Site Specific Performance Art

What is Site Specific work?

Site Specific work in the pure sense is art work (performance art work) that is made for a specific place and can not be moved to another space without radical change to the (performance) art work and it’s meaning. There are less stringent versions of this where work can be installed in similar spaces, or some call work that is transportable to new spaces site specific. The most first definition is the Koplowitz codified levels of site performance as . Specific to that site alone, 2. Adaptable to other sites with some changes, 3. Made in a studio and performed in a suitable space, 4. Made for a studio but performed in an outdoor place. There will be judgement inherent in these definitions (“my piece is more site specific than yours” but I will leave that to the individual artists to argue over.

Miwon Kwon goes beyond the idea of what qualifies work to be site specific in a practical sense, and breaks down 3 modes of site specificity: phenomenological, social/institutional, and discursive. These three categories cover the physical properties of a site, the institutional and cultural institutions and issues, as well as the discussion and social aspects of a work. These categories are, for her, ways of being site specific and can include one or more of the modes.These categories are, for her, ways of being site specific and can include one or more of the modes. A performance in a site can include the physical dimensions and characteristics of a space as well as a strong ethic to redress a social issue or problem. If working with an institution, wither in using their space (city, private, state, national) or in producing a show, the institution adds boundaries and other meaning to the work. A performance at a political rally will be proscribed differently than at a protest and the institutional limitations will be very different, though each will have them. The discursive realm is a site that performance finds itself in. Bound by temporal boundaries, performance ceases to exist in a physical site immediately at the end of the work. The space may be impacted by echoes of the performance in the audiences’ minds, but the site it exists in has moved to the discursive mode. For instance, Pina Bausch’s Nelkin, when not actually on stage exists only in words and images on pages (including digital pages) and conversations. The performance presence is gone, but the discursive presence remains.

Site specific art and performance have been a part of art for as long as people made art, yet ways of approaching place seemed to have changed over the last 40-50 years. In the visual art fields, Site specific artwork is not always so empathetic about its surroundings. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was at odds with the space it was set into. Rather than advocating for an integrated notion of work in public spaces, Serra “proposed an interruptive and interventionalist model of site specificity” [Kwon]. This idea came from a desire not to have the art contextualized by the politics and ideologies of the space. 

While the site exerts influence on the artwork, sited work also has a power over the space in which it is installed. Serra’s Tilted Arc was removed from the Federal Building Plaza after a long and contentious debate. The city offered to move the piece to a new location. This was refused as “…the scale, size, and location of site specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban of landscape or architectural enclosure. The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site.” [Kwon] The idea that the work becomes part of and changes the site brings up many of the questions of community, historical, personal, and societal connotations of a place. In the case of a more interventionist work, the community may not appreciate the push back against the conception they hold of a place, especially if that work alters their perception of it.

This push against the hegemonic aspects of a space is also what Johanna Haigood did with Ghost Architecture, a piece which “focuses on the buildings and inhabitants that previously occupied the site of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum”. This piece called into question the displacement of people to build the performance space she was using. Unlike the Serra work, Haigood’s piece did not disrupt the space in which she performed, but did call into question the basis on which it existed.

             At the time of the Serra commission, much of the public art was commissioned by panels of NEA and FSA, not locally. Following the outcry, more work needed to engage community in order to ‘soften them up’ [Kwon pg. 81]. This sensitivity of community, while perhaps born of funding and local requirements, is now an essential tool in the generation of site specific performance. The delving into histories and current visions of place offers the work a potential to more fully engage in the cultural, social and institutional modes of work – whether to engage with or push against these elements.

other ways of looking at it:

Heterotopia is a concept in human geography by philosopher Michel Foucault. (Human geography studies and maps people, their cultures, how they live, economies and how they relate to the environment.)  Walter Russell Mead wrote, “Utopia is a place where things are good; dystopia is a place where things are bad; heterotopia is a place where things are different”. These are spaces that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call where you are in two places at the same time – physically in your room, conversing with someone in another place. 

            Site specific performance is a heterotopic performance style, where the audience is simultaneously in a place (a garden, a beach, a theater, a building) that has meaning in its own and, at the same time, watching a performance that is other to that space.  The performance is potentially also heterotopic again, blending styles of movement, cultural and institutional references and constructs. In these worlds within worlds, dissonant elements combine to create the transformation which affects both the space, the performance, and the audience members. Foucault described certain relational principles and features of a range of cultural, institutional and discursive spaces that are somehow ‘different’ [Pearson]. It is a way of looking at the relationship between site work and place that has not fully been explored.

Technical aspects of Site specific work

Site makes it much harder to apply the control of technical theater. As a person with over 25 years of technical expertise in theaters and alternative spaces, there are limitations and benefits to adding technical aspects to site work just as there are drawbacks. 

Clear drawbacks are cost and possibility. When Project Bandaloop first performed at the Buttermilks on California’s Eastern Sierra, they were miles from any electrical source and in rough terrain that would preclude most standard theatrical equipment. As they were performing during the day, lighting could not change the focus or intention of the audience. The same show at night would have necessitated a minimum of 20-50 lighting instruments and generators to run them. Other site work, such as the Adventures of Cunning & Guile, used mostly the available lighting while carrying a suitcase with a small portable sound system and a suitcase with a lighting instrument. This allowed for the least intrusion into the space which was the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum. Bringing tech to a space changes it by building a theater into another place. Johanna Haigood builds her spaces through referencing place, as well as historical and cultural issues, but using a theatrical build to do it. 

In urban areas, the nature of the space may be transformed by lighting, the eye guided, and the action brought forward or hidden. The choice to bring theater to a place that is non-theatrical is interesting and would need to be thought out in the same historical, cultural, and institutional context as the rest of the work. Outside of the logistics of generators, cables and lighting instruments meeting weather and harsh spaces, the nature of theater tech is to control a space. Letting go of that control is freeing in many ways.

Literature (short list)

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