A participating artist suggested to me, as a helpful introduction, that 'Traffic' was 'a great show, but the works aren't very good'. Faced with a sprawling mass of rough constructions, giant sculptures, messy forms, and the drone of scattered and contesting video presentations in the brown, expansive gloom of the museum's cavernous main gallery, I was curious to know what could have been meant by 'great'.
It transpired that pleasure and enjoyment were not to be found in the exhibition itself but in the week-long gathering of the 30 artists involved. Under the auspices of an 'exchange of ideas', the artists talked, drank, dined and danced together whilst creating, preparing and installing their different works. For Nicolas Bourriaud, curator of 'Traffic', the gathering was central to his theme, awkwardly formulated as 'the interhuman space of relationality'. It's an unhelpfully vague concept, directed towards an encapsulation of the increasing prevalence of some kind of 'interactivity' in contemporary art, in which the art work is seen as a vehicle for engendering and mediating relationships between the artist and others, and the viewer is increasingly involved as an active participant or collaborator. Its field of concern is the social, and in particular the 'reality' of lived experience within the domain of the everyday. This incorporation of 'life' entails a commensurate emptying out of art and artistic conventions. The anti-form style which prevails in 'Traffic' involves the use of low-grade materials, a disinterest in elaborate fabrication processes and a general emphasis on proposition rather than end product. The art works are often based on a performance, events or actions, presented in actuality or in the form of documentation, recordings or the display of related props and souvenir-objects.
'Traffic' predictably included the model practitioner of this kind of art - Rirkrit Tiravanija. Around the second floor viewing gallery he provided simple, user-friendly arrangements of tables and chairs made from brown packaging cardboard, each with a free mini-bar of red wine and mineral water. Another, surprisingly intimate, form of interaction was found in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's seance room, where, in collaboration with the artist, one could recall early memories in an effort to draw a floor plan of one's childhood home. Attendant thoughts and feelings swim up from the past and are added to the drawing as brief complementary notes, the finished plan joining others on the room's walls. It was a pleasant experience and therapeutic in an uncertain way.
Lothar Hempel expanded the constituency of the show by approaching local social groups. Producing an unassuming and quietly generous work, he knocked together a four-walled space, and on the inside sketched the facades of anonymous housing blocks, illuminating them with shadowy projections of silhouetted leafless trees. On the outside, he displayed information and educational material from several groups, including an open house for people with suicidal tendencies, an esoteric self-discovery dance school, and a support organisation for prostitutes.
Between this and a massive yellow floating balloon, a workshop for producing flags for new countries and the metal chamber of a primitive welded steel floatation tank, was the great pink lump of an alternative domestic habitat consisting of cave-like dwellings complete with wooden beds, a cooking area and communal seating, all atmospherically enhanced with taped nature noises. Its two enthusiastic creators, the two Danish artists Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, had planned round-the-clock occupation of the dwelling for the duration of the show, but were initially restricted to public opening hours by museum regulations. They later abandoned their new home due to boredom.
Some works were comprehensively stupid, like the girl standing on a table in a cutesy rubber mac, badly intoning I'm Singing in the Rain, while someone sprinkled water over her head. Others, like that of the Californian artist Jason Rhoades, were inspirational. He persuaded the museum to give him 51% of the money towards the cost of a brand new saloon car and showed some photographs of his new purchase parked at different locations in and around LA. Though the museum retains a majority share ownership, Rhoades gets to keep the car at home for his own use and pleasure. Liam Gillick's fanciful Parallel World creations, which revel in an anachronistic conceptual obduracy, seemed entirely inappropriate and could only have been included on the undeclared basis of personal friendship 'relationality'. Another art work, consisting of a floor to ceiling forest of string, silver foil boxes, stuffed shapes and two women playing a piano, remained firmly in the realm of the unknown.
'Traffic' and Bourriaud's concept of 'relationality' were just too unspecific to be capable of defining a new art, especially when so many of the works did little to support the exhibition's premise. This was an ambitiously funded exhibition which was only able to provide the viewer with a largely familiar array of objects and images. With the primary beneficiaries of 'Traffic' tending to be the participating artists and their associates, Bourriaud may need to look at what actually constitutes the socio-political determinants of his 'interhuman space'.
First published in Issue 28