Whether you call it 'relational aesthetics', 'social aesthetics', 'social sculpture', 'performative art' or now, perhaps, 'publicness', art practices that use groups of people, information flows or social systems as their medium represent one of the dominant modes of art-making of the last several years. You wouldn't especially know it from the market or mainstream institutions, whose lifeblood remains objects, but listening to the ecstatic, sub-Deleuzian pronouncements of many of today's young curators you'd think little else mattered.
It has now reached the point where the tendency is as predictable in project spaces as large colour photographs mounted on aluminium in editions of five are in little white cubicles at art fairs. When some area of activity fits a discourse too snugly, especially when that discourse flatters the role of curators, a feeding frenzy ensues, critical discrimination goes out of the window and we find ourselves in exhibition spaces that have once again transformed themselves into canteens, corner shops, job centres and such like. The effect can be mind-numbing - embarrassing even.
'Publicness', on the other hand, is the most stimulating and subtle group exhibition of this tendency I can recall. Its success, first and foremost, is attributable to curator Cristina Ricupero's choice of artists - Jens Haaning, Matthieu Laurette and Aleksandra Mir - all of whom approach the art of public intervention with intelligence, commitment, empathy and humour. What makes the exhibition doubly persuasive is the affinity one senses the artists have for each others' work, evident in the unforced relations connecting one artist's project to another's. This makes sense, given that exchange is an idea and technique running through all three artists' practice. Laurette's Other Countries Pavilions/Citizen Project (2001), for example, is a series of letters sent to heads of state not represented at the last Venice Biennale, requesting citizenship. In exchange Laurette proposes to represent their country at the Biennale. None took him up on it, but we get to see each of Harald Szeemann's letters. Haaning's acts of exchange are physical and geographical, but they also cause us to reconsider the concept of the nation-state in the context of the global economy, among other, related issues. In one of his recent series of 'Light Bulb Exchange' projects, for example, during Documenta 11, Haaning swapped all the bulbs from the street lamps on the Trappen Strasse in Kassel for the same number of bulbs in a street in Hanoi. Although often humble in the extreme Mir's many proposals for outdoor projects - each of which shows up the arrogance and pointlessness of most of what passes for public art - evoke the possibility of a more humane society: the replanting of Christmas trees, decorations and all, in public parks in New York, once shops no longer have a use for them; the sowing of a wildflower meadow on a disused industrial lot in Glasgow for 'children to play, for teens to have sex, for adults to take walks and for senior citizens to remind them of their youth'.
Off-site projects that have already taken place pose problems for institutions. How are artists and curators to represent these activities in the gallery? Do these ways of working imply that the gallery is redundant? These, of course, are issues that have been with us since the 1960s. The answers, in part, depend on the characteristics of the documentation, and whether the idea itself is vivid enough to live in one's head, to paraphrase a slogan of the time. Invariably the projects in 'Publicness' succeeded on both counts, despite the reliance on explanatory labels. This was especially true of Laurette and Mir, whose actions take on a second, altered life in documentation. Often these forms have more in common with the ways the mass media report events than with the ways Conceptual artists conventionally record their actions. Mir's First Woman on the Moon (1999), for example, is an affectionate, funny and kitsch take on Robert Smithson's film of the making of Spiral Jetty (1970). The event involved little more than a bunch of burly and obliging guys making lunar-esque craters with their JCBs, three girls in short, sexy, silvery space-dresses, and assorted kids on vacation pitching in with plastic spades. Still, the soundtrack is the one Hasselblad commissioned for their 1984 documentary of the original lunar landing, and several television stations ensured the bathetic spectacle was witnessed by a mass audience.
Between 1993 and 1995 Laurette built an art career out of appearing as a guest or as part of the audience on French television, ranging from current affairs to dating shows. In each instance the mass media unwittingly covered the production costs for Laurette's interventions. His appearances, or 'Apparitions', then had parallel lives in the distribution channels of the art world and daytime television.
'Publicness' extended beyond the frame of the galleries and its two-month slot. One of Haaning's pieces involved shipping the ICA bar's 62 plastic chairs to a street in Karachi. Another allowed foreign visitors free admission to the exhibition. Lookalikes of Tony and Cherie Blair, Liam Gallagher, Camilla Parker-Bowles and Jaws from Moonraker (1979), from Laurette's Déjà Vu - The Fifth International Look-Alike Convention (2003), were just some of the luminaries rubbing shoulders with the art crowd at the exhibition's private view. Complementing each artist's mini-survey of his or her past projects, Mir's proposal for a replica Stonehenge - Stonehenge II - sited near the existing one to accommodate all its different user groups, and Laurette's donation box to raise cash for citizenships ($40,000 for a Panamanian passport, $1 million for an Austrian one), projected a sense of the exhibition's future possibilities. Visitors to 'Publicness' were invited to help shape this future through 'financial donations, legal advice, sponsorship, accommodation or other services'.
First published in Issue 75