author: Gillian McIver
What is ‘site-specific’ art?
The term “site-specific art” is still controversial because we can question whether it applies to work made specifically for a site (e.g. a public art sculpture such as Richard Serra’s works or Gormley’s Angel of the North or the Trafalgar Square Empty Plinth initiative) or to work made in response to and encounter with, a site. Or is the term applicable to both? This may seem like a semantic point, but the art works that result are profoundly different. In this case, I am going to discuss the second, which am calling “site-responsive” art.
Art as site-response
Site response in art occurs when the artist is engaged in an investigation of the site as part of the process in making the work. The investigation will take into account geography, locality, topography, community (local, historical and global), history (local, private and national). These can be considered to be “open source” – open for anyone’s use and interpretation. This process has a direct relationship to the art works made, in terms of form, materials, concept etc. Of course, artists, like anyone else, respond to these “raw materials” in individual ways.
The group Luna Nera formed in 1997, as four people working in different media (initially, video, installation, painting and photography) came together to work in a disused Victorian theatre. Over the subsequent years the group expanded and contracted, and changed some personnel, while their work has taken them into many different and unique environments in London and abroad. As a result the group committed to a practice of art as site-response, working this way in their conception and practice. The group dynamic sought to achieve a balance between the individual response and creative process, and the group’s objective to creating the art experience as a “whole”.
Along with installation, art as site-response sometimes incorporates a live art or performative element. Since most site-responsive work is temporal, existing in its original form only for the duration of its public exposure in the site, live art’s temporal nature fits well in this context.
In considering how site-responsive art encounters local history, we must consider also how the encounter works in both directions. Some of the most interesting and provocative site-responsive projects have come from Germany, a country which has been constantly examining its own history for the entire post-war period. Rebecca Horn, as discussed above, has begun to seriously examine history (not only German) in her work. In “Concert for Buchenwald” which was presented simultaneously in the former Strassenbahndepot in central Weimar (a site of constant local activity until it closed in the 1980s) and the historical Castle Ettersburg on the hill near to the beech forests from which the concentration camp Buchenwald took its name. Both the castle and the camp overlook the town from slightly different vantage points. “Concert for Buchenwald” deals with the idea of complicity and implication in history: the town of Weimar to the present day tries to pretend that Buchenwald camp had nothing to do with them, but as Horn shows, the two are part of one historical experience. But she also implies that with acknowledgement comes a kind of redemption.
Another work of art as site-response was made for Weimar is “Psychiatric Sentence” (2002) by two of the Luna Nera artists , also exhibited in the Strassenbahndepot. “Psychiatric Sentence” questions political definitions and dimensions of sanity. The work was made in an abandoned mental hospital across the street from the Strassenbahndepot. The hospital, like many others in the former GDR and Soviet system, was also used to incarcerate dissidents. The site is on a triangular intersection of streets with three significant historical structures: the hospital, the tram depot (where the work was exhibited), the hospital and the Gauforum – a huge structure built by the Nazis and later used as Stasi headquarters. While the Gauforum looms relentlessly into the field of vision and is impossible to ignore, the hospital, although visible from the street, is by virtue of its disused non-function, as “invisible” to the town as its former political “patients” were in former times.
There is No Empty Place
Anselm Kiefer said that no empty place is really empty: everywhere is filled up, “almost claustrophobically” with all the traces of the past. The past is always there in the present. Artists working site-responsively are working with these traces or “ghosts” as raw material, aware that whatever we put into a place will be mingled with whatever was there before.
The issue of “restoring” visibility of sites through art is part of Luna Nera’s brief as an art group. The 1999 project “The House of Detention” took place in an underground prison. The above-ground structure had been torn down and rebuilt long ago; the underground area (formed of natural limestone caves under Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell) was for a time a small, uninspired museum. However the House of Detention was one of London’s most important prisons since it was built in the 17th century, and housed some of the country’s most notorious felons. Most of the projects in the show addressed the idea of “incarceration” as a social, physical and/or emotional problem, while at the same time the physical aspect of the site created an oppressive atmosphere which heightened the works’ effect.
