What it takes to make a thing to make a relationship

Coming from an architecture background, when I first encountered public art in the 1990s, the problems associated with the practice were relatively new to me. If until then the category ‘public art’ had been traditionally understood to refer to a certain kind of artwork, such as a large sculpture placed in an external site, with the ‘art’ understood as object, and the ‘public’ as site or audience, a new discourse emerged around that time that brought to the fore questions concerning the financing of works and how, even if physically located outside the galleries, public art was still a product of the corporate world, and thus subject to private property, financialization, and the whims of the global art market.

Rather than considering public art as a set of objects located outside a gallery, I understood the genre as an interdisciplinary form of practice, which in seeking to respond to a given site combined a design-based approach to problem-solving with a more art-based attitude that aimed to rethink the problem itself. The practice of moving between solving problems and problematizing solutions expressed a tension between resolution or creative synthesis, on the one hand, and critical analysis or antithesis, on the other. Allowing for a recognition of process rather than outcome, I introduced the term critical spatial practice, to place attention on how practices that engaging with publics in the form of sites and audiences combined both critical questioning and creative transformations of the social conditions of the sites into which they intervened, as well as tested the boundaries and procedures of their own disciplines.[i]

In Relational Aesthetics Nicolas Bourriaud argues that the work of artists, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, produced open-ended conditions that invites the viewer to participate in the construction of the work,[ii] with the work of art operating as something he calls a partial object, or a vehicle of relation to the other.[iii] In her critique of Relational Aesthetics, Claire Bishop takes Bourriaud to task for assuming that—following Althusser’s precept that culture does not reflect society, but produces it—the artwork understood as a ‘social form’ is automatically capable of producing positive relationships. Bishop asked: “If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”[iv]

In the late 1990s, Katherine Clarke, of muf, formulated the elegant problematic of “how to – what does it take to make a relationship to make a thing?”[v] I have since wondered how to reverse the relation of means and ends such that the making of things takes place in order to make relationships—the formula becoming: “how to – what does it take to make a thing to make a relationship?” It is in light of this question that I would like to discuss the project New Patrons, exploring the rules, roles and relations that its protocol for art-making sets forth.


[i] See Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Jane Rendell, “A Place Between Art, Architecture and Critical Theory,” Proceedings to Place and Location, (Tallinn: 2003), 221–33. For more recent developments of my work around critical spatial practice, see https://criticalspatialpractice.co.uk/; and Jane Rendell, “Critical Spatial Practice as Parrhesia,” MaHKUscript, Journal of Fine Art Research 1 (December, 2016).

[ii] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002).

[iii] Ibid., p. 47, p. 99.

[iv] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Antagonism” (October, 2004), City University of New York (CUNY) Academic Works, pp. 51–79, p. 65.

[v] Katherine Clarke of muf, “How to: a description of what it takes to make a relationship to make a thing,” in Jane Rendell with Rex Henry (ed.), “A Place Between,” Public Art Journal (October, 1999), issue 2, pp. 42–3.


Jane Rendell, ‘What it takes to make a thing to make a relationship,’ in ARCH+ special issue on New Patrons  (2021).


(Download PDF)
Other Books