Relational aesthetics, neoliberalism and The Mole:
A Rebentischian approach to reading competitive reality TV
Historically speaking, the meteoric rise of reality TV during the late 90s and early 2000s seemed to coincide with the apparent decline of relational aesthetics as a contemporary art form. While I’m not suggesting that one necessarily caused the other, I think it’s worth reading the two comparatively and in terms of the rather groundbreaking approach to their respective forms, as well as their potential sociopolitical significance.
Relational art and reality TV share a focus on interpersonal relationships within a setting that (supposedly) represents or reflects the world beyond its parameters, at least in a carefully constructed way. However, where relational art intends to facilitate a utopian social encounter through participation, reality TV aims primarily at being light entertainment.
And yet such a distinction—utopian art, on the one hand, and commercial entertainment on the other—is complicated by the sense that participation in relational art, including its more recent derivatives, embodies the neoliberal ideology it theoretically aligns itself against, and in cases appears to allow itself to be instrumentalised by said ideology.
With this complication in mind, I believe that it is worthwhile applying the critiques of participation in relational form to address reality TV. More specifically, these critiques can serve as frameworks for reading reality TV shows beyond their purposes as entertainment, and to examine how they too seem to propagate neoliberal ideals. Of course this may not seem like such a leap considering that most programs are created by corporate television networks. However, by searching for alternatives to the reading positions offered by these networks, the viewer has the power to interpret reality TV—particularly those of a competitive format, such as The Mole—as a form that highlights the more unsavoury aspects of neoliberal capitalism, thus becoming a mass medium, rather than a niche contemporary art form, that equips the viewer with the ability to recognise the prevalence and effects of an ideology sustained by its own inconspicuousness.
In his seminal text Relational Aesthetics (1998), Nicolas Bourriaud champions the notion of intersubjectivity in relational art, where the traditionally separate audience and subject are merged in order to allow for the “collective elaboration of meaning” between artist and audience in a (generally convivial) relational encounter. He maintains that these encounters operate outside of the “zones of communication” imposed upon us by our modern spectacle-driven society, though he avoids discussing the exclusivity of the specifically institutional context they take place in.
There are a few problematic claims in Relational Aesthetics that are worth mentioning here. Firstly, Bourriaud suggests that the inclusion of the viewer as a co-creator of the artwork is democratic in and of itself, which is to say that direct participation is emancipatory for the viewer compared to their supposedly passive position as spectator. Secondly, he equates this position of spectatorship with that of a consumer, suggesting that its reiteration in an aesthetic space is a continuation of the experience outside of it. These infer what I would suggest is his most debatable claim: that the strength of relational art lies in its potential to more or less re-generate the social bond fractured by late capitalism.
Probably the most famous response to Relational Aesthetics was Claire Bishop’s 2004 October essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, where she argues that a relational encounter operates under a consensus to maintain its conviviality, an authoritarian notion in itself, thus refuting his claim to democratic exchange. Elsewhere—and this is a little more relevant to this particular discussion—Bishop directs her attention to what is generally called “socially-engaged art”, a participatory and community-minded mode of contemporary art that gained popularity in the early 21st century as a response to the exclusivity of institutional social artworks. She notes that for all its good intentions, socially engaged art and its community projects present us with an unsettling paradox:
[…] participation in the West now has more to do with the populist agendas of neoliberal governments. Even though participatory artists stand against neoliberal capitalism, the values they impute to their work are understood formally (in terms of opposing individualism and the commodity object), without recognising that so many other aspects of this art practice dovetail even more perfectly with neoliberalism’s recent forms (networks, mobility, project work, affective labour)… [what] could be seen as a heroic narrative of the increased activation and agency of the audience, might also been seen as a story of their ever-increasing voluntary subordination to the artist’s will, and of the commodification of human bodies in a service economy, since voluntary participation is also unpaid labour.
Essentially Bishop is arguing that participation not only runs the risk of perpetuating the systems it riles against, but in doing so also allows itself to be instrumentalised by these systems. It could be said that a well-meaning project in a disadvantaged community, for example, is more or less fulfilling the responsibilities of the government; thus an artist’s intervention is both a cost-effective alternative and an outsourcing of duty, mirroring the penchant for privatisation that neoliberal governments wield.
