Annlee through Relational Aesthetics {2011}

In 1999 Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe purchased the copyright of an inexpensive Manga character named ‘Annlee’, from her original creators Kworks; a Japanese character development agency. The following four years saw Annlee grow from an unknown commodity, to the central sign of a collective movement. Through this text I analyze the postmodern tendencies of the works and exhibition relating to ‘Annlee’, specifically focusing on the key terms of Relational Aesthetics. I shall do this by examining its constructed environments, series of forms, the artist cooperative, public relations, copyright, identity and its exhibition engagement. I finish using one specific example from the ‘No Ghost Just A Shell’ collection; Joe Scanlan’s ‘DIY’ piece.

The character of Annlee officially featured in “28 works by 18 different artists, as part of the project ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’ ” exhibition (Van Abbemuseum, 2006), which was purchased in 2003 by the Van Abbemuseum. Annlee’s narrative is a short one, relative to her more expensive manga brethren. Annlee was destined to be a backstory character, a once off in a Japanese Manga comic, animation or video game. Parreno and Huyghe bought the copyright and a 2D image of Annlee. They developed a three-dimensional version that was used in their own reworks of Annlee; two character self-reflexive videos, which initiated the beginning of the Annlee ‘celebrity’. The two artists desired to examine “the rights and conditions of productivity of a sign” (TATE, 2006). To accomplish this they provided 16 artists with her 2D image and access to a 3D video laboratory, authorizing duplication in multiple forms; video, painting, sculpture, posters, books and neons. Finally in 2002 the creation of new Annlee artworks was stopped, when Parreno and Huyghe transferred the copyright and exploitation rights back to the sign itself, stopping any further reproductions. Annlee’s narrative follows a postmodern path; a piece that is saturated in various forms, which are contextually within a larger system or show – No Ghost Just a Shell. By breaking in modernist functionality it takes “the shift from production to reproduction” (Hearney, 2001, p.6) and “denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable”. (Lyotard, 1984, p.81). The artists appreciated and contributed to Annlee’s narrative by transforming her singularity into the collectively reproduced. In an article taken from the catalogue for the final show, itself one of the final works created of Annlee, Jan Verwoert (2003, p. 190) describes Annlee as; “a ghost in the matrix of global capitalism, an emanation of the postmodern sublime, the incarnation of the spirit of the information age, a revelation to the paranoid, a mermaid in a sea of silicon, the sister of Maxwell’s demon, a mediator in a closed system, the key to the secret laws of synchronicity, a metaphoric signifier with a shifting spectral body.”

These ideals, of postmodern ideology, circle around the departure of modernist thinking, by conforming to the belief that changeable social constructs stress the importance of the motivation behind the original and individual concepts behind each of Annlee’s forms. The postmodern concept of plurality and textual principles of the work creates Annlee’s chameleon existence, generating a variety of forms to define. Lyotard apposed the metanarrative of modernism philosophy, which Derrida’s notion of ‘new international’ concurred, Annlee self-reflexive attitude resonates this;

“a link of affinity, suffering, and hope, a still discreet, almost secret link,  . . . but more and more visible, we have more than one sign of it. It is an untimely link, without status, without title, and without name, barely public even if it is not clandestine, without contract, “out of joint,” without coordination, without party, without country, without national community . . . without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class. (Derrida, 1994, p.106 & 107.)

The sign’s capitalist nature, collective existence, interchangeable creator, artist and story, conforms itself to this ‘new international’ philosophy. It’s self-indulgent suffering and lonesome yet multiple entity form defies convention. It conforms to a relational aesthetic; relative to its life and death, developing a place in the social context of an exhibition, encountering with multiple creators and itself, while forming a relationship with viewers in different forms provoking both action and interaction. Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘Relational Aesthetics’ in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Traffic’ he curated at CAPC Musée d’art Contemporain de Bordeaux in 1996, which he developed into his book ‘Esthétique Relationnelle’ in 1998,(Bourriaud, 2005, p.1). The English translated publication of 2002 became more prominent, coinciding with the exhibit ‘The Palais de Tokyo’, an exhibition strongly linked to Relational Aesthetics. Annlee and ‘her’ part in ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’ touch on various Relational Art fundamentals. Bourriaud (2002, p.113) defines Relational Art as “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”

