Relational art has been fiercely criticised in the last couple of decades for facilitating fleeting moments of sociability and resulting in a numbing spectacle it allegedly endeavours to evade. Under the pretense of re-establishing genuine social bonds and shared human values it cultivates an artificial community and suffocates individual rational thought. Conceived as a creative journey and concerned with “process rather than end result”, it emphasizes use over contemplation and fails to emancipate its audience – relational art “becomes practical but it is an art that enthrals”, writes German critic Peter Burger. Focusing on democratisation and flexible formats and “blurring the imprint of individual authorial status”, relational art attempts to create an environment for dialogue and active, meaningful engagement. But critics argue that the so-called “authorial renunciation” only masks this art’s innate hollowness and visionary void.
At times righteously raised, these contentions also exclude from their field of critique examples of relational art that is neither micro-utopian nor artistically submissive; works that operate in the field of the audience’s involvement and interaction not to forge illusory bonds but to expose social cracks. In these works, intersubjectivity is explored through antagonism and inter-relational conflict, and artistic vision is embraced rather than renounced. In this essay I look at the latter category of relational art using two recent examples – Tino Seghal’s This is so Contemporary and Yingmei Duan’s Happy Yingmei – to consider how they respond to the above critique and whether they betray this critique’s unnecessarily totalizing and dismissive nature.
Considered historically, relational art builds upon the 20th century avant-garde movements that reacted against the bourgeoisie concept of passive and isolated viewing and sought to actively involve audience in the production of the artwork. The avant-gardes attacked the “social functionlessness” of elitist art and endeavoured to fuse their own work with social praxis. They bridged the gap, not only between art and life but also between the artist as the privileged maker of idolized objects and the viewer as their humble beholder. The new art opened the terrain of art-making to everyone taking inspiration from Joseph Beuys’ remark: everyone is an artist, and subverting “the notion of a work of art as […] something that is terribly precious”. The socio-political agenda behind this inclusive strategy was to engage and emancipate the viewers transforming them from the system’s drunken marionettes into sober thinkers and incited activists.
The avant-garde concept of participation remains an underpinning principle of 21st century relational art, but today’s focus is directed less towards the political emancipation of an individual and more towards the resurrection of allegedly lost social bonds and collective responsibility. Countering the fragmentation and alienation caused by capitalism and mass media (in particular Facebook and Twitter), relational artists design opportunities for genuine inter-human relations that would, as they hope, extend into our daily lives. “The artist is now perceived less as an individual maker of discrete objects than as a producer of situations”, notes art historian Claire Bishop. Rather than being a creator of content, he is now a facilitator of social encounters which are “turned into a standardised artefact”. As explained by French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, in relational art “inter-subjectivity does not only represent the social setting for the reception of art, […] but also becomes the quintessence of artistic practice”.
Both of the artists whose work I analyse below operate in the sphere of an audience’s involvement, considering encounter as their “aesthetic object”. However, although the execution of their works relies on the audience and is relatively malleable, the collective production is performed within the artist’s carefully envisaged structure and clearly outlined guideline. Both works set-up intimate but also demanding engagement with and between the audience and see society strengthened not through elimination of the individual and his fusion within the communal body, but through transformation of the individual’s own consciousness which is to be achieved through his relation with (and reflection in) the Other.
TINO SEGHAL, This is so Contemporary, 2014, Art Gallery of NSW (Kaldor Public Art Projects)
‘Staged’ in the vestibule of the Art Gallery of NSW, This is so contemporary, by Berlin-based artist Tino Seghal, is a strange welcome to the gallery space. In it, three instructed performers, dressed and acting as the official gallery guards, occupy the gallery’s entrance. As unaware visitors enter the space, proceeding to whichever exhibition they have come to see, the three “security guards” encircle them dancing and chanting: “Oooooh, this is so contemporary, temporary, temporary…. Oooooh, this is so contemporary, temporary, temporary…” Seghal is known for not providing any preliminary information about his works, and the ‘performance’ is, therefore, encountered unexpectedly. The lack of customary ‘signposts’ (brochures, catalogues, etc.) reinforced by staging – the liminal space between outside and inside and literally in the gap between art and life – disorients and confuses the visitors forcing them to take a moment and digest what is happening. Ideally, this bewilderment will provoke curiosity which will, as expressed by one of the performers, “eventually blossom into something profound”.
