I recently came across a 2016 article in Dance Magazine, “The 4 Cardinal Rules of Site-Specific Performance” and I will confess, at first glance, I had a strong negative reaction to it. The rules the author laid out were as follows:
1. Don’t Get Too Attached
2. Keep Your Distance (In Mind)
3. Go Outside — and Back in Again
4. Your Audience Will Be Unpredictable — Embrace It
It’s not that I disagree with these rules, they are useful guides. And the ways in which the artists who are cited explain how these rules shape their approaches to working in outdoor sites is insightful. However, the rules themselves fall far short of the “cardinal” guidelines we should be taking into consideration when we work in alternate sites. My two primary concerns are with a. the use of the term “site-specific” and b. the simplistic approach to working in what are often spaces already occupied and activated by others. Given that artists continue to work more and more in alternative sites, a conversation about how we approach these practices is perhaps still important.
I’ll try taking a stab first at the use of the term “site-specific” — sadly the article doesn’t acknowledge the long history, learning or theoretical work that has been done by generations of artists who have be working in alternate sites (i.e. not white cubes, black boxes or baroque prosceniums). Nor does Zachary Whittenburg, the article’s author, articulate a difference in degree between what is truly site-SPECIFIC work and what is instead a publicly sited or site-adaptive work. The lack of distinction concerns me for two reasons. First, it highlights our lack of connection to a body of historical work, experiments and learning in art, performance art, dance, and theatre that preceded the generation of working artists coming of age now. Secondly, it suggests that there is no distinction between on the one hand the work of making a piece of art that can only ever be experienced in one particular location, made of and for that space, with a deep dramaturgical understanding of that place’s social, political, economic, aesthetic, and architectural particularities, and, on the other hand, the work of making a piece of art that can transcend location and be experienced in and adapted to many sites — no matter the social, political, economic, aesthetic, architectural particularities — and still communicate its intention clearly. These are two very different goals involving very different kinds of creative processes. We should be clearer with each other and with audiences about our intentions and about setting their expectations, otherwise confusion, frustration and distrust creep in and audiences go away.
My second overall concern with the article is its disregard for the ethics of borrowing space. When working in alternative spaces — whether they are privately-owned, municipality-owned, or even on international waters — you are entering a space that other people may feel attachment to, feel ownership of, have habits in, or use in a regular day-to-day fashion. These spaces are not empty, they are not vacant, they are not void (no matter what a real estate developer, public official or presenter may say about them). Even those spaces you imagine to be abandoned, someone at some time lived, worked, or loved in that place. I agree that you should be prepared for unexpected responses from the audience. I would however also suggest to any artist working in any space (outdoor, public or even indoor theatrical), when you consider creating a piece for one of these types of spaces, imagine that you are making a piece in someone else’s home, a space someone else loves dearly. Take that someone else into consideration. Don’t just tolerate or ‘embrace’ their quirks. Ask their permission, be grateful for their invitation, acknowledge that you may be interrupting their time and activities in that space, engage them with respect and understanding. I know it seems like we are giving the intentional and incidental audiences a gift, and they should be inspired, excited and grateful, but think back to a time when someone gave you a gift that felt more like a burden or demonstrated to you how little the giver knew you. We all put way too much blood, sweat and passion into the work we are making to be forcing people to accept a gift that is not really made for them. This doesn’t mean you can’t totally transform their space, make a big mess and break their things — if they are ok with you doing that. And this doesn’t mean that you have to go speak with every single park attendee, nature reserve visitor, block-corner pedestrian, or former coal mine employee before you start performing there. They’ll be able to sense whether or not you have taken them into consideration in your approach, in your sensitivity, your awareness of them, of their history, of their attachment to the site.
So, whether you are making a site-specific or a site-adaptive piece, make it one of your “cardinal” rules to ask a few simple questions before you agree to locate you work in an alternative site:
• Who comes here throughout any given day/week?
• What normally happens here? How do the spaces normal occupants use it?
• What has happened here in the past?
• How do the people moving through, around, in this space feel about it?
• Are they used to artists working in this place?
• Is there a prescribed location that is demarcated for performance?
• If no one currently occupies this space at all, who used to occupy it and where are they now?
• Do we need permission from someone to be here? Do they have rules about the space? How can we meet/engage them and build their trust in us the artists using their space?
• Are there others’ whose livelihood depends on this place and their ability to access it and the people moving through it?
• How will my rehearsals/performance impact the plants, animals, and other wildlife or the architectural preservation of this place? How will the audiences I bring with me impact the environment/preservation of this place?
I’m sure there are lots more questions that also might be helpful, but those seem like a decent and pretty generic starting place no matter the project/practice. If you are working with a presenter, producer, or project director and they can’t answer these questions, then they are setting you up for trouble. Do yourself a favor and push them on this front or go out and find someone from the area who can answer these questions for you.
There is sure to be a robust body of literature in article form that can be sussed out from the libraries in journals like PAJ (https://www.mitpressjournals.org/loi/pajj) or Dance Research Journal (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/dance-research-journal), and what I am including below is by no means a comprehensive list, but here’s a few artists/books that I have found of interest on/around/sitting next to this topic:
• Mike Pearson, Site-Specific Performance
• Fram Kitagawa, Art Place Japan
• Goat Island, School Book 2
• Danspace Project, A Body In Places
• Jane Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta?
• Jennifer Monson (ed), A Field Guide To iLANDing: Scores for Researching Urban Ecologies
• Stephen Bottoms and Matthew Goulish, Performance, Ecology and Goat Island
• Julie’s Bicycle, ISAN Sustainability Toolkit and other resource guides for artists and producers concerned with improving their environmental impacts.
Amazon also lists some books if you do a simple search of site-specific performance. I pulled a bunch of them into a list called site-based art and performance on goodreads so others can add to the list or share their thoughts on the books (please do!).
We seem to be breaking out of the boxes more and more these days, and I love it for so many reasons. I just think that those who broke out of the boxes decades ago learned some good lessons from their experiences. We might as well not make all those mistakes again, if we don’t need to.
Also — now, in this moment of all moments, it feels really important to be listening to each other, taking each other into consideration, and not forcing ourselves onto a place or onto others who may be there.