Site Specific Art

Documenting site responsive art

Gillian McIver

Having been deeply involved with making and documenting site responsive art, I identified a number of issues around the process of ‘documentation’  that I do not see addressed in most of the literature on site-specificity. So I decided to praise them here in this short article. Now, I have no answers, just my own solution to specific problems – and a lot of questions.

Going "beyond the site" or beyond the moment of reception in the form of documenting the art work, means considering a number of different factors. What might be the appropriate forms for the documentation?  What is the purpose of documenting the work? What is the economic basis under which the documentation will happen? What are the Aesthetic considerations of the documentation? Each of these factors will be discussed here in turn.

As has been mentioned elsewhere in this publication, site specific and site responsive art comes out of the tendency towards ephemera in art, a characteristic of post-war and especially Cold War modernism. This is art which is durational, temporal or short term; art which is non commodified or less easily commodifiable; it is art which, having been made, has such a short life that within a few years it exists only in descriptions and photographs.[1] The classic example of this being Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty, which disappeared a few years after it was made, and for 30 years existed only in recordings. Although they have been attempts to preserve some of the art made in the 1960s 70s and 80s for example, this has only been done with great difficulty - and obviously has only been done for those artists who eventually made it into a more mainstream and commercially viable position


So, with these considerations in mind, we can see that there are essentially three different approaches to take into account.

  1. The first is “documentation as document”: this might take the form of a textual description or a photo essay which seeks to describe the site specific or site responsive artwork to an audience who has no possibility of seeing it, or has seen it but has no possibility to see it again this is often because the work has itself been dismantled. In this case the principal consideration is often accuracy and detail, though poetic, reflective and discursive writing is also possible (see the I Am Here review).
  2. The second approach is “documentation into art”: that is, turning the documentation of the artwork into an artwork in itself. This can happen through the use of fine art photography or artist film and video.
  3. Finally the last method of approaching documenting site specific / site responsive artwork is through documentary film-making. This is different to artist film in that it considers at least some of the conventions of the documentary film form. A good example is Rivers and Tides 2001 a film about the work of land-artist Andy Goldsworthy, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. However, Lucy Walker’s film 2010 Wasteland which documents the artist Vik Muniz’s collaboration with workers at a recycling plant to create a collage out of waste materials, delves much further into the lives of the workers and the broader social issues. Both films are excellent, but very different in the way they address the artwork the artist and the process. Arguably the intended audience is very different as is the film maker's agenda. I would argue that while Riedelsheimer's film can be considered an artist film, Walker's is more of a social documentary. The actual art work is almost a footnote.


When contemplating the documenting of the art work, the artist must ask, "what is the purpose and what are the processes of the documentation?" For example, who makes the documentation? Who owns the image? The artist or the maker of the documentation? How much control does the artist have over the way the documentation represents the work?

How does the documentation site the work? Does it place the work historically (for example see the texts documenting projects "The Derelict Sensation" at the St Pancras hotel, or the “Titanic HQ” project at Queens Island Belfast detailed in this publication.) Does the documentation act as a map to the past? Or is it deliberately ahistorical (as in “The Lost World of Marmaros”)?


Aesthetics are always significant. What is most important, to show the project giving the most full and rounded comprehensive revelation of the constituent parts of the project? Or to create a 'wonderful image'? There are advantages and limitations to both approaches. How much manipulation of the image will be used (for example choice of lighting, lenses, retouching in the case of video or photography; choice of language in textual description). If it’s filmed, will you use non-diagetic sound? What are the implications of non-diagetic sound in a document of an art work?


It is always necessary, when discussing site-specificity and site response, to consider how the artwork behaves within the art economy. This becomes very acute when the issue of documentation comes up. For example if the work is commissioned or is the result of a grant, there may be specific forms of documentation which need to be made in order to fulfill certain conditions. Is the documentation going to have a commercial aspect? Is there going to be a sale of art which results from the documentation (for example fine art photography, or a book or a film)? Or perhaps the documentation might be used to help sell commodified works which refer to the site responsive work (see Roger Hiorns )If this is the case, how does this affect the documentation that is made?


What is the relationship between the artist who made the artwork and the documentation? Theoretically any type of relationship is possible, but it is worth thinking about what the relationship will be before the relationship is constituted. Is the role of the documentation to interrogate the art? Is it the role of the documentation to interpret the art? Is it a good idea for the artist to take charge of their own documentation or better to bring in another person, perhaps an expert? There is no right or wrong answer here, only better and worse choices for individuals to make.

Looking at documentary films about art projects: In Rivers and Tides, Riedelsheimer  principally focuses on capturing the Goldsworthy’s work itself and his physical interactions with nature. However in Wasteland, Walker uses Munoz’s art project to look more closely at issues of poverty, equality and gender among others. In Taking Over the King’s Land, the aim was to show how an artist desired to transform an ugly derelict urban area through art, but also to show his determination and idiosyncrasy. However in Poema Vremenyi, as a short artist film, the intention was to capture a spirit, a moment of joy in the creative process.

The proliferation of the Image

Site specific / site responsive art needs to be preserved but it usually cannot be, and therefore it must be recorded.  Documentation is not necessarily itself art, nor is documentation necessarily documentary, but in both cases it could be.  Making art or documentary out of site specific art necessitates a process of mediation, and one  needs to be aware of this and to consider it.  Artists cannot always control this process.

It is never possible for the artist to control the proliferation of the images of his/her work. With the advent of digital social media, online images and recordings of art proliferate. Images and recordings of art are made by visitors and by journalists, and they then burgeon online via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram Pinterest and others.

Giving that recordings of the artwork are going to proliferate, this seems to indicate that it is a good idea for the artist to consider how she/he will take some kind of control over the documentation. In the past, it was said that bad documentation is worse than no documentation, but today, with social network sharing, there is no "no documentation," and danger of the proliferation of poor quality images is too risky. Planning the documentation must be part of the site responsive art project, it must be central to the project.

Whether you choose to work with a documentary film maker, produce fine art photography or publish a blog or web page about the work, the documentation must be an intrinsic part of the site specific/site responsive project.


[1] In this way, it can be linked to performance, and indeed much site responsive work contains elements of performance. It could even be argued that all site responsive work is essentially performative.


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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. GMcIver 2015