In relational art fashion, Seghal “described his artistic medium as “people’s attention” rather than paint or pencil” . This is So Contemporary finds interest in interaction with the audience to whose behaviour and movement through the space performers adjust their dance and chanting (volume, speed, emotional quality, etc.). However, while the final form varies and depends on the nature of the audience’s participation, it is never unclear who the author is – the performers are carefully trained and instructed by Seghal and their reactions and interpretations are relatively confined. Rather than participating voluntarily, the gallery visitors are ‘hijacked’ into the role of unwilling participants. Encircled by the performers, they become both part of the piece and its central element reminiscent of Guy Debord’s statement: “It is not a question of knowing whether this interests you but whether you yourself could become interesting under new conditions of cultural creation”. Seghal in fact, refers to his work as “constructed situations”, a term invented by Debord to describe Situationist International performances that allowed for the moments of life to be experienced in almost laboratory settings where they are highlighted and made obvious and where one can start to critically examine them.
Seghal’s constructed situations “have become renowned for their intimacy” but instead of generating a happy-go-lucky bonding they facilitate schism. By inserting his work into the fabric of a traditional gallery (instead of the more fitting Museum of Contemporary Art), Seghal enters into direct dialogue and confrontation with conventional values and a conservative audience. In this space, his performers are intruders and antagonists, and dialogue with the gallery visitors is hardly pleasant. The unfamiliar space (neither inside nor outside) further destabilises and agitates the visitors testing their “capacity to comprehend and mentally ‘map’ these spaces”. While familiar places generate the sense of belonging and “reaffirm our sense of self, […] reflecting back to us an unthreatening picture of a grounded identity,” writes Miwon Kwon, “the wrong place is generally thought of as a place where one feels one does not belong – unfamiliar, disorienting, destabilising, even threatening.” Caught in the wrong place, audience, however, gains an opportunity to confront and examine themselves for “an encounter with a ‘wrong place’ is likely to expose the instability of the ‘right place’, and by extension the instability of the self.” In very much a Futurist and Dada fashion, This is so Contemporary exposes the viewer with a spatial and interpersonal shock which, as observed by art theoretician Grant H. Kester and philosopher Walter Benjamin, “becomes the catalytic agent for a ‘heightened presence of mind’” resulting in “a heightened capacity to perceive”.
The interpretation of Segal’s piece does not lend itself to a simple interpretation and the construction of the meaning is deliberately obscure and difficult, not through any lack of conceptual quality but rather to evade “tunnel vision” and to enforce the visitor’s cerebral (and not only physical) engagement with the piece. The understanding of the piece is laboured both through the audience’s individual contemplation and through the numerous group discussions that accompany the piece and form its integral part. Because of its ambiguity, argues Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan, Seghal’s work triggers greater interest in the audience and although immaterial, it “ends up being more talked about than any other object or artwork in the gallery and, therefore, ironically more present.” Far from being concerned solely with the use and the process, Seghal aims to affect our lives on a more substantial level.
YINGMEI DUAN, Happy Yingmei, 2014, Art Gallery of NSW (19th Biennale of Sydney)
For the duration of twelve weeks, Chinese artist Yingmei Duan inhabits a little forest installed inside the Art Gallery’s walls and hidden from the visitor’s immediate view. The gallery visitors are invited to enter in groups of ten or less. Here, the artist welcomes them with a song (which she seems to hum more to herself than to her visitors) while slowly approaching them, studying their features and gazing intensely into their eyes. The distinction between the observer and the observed is blurred and who watches whom unclear. The visitors are then turned into active participants asked to perform the artist’s instructions which constitute of asking each other intimate questions. After what seems like a five-minute interaction, the artist bids her visitors farewell handing them a secret note of inspiration or instruction as they return back into the ‘real’ world. 
Like Seghal’s This is so Contemporary, Yingmei’s work is also classified as a “work in movement,” the outcome of which is constantly changing and depends on the nature of the participant’s collaboration (or the lack of it). The participation is both voluntary and enforced – the audience enters the space willingly but is then entrapped within it; the space becomes suffocating and claustrophobic. The unease is fortified by the aesthetics – the trees are bare, the light is sparse, the atmosphere cold and grim, and Yingmei is dressed in a dreary nightgown suggesting we have perhaps entered her dream (which could always be a nightmare). The visual framework is augmented by Yingmei’s sober, rather than joyful and reassuring hum.
