Top suggestions and helpful tips for making art, performance, and music in site-specific environments!
(Image: Steve Tanner)
Bored of the studio? Finding inspiration hard to come by? Or are you just looking for something different to add to your practice to shake things up a bit? Well look no further! Site-specific performance is a great way of engaging with new audiences, developing your practice, and turning a ‘space’ into a ‘place’.
In this series of blogs I’m going to give some examples of the kinds of performance you might want to try out, using examples of artists that work in this way. I will be releasing a different type of site-specific performance each week that might interest you in giving it a go yourself. This first blog entry will consist of a ‘crash course’ in site-specific art, the theory and ideology behind it, as well as the first example you might want to experiment with. Now, may I begin with stating that this is in no way a comprehensive guide to site-specific performance. Think of it as a basic set of tools and knowledge I think are important to have as a starting point. I’ve also included a list of the books, people, companies, and performances that have influenced this series at the bottom of each blog entry, should you wish to delve further into its history and development as an art-form.
Stop pretending, Shakespeare!
There’s nothing particularly new about site-work, it’s been around for a while now, but let me be clear, Shakespeare In The Park, in my opinion, is NOT an example site-specific performance. Let me explain why… Shakespeare In The Park is something that has been conceived elsewhere and, for lack of a better term, plonked in the site (or park). True site-specific performance is symbiotic with the site it inhabits – it has been made there, shaped there, grown there, and all the influences the site has to offer permeate the performance. There is a great amount of ‘giving’ between performer/s and site, and it works both ways. Not only is the performance benefiting from whatever inspiration the site has to offer, but the site also gets to benefit from being made into a ‘place’ – something that now has a more meaningful anthropological purpose outside of its original state. A great example is the transformation of any of what Marc Augé called ‘Non-places’. These are transitory spaces, commonly used to travel through – there is no point of interest that causes you to go there for a purpose, you are simply using it to get from one place to another. Examples of these are train stations, shopping centre promenades, office building corridors, (or corridors in any building for that matter). Making performances in sites like these are probably the best examples of how a ‘space’ devoid of any meaningful cultural purpose, are transformed into ‘place’ – somewhere that has been given the ability to engage. But how can this be applied to sites that are not man-made? A forest for instance? A river bank? People may already have there own reasons for going to these places: exploration, escapism, an interest in the natural world, fresh air… Performances made in these sites are not meant to ‘change’ them, more rather to highlight aspects of them that may go unnoticed in certain contexts, and then breathing them into life.
Whatever the site you choose, in my experience, the best site-specific work is made when you don’t take too much with you into the site. Now, I mean this in terms of ideas. Sometimes it can be quite beneficial to add props and other physical things later if it aids the purpose of highlighting whatever it is about that space you what to show. What I mean is, it’s best never to try and impose an idea onto a place. Never go to a place for the first time knowing what you want to do with it and attempting to make it fit. The whole process should be an exchange between you and the site.
Touch, don’t look…
…You can of course look, and I encourage you to do so… It’s just that most site-specific performance tends to put the importance of experiencing the site at the forefront. The performer is looking for a sensual connection for themselves and for their audience. This has been called having a ‘haptic’ response to the site - experiencing it through your senses and allowing your body to tune in to the resonance of the space. It allows you to become aware of yourself in relation to the space, in relation to its history and also its context within the wider world. It is often considered a much more engaging world than that of a conventional auditorium where you are encouraged to shut off these notions.
Stuck in the mud…
Site-specific does not mean you’re trapped in that place. Don’t get me wrong sometimes you are... Richard Serra famously said that ‘to move the work is to destroy it’. This tends to happen if you attempt to move a work that has been made so intrinsically within that particular place, its context, its history, its architectural make-up, and so on. In this case, most often that not you will require an audience to come to you. And sometimes that audience is just someone out walking their dog. However, site-specific work can be very transferable, and can even be taken on tour. For example, if you have made a performance in a swimming pool, there is nothing stopping you moving the work to another swimming pool in another city or town.
Art commenting on life? Or life commenting on art?
Most site-specific art has a political or social agenda. After all it’s about commenting on space, how it’s used and how it’s perceived. Often performances challenge these uses and perceptions to highlight the good, the bad, the ludicrousness, and the genius, within the way we operate as a society in relation to these spaces.
For ideas of how you might be able to give site-specific performance a go I'll be giving a different suggestion and example each week. Don't miss next weeks entry!
‘Street Theatre’ Bim Mason
‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ James Surowiecki
‘A Misguide to Exeter/Anywhere’ Wrights and Sites
‘Mythogeography’ Wrights and Sites
‘Site-Specific Performance’ Mike Pearson
‘Site-Specific Art’ Nick Kay
‘Making A Performance’ Govan, Nicholson, Normington
‘Devising Performance’ Heddon, Milling
‘Body, Space Image’ Tuffnel, Crickmay
‘An Exploration Of Performance As A Stimulus For Utopian Collectiveness’ Louise White