flickr & relational aesthetics

First decent new sentence I’ve added to my PhD draft for a couple of weeks:

Flickr can be viewed as the site of a vernacular ‘relational aesthetics’ (Bourriaud, 2002), where the object of the aesthetic is no longer the image itself, but the ‘modes of social connection’ (McQuire, 2006, pp. 263) that are both made possible by and flow through the image.


Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2002) Relational Aesthetics. English ed. Dijon, Les presses du reel.

McQuire, Scott (2006) ‘Technology.’ Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3): 253-263.

11 thoughts to “flickr & relational aesthetics”

  1. I like the sentence a lot, but I can’t help wondering what the ‘no longer’ refers to? The role of the image in traditional aesthetics, supposedly, but the image in what context? In a gallery, printed in a book, shown in a slide show to friends? Interestingly, all of these places could be sites of a relational aesthetics, but you are right of course in asserting that such an aesthetic is foregrounded in the flickr community. So, where traditionally the relational aesthetic strengthens the meaningfulness of the individual image, you could say the opposite about flickr: it’s the links that matter, not the images (Another way of going at it would be the difference between Saussurean and Hjelmslevian semiotics, used to such great effect by Guattari. see Gary Genosko’s excellent “Aberrant Introduction” to Guattari).

  2. Julian, I think you’re right in asking what’s so ‘new’ after all? Possibly the most important question of all. And yes, what i’m saying (in the many other sentences!) is that certain sites of cultural and social practice in new media insist that we see contexts and connections as significant – which of course is not by any means a new argument for anthropologists, social interactionists and cultural studies. While I’m not necessarily married to that sentence in the form it’s in here, the use of ‘can be viewed as’ is quite deliberate, because as you say, it’s all about ways of seeing at a number of levels, and I think that’s pretty much the extent of what new terms like ‘relational aesthetics’ are good for.

    Oh, and also:
    “where traditionally the relational aesthetic strengthens the meaningfulness of the individual image, you could say the opposite about flickr: it’s the links that matter, not the images”

    I wouldn’t be so quick to invert that relationship or to say that it works one way ‘now’ and another traditionally – that’s what’s been so interesting in doing the research. I’ve observed so many different configurations and convergences of textual meaning, social relationships, cultural value, and so on. And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the social/aesthetic relationship so apparent, so _written into_ any other context I’ve looked at. But there’s a lot more to look at in life, of course 😉

  3. Jean, I didn’t mean to say that we’ve seen it all before, and it’s probably not a good idea to comment on a sentence taken out of context, as it were, since I don’t know what kind of signposts and caveats you have put up around it. Having said that, I think it is indeed an interesting question to consider in which way relationality (for lack of a better work) gets translated from real to virtual sites, and how it is inevitably bound up with questions of identity and authenticity.

    I also agree about the fact that there are multiple ways of looking at these sites – indeed maybe more than there are ways of looking at more established sites. After all, there is no right and wrong way to use something like flickr. At the same time, I wonder whether community norms are established more quickly due to the fact that people have so many opportunities to compare notes.

    Certainly, it is good to be critical of simple inversions along the lines of old vs. new, and there is also a logic of magnitude at work in digital media that is hardly accounted for, as far as I know. I recently saw a photostream with more than 40,000 images, so how does one relate to that? Or is this simply a way of marking one’s territory in cyberspace?

  4. yeah, of course the sentence in question is from the section on ‘convergences’ between the social and the aesthetic, and there are other sections! But you’ve done pretty well guessing the context anyway. Interesting about the 40,000 image photostream – that’s pretty huge! What sort of images are they? Some people literally ‘take photos of everything’ and upload them all, others are extremely purposeful about their use of Flickr as a showcase for only their ‘best’ work; still others will deliberately go out and shoot for the purpose of contributing to a particular group. Also, it is clear to me that there is a diffuse but pervasive ‘culture’ of Flickr, but because of the distributed but bounded character of the Flickr network I think that community norms are also especially multiple and shaped by each users constellation of contacts, groups, and the way photography fits into their everyday life and social world offline. Anyway, thanks for helping me think through things a bit more.

  5. I cannot remember the 40,000-image-photostream too well, there were pictures taken in a museum, and some of them were good, the person clearly had an eye for composition, lighting, what works in an image and what doesn’t. I remember distinctly that the pictures’ titles were just the file names the camera assigns to the images, probably because that’s something I would never do with my own images. So this was a person ‘taking pictures of everything,’ yet they didn’t have an ‘arbitrary’ feel to them; at the same time the fact that they were just ‘numbers’ added to the effect of my being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of images. I remember thinking how annoyed this person’s friends and family must be, because I often find it a strain to be around people who are taking pictures all the time.

