Last month I was invited to speak at NIBBLES!, our studio’s monthly round table discussion about a topic of our choice. No subject is off the menu, we just lift the lid and see what falls out. I chose a topic from my History of Art days, that had stayed with me for insert long amount of years here that I don’t want to admit has passed since I was a student.
Relational Aesthetics is a term coined by prolific French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, later examined in his book of the same name published in 1998. He defines Relational Aesthetics 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”.
Bourriaud held the belief that artists functioned as facilitators rather than creatives, perceiving their artwork as a conduit of information that flowed in between the artist and the audience. The aim is to foster meaningful connections, challenge traditional notions of art, and explore the transformative potential of social interactions within an artistic context.
The artist who is probably best associated with popularising this concept is Rirkrit Tiravanija. In 1990 he held a show at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York where he decided to reject all physical art objects, instead choosing to cook attendees a meal in the centre of the main gallery space. The interactions, the conversations – they were the artwork. This event became one instalment of his infamous Pad Thai series.
As I was making notes for the talk I was planning on giving, I was surprised to find a number of similarities in the ways in which Relational Aesthetics is discussed, and the principles that we as a studio place value upon when strategising how to best improve businesses.
The readdressing of the traditional dynamic between artist and audience was being investigated long before Relational Aesthetics became popular in the art world. The immersion in the experience and the feeling triggered in the participant is the artwork itself, rather than the concept created by the artist.
This idea of challenging traditional approaches, to encourage a more equitable and dynamic exchange between the artist and the audience, is one that could be utilised in the business world. The relationship between brands and their customers, or even the relationships formed between employees and employers. How could these traditional dynamics be inverted. More importantly what could we learn from this exercise? Would a redistribution of power allow for more understanding?
By adopting a new, less top down view to idea generation, business owners could stand to benefit from more dynamic working environments, less staff turnover and increased customer satisfaction.
Businesses that strike the right balance and allow for psychological safety in their workspaces, actively encouraging team members to speak their mind and share opinions.
Shedding ego, sharing success
It is common to find the senior leadership team in successful companies taking time for their own self reflection and personal development. They don’t ever see themselves as having all the answers, quite the contrary – they hire talented individuals in areas where their expertise fall short.
Encouraging self reflection also appears to run through works created by artists associated with Relational Aesthetics. This was in reaction to the popular London based art scene at the time which saw value placed on artist’s ego and their ability to employ shock tactics through their choice of disturbing themes. The 1997 exhibition at the Royal Academy Sensation of Charles Saatchi’s private collection included works such as Marc Quinn’s Self-Portrait made up of a glass cast of Quinn’s own head filled with his blood.
There is a discussion to be had here regarding the importance of shedding ego as a business owner and allowing space for others to feel comfortable in co-creation. As a studio we know, first hand, that it takes hours of collaboration to create any type of meaningful output, product or experience. If businesses are strictly adhering to traditional frameworks of hierarchy, they risk not only producing uninspiring and repetitive work for their consumers, but also alienation of staff outside of managerial positions.
We could take this a step further and pose a potential new dynamic between brands and consumers. Bourriaud said that he saw artists as “facilitators”. What would happen if all the business owners, or artists, allowed their customers, their audience, to take control?
What if businesses became facilitators, or conduits, of their customers ideas? What would they learn? Would they better understand each other and therefore experience a more successful, fulfilled exchange?
Stepping into your ever-changing customers' shoes
The businesses that appear to have understood the value in this new dynamic are those that have taken the time to find out what people want, placing themselves on a level with their target audience and their team. And the key is to do this regularly.
Your customers now have access to a world of other options and therefore their wants and needs are in flux. Leaders become dormant when they rely on the ‘facts’ they learnt from demographic research five/ten years ago. A frequent approach to co-production is the only way to stay on top of market trends and fluctuations. When we look outside traditional hierarchical structures and readdress who holds power, it would appear that the experience of all those involved in the creative process, benefit more broadly.
How can we shake up the traditional hierarchical pyramid, to unlock new ideas?
How can our businesses become conduits of their customers needs?
How can we break down the barriers between those with industry power, and those with purchasing power?