Describing its aesthetics as “theory consisting in judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt”, (Bourriaud, 2002, p.112). Relational Aesthetics’ key terms can be broken down into art that; from its core, focuses on its relation and judgment with both its maker and perceiver, while commenting on its and their own relations with the social context of the work, and furthermore acknowledging the art’s basic representation, product and reaction with its social interactions. Annlee’s existence began with her diminutive place in a manga culture, before she was purchased by Huyghe & Parreno she was already positioned within a world destined to have little or no representation and produce any form of social interaction. From the moment the artists purchased her they created a relationship between Annlee and a new society, however, in turn, produced a ‘denial of service’ between her and her original publics within the manga industry. The new relationship however placed Annlee in a different social context and begun new relations between sign, artist and public. By using an image sourced from Japan, the artists immediately placed their work and any future work of Annlee to be associated with the Japanese graphic art and hyper-technologies industries. This pre contextual aspect was retained by keeping her likeness to a manga character throughout most of the works. However, like a tourist on vacation, placing her new multiple forms within western social constructs placed the sign in a new westernized paradigm.

Huyghe & Parreno created a ‘cadavre exquis’ to reflect “on the contemporary conditions of digital capitalism, intellectual property and neurobiology” (Blog of Public Secrets, 2011). They wished to perceive and produce a new ideology of a sign, by analysing its multiple creations, by forming a collection of works that converged “different consciousness’s working together in sometimes uneasy but dialogic relation.” (Elias, 2011, p.188). They accomplished this analysis by creating a social network of artists to generate several versions of Annlee. Bourriaud (2002, p.11) states, “artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts.” Huyghe & Parreno acted as the catalyst in the game of Annlee’s ‘life’; once they created their videos and distributed Annlee’s image to a series of artists, they created a frame point for consideration on a social experiment. Producing their own relationship to the work as inventers and creating new relations, patterns and functions with the sign among peripheral artists for a new audience. The expansion of Annlee from the artists, constructed an aspect of Relational Art that created new social circumstance and experience of new environments. The works were shown individually and then collectively as a cohesive show across the globe. Roland Barthes argues that the creator and its writing is unrelated, Huyghe & Parreno’s forgoing of their position as the sole lead players in Annlee’s story concurs with this idea, by which they relinquish their own totalitarianism of Annlee; and subsequently “disjunction occurs” where “the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death” and “writing begins”, (UBU, 2011)

The 16 additional artists came on board creating a series for Annlee to ‘live’. In its second year of production, 2000, we saw the creation of M/M’s (Paris) silk screen print poster ‘AnnLee: No Ghost Just a Shell’ and ‘Wallpaper poster 1.1 & 1.3’, moving to 2001 Liam Gillick created a gothic cyber video ‘Annlee You Proposes’ and in 2002 Joe Scanlan created ‘Dot it yourself’, ‘Last Call’ and ‘DIY’, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s created the video ‘Ghost Reader C.H’,  (Inside Installations, 2012).  These works, a series of reproductions, became the realm for Annlee to survive. Annlee became more than a sole identity, but grew into a reproduced sign taking on multiple personas and forms. The multiple specifity of the work became intrinsic to its existence and placement in various social interactions and judgments.  Bourriaud (2002, p.15) suggests that the role of artworks is “to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.” Annlee is given this opportunity by Parreno & Huyghe’s licensing out her copyright to the chosen artists, creating multiples of the sign, none of which are original but “a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture” (UBU 2012). Annlee’s social context witnessed and participated by the viewer is thus complicated by its own reproduced individualities and collective social interactions. Annlee’s social behavior between its artists and viewership is bound within the audience witnessing the birth, life and death of the sign. Annlee is given a temporary freedom of life, multiplied, exonerated from her originators, and then selfishly trapped within her own copyright, reducing the sign to a movement within a culture, rather than a constant growth or existence. Annlee’s own relationship with herself and others, over a specific time, becomes the sole nature of her existence, her main judgment and representation comes after her death. Bourriaud (2002, p.71) states “artists invent ways of living, or else create an awareness … in the assembly line of social behavioral patterns”, Annlee’s ‘awareness’ is solely for the joy of the artist and viewer, proven by their denial of longevity. Its own relationship with itself is neglected in favor of a study on social interactions and construct, by having its reproduction produced, and its own self reflexive nature in the works. Jean Baudrillard backs up this notion of reproduction when he speaks of the hyper real; describing its detachment, he states; “the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper real” (Baudrillard, 1983, p.146). Annlee’s purpose in ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’ is to be reproduced, her original is forgotten, her form duplicated. Huyghe & Parreno force a new consciousness on to the viewer by reproducing the real, in forms both alternate and similar to the original or the real ‘Annlee’.