If this suggests that it is direct participation that limits the sociopolitical potential of relational form, then something may be said of the seemingly contradictory return to the viewer-as-spectator.
In “Forms of Participation in Art” (2010, translated 2015), Juliane Rebentisch argues that relational form does not have to be reduced to a social situation in which the viewer must participate, and dismisses Bourriaud’s claim that spectatorship is automatically passive. In a sense she suggests that direct participation threatens the viewer’s impartiality and therefore their ability to make a more complex aesthetic judgement.
Rebentisch favours the “thematisation” of participation, rather than its mere invitation for democratic or emancipatory ends. To thematise participation, in the simplest sense, is to make its complications the subject of the work, and therefore at the centre of the viewer’s aesthetic experience—whether that be through problematising the distinction between art and non-art (such as the viewer’s ethical crisis when confronted by the work of Santiago Sierra) or by highlighting the exclusivity and internal politics of participating in a communal aesthetic space (as in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose motives Rebentisch believes were oversimplified by Bourriaud in order to align better with his theory). In a thematised social interaction, then, the participant, or the consciously non-participating observer, is granted the capacity to recognise the significance of the tension between the aesthetic and non-aesthetic worlds at play, rather than simply accepting that the artwork is somehow representative of what is excluded from it. She writes:
[…] such works are not political in any direct sense of the term, but rather indirectly or potentially – indeed due to the reflexive realisation of conventionalised stances and attitudes from ordinary life that they make possible. But whether such reflections in fact lead to any change in consciousness that in turn leads to practical action is a question that cannot be decided by art itself.
In other words, even a profound aesthetic experience is not necessarily followed by its direct activation in the real world, though I would argue that this does not justify its dismissal. To quote Jacques Rancière, “an emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.”
So, when I say that the viewer’s capacity for resistant interpretation is their potential “power”, I do not mean that this is a temporary emancipation from the socio-political economy of neoliberal capitalism (à la Bourriaud), or even from the avenues through which it is propagated. Rather, I’m arguing that the viewer possesses a crucial ability to reformulate neoliberalism’s ideological presence in mass media; they have the ability to turn its meaning against itself.
Before I discuss the ideological content of reality TV, I’ll briefly mention some of its production aspects that also mirror neoliberal ideals.
Firstly, one of the main selling points of reality TV is the presence of ordinary people in non-fictional settings, thus providing a somewhat relatable experience for the viewer, with the exception of exploitative genres (i.e. “wealth-” or “poverty-porn”). Although this may seem like a democratic feature—anyone can be on TV—it actually allows production companies to save a great deal of money by employing people who are essentially amateur actors. This also extends behind the scenes: in the writing department, for example, workers are demoted to the status of “story editors” and “segment producers”, affecting their pay and their eligibility to join unions. Of course, publicly acknowledging the extent of these duties would likely threaten the program’s illusion of non-fiction; the more scripted and contrived it appears, the less appeal (or “reality status”) it has.
Viewer participation—another seemingly democratic selling point—can also be co-opted by production companies; audiences voting and engaging in discussion through online forums, however slanderous, can double as free promotion and unpaid market research.
I would argue that this ultimately points to the importance of the viewer enacting the role of the Rebentischian spectator. If an actively participating viewer, for the most part, is an instrument of the production company, then a non-participating spectator is beyond the controlled parameters of the program, and goes unregulated in a new interpretative space.
Clearly there is a widespread demand for competitive reality TV, as it seems to be the most prevalent and popular format. This could be for several reasons: the thrill of the competition may be more exciting for the audience than a purely observational mode; viewers may enjoy maintaining their fierce loyalty to a particular contestant, or maybe the presence of rivalry is more intriguing.
I’m more convinced that viewing a competition is enjoyable because it can be a comforting vicarious experience. The world of competitive reality TV is usually that of a meritocracy; a contestant wins because of their skill, their dedication, and in some instances their personality. Success and failure in the real world is more complex, and not always within one’s control.
