John Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, University of Chicago Press, 2014; 264 pages, $45 cloth, $7 to $36 e-book.
Relationality, sociality, performativity are just a few of the key terms that John Paul Ricco explores in his new book The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes. Similar locutions occur in a number of recent theoretical volumes on contemporary art (see Books in Brief). Following the “dematerialization” of art in the 1960s, many artists shifted their focus from the art object to the viewer and the situation. Then, beginning in the ’90s, attention moved to various kinds of interpersonal “relations.” This, at least, is what a number of curators and art historians—such as Nicolas Bourriaud, Claire Bishop and Nato Thompson—have been arguing for the last couple decades.
The problem with relational practice, as both Bishop and Thompson readily acknowledge, is that once you eschew modernist notions like medium specificity along with the neo-avant-garde’s institutional critique, it becomes extremely difficult to discuss either the aesthetics or the ethics of such projects. 1 That is why Thompson, for example, has circumvented the category of art altogether, arguing that there is no significant distinction between many forms of participatory art and ordinary social activities. But clearly, given that relational projects continue to stake their claims within the field of cultural production, this is troubling.
Ricco, by addressing the nature of “relation” itself—an undertaking that requires a philosophical mode of inquiry—offers an important response to this dilemma. An associate professor of visual studies and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, known for his contributions to queer theory, he treats participatory art as just one among many possible instances of relationality, using it as a guide to a more general schema. His refusal to limit his analysis to a conventional critical or art historical mode is precisely what makes this book requisite reading for anyone interested in art after the “participatory turn.”
The Decision Between Us begins: “Separation is the spacing of existence, and is, by definition, never solitary but always shared.” From this particular view of existence-that being is always separate and always in relation-all of Ricco’s “aesthetico-ethical” claims emerge.
He repeatedly acknowledges that this concept of “shared separation” is taken from the work of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. Relation, Nancy contends, is always between discrete singularities. We each occupy our own space, have our own thoughts, and understand those thoughts and experiences to be limited to our singular perspective. I may represent my experience to others, but I know that no one can fully partake of my experience as it is had by me. Nancy argues—in an elaboration Ricco also adopts—that this very singularity of being is something we all share.
Embracing the kind of linguistic play favored by Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, Ricco dubs this a “non-relational relation” (a relation, as first laid out in his 2003 book The Logic of the Lure, that comes about through our holding in common what would normally keep us apart). The complexity that results from Ricco’s unorthodox use of language, while difficult in its compounded iterations, can be intensely engaging. His writing has a challenging procedural effect on readers, prompting them to work through Ricco’s difficult syntax and to forge connections between his disparate examples. The result is not a drawing nearer of author and reader, an alignment of the reader with Ricco’s own understanding, but a shared separation as we each singly (Ricco included) undertake the hard-but rewarding-task of maintaining relation.
The diverse works that Ricco analyzes-by Robert Rauschenberg, Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Jean Genet, Robert Mapplethorpe, Roland Barthes, Marcel Duchamp, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and others—likewise present him with “scenes of being-together” (his phrase for the participatory, the collaborative, the relational) that are not merely “a partaking in a common ground, substance, or exchangeable object” but rather a shared experience of separation. In short, these works, through the viewer dynamics they foster, confirm a paradox: that being together is always enacted in relation to “incommensurability and heterogeneity”—by, that is, the insurmountable fact of being apart.
Two such “scenes” frame Ricco’s wide-ranging study. The first is Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg’s 1953 “collaboration” with Willem de Kooning. In this piece, which involves an extensive (though not complete) undoing of one participant’s work, Ricco sees an instance of coming together that is also a coming apart. The vestigial and ghostly final “drawing,” which he argues does not properly belong to either Rauschenberg or de Kooning and yet is the work of both, exemplifies “at once a collaborative labor and its deconstruction”; it is a drawing together (of Rauschenberg and de Kooning) grounded in withdrawal (of the work of de Kooning). Ricco characterizes Erased de Kooning Drawing as an act that does not erase singularity but enunciates it.
The second scene, which closes Ricco’s book, is Gonzalez-Torres’s elegiac and inexhaustible 1991
spill-piece “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Gonzalez-Torres, who invited viewers to partake of his spills of candy and stacks of paper, is frequently cited in discussions of relational art. Ricco, however, holds that the “force” of these works actually resides in the way they elude the “categories of the gift, communal substance, the artistic fragment, the souvenir or keepsake, and the readymade”-all interpretive frameworks applied to them in the past.
Ricco instead describes the spills and stacks as opening up “a space of decision” (de-: away; -cision: cut). Viewers can choose to partake in the work by becoming (not unlike Rauschenberg) complicit in the work’s withdrawal. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) exists only in its withdrawal (in the taking of a piece of candy), Ricco argues, and yet that withdrawal can never be final, for the candy should (ideally) be indefinitely replenished, thus undoing the taking away that makes the work possible.
This is not, in Ricco’s view, “participation”-a term he discusses only briefly in one endnote, where he dismisses the concept as entailing an “undeniable condescension” on the part of artists (the “unparticipated” in his words), who customarily set the terms of relational art transactions. (“To participate is, at best, to rank second,” he quotes from Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense.) The Gonzalez-Torres stratagem invites, rather, a sharing in a separation. The audience for “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) does not participate in or complete the work of art; nor does it form conventional social bonds. On the contrary, it partakes in “unbecoming community.” If any commonality is implied by the multiple acts of taking away the pieces of candy, it is predicated on anonymity and dissemination, on individuals being held apart.
An emphasis on the “interpersonal” and interactive in contemporary art is often considered a riposte to what Bourriaud has termed “imposed” or institutionalized social relations. Ricco’s close investigation of the non-relation aspects of relationality—the manner in which we do not come together—is, therefore, a crucial intervention into the aesthetic and ethical impasse that is ever-present in discussions of art after the participatory turn.
Ricco should not be seen as criticizing the relational, however; his ultimate goal is to suggest how we overcome our differences in our decision to maintain our communal disjunction; this is the ethical “decision between us” named in the book’s title. In substituting the act of decision for a more common art historical/critical activity like “evaluation,” Ricco shows that the promise of a truly relational practice lies in maintaining a shared space that we do not stand apart from or in judgment of, but that we enter into separately with each and every encounter.
CHRISTA NOEL ROBBINS is a postdoctoral instructor in art history at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
1. See, for example, the introductions to Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, New York, Verso, 2012, and Thompson’s “Living as Form,” in Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2012.