Relational Art or Relational Aesthetics is a mode or tendency in fine art practice originally observed and highlighted by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud defined the approach simply as, “a set of artistic 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 of the first attempts to analyze and categorize art from the 1990s, the idea of Relational Art was developed by Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998 in his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics). The term was first used in 1996, in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic curated by Bourriaud at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux. Traffic included the artists that Bourriaud would continue to refer to throughout the 1990s, such as Henry Bond, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Christine Hil, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Miltos Manetas, Philippe Parreno, Jorge Pardo and Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Bourriaud wishes to approach art in a way that ceases “to take shelter behind Sixties art history”, and instead seeks to offer different criteria by which to analyse the often opaque and open-ended works of art of the 1990s. To achieve this, Bourriaud imports the language of the 1990s internet boom, using terminology such as user-friendliness, interactivity and DIY (do-it-yourself). In his 2002 book Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, Bourriaud describes Relational Aesthetics as a book addressing works that take as their point of departure the changing mental space opened by the internet.
Bourriaud explores this notion of relational aesthetics through examples of what he calls Relational Art. According to Bourriaud, Relational Art encompasses “a set of artistic 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.”
The artwork creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity. Bourriaud claims “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.”