Relational Design…

An important and exciting frame (to me) by which to look at and/or undertake artistic practice, is the design of relations: the artist as a person that stages, frames, creates and developes relations of a more or less anticipated nature and form between humans; between humans and non-humans; between humans through non-humans. Relational design is a frame that can be used to create fertile common ground between the practices of interaction design, participatory art forms, service design, community art, performance art, installations, and what have you. It bridges the chasm between the political and the aesthetic discourses around art in a most elegant and stimulating way.

(addition of nov 3: a section of maybe even a new post will be added seperating and contextualising other notions of relational design that live in the context of programming of (relational) databases and in the context of design thinking applied to 21st century developments in the focus of design practice)

My notion of relational design is always under construction, but is preceded by Nicolas Bourriaud’s somewhat limping development of the concept of relational aesthetics, in his book of the same title – for a concise criticism, see this text). But it was more directly influenced and inspired by Claire Bishop’s sharp review Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. Early development of the notion that underpin Relational Design was done through the Architecture of Interaction project, although that work overlooks the agency of non-humans. My version of relational design may include micro-utopian escapist projects, as well as works that want to frame and stage antagonisms, as well as other types and sets of relations that come into begin as an effect of an conscious construction of a (set of) maker(s).
Please note: using the frame of relational design does not necessarily mean you are making a piece of relational art. It can also be a set of concepts and focus points to apply within an artistic practice that is oriented towards other themes. Using the relational frame will bring aspects and layers of meaning or experience into the work that are otherwise (generally) not so consciously put in place. So it is a kind of design thinking that can be part of artistic practice.

C,C,C => Relational Design

To understand and feel a work as a form with meanings, emerging out of consecutive contact-moments (Content, Context, Contact) is pretty close to understanding it as a developing and changing whole of relationships.
If you put this notion of designing relations at the center of artistic practice and experience than you move away from a focus on art objects and their attributes, of which the status can be validated (or denied) within a rather fixed set of contexts that are historically constructed (allthough they are developing as well, of course)
Instead, the notion becomes operational that the qualities of an artistic work or experience are being performed by a network of agents: members of the audience, the context of publication, the shape, the media used, and related aesthetics of the physical aspects of the work, the way it is announced, etcetera. All these aspects together are the work. Through this approach one can ask a work what kind of interesting relations it produces between various member of the audience (onlookers, participants, people that read about the work in a magazine and more ) tools, spaces, media, technologies, critics etcetera. One can ask a work what kind of important differences it produces (or ‘performs’) between the humans and non-humans it contacts.

Also relational design becomes essential if you want to work in a way that is validated as artistic, but outside an easily recognisable artistic context. If a white cube/blackbox kind of art space, or a mailinglist about cultural-political topics, , or an established museum, or some public art initiative acts as the vessel for your work, most of the relational design is done for you – but at the same time it is quite beyond your control.
In other circumstances you’ll have to create some kind of deal with your onlookers, potential participants and the witnesses of your traces. and the process of getting to that deal is the practice of relational design…

klaas kuitenbrouwer – 28 october 2010


Black Ball, Yes Men, Geert Mul, Santiago Sierra, SubtleMob, Kidnap. (to be worked out)