Annlee’s replications cause multiple forms of narrative and analysis of her social conditions which become key to her survival. She becomes a commodity that engages with the viewer through dialogue, reading or the use of direct participatory means. Annlee becomes a symbol used to understand “social power, female selfhood, post-human identity,” (Elias, 2011, p.184), and her strong narrative illustrates a “visual metaphor for post-convergent media” (Elias, 2011, p.199), by converging different media it becomes its own new identity. The artists consciously placed Annlee into a story, envisioned by their egos, to analyze her placement within each specific narrative construct.Relations between Annlee and its participants are embedded in the copyright of the sign. For instance the connection Annlee had with her original 2D artist is a capitalistic mournful one. As a drawing purchased from Kworks, she became the main entity of a project, it became both a ‘she’ and ‘it’, purchased to identify a new identity. Her new artists ceasing to allow her to connect or acknowledge her maternal mother – her original illustrator. Parreno and Huyghe did wish to acknowledge her Manga past, but not her original artist and create a piece that was original in its own right with no restrictions. Francis Halsall (2007, p57) describes Annlee as “a set of possible conditions that may take a variety of material forms” which “has no historical precedents or series of conventions by which it is recognized. The artists who work with such a medium do so free from historical precedent and material constraints.”

As Halsall describes, Annlee became, for artists, a set of conditions to perhaps ignore precedent forms and move forward with a new agenda, to produce work that prompted discursive social and inter-artist relations. Bourriaud (2002, p.109), asked of Relational Art; “does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the space it defines?”, the new copyright holders decided to form the basis of Annlee’s journey on a similar question – whether Annlee could open up dialogue between artists, artist and viewer, and then between the sign itself. Once Annlee’s masters were satisfied with the “open-source, freeware starlet of a time-limited, collaborative enterprise” (Nobel, 2003, p.106), Parreno and Huyghe did a legal ‘first’ and sold Annlee’s copyright back to the sign itself, resulting in the denial of use of Annlee’s likeness in any medium again, ending any all future relations with her originators, authors and future artists. Quite a novel idea to end a parental relationship with a sign or character, however Rachel M. Wolff writes in the Shift Journal that perhaps by their repositioning of the copyright back into Annlee, it safeguarded “the artists’ control over the work’ and so “ensuring Annlee cannot have any existence beyond them” (Wolff, 2011, p.9) or outside of ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’. Therefore perhaps in Miami in 2002, when Huyghe and Parreno concluded the creation of new works in a firework display of the image of Annlee, they were in fact almost celebrating their own cementation of control and association with the sign.

In 2003 when the Van Abbemuseum purchased the exhibition of the entire collection of works incorporating Annlee in ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’, it was almost unheard of for the Contemporary Art world and etched the works further into the art market. Within the terms of the contract the museum must “guarantee the end of the visual exploitation of a sign” (Huyghe, 2003, p.23), which created a powerful role that the museum must sustain to. Nevertheless perhaps this new role has side-lined some of the work and partly shifted focus on to the role of the institution itself, as it perhaps overshadows and “becomes the spectacle” as “it collects the cultural capital and “becomes the star” (Foster, 1996, p.198). The social perspective of all the works thus changes, within the context of the show, as a purchased product, each work firstly becomes related to each other, and afterwards the institution. Bourriaud (2002, p.15) speaks of the collective system of relations as “an art form where the substrate is formed by intersubjectivity, and which takes being-together as a central theme, the “encounter” between beholder and picture. and the collective elaboration of meaning.

