Ecology of Practices: Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra’s work is controversial, obviously so I would say. His projects include paying prostitutes to  tattoo a red line across their backs for money for heroine (160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, 2000), paying unemployed works to sit in cardboard boxes for four hours a day for six days (Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000), and hiring workers to act as buttresses to hold up a wall for five days (The Wall of a Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined Sixty Degrees From the Ground and Sustained by Five People, 2000). Claire Bishop, whom I wrote about last week, counters her criticisms of relational art with Sierra’s confrontational work.

Bishop claims that the relationships set up by Sierra don’t collapse into the work and are not meant for a sense of belonging like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Liam Gillick’s whom she criticizes: “The relations produced by their [Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra] performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a ‘microutopia’ and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context” (Bishop 70).

Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed On Four People, 2000 (image found at

While reading Isabelle Stengers “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” I thought of Sierra’s work. She begins by describing the stakes for physics: either it defends itself as keepers of the knowledge of reality or it must suffer as just another social practice. To deal with this issue of science’s truth claims, Stenger develops the notion of an ecology of practices which is defined as a non-neutral tool for “thinking through what is happening” (Stengers 185).

Stengers talks about our attachments, our obligations, and our responsibilities; attachments to her are “what cause people… to feel and to think, to be able or to become able” (191). It is our mistake when we take these attachments as “universal obligations” and feel “free to go anywhere, to enter any practical territory, to judge, deconstruct or disqualify” (191). What can this mean for Sierra’s work? Work that judges without judging, disqualifies without actually disqualifying? Sierra brings the prostitutes and unemployed workers into the gallery where they become both performers but also objects of art. Their previous societal disqualification makes them fodder for Sierra and they are transformed into highly expensive works of art, though after their time of occupation, what has changed about their original disqualification? How do we see these people now? What is our (the audience’s) responsibility to the people who for a period of time became art? Bishop says that “Sierra knows there is no such thing as a  free meal: everything and everyone has a price” (70). Is Sierra simply a “nomad” pointing out the problems and exploitations of the world while still participating in them?

Santiago Sierra, Eight People Paid To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 1999 (image found at

What does it mean that Bishop claims Tiravanija is working in a “major key” and Sierra is in a “minor”? (71) Is this at all akin to Stengers’ insistence on working in a minor key that “avoid[s] the center stage”? Like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on minor literature, a literature that works from the inside through  the dominant language? Sierra in these works is using the dominant language of gallery, gallery patron, artist, art object, but the question of his complicity within this dominant language has been raised. According to Stengers, “there is no practice independent of its environment” (187). To this, Sierra responds that he doesn’t “believe in the possibility of change” (Sierra 2002, 15 quoted in Bishop, 71). But what kind of change is he talking about here? A change in the politics of labor exploitation, or a change in the mechanics of art? Or are the possibilities for change wrapped in both?

How are Sierra’s practices, art practices, implicated in Stengers’ notion of the ecology of practices that does not “describe practices ‘as they are'” but rather “aims at the construction of new ‘practical identities’ for practices, that is, new possibilities for them to be present, or in other words to connect;” “as they may become”? (186) How can Sierra’s work be in a process of becoming? To view Sierra’s work as just another instance of exploitation is to, I think, dismiss another side of the work – some sort of nuanced truth claim, but not Truth. Stengers mentions philosopher Leibniz’s take on Truth: to “not appeal to the strong drug of Truth, or the power to denounce or judge, to deconstruct and criticize” (187). The very notion of the critique while participating in the practice being critiqued seems to throw a wrench into the smooth machine of criticism. Do these works empower in Stengers’ sense of the word or mobilize? What about the witch’s ritual she describes and its effect that is “not becoming aware of something which others already knew, of understanding some truth beyond illusions – her effect is enacting the relation between belonging and and becoming, producing belonging as experimentation while it is always in danger of being some kind of psychological habit”? (195)

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?