Happy Yingmei “takes being together as a central theme” but rather than proposing an idealised model of social bonding, the work highlights the condition of social phobia where one is “caught between ‘a communal body’ and ‘an existential individualist’ ”. Relationship with other is established only to demonstrate its utter impossibility and to further assert the individual self. This antagonism, however, strengthens rather than weakens a society whose democratic values are restored through it, asserts theoretician and critic Claire Bishop. In Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, Bishop quotes political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouff who “argue that a fully functioning democratic society is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate – in other words, a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased.” In this antagonistic encounter my I is not attached to your I but brought into comparison, not to be dissolved but to be elaborated. Yingmei’s work brings into life Jean-Luc Nancy’s “you and I” relational formula in which “the and does not imply juxtaposition but exposition. What is exposed […is that] you (are/and/is) entirely other than I”. Like in Seghal’s case, Happy Yingmei is not a user-friendly work but one that wishes to transform both its beholders and artist. Considered symbolically, we are supposed to enter the space as one person and exit as another (the note received at the end further reinforces this transformation).
Both Happy Yingmei and This is so Contemporary challenge the passivity of the audience through their active inclusion in the production of the work. Both works take social interaction as their focus shattering the separation between the audience and the artist, as well as amongst the audience itself. The bonding is explored, but through a critical reflection rather than a feel-good distraction. Relational situations are not seen as artworks in and of themselves, but are constructed to expose inter-relational antagonism and facilitate reflexive examination. Rather than disintegrating individual within the communal body and obstructing his capacity for critical reasoning, these works use dialogue and negotiation to reinforce personhood.
I have chosen to analyse these two examples of relational art not to propose that they are necessarily great artworks but to demonstrate that relational art in not necessarily always and only “an arty way to twitter” or a happy-go-lucky collaboration. As they confront and agitate, rather then comfort and reassure, these works hope to turn the audience not only into active participants but also into active thinkers. Whether they indeed manage to do so is, of course, unguaranteed but to suggest that this potential incapacity of art to generate contemplation is a specific problem of relational art only seems superfluous, for reception of every art depends on the willingness of the beholder to actively engage with the work. It was Alan Kaprow who noted that “participation in the Happening can be “meditative occupation when done devotedly; just ‘cute’ when done indifferently.”
[TEXT: IRA FERRIS, July 2014]
 Jacques Ranciere, “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 83-93. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 90.
 In Antagonism and Relational Aesthetic, art historian and critic Claire Bishop writes: “One could argue that […], project-based works-in-progress […] begin to dovetail with an “experience economy,” the marketing strategy that seeks to replace goods and services with scripted and staged personal experiences.” See Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, vol. 110 (Autumn 2004): 52. Later on Bishop quotes art critic, Hal Foster: “As Hal Foster warned in the mid-1990s, “the institution may overshadow the work it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star.” Ibid, 53.
 In The Social Turn, Bishop describes the relational (collaborative) art as the art form of “…artists working in a socially ameliorative tradition.” Artforum, vol. 44, no. 6 (February 2006): 181.
 “[F]unction over contemplation, and open-endedness over aesthetic resolution…” Bishop, “Antagonism,” 53.
 Peter Burger, “The Negation of the Autonomy of Art by the Avant-garde,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 46-53. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 51.
 Bishop, “Antagonism,” 55.
 For Bishop’s critique of “authorial renunciation,” see Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 181.
 In Relational Aesthetics, French curator and art critic, Nicolas Bourriaud describes relational art as “an art form where the substrate is formed by intersubjectivity, and which takes being together as a central theme, the “encounter” between beholder and picture, and the collective elaboration of meaning.” See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2002), 15.
 Bishop critiques relational art that lacks authorial vision and writes: “The conceptual density and artistic significance of the respective projects are sidelined in favor of an appraisal of the artist’s relationship with their collaborators.” See Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 181.
 Reception of the work in bourgeoisie art, writes Peter Burger, “is one by isolated individuals.” See Burger, “The Negation,” 47. In Connective Aesthetics, art historian Suzi Gablik writes: “With its focus on radical individualism and its mandate at keeping art separate from life, modern aesthetics circumscribed the role of the audience to that of the detached spectator-observer.” Suzi Gablik, “Connective Aesthetics: Art after individualism,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy, 74-87. (Washington: Bay Press, 1996), 86.
