Comparing Social Art and Social Software

I’m currently writing a piece for Camerawork, a journal associated with the San Francisco Camerawork Gallery. The piece looks at three pieces of work – Lucy Kimbell’s Audit, Tim Etchell’s Surrender Control, and Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy, and discusses them in terms of Nicholas Bourriaud’s theory of Relational Aesthetics. Put simply, Bourriaud suggests the term to describe contemporary art that establishes an event or participatory relationship with audiences, challenging them to become ‘users’ as much as ‘viewers’, and to question the role or value of the ‘art object’. Bourriaud makes a distinction between 60’s & 70’s performance art happenings, where participatory events were used to break through the deadlock high modernism had created by fetishising the art object, and 90’s work, where participation is encouraged as a form of game, or a moment of intimate connection in a globally-mediated world. Bourriaud uses the lovely term ‘hands-on utopias’ to describe the social, but not necessarily political, environments these artists create.

I’m using this theory to see if its a productive way of discussing networked art beyond the primarily technological/political discourse that underpinned the first ‘heroic’ [sic] phase of In particular, I’ve chosen examples that use the interplay of social relationships mediated through technology as their locus, rather than an exploration of the technology per se.

In my research, I’ve come across this excellent article on social architectures by Sal Randolph, an artist and writer based in New York. Large parts of the essay could apply to current debates around ‘Social Software’ as well, including this part that has echoes of Clay’s comments on the use-values we inscribe into the architectures of software:

“Looking further into this idea of use, it becomes clear that for social architectures to exist at all, they must be functional — in other words people have to have a good reason to be part of them (they must have a use for them). Social architectures as artworks are always functional artworks. People need a purpose for becoming part of the social organization beyond the simple fact that they are participating in an artwork, otherwise the motive force of the structure is dead.”

As our understanding of social uses of the internet matures from ‘is anybody out there?’ to ‘so what are we going to *do* here?’, so networked art is maturing from its initial investigation of the form-factors and politics of the network to an interest in how people are using networked media to connect, and participate in social exchange. Photography matured from technical experiment to social document as the spectacle of the medium wore off, and so networked art seems to be moving on from defining its borders, becoming concerned with the humans beyond the edges of the network as much as the network itself.


  1. Ele Carpenter

    Hello there, can’t find the article in Camera work yet – is it still on the cards?
    I’m just starting to look at relationships between socially engaged art practice and net art – and would be interested to read your final article.

  2. mark owen

    hi, thanks for the introduction it helped to make a lot of things much clearer, do you know of any other websites, books, articles, etc, which would give me a much deeper understanding or relational aesthetics?
    many thanks, mark

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