Choosing spaces for site-response has been, for Luna Nera, a combination of research and serendipity. One of the most problematic aspects of using non-art spaces to create art is that the spaces themselves are difficult to get and often lack even a basic infrastructure. Part of the challenge of making the project is the process of getting and utilising the space. Sometimes spaces become unavailable at the last moment – forcing a rethink of the project. In the case of St Petersburg 2003, the project moved from New Holland to Kronstadt, meaning the artists needed to quickly do some more research. On the other hand the site-responsive nature of the project meant that the final scope of the works was not envisioned until the artists were actually onsite.
Increasingly, historical research has begun to play some role in Luna Nera’s methodology of preparation.
Taking on History
Using the language of art to examine history – rather than the language of history – has its set of own problems but can also be liberating for both historical practice (taking it at least temporarily out of the academy) and art practice. Taking on history so directly causes the artist to examine certain questions and imposes certain requirements which other methodologies of art-making do not:
Ownership – When sites are former public spaces of significance (prison, hospital, theatre, factory, church) and then fall into disuse, what is their role in the life of the community? Does the local authority or private company’s ownership of the bricks and mortar of the property supersede the community’s ownership of the site as repository of memory? This becomes a serious issue when areas of the locality are the locus for “gentrification” and such sites are transformed into offices or luxury housing. In Rodinsky’s Room Iain Sinclair is critical of artists as “shock troops of the developers.” In the case of art as part of urban “regeneration projects,” Malcolm Miles cautions that “Since this advocacy [of art as part of the regeneration process] has been unquestioning of the intentions of development and its impact on communities, art has perhaps been complicit in the abjection that increasingly follows development and the extension of privatisation and surveillance. Artists need to think about this relationship when seeking sites for art-response.
Social use – Cities evolve over time, the social use for which a site was built may change and mutate many times before the artist comes to the site. The artist must be careful not to immediately romanticize and prioritise the “original” use as being somehow more “authentic, ” but to consider the social use of the site as a continuing narrative of which s/he is another part.
What “deserves” to be remembered or commemorated – For example, the video installation “Unbekannt” was made in a former Cold War memorial built over a mass grave where the victims are both opponents of the GDR regime and Nazis (“unbekannt” – “unknown” – refers to the fact that nobody actually knows who most of them were).
Transformation of spaces/communities/locales over time – Related to “social use,” this aspect considers not only the site, but the locale and the population in time. Here an investigation into local history and interaction with local people can be invaluable. Here the artist has an opportunity to bring real depth to the project by collecting stories, rumours, legends and other data about the locale in past and present. In other cases, the artist might be responding to disappeared communities, in which case archival and anecdotal information can be useful.
Sensitivity – Again in Rodinsky’s Room, co-author Rachel Lichtenstein, herself an artist, describes her horror at attending an art event in London’s Whitechapel where the participants were, as an art-action, engaged in destroying sacred Jewish texts which they had found in the squatted premises. Lichtenstein reports that they had no idea or interest in what the texts were. I would say that, while the role of the artist is not necessarily that of the guardian of abandoned cultural property, some sensitivity is needed – if only to make the work effective. This does not preclude the artist from making extreme confrontational work – merely that s/he should know what they are getting into. Who is in control? – Sometimes the intervention of art into a site can make people question how the site has been kept from public use. In the case of sites which have been made “invisible” due to neglect, disuse or misuse and decay, making the site “visible” again can bring up issues of “who controls communities?” Are local governments and landlords responsive to the needs of the people, or not? This can become the basis for local empowerment and initiatives into how space is “regenerated.”
Art “as art” One very important issue is the question of how we judge site-specific/site-responsive art “as art”. Site-responsive art has certain aspects which do not apply to gallery and museum-based art.
Accessibility – If, as we have said, one of the purposes of working site-responsively is to “open out” the art audience beyond the gallery habitués, is it possible to truly achieve a genuinely mixed audience, given that the whole rationale for bourgeois art institutions is to create and preserve elites? As stated earlier, siteresponsive art as “inclusive” art (as opposed to “community” art), depends on developing a professional art practice, so it is important for artists to be judged by their peers and critics on the basis of their work. In the case of Horn, she was already known as an artist before she began working site-responsively. In the case of other artists, some work in other art forms aside from site-responsive. Others employ aggressive marketing techniques to gain publicity, so that the bourgeois taste-makers are afraid to ignore them.