I would also argue that a competition based on merit is in line with the neoliberal concept of competitive individualism, particularly as it exists in the white collar workplace. One’s personal effort is what will find them success above others, rather than their financial situation, their connections, their social privilege, or simply their luck—and luck is quite crucial when all seems to be under the mercy of market forces. One is better off spending more time “improving” themselves than to question why, for instance, they suffered the injustice of being made redundant. Even stress, the condition of the personally invested and ever-working neoliberal citizen—stress they must manage themselves, as the option of working less isn’t a possibility for many, and certainly not one a productivity-driven workplace would seriously consider—is portrayed as not only entertaining, but also effective, as demonstrated by the winner’s rocky but hard-earned road to victory.
That being said, not all winners and losers are determined by means that could be considered “fair” to the audience. This is where I find Seven Network’s The Mole (2000-2003, 2005, 2013) to be a particularly intriguing case study.
The premise of The Mole is quite unlike any other competitive reality TV show. Ten contestants compete for prize money by completing mental and physical challenges as a group; however one of them is a saboteur—the titular “Mole”, selected by the producers during the casting process—who must thwart the group’s efforts without revealing their true motivations to the other contestants. At the end of each episode, contestants complete a private questionnaire regarding the identity of the Mole; whoever has the least correct answers is eliminated.
Because the Mole is not revealed until the final episode, the viewer must also play detective. Indeed, the show’s various allusions to the detective/espionage genre encourage this as much as possible. This is seen through the show’s language and writing (the word “mole” is a secret intelligence term for a double agent; the guiding voiceover of host Grant Bowler is sometimes more accusatory than descriptive, delivered in a knowingly suspicious tone; and the tagline of the promotional material: “who is the traitor?”), the graphics and editing (the fact file-esque images and information introducing each contestant during the opening credits; close-ups of suspect activity in slow motion with a greenish tinge), the music (for the most part what I can only describe as laughably clichéd “spy music”, but also dark and ominous when the viewer is meant to be in investigative mode), all the way to the challenges themselves (“The Imposters”, “Hostage Rescue”, “Time Bomb”, “Fugitive Pursuit” and “Sniper Challenge”, to name a few).
Playing detective is sold as an exciting and investing viewing experience, though I would argue that the viewer’s dedication to determining the traitor is actually a surrogate for their lack of enthusiasm for “noble” competitors.
There is still a kind of meritocratic underpinning to The Mole, insofar as contestants must push their mental and physical capabilities, as well as use their teamwork and communication skills, in order to successfully complete the challenges as a group. However, the group does not collectively benefit from the kitty, as the money ultimately goes to the individual winner at the end of the series. So although there is an immediate drive to work “with the group”, the pursuit of the actual prize money involves the individualised and divisive skills of vigilance and deception.
By this I mean that the best chance a contestant has of winning The Mole is to convince others that they are the traitor, causing their rivals to fail the questionnaire and face elimination, thus giving the hopeful winner a smaller pool of fellow contestants from whom they can determine the real traitor. Of course this will involve subtle acts of feigning incompetence and sabotaging the challenges, even at the expense of the prize money; a small and necessary forfeit in order to throw the scent and improve one’s chances of reaching the grand final.
Sometimes the group challenges themselves are designed to inspire wariness and suspicion among the group—usually in the second half of the series, when any genuine sense of camaraderie has worn off and contestants are quietly playing to win. The all-night “Interrogation Challenge”, for example, involves a selected individual contestant trying to extract secret information from their fellow competitors; if he or she fails to “break” any of the others, prize money goes towards the group kitty, but if he or she gains the information needed, they are awarded a free pass to the next episode. This is a particularly overt clash between individual desire at the expense of group morale; in almost every situation across all of the seasons, individual contestants have been prepared to forgo the group’s money (and threaten their good standing among the others) in order to win the free pass.
Contestants usually excuse their selfishness with comments along the lines of: “I would never do this in real life, but this is The Mole.” Being within the game is therefore a break from reality; the line between what usually is and isn’t acceptable is blurred by the demands of the competition. But this could also be read as an indication of the powerful effect a profit-driven ultra-competitive system can have over the countenance and ethical choices of an otherwise well-meaning individual. Compare, for instance, the (even superficial) together-ness and sense of mutual encouragement among the contestants as they complete the challenges, to the rather spiteful confessional tapes recorded by each contestant as they assess whose incompetence may warrant suspicion, to the event of the elimination itself, where tears, embraces and kind words are reserved for those who are no longer a threat.
