Relational Art: Is It An Ism?
Relational Art: Is It An Ism? (2004)
BBC Four: So, is Relational Art a new movement?
Ben Lewis: I don't know if it is a new movement or not, I want the viewer to tell me. I suppose that the film established that it was a new movement in an ironic sort of way, but it didn't seal off that argument and in fact many people will be left wondering what all these artists have in common.

BBC Four: What suggests that they are a movement?
BL: Well they know each other, they're interested in art that has a kind of purpose and in some ways it's very post-Modernist (not Postmodernist) art. If you looked at everything and asked what it had in common they make something that is used. Whether it's Philippe Parreno's rather pretentious light on the gallery floor, the lamps, which will probably end up on some excessively wealthy collector's sidetable near to the tiger skin; or whether it's those phone boxes by Elmgreen and Dragset where you use the exhibit and then become aware of what poor people have to do.

BBC Four: A lot of them see to be quite political in their concerns, certainly anti-capitalist.
BL: Yeah, I'd say all their work was informed by a crushingly na•ve political viewpoint that could only have been nurtured in the bubble of an art school. I think the misfortune of that kind of art is that it's politically imbecilic, and on an intellectual level they're still living off the arguments of the Frankfurt school - Adorno and Horkheimer - from the Sixties. They argued that we are all slaves to something called dominant ideology; this bourgeois thing that was constructing our way of thinking for us, our politics and our society.

Whereas the world we live in today is one that actually offers us much more choice to resist, rebel and construct our own community and I don't think any of the artists in that programme have really taken that on board. The weakness of the art to me is that it is quite patronising actually. They're trying to tell me something that I disagree with and they're saying "Because we're artists we know better", and I think that's one of the Modernist art myths they haven't managed to get rid of.

BBC Four: And it seemed as though they thought they knew better, but were very reluctant to discuss or interpret their work at a...
BL: It's an ism with some very good artists and some bad artists and it was a nightmare to make because I was very clear to the artists that I was interviewing them because they cropped up in this book (Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics) and I was interested to know how they felt about that. I was completely amazed that that was a very off-putting question for many artists. A lot of them refused point blank to be in the film and British artist Liam Gillick was absolutely livid with me. He was furious about that line of questioning. He thought it was superficial and trivial. Quite frankly it wasn't, but the trouble with art theory is that it's fine as long as it stays within the sanctified realm of art critics sitting in galleries having complex discussions with long words that nobody understands but if somebody comes along from the outside and asks "Well, actually, why are you all in this book together?", it becomes a very threatening scenario for them.

BBC Four: Not only the artists had this reaction though, there was the gallery owner Gavin Brown.
BL: Yes Gavin, he was kind of cool. I was very surprised by him as well. There were many surprises in this film. His reaction was a very big surprise for me.

BBC Four: Why?
BL: I thought he'd think relational art was a good thing, Rirkrit Tiravanija was one of his artists, and I couldn't quite tell if he thought Rirkrit was a good artist or not, he seemed a bit confused, he didn't seem to know himself. In fact he seemed to think he was absolutely shit, but he wasn't quite prepared to say that. The logic of what he was saying was that he wasn't very significant. But I didn't make the film to argue that it was significant or whether it was an ism or not. The whole point of the series was to look at something that might be interesting and for which I could collect a variety of opinions.

BBC Four: One of the great things about the film is that you don't get into the question of "Is Modern Art any good?" It's as if you're forming connections between different artists rather than getting into that well-worn debate.
BL: People who talk about art, and make TV programmes about art and write about art are addicted to their opinions. They're involved in this ghastly game in which they have to compete to make people think that their opinion is better than the other person's opinion and I just wanted to leave that aside because I think it just clogs up enjoying the art and I think that the way ordinary people enjoy art is a lot more flexible and fun than that. I wanted to make that the departure point for the film - the funny conversations people have in art galleries -"Is he a Fauvist or is he a Cubist?" We've all wondered haven't we?