Lab | Log

The Social Network

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Emotional Cityness

Maurizio Cattelan, Daddy Daddy, 2008. Steel, resin, and painted and varnished finish. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Installation view: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008. Photo: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

I recently ran into an old college friend on the street near my apartment in the East Village as I was walking to work. It had been a few years since we had seen each other. Back when we both had moved to the city we had hung out a fair amount, both big-city newbies, clinging to college familiarity. But as I had learned through Facebook, “Kay” now went by “K.” and I noticed, rather unfazed, that the slightly butch lesbian I had known was now sporting a mustache and a full sleeve of tattoos, with voice an octave lower than I had remembered.

“Oh, I saw on Facebook that you got married! Congratulations…. And your trip to Aruba looked really fun!” I said. K. gave me a sidelong glance, exchanged a few pleasantries, and we parted ways. As I sauntered along, kicking myself for not “playing it cool” and for coming off as a Facebook stalker, I wondered just how useful Facebook was for maintaining meaningful connections with people, and if it was even worth it at all. It appears I’m not alone. A recent New York Times article, “The Facebook Resisters,” describes a number of twenty-somethings who declare that Facebook in fact makes them feel more, not less, alienated from their peers. Facebook is just one example, but there’s no denying that as people expose more and more of themselves online to others, the way we connect with people gets more and more complicated.

After visiting the New Museum last month and encountering the exhibition Carsten Höller: Experience, I wondered if the resurgence of relational aesthetics—art of the constructed social environment that gained traction in the 1990s—is one response to this phenomenon. From the Guggenheim’s survey theanyspacewhatver in 2009 and Tino Sehgal in 2010 to the recent installation of Rirkrit Tirvanija’s soup kitchen at MoMA and Höller’s takeover of the New Museum, relational aesthetics is clearly not going anywhere. Experience is set up as a modern-day funhouse, with a hypnotic and slowly revolving carousel with mirrored panels; a group sensory-deprivation pool, where visitors can float weightlessly; and a tubular slide that cuts through three floors of the museum. I was struck by the sense that Höller’s work is more than mere novelty. The sense of play, wonder, and making connections—with the environment and with others—was palpable. (And it’s extremely popular, too. On a recent Thursday night, when the museum offers free admission, there was a line stretched down several blocks for entry; a friend later told me he had waited an hour and a half to ride the slide.)

Carsten Höller, Mirror Carousel, 2005. Installation view, “Logic,” Gagosian Gallery, London. Photo: © Attilio Maranzano

Nicholas Bourriaud, who coined the term relational aesthetics, wrote in his book Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World in 2002 that art like Höller’s took as its point of departure the changing mental space opened by the Internet; that the expansive digital terrain asks us to reconsider what we know about the world, and in turn, ourselves. However, as online culture gets ever more pervasive and interconnected with our personal identity, has relational aesthetics come full circle? Do we need exhibitions like Höller’s to not only remind us that the Internet opens up the world, but to make evident that there is a hunger for simple human interaction, a “lost art” that has deteriorated from so many digital interfaces between people?

If one response is the popularity of relational aesthetics, there is also a real-world counterpart. One of the greatest pieces of advice I received when I first moved to New York was to find a public space and make it my own, because the amount of personal space one has here is so limited. I was reminded of this after the holidays when a friend dragged me to Kettle of Fish, the Green Bay Packer bar in the Village. As a staunch anti-football fan, I was reluctant to go. On entering the bar, however, a peculiar sense of community disarmed me, as it was full of Midwesterners like myself. The regulars near the door ushered us in with smiles and I easily struck up conversation with people who had grown up near me, who knew people who went to my high school. Standing near the bar, a woman poked me on the shoulder, “Hey, do you need this chair? You can put your coat here… we’re from Wisconsin, we’re nice!” Later on, I saw my friend deep in conversation with a woman who was espousing advice on finding the right man and not wasting time on the wrong one. When Green Bay scored a touchdown, I found myself high-fiving strangers and dancing the polka while the entire bar cheered.

As we were leaving, someone asked “Wait, what’s your name? I’ll find you on Facebook!” I haven’t received her request yet. I hope I never do.

Lab Notes I is a ten-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.