Hence, conceivably the Van Abbemuseum saw this solidarity formed by the purchase of ‘No Ghosts Just a Shell’ to bond each work together in this ‘central theme’ and collectively enforce the message that Parreno and Huyghe first envisioned. This created a collectible show and movement, a community among artists through the use of an original single image. Annlee, the sign, became a symbol which; organically grew in different forms, ending in an exhibition, while prompting the art world to question the relationship between individual works, a collection of a series of work and the role of the exhibition within institution. The story of Annlee, I presume to Bourriauds fondness, produced “relationships between people, communities, individuals, groups, social networks” and “ interactivity” (Bourriaud, 2005, p.1). However I sadly envision this ‘character’, once radically manipulated, to be embezzled in a box, tucked away with her own thoughts in a storage unit at the Van Abbemuseum. This ‘death’ and its relationship with Relational Aesthetics is best analysed through Joe Scanlan’s ‘DIY’ piece.

In 2002 Joe Scanlan created the work ‘DIY, or How To Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399’. It is a sarcastic DIY book that instructs the reader on how to visit any IKEA to buy and transform mundane materials to build your own coffin. The book contains appearances by Annlee and 2,000 copies were officially produced. Another form of the idea ‘Do It Yourself Dead on Arrival (AnnLee)’ was exhibited in an installation, where a coffin was installed between two pedestals of flowers in homage to the death of Annlee. Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics nicely glides into the analysis of Scanlan’s DIY piece. The work immediately incorporates itself within a social narrative and the viewer’s relationship with the modern world of commercialization and globalization. It prompts a social interaction, not only with the readers’ creations, but also Annlee’s placement within the piece. Annlee’s position to the viewer is the signifier; the identifying symbol that instructs on the creation of her own coffin within the book. One would presume by this analysis Joe Scanlan would be appreciative of Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory on Relational Aesthetics, but Scanlan is far from welcoming to the concept and goes so far as to writing an article in Artforum in the summer of 2005, apposing the subject. He states on Relational Aesthetics that it has “generated so much underwhelming art” and has “more to do with peer pressure than collective action or egalitarianism” and is “set out to tap the creative potential of social space”.  (Find Articles, 2005)

Perhaps, as the movement touches so clearly on his own work he finds it invasive, and consequently does not appreciate the analysis, in stead just purely rejects. Scanlan is not alone in the scepticism of this new philosophy. Clare Bishop, who did point out Relational Aesthetics incorrect association with interactive art and acknowledged Bourriauds analysis of art in the 90’s as a whole, however questioned “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?” (Bishop, 2005, p.65) Analyzing these types of relations are key to the success for Relational Aesthetics to work, as stated one must question the types of relations created and their consequences. However by questioning these intrinsic points of Bourriaud, Bishop surely influenced a wave of anti Relational Aesthetics, whereby some artists and academics jumped on the bandwagon of questioning the thoroughness and rational of the theory.  Bishop does formulise an aspect of Relational Art which fits Scanlan’s Annlee work almost to well, Bishop (2005, p.54) states it“is also seen as a response to the virtual relationships of the Internet and globalization, which on the one hand have prompted a desire for more physical and face-to-face interaction between people, while on the other have inspired artists to adopt a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach and model their own “possible universes”

Annlee was a response to open a ‘possible universe’, which prompted interactivity between artists and a ‘sign’, which also resulted in some artists, such as Joe Scanlan, approaching their work in a do it yourself manner, all collectively producing comments on Annlee’s social conceptuality. From the inception Annlee’s destiny was due a change, to become bigger then what she was designed to be. Her intrinsic role in ‘No Ghost Just A Shell’ was complex, which saw a collection come to life. The project was a kin to Bourriaud’s way of thinking; which “saw artists as facilitators rather than makers and regarded art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers.” (Tate, 2011). Annlee and the exhibit ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’ witnessed interactions between artists, viewers and institutions and that will be difficult ever to be repeated. The next journey for Annlee perhaps should be to find her way out of the container in the Van Abbemuseum, find her Japanese illustrator, and bring him/her out for a cup of tea.

Published by Matthew Nevin – February 2012

Matthew Nevin is a full time student of ACW at NCAD. He is an active artist, and curator of the Irish Visual Arts Organization MART.


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List of Figures / Images:

Figure 1:

Phillips,R, 2002. Annlee. [painting], Available at: [Accessed 19 January 2012]

Figure 2:

Gillick, L, 2001. [Still from Video]. Available at: [Accessed 19 January 2012]

Figure 3:

Scanlan, J, 2002. DIY or How To Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399. [Still of Published Book] Available at: [Accessed 19 January 2012]