Relational Quantum Physics/Aesthetics

During my reading of the rest of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, I began to think about relational art as a potential model for what Barad’s world would look like if enacted. Barad repeats, almost as a mantra, that matter is an entanglement of discursive and material practices. That matter and meaning intra-act; each is not established before their interaction; they are created through the interaction with the other. This formulation seems to be a heady mixture ready for relational art practices where the goal is not to create a singular piece of art by an artist, but rather to “establish intersubjective encounters in which meaning is elaborated collectively (Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 18 quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” 54). However, it is hard to say whether relational art practices can exemplify Barad’s take on reality and the creation of knowledge.

If we look at relational art as the apparatus, we can begin to see its benefits and faults in terms of Barad’s onto-epistemology. “Rather than a discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends its context, relational art is entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience” (Bishop, 54). Though, the key difference here between relational art and quantum physics may be the issue of objectivity. In the model that Barad puts forward following quantum physics, even though the “nature of the observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus,” (Barad, 106) objectivity is still possible. It is the recognition that “we are part of the nature that we seek to understand” that is required (Barad, 67). Relational art also recognizes this – we are the part of the art that we seek to understand – though, through a reading of the works, the divide between artist and viewer is reified. At first glance it may seem that relational art is able to transcend the object/observer positions that Bohr and Barad claim to be false (the “two” are actually inseparable), I don’t think many, if not all, of these artworks accomplish this task of breaking down the boundaries between the art object and audience.

(image found at

Claire Bishop in her article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” discusses a few of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibitions including Untitled (Still) where the artist cooked curry and pad thai for exhibition-goers, Untitled (Tomorrow Is Another Day), the artist reconstructed his apartment and invited the audience to use it, and Pad Thai, a room full of instruments the audience could enter into to make music. I have to say that personally I enjoy some of these projects. I have a tape from the music-session I engaged in when Untitled 1996 (Rehearsal Studio No. 6 Silent Version), a similar incarnation of Pad Thai, was installed for the show Sympathy for the Devil at the MCA; it was an entertaining experience to say the least. It becomes difficult to determine in these works what is the apparatus or where the apparatus ends – the apparatus being the tool with which we measure; “apparatuses are not merely observing instruments but boundary-drawing practices – specific material (re)configurings of the world – which comes to matter” (Barad, 140).  We could say, in the case of Untitled (Still) that the curry is part of the apparatus. And all of the other cooking ingredients. And the paper plates and utensils. And all of the furniture moved from the office into the gallery. And the gallery director who is sitting at his desk in the gallery working. And the audience. And Tiravanija. And then it becomes tricky from here. What about his parents? What about the countries he comes from? The audience members’ backgrounds and all that led up to the point of them arriving at the gallery to eat curry? The building itself and the city codes? The PR for the show and the artist’s payment? It becomes obvious from here that either the work becomes either everything or nothing. However, Bohr and Barad make it clear then that the “larger material arrangement enacts a cut that resolves the inherent ontic-semantic indeterminacy through which the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ emerge” (Barad 143). The gallery-cum-kitchen becomes the non-arbitrary material configuration that creates the cut between “subject” and “object.” This presents a problem for relational art’s goal of breaking the Great Divide between art object and audience; the material configuration of the relational artwork re-creates this same divide.

(Image found at

Another aspect of quantum physics to consider here at this moment is Bohr’s indeterminacy principle: “the values of complementary variables (such as position and momentum) are not simultaneously determinate” (Barad 118). Meaning that “the more precisely the position [of a particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known, and conversely” (Barad 116). What can this mean for viewing/engaging in/making/critiquing relational art? Can we be both the position and momentum in the work? If we are actors in the work, then can we also reflect upon the work? What then becomes of art that is not able to be reflected upon by the participants? Does it now require another cut? The critic or the viewer that was not there? The material configuration of “being there” – an old sentiment derived from New York “happenings” – creates a new divide between the work and the audience.

Bishop makes the claim that “such work [relational artworks] seems to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux” (Claire Bishop, 52). What are the stakes here? How can we both participate and know? What does it mean for the work itself and not just its readings to be constantly shifting? Barad might argue that of course the work itself is constantly shifting based on new material configurations, but when it comes down to it, I am not sure that she would actually go that far. How can we objectively judge these works? What is our actual place? What/where is our agency? Barad suggests an “agential realist account”:

human subjects are neither outside observers of apparatuses, nor independent subjects that intervene in the workings of an apparatus, not the products of social technologies that produce them. Nor is the issue merely of incorporating both humans and nonhumans into the apparatus of bodily production. The point is as follows: to the extent that concepts, laboratory manipulations, observational interventions, and other human practices have a role to play, it is as part of the larger material configuration of the world (Barad, 171).

How does relational art figure into this definition of reality?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s