If anyone’s situation is positioned to deserve the viewer’s sympathy, it is that of the hapless runner-up: the losing contestant who has undergone the most challenges, spent the most time away from their family and friends, and the most time among the manipulative company of both the winner and the Mole, only to walk away with absolutely nothing. The image of the final reveal is particularly striking: the winner embraces the host as the Mole looks on smugly, both expressing their congratulations, whilst the runner-up stands slightly aside, holding back tears, forced to overcome the disappointment of their loss and do the same.
So instead of the viewer asking: “Who is the traitor?”, a more pertinent question would be: “How is the search for the traitor really affecting to the group?” Or, even better: “Is it the contestant who is truly in pursuit of the profit, the contestant who convinces the others that he or she is the Mole, the real traitor here?”
Such a question isn’t so far-fetched either. After the final of Season 1, Rocky (eliminated at the end of the third episode) controversially claimed that Jan, the winner of the series, revealed to him that she was the Mole on the condition that he would share the prize money with her. Of course Jan denied the deal took place, and there was no documented proof to support Rocky’s claim; this dispute, though, suggests that secret alliances may be common behind the scenes, a form of cheating that occurs beyond the viewer’s visibility, and perhaps even that of the producers.
What makes The Mole such interesting viewing is how overtly it portrays the ethical concerns of competitive individualism, and its ramifications on the otherwise reasonably convivial group relationships. By reading beyond the show’s purpose as entertainment—to go beyond the prescribed viewing experience of investigating the Mole’s identity and enjoying the thrill of the competition along the way—one can begin to see The Mole, and potentially other competitive reality TV shows, as both visualisations and critiques of neoliberal ideology.
If relational art and reality TV are both constructed versions of social reality, where the interpersonal relationships that form their subject bear a wider sociopolitical significance, then the role of the Rebentischian spectator is to question the ideological reasons behind how and why this version of reality has been constructed, how the content is meant to relate to their everyday social experience, how the form dictates their position as a viewer, whether their participation is open to co-option and to what degree, and how this co-option can be resisted through non-participating observation and ideological resistance. The spectator may not influence or change the form as it stands, but they do determine how it is read, and thus its purpose.
This is the interpretative power that Rebentisch defends against Bourriaud’s conception of the passive consumer-spectator of contemporary art—a stance only deemed “passive” under the assumption that participation in relational art is “active”, the complications of which I have already covered. Indeed, the act of watching commercial television is obviously that of a consumer, and the bulk of its viewers engage with it that way. Yet the Rebentischian spectator is aware that this leisure activity—leisure itself being the time where one recuperates in order to be more productive when work recommences—contains and demonstrates the means by which one must succeed in their working life. The Rebentischian spectator, then, does not see the relationships in competitive reality TV as entertaining, nor worth imitating in everyday life, but as ethical dilemmas within a scenario that embodies neoliberal capitalist values.
Like Rebentisch, I would be wary of suggesting that such reflections ought to motivate the viewer to actively resist the various manifestations of neoliberal ideology in their own everyday life. This spectator is not bound by relational art’s utopianism, nor by socially-engaged art’s responsibility to establish new or ameliorate existing communities. Instead the spectator determines their own purpose and function, both within the artwork and how they apply its ideas outside its parameters—if at all. More importantly, the sense of criticality that the Rebentischian spectator wields is a contribution to their development of ideological consciousness. Considering that neoliberalism presents itself neutrally—as a necessary product of history rather than a system of ideological values—the decision to be a non-participating and resistant viewer, of commercial mass media or of potentially co-opted (and effectively co-opting) participatory social art forms, is to adopt a modest yet crucial role of questioning: a considered resistance to neoliberal capitalism that can be applied elsewhere at one’s own discretion.
 Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: The Real Presses. p15.
 — p16.
 — p22.
 — p9.
 Bishop, Claire. 2012. “Participation and spectacle: Where are we now?” In Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, edited by Nato Thompson, 34-45. New York: Creative Time Books. p39.
 Rebentisch, Juliane, translated by Daniel Hendrickson. 2015. “Forms of Participation in Art.” Qui Parle 23 (2): 29-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5250/quiparle.23.2.0029. p38.
 — p45.
 Rancière, Jacques. 2011. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso. p22.
 Deery, June. 2015. Reality TV. Cambridge: Polity Press. p76.
 — p61.