 Burger, “The Negation,” 49.
 “On the occasion of founding the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum , Beuys issued a statement declaring EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who – from his state of freedom – […] – learns to determine the other positions in the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.” Beuys associated freedom with participation in the cultural sphere; Allan Antliff writes: “At Documenta V Beuys proposed that future ‘political intentions’ become ‘artistic’: ‘they must originate from human creativity, from the individual freedom of man’,…” See Allan Antliff, Joseph Beuys, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2014), 70-71.
 Artist Claes Oldenburg cited in Barbara Haskell, Blam! Explosion of Pop Minimalism and Performance 1958-64, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W.W. Norton & Co., 1984), 43.
 “Recurrently, calls for an art of participation tend to be allied to […] a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, although it takes its lead from a tradition of Marxist thought that indicts the alienating and isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.” See Claire Bishop, “Introduction: Viewers as Producers,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 10-17. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 12.
 In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud writes: “the emergence of new technologies, like the internet and multimedia systems, points to a collective desire to create new areas of conviviality and introduce new types of transaction with regard to the cultural object.” See Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 26. In The Social Turn, Bishop comments that as seen by the practitioners and supporters of relational or socially engaged art, ”the creative energy of participatory practices rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism.” See Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 180.
 In Relational Art, Bourriaud writes: “It seems possible […] to describe the specific nature of present-day art with the help of the concept of creating relations outside the field of art […]: relations between individuals and groups, between the artist and the world, and by way of transitivity, between the beholder and the world.” See Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 26.
 Creative Time. “Claire Bishop on Participation and Spectacle,” Vimeo video, 16’09’’.
 “The philosophical tradition that underpins this relational aesthetics was defined in a noteworthy way by Louis Althusser, [..], as a “materialism of encounter”. See Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 18.
 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 9.
On page 28, Bourriaud writes: “… the artist sets his sights more and more clearly on the relations that his work will create among his public, and on the invention of models of sociability. […] Meetings, encounters, events, various types of collaboration between people, games, festivals, and places of conviviality, in a word all manner of encounter and relational invention thus represent, today, aesthetic objects likely to be looked at as such, with pictures and sculptures regarded here merely as specific cases of a production of forms with something other than a simple aesthetic consumption in mind.” See Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 28. Earlier in the book, Bourriaud argues: “The most common criticism to do with new artistic practices consists, moreover, in denying them any “formal effectiveness”, or in singling out their shortcomings in the “formal resolutions”. In observing contemporary artistic practices, we ought to talk of “formations” rather than “forms”. […] present day art shows that form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic prepositions with other formations, artistic or otherwise.” See Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 21.
 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 22.
 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 28.
Suzi Gablik uses the term “connective aesthetic.” See Suzi Gablig, “Connective Aesthetics,” 84.
 These works are therefore closer to the works Bishop considers ‘good’ relational art and which she feels are being sidelined by Bourriaud and other supporters of the ‘feel-good’ relational practice. In The Social Turn, she expresses her concern that “Accusations of mastery and egocentrism are levelled at artists who work with participants to realise a project instead of allowing it to emerge through consensual collaboration.” See Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 180.
 The information is based on my personal experience of the piece.
 “… Sehgal’s intent is to catch his audience off guard, […], he prohibits any photos, videos or other visual documentation of his pieces.” See Danielle Stein, “Tino Seghal,” Wmagazine online, last viewed March 12, 2014, http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2009/11/tino_sehgal/. In The Guardian, Jo Confino writes, Seghal’s work “happens in the moment and leaves no physical trace, but an experience gained.” See Jo Confino, “Tino Sehgal’s Tate Modern exhibition metaphor for dematerialisation,” The Guardian online, last viewed May 2, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/tino-sehgal-tate-modern-exhibition-metaphor-dematerialisation.
 This intention is, of course, not always realized as the word of mouth and media coverage cannot be prevented. My focus here is to present and analyze Seghal’s work based on the artist’s conceptual premise. Although not always realized, there were indeed numerous unanticipated encounters with the piece and a large number of entirely unprepared visitors for whom, in fact, this work was primarily intended.