Curatorial Practices – Curating site-responsive art involves procedures and practices outside of those commonly associated with the “art world.” For this reason, in the UK many site-responsive projects are curated by artists, or in a peculiar relationship between a local funding body (e.g. a local council) and the artist, without a “professional” curator. Elsewhere, it is not uncommon for established art institutions to support extramural site-responsive projects, with a professional curator involved in at least part of the project.
Ephemerality – In most cases the works made for a particular site owe their existence only in relation to the site. If they can be moved and replaced at all, they will be changed by this process. In this case we can say that the work is ephemeral. This applies equally to Kapoor’s Marsyas, made for the Tate’s Turbine Hall, as to the House of Detention projects. In many cases the work’s “life” exists only for the duration of the exhibition. This is particularly true of work made with materials directly related to the site (e.g. waste materials found onsite). As Miwon Kwon notes, “the definition of site-specificity [assuming there is one!] is being reconfigured to imply not the permanence or immobility of a work [as in the sculptural and land art projects of earlier practice] but its impermanence and transience.”
Exists as documentation – Much site-responsive work, as with land art, exists after the initial realisation of the project, as photographic, film or video work – it is thus transformed into another art work. How to deal with this outcome is another subject not discussed here. Process-product – The main danger in working site-responsively is the temptation to be caught up in the process, as opposed to working towards an end result. While this is not a situation limited to site-responsive artists, it is one which we are all especially susceptible to. However, if the aim is also to be accessible and inclusive, we also have to take into account that people who come to see the work expect there to be a work to experience. A description of the process alone is going to be seen as self-indulgent and is an example of then kind of obscurantism that made many artists reject the institutions. This does not mean that the art needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be accessible: quite the opposite. Most people, whatever their background, are quite ready to engage with the intellectual content of an art work if the art work presents itself as open for experience. Those who are not, would probably not willingly attend any exhibition, anywhere.
Becoming part of collective memory of the site – working on a site does not bestow ownership upon the artist. The artist and the work becomes part of the collective memory of the site, and the artist has to accept that. Trying to achieve union of social and artistic purposes – While the artist wants the work to be judged as “art”, the social engagement of working on sites is very much part of what is going on and will affect the outcome. By making this a virtue of the work, the artist can avoid conflict in his/her process.
Not commodity based – Because the site-responsive work rarely generates any kind of sales, income for the projects must normally come from sponsorships and grants. In this way, site-responsive art exists slightly outside of the art market. There are exceptions, as it is not impossible to make saleable works in a siteresponsive manner, but it is not common. Photo-video work that comes out of the documentation, of course, can have a commodity life outside of the site work. However it is safe to say that the site-responsive artist is constantly engaged in writing proposals and funding applications for the few grants and sponsorships that exist, and art dealers rarely visit these exhibitions.
It is an “engaged” art form – Above all, site-responsive art is an engaged art form. The artist is interested in what is happening, what has happened, in the place. Working in this way implies questioning, possibly rejecting, the irony and “cool” relativism of certain strains in contemporary art. The artist cannot avoid coming into contact with social, economic and cultural realities during the course of the creative process. Siteresponsive art is not necessarily making any direct comment or “telling” the audience what to think, but instead invites them to engage with the very real relationship between place and work, and inviting them to draw their own conclusions.
1 Site-specificity as public art is explored comprehensively in both Suderburg, Erika (Ed). Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, and Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another : Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Unfortunately both writers focus primarily on American examples and so miss the issue of interaction with histor history, which is a theme much more explored by European artists.
2 Gillian McIver, who had earlier interviewed former Russian dissidents committed to psychiatric sentences, and German-born Julian Ronnefeldt.
3 Malcolm Miles, Art, Space and the City, p.1
4 Gillian McIver, Julian Ronnefeldt, Pearl Gluck
5 The major exception to this being of course Artangel, who are more or less unique in this field.
6 An important caveat to this are works made (to use Miwon Kwon’s terminology) in the primary site of intervention, and exhibited in a secondary site of effect. I would argue that to be truly site-responsive, the secondary site should have some direct relationship with the primary site.
7 Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another, p. 4.