Courtesy Instant Coffee

Taped to a light pole in San Francisco's Mission district is a photocopied sign that says, "LOST. Purple lighter. Answers to: 'Hey—got a light?'" It is funny and unexpected and it will be gone in a week. Is it art? Some might categorize it that way.

For the past couple years, I've struggled to come to terms with what is known as "relational aesthetics." Coined in 1996 by Nicolas Bourriaud, a curator at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, relational aesthetics refers to a by-now-popular genre of art that is formed at the moment of social interaction. Back to the lost purple lighter: The sign includes an e-mail address. What happens when you send a message—is art forged once the sender hits send? Or when the receiver receives? Will the two meet for coffee?

A banner example is artist Rirkrit Tiravanija's Thai meals for gallery visitors. Other artists fall in and out of the heading—also known as social sculpture, or, more plainly, community-based art projects—depending on where the line between conceptual art and relational aesthetics is drawn.

Bourriaud proposes that a new critical framework is necessary for interpreting the form. I'll cop to a few things up front: I don't know what is available for critique in an art practice that's predicated on circumscribed social interactions; I'm troubled by not only a lack but oftentimes outright opposition to any political motivation for the work; and the relationship between the work and hosting institutions is crucial to the practice, yet often goes unexamined. So those are my biases.

The genre will be available for inspection in the Lopez Room during Bumbershoot. The artists of Instant Coffee, a collective based in Toronto and Vancouver, have built five freestanding kitchen nooks. They have also made a giant afghan that will be spread out near the International Fountain. According to collective member Jenifer Papararo, the afghan is a "pointed place for socialization" and Instant Coffee will "have some hospitality happen" on it. What happens when you enter one of the nooks, or lie down on the afghan? Whatever you want. Why those places and not somewhere else?

The nook's design is based on Papararo's kitchen nook, the site over the years of countless conversations, meetings, and brainstorming sessions among artists. The size lends itself to intimacy. In fact, Papararo mentioned magic a few times. But does magic require artists? "Our audience tend to be other people who make stuff, which keeps it interesting for us," said Papararo.

Call me an activist, but when I hear collective, I tend to think one is formed in order to address an issue that is otherwise being ignored. Group Material, Gran Fury, General Idea: AIDS. Guerrilla Girls: the invisibility of women in art institutions. Reclaim the Street: rights to public space. Should collectives address world events or be political? No, I've been told time and again. Whatever. Pass the remote.

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A lot of collectives these days insist that they are either apolitical or that what they're doing is political in and of itself. Both stances are unsatisfactory. The first because it seems that the only thing gained by not being radical about anything is the assurance that potential funders or host institutions won't be alienated. And the second because ultimately the only beneficiaries of the collective's actions are the collective members themselves. So why should we participate?

Audience members are the littlest doll in a complex Russian nesting doll of the institutional framework of relational aesthetics. In this case: An audience of one to six is inside a wooden nook in the Lopez Room at the Seattle Center during a Bumbershoot show that is actually hosted by the Henry Art Gallery that's attached to the University of Washington. Put that way, there's a lot of bureaucracy looming over the potential for magic. And where would someone register disappointment? Is disappointment even allowed? I would say no. Since the audience is nested within the work, if you're disappointed, you have only yourself to blame. Unconditional love intends to conquer all, even radicalism. recommended