael Lin


The press statement hinted at what was to be the focus of Bourriaud’s next book, written during the first years of Palais de Tokyo and published in 2001: Postproduction – Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World. The book sought to discuss contemporary artists using terminology from the television and movie industry. He was still mapping the same generation of artists:

‘You may have noticed that I use the same artists as examples. The book is also a kind of manifesto of the fact that great artists  cannot be read in only one way. You can adjust the camera and see something totally different. For example the Tiravanija in Postproduction is totally different than the one in Relational Aesthetics.’

This time, Bourriaud examined his favourite artists in terms of how they used pre-existing cultural material in their works. In the introduction, he writes: ‘This art of postproduction seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, which is characterized by an increase in the supply of works and the art world’s annexation of forms ignored or disdained until now.’

The art practices described in Postproduction had a lot in common with how a DJ works with combining and distorting existing music, and Bourriaud considered this generation of artists different from appropriation-artists in that the new generation was ‘moving towards a culture of the use of forms, a culture of constant activity of signs based on a collective ideal: sharing’.

Retrospectively, the artists in Relational Aesthetics and Postproduction seem to be investigating formats and structures yet to be fully developed as part of common culture by internet and social media. And Palais de Tokyo was the main laboratory where these structures were played out.

Revisiting the modern

In 2006, Bourriaud left Palais de Tokyo. First, he went to Venice as a teacher of visual arts. Then, he went to London to be the Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Britain. Here, he curated the fourth Tate Triennial under the title Altermodern (2009), and he changed the process and the format of the exhibition.

‘I implemented a snowball process. Four Saturdays in a row we did a set of lectures, performances, presentation of art work, and screenings that were all devoted to one aspect of the future show. The feedback and the discussions we had, they helped me to conceive the show. Some of the artists who were invited to an event were not invited to the final show. For me, it was a whole thing. It was an exhibition process in five parts. The last one being the final exhibition.’

London was the ‘hidden object’ of the exhibition. Normally, the exhibition would be with British artists, but Bourriaud refused to do a purely British exhibition. Rather, he divided the artists into three parts: UK born, residents, and passers-by.

‘For me, the passers-by were the most important. Even if he or she stays one day in London, why not include him or her in a show about London?’

‘The title for the exhibition was Altermodern, how did that term come about?’

‘Certainly through my detestation of the prefix ‘post-’; it is pure laziness not to qualify our times. This cowardice in refusing to put a name on our experience is a scandal for thought. So, I decided to be quite bold and start something – knowing perfectly well that everyone would say that it wasn’t the right word. At least it opened up a space. And soon we’re going to see that it will be productive. I’m certain of it.’

The exhibition was a reconsideration of what the word ‘modern’ means, which cannot be reduced to Modernism – a very specific occurrence of the term modern in history.

‘The idea was to revisit the modern using a different prefix, which is one I much prefer – this “alter-”, meaning “other”. Alternative.’

La cour d'honneur de l'École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, au fond : le Palais des Études. Date

The act of translation

He was writing the book The Radicant at the same time. ‘Radicant’, he explains, was the word that started it all.

‘It is the perfect adjective for alter-modern times. Modernism was about radicality; it was about manifestos as a means to starting over and erasing everything that was there from before. You cut down the tree at the root – and that’s what’s called radical. It means ‘belonging to the root’. In any dictionary including the word radical, at least in English, Italian, Spanish, French and German, right after it, you have ‘radicant’, which means growing – it is used about an organism that grows its own roots while advancing. And that metaphor completes the theoretical apparatus that was displayed in Altermodern with a very specific concept that I explored in the book.’

The book offers another metaphor, or model, for avoiding the essentialism of modernism and the multiculturalism of postmodernism – which Bourriaud considers a reintroduction of the essential through the question of ethnic origin – namely the act of translation. He writes: ‘translation always implies adapting the meaning of a proposition, enabling it to pass from one code to another, which implies a mastery of both languages but also implies that neither is self-evident.’

I like what you wrote about translation, but I find it a little hard to understand. Could you elaborate on that? ’

‘Translation is certainly something I would like to look at again. It is a good point and I think you’re right. It’s the most obscure part; it’s more of an intuition that is not fully developed in the book. And I will certainly, as I always do, take something from this book into the next one. Because I always feel it wasn’t clear enough. Maybe the best way to make you understand is to move the camera and shoot from a different angle.’