    Okay, so this leads into interesting territory, because it makes it possible to think about the different cultures of flickr, and how they are related to the question of a relational aesthetic. I think with a huge collection like that, ‘economies of scale’ come into play, and we are seeing a shift from the single image to a kind of database aesthetic (to borrow a term from Manovich), where indeed the ‘relationality’ of the images is foregrounded: what is interesting about them is precisely that they are part of a huge collection, and that this is amplified by the links to other people and their photostreams. At the same time, as you point out, there are other people (and I would count myself among them), who put up only selected pictures, and are thus still operating within the paradigm of the single image aesthetic.

    What you say about community (and personal) norms being dependent on practices of everyday life is certainly true, but that is also the point where it gets really messy. How are you dealing with this messiness, methodogy-wise? That’s something I would be interested in.

  6. methodologically? i’m dealing with it by beginning with observation and description within a more general scope, and then moving in closer and closer until I get to the very specific and rich detail I have about my 7 interview participants (people who are both local to me and particularly active in flickr), where I can deal with the messy complexity in ways that make it useful to the broader questions. and then to make certain points i’m tracing some of these users’ connections outwards again. In designing this approach, I really like Pertti Alasuutari’s term ‘hourglass’ by the way.

    And with the database vs. single image idea – there’s something interesting there. I think strangers bump into each other on the basis of single images, but the closer your social ties with someone in the network, the more you begin to view their photostream as narrative (i.e. day by day, noticing each new uploaded image or set of images and viewing it in more or less the same temporal context as it was created). I’m not sure when the whole messy complexity of each user’s whole database of images is experienced that way, except maybe to its owner, or maybe if you’re discovering a new contact’s photos for the first time…anyway, interesting questions!

  7. That sounds like a lot of work. I’ve never heard the term ‘hourglass’ used in this way before, but it seems to describe what you are doing pretty well.

    Your description how social networks come into existence is pretty close to my own experience, which is limited by the fact that I am an egomaniac and mostly look at my own pictures, and show them to (offline) friends. I will, however, check people’s streams if they ‘favourite’ one of my images, or leave a comment, and if a particular picture catches my eye, I might return the favour. I never got to the point where I would follow someone’s stream in the way of an unfolding narrative, I don’t even do that with blogs, but I can certainly see how something like a narrative/relational aesthetic might evolve out of a single image.

    Hmm, it would be interesting to compare this to ‘relational techniques’ in literature (I am thinking particularly of Nabokov) and film (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, of course, but that is such a clichéd example, so what else: the films of Wes Andersen and Spike Jonze, certainly, but I am also thinking of Greenaway. I guess you could start an interesting social game by asking people to pick their favourite number from “Drowning by Numbers,” but maybe I am getting carried away here, and anyway this parenthesis is getting much too long).

    So my question is, where else do you see a relational aesthetic at work?

  8. thanks for sharing your own experience Julian – I think it’s pretty common actually, from what i know. I will have to get back to you on the last question though, trying very hard to keep my wandering thoughts within the narrow scope of what I’m trying to write. But it immediately struck me that your examples are all reasonably ‘high culture’ in origin – I’d probably want to think more about the aesthetics of love letters (a very obvious example), or Pop/American/Ausralian Idol, or slightly trickier, the aesthetics of cooking, than I would think about Greenaway. Damn, now I *am* thinking about your question.

  9. If I may jump in here? I see relational aesthetics at work in ‘alternate reality games’, indeed any ‘work’ that requires participation in order to exist. I am also looking at the levels of a work, where the photo (in your example) is but one layer of a work that expands to tags, connections and so on.

    Thanks for sharing Jean. 🙂

  10. Hi Jean, thanks for alerting me to this converstaion. it’s very interesting. And Christy has raised the topic of games and the fact that any kind of participatory media implies a relational aesthetic of some sort. I’d agree with that. My work on MMOGs has led me to this point of trying to theorise textual and social elements of a medium together. I think they often ar considered separtely – which is to say, that people acknowledge there is, say, an aesthetic side to a text, but will focus on a sociological analysis, or vice versa. I think relational aesthetics is trying to do both, which is why I like the idea.

    My questions then turn to wondering what the impact of thiskind of understanding is on the institutional practices that currently shape our media contexts. Property-based regimes like copyright, textual based regimes like content regulation, all lose some of their traction and legitimacy in a textual/social environment.

    Um, you already know all this, I’m just ranting. sorry.

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