Art as a Social Instrument in the Digital Age

by Emily Tolman

Relational aesthetics, a term which branched conceptual art into the sphere of human social relations, was established by the French curator, Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud defines this artistic philosophy as serving as a theoretical starting point for viewing how art and artists serve as facilitators in an exploration of the greater human social experience. This lens through which art is viewed and practiced is also closely linked to interactive art, having been created to counter exclusive spaces in the 1950’s. Art intending to be both interactive and relational takes upon a greater role of curating exchanges between its audience.

Of course, in 1998 when Bourriaud first coined the term relational aesthetics, technology played a different role in society but also served as a precursor to how contemporary society interacts with each other. The main investigation of his work focused on in-person interactions, with the most notable example being Rikrit Tiravanija’s untitled show at 303 Gallery. He made food and shared it with his audience, focusing on the communal aspects of eating and cooking, highlighting the interactions that the art provokes rather than the visual aspects. This, of course, required all interactions and artwork to occur in-situ.

As new media and technological advances have changed the landscape of contemporary art, the concept of what constitutes genuine interactions has been widely debated. Bourriaud himself claimed that “our age is nothing if not the age of the screen” (66) and even asserted that art was a tool to highlight methods and relationships as a product of the current technology. Yet, surprisingly, he did not view the interactions created digitally or online as being authentic under relational aesthetics, interactions through technology merely imitated true social exchanges. His stance mirrored the critical eye through which technology has been viewed, predated by the philosopher Heidegger, who suggested the idea that technology could prompt a post-aesthetic era due to the attrition of fundamental meaning and reality (152).

However, the idea that the technological and digital medium is considered to corrupt the validity of its curated interactions seems easily dismissive, when in fact, it offers arguably some of the most interesting contemporary social dialogue. Relational aesthetics is oftentimes closely associated with interactive art, which in some cases is computerized. One notable example is the interactive installation Remote Pulse (2019), by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, incorporating two sensor stations which were connected using the internet. Through the technological interconnection, the participants at either station could sense the heartbeat of the person whose hand was on the other. Lozano-Hemmer’s work proposes that interaction and connection between the audience is not limited merely by proximity. The examples of this distanced connection through art are growing exponentially, and exploring new ways to connect a global audience with art.

Imitating true social interactions does not necessarily indicate that they are not genuine; online platforms exist which can still produce a familiar gallery experience. Cryptovoxels, for example, is a virtual space creating a world in which stores and galleries can be constructed using blockchain. This site mediates technology and the gallery experience to make it more familiar to the audience, but also makes the experience of an online gallery more interactive. The audience can play videos, follow links, listen to music, and while many of the spaces created follow a familiar gallery setting, this sphere has the potential to host social events and immersive artwork.

Arguably the most telling display of digital relational experimentation can be seen in the interactive online project Karlskrona2 created by Superflex beginning in 1998. Superflex is a group known for its aim to create socially engaging artwork by using institutions as promotion to explore modern social issues. In their Karlskrona2 project, the group reimagined the Danish city-centre of Karlskrona through a network created on the internet. The creation of Karlskrona2 was driven by several key components, mainly falling into the hands of the real-world city’s citizens. The three-dimensional online version of the city centre could be viewed via public projection or engaged with at home online, and at first, it consisted mainly of unoccupied grey space. After being left alone with their own interpretation and learning, the citizens slowly built the online city without much intervention from curators or the artists. Through this expression, citizens collaboratively imagined the future possibilities of their own city as well as developments which could alter the current cityscape. Therefore, Karlskrona2 became an experimental display of how society could be constructed by people while removed from the physical space but still influenced by modern social structures.  

Humankind has created digital realms for familiar gallery experiences, physical touch that spans a vastness of miles and borders, and a reimagination of the physical realm. Bourriaud was correct in deducing the integration of technology and digitalization in this era of art and society. But the power of these tools was underestimated. From these examples one can extract that the digital realm offers abundant opportunities for relevant explorations of relational aesthetics, since arguably the use of internet tools as modern communication and human interaction has become the norm and allowed for the current globalisation of society.



Works Cited


Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. trans. S. Pleasance (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2009).

Johansson, Troels. “Home and Abroad: The Construction of Periphery in the Avant-Garde of Relational Art.” Nordlit, no. 21 (May 2007) : 199-217.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. trans. A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

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