 “The Live Experience” (public forum, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, February 22, 2014).
 Andrew Taylor, “Brief encounter,” The Sydney Morning Herald online, last viewed May 2, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/brief-encounter-20140130-31nlt.html.
 In this respect, Seghal’s work seems to bare similarity with those of the artist Thomas Hirschorn whom Bishop values and of whose work she writes: “Though produced collaboratively, his art is the product of a single artist’s vision – implies the readmittance of a degree of autonomy to art. Likewise, the viewer is no longer coerced into fulfilling the artist’s interactive requirements, but is presupposed as a subject of independent thought, which is the essential prerequisite for political action: having reflections and critical thoughts is to get active, posing questions is to come to life.” See Bishop, “Antagonism,” 77.
In Social Turn, Bishop cites Swedish critic Lind discussing Hirschhorn’s work: “His participants were paid for their work and their role was that of the ‘executor’ and not ‘co-creator’.” See Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 181.
 Guy Debord, “Towards a Situationist International,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 96-101. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 100.
 Simon Zhou, “Tino Sehgal: The art of constructed situations (Art with Tino Sehgal is a situation, not an object),” TimeOut Beijing, last viewed May 2, 2014, http://www.timeoutbeijing.com/features/Art/23771/Tino-Sehgal-The-art-of-constructed-situations.html.
 Kaldor Public Art Projects. “Project Archive: Tino Seghal 2014,” last viewed May 3, 2014, http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/project-archive/tino-sehgal-2014.
 Miwon Kwon, “The Wrong Place,” Art Journal, vol. 59, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 37.
 Kwon, “The Wrong Place,” 42.
 Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 84.
In Social Turn Bishop also reminds us that “Dada and Surrealism, […] sought to “shock” viewers into being more sensitive and receptive to the world,…” See Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 181.
 Claire Bishop, “Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art,” eFlux Journal, no.29 (November, 2011): 9/12. In The Poetics of the Open Work (1962), Umberto Eco writes: “… the work is “open” in the same sense that a debate is “open.” A solution is seen as desirable and is actually anticipated, but it must come from the collective enterprise of the audience. In this case the “openness” is converted into an instrument of revolutionary pedagogics.” Umberto Eco, “The Politics of the Open Work,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 20-41. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 30.
 Because it is impossible to scrutinize the event as it is happening, the meaning is formulated after the event through a series of panel discussions that accompany the work and form its integral part. These discussions offer an opportunity for the audience to come together and collectively elaborate the meaning.
 Jessica Morgan, “Jessica Morgan on Tino Seghal” (public lecture, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, February 10, 2014).
 The information about the work is based on my personal experience of the piece.
 Umberto Eco writes of “works which can be defined as “works in movement,” because they characteristically consist of unplanned or physically incomplete structural units. […] There are, for example, artistic products which display an intrinsic mobility, a kaleidoscopic capacity to suggest themselves in constantly renewed aspects to the consumer.” Umberto Eco, “The Politics of the Open Work,” 30.
 Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 15.
 Claire Bishop, eFlux Journal, 3/12.
 In Poetics of Relation (1990), French-Carribean author, Edouard Glissant writes: “… the thought of errantry – the thought of that which relates – usually reinforces [the] sense of identity.” See Edouard Glissant, “Politics of Relation,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 71-79. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 76.
 Bishop, “Antagonism,” 65.
 In The Inoperative Community (1986), French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes: “Community is the presentation of the detachment (or retrenchment) of this distinction that is not individuation, but finitude comparing.” See Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 54-71. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 67.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 67.
 Yingmei confirms, “her performances are a form of questioning for everyone involved. […] she is interested in the psychological realm, in the connecting axes of human instinct and behaviour and how we may recognise parts of ourselves in someone else’s artistic endeavour.” Biennale of Sydney. “Yingmei Duan,” last viewed May 3, 2014, http://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/19bos/artists/duan/.
 When describing the work of Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn and the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, whose works she considers as exemplary of good relational art, Claire Bishop writes: “These artists set up “relationships” that emphasize the role of dialogue and negotiation in their art, but do so without collapsing these relationships into the work’s content. The relations produced by their performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a “microtopia” and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context.” See Bishop, “Antagonism,” 69.
 Alan Kaprow, “Notes on the Elimination of the Audience,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 102-104. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 104.