Gillian McIver

Any discussion of site-specific art as practised in this approach needs to address its ephemerality. Unless we’re talking about a permanent installation, which is rare and in the site-specific context, usually not desired, the vast majority of projects will be ephemeral, limited by allocation of time a work occupies the site, or limited by the materials used in making the work. In short, ephemerality can be said to be an integral condition of site specificity and site response.

Historically, art sought permanence or at least longevity. This can be seen in the choices of materials, as artists find new and better ways to make their art durable; the idea that an artwork would disappear within an artist’s lifetime (never mind within a few weeks or even days) would have rendered any artists before the late twentieth century incredulous and uncomprehending.

Late twentieth century art embraces  ephemerality. This is not the place to go into an extended discussion of the phenomenon, but it is worth noting the fact, and locating several points that are key to this development. Leaving aside arguments that painting and sculpture were “finished” by the late twentieth century (they weren’t!) is easy to see how the historical consciousness of the late twentieth century weighed on the minds of artists and is reflected in their approaches. I mean the tumult of thoughts and feelings that were loosely gathered together under the term “postmodernism”.

The threat – both real and imagined – offered by the Cold War affected the whole of Western society and to some extent the Soviet side as well. The Soviet bloc was able to use the horrific sacrifices of the second world War to control or at least influence public opinion, but the US-led West was over-compromised in this narrative, given that the West had been responsible for Hiroshima and for drawing a convenient curtain over atrocities in Europe. Instead, a Soviet led nuclear annihilation – total ultimate annihilation – was offered as a distinct possibility. This possibility was a daily awareness in the minds of artists and every other citizen. We now know how deeply our leaders in the 1980s were implicated in this – their escape routes, codewords and plans for the aftermath of the impending debacle are now public. We now realize that they expected to survive, albeit in a Harlan Ellison kind of scenario, while the rest of us were expected to die.

For the rest of us, the threat was dull, indistinct and deeply insidious, like a persistent cramp that never goes away but fails to actually cripple. This sense of threat was met by a strident popular culture of films (mostly) which illustrated both the benefits of ‘our way of life’ and the dangers of rejecting it. Artists respond to this grave yet dull threat by turning almost imperceptibly away from permanence. Radical underground practices like those of DADA, another wartime art practice, groups like Fluxus embraced ephemeral, moral works that imitated the immediacy of pop culture and included  performance and timebased events.

The question was, why should artists seek to create things which are permanent when human folly could bring the world to end at any given moment? To the first time in human history we had incontrovertible proof that this could be done, that the world to be finished off. This wasn’t just a prophecy in an old book; it was science, it was physics and engineering which could make it happen. It only took one plane to fuck up Japan – what if there were hundreds? Along with this threat came much more heightened awareness of one’s own mortality. Mortality is an awareness deeply rooted in the human condition. We know our time on earth is finite and we see evidence of it every day. But now, along with the technological means to bring about annihilation, we also accept the idea that there is no afterlife, no God. Of course, on an individual basis many people (even artists) retain belief in a deity. But the conviction is not unshaken, as it would’ve been until the late nineteenth century. The horrific knowledge of the concentration camps and the nuclear weapons made it difficult to believe that any actually ‘good’ Supreme Being is present.  

Considering art up to the eighteenth century, we see that a great deal of it was made for churches and temples that is for the glory of God. From the late 17th century to be sure, art is increasingly in-service to secular elites interested in art which was fully secular: real battles, portraits, domestic scenes,  contemporary landscapes and so on. The issue of contemporary landscapes is an interesting one: take Bruegel’s Massacre Of The Innocents. Here he puts the biblical story within the contemporary landscape; from it we learn a lot about what a sixteenth century Flemish town was like.   The late eighteenth and nineteenth century landscapes largely eschewed biblical or allegorical narrative; instead they celebrated the wonder of the ‘here and now’ and its link to eternity. The solidity of urban structures mediated through light, air, water; the mysteries of nature in cloud, cliff and hedgerow. By rejoicing in the wonders of the ‘now’ drew attention to the world’s permanence and our permanence. There was no uncertainty in these images; Venice’s glitters in the watery sun as it is done for centuries; mountains and glades show the continuing processes of nature, uninterrupted yet enjoyed by man.

To see anything different, we must go to Paul Nash’s extraordinary images of the blighted wartime landscape or Wyndham Lewis’s hysterical insistence on the eternity and solidity of his malevolent urban structures. Yet even here there is certainty. Both artists are merely admonishing us for what we’ve done. They don’t imagine for a moment that we could go further and destroy everything forever. If the move from religious to secular art is about moving from celebrating the glory of God to celebrating ‘my time on earth’, until the second half of the twentieth century the notion of ‘my time on earth’ was not threatened or delimited. ‘My time’ will end with my death, but coincide with your birth. I’m making this artwork for you, who comes after me.

After the revelations of the concentration camps in the atomic bomb, artists could no longer be sure of this. The camps showed us that it was possible to actually wipe out a whole genus of people systematically. That was possible to have as an aim to wipe out people off the face of the earth as if they hadn’t existed. The bombs showed us something even worse: that the systematic Fordist process of the camps was not even needed: that annihilation could be done remotely and impersonally, and that we have the technology and clearly the will to actually do it. The fact that all this knowledge came tightly sewn into a straitjacket of comforting propaganda could not stop the worm of threat from boring into the mind and soul of everybody. Some people probably didn’t notice it, lulled by soothing television and consumer goods. Others did notice, but not consciously. Others, few, were very aware and spent many thankless hours fighting both the prevalent politics and the general consumer-led apathy of the multitude. Relentless propaganda about the ‘good life’ masked the hideous realities that supported its foundation.

Andy Warhol is the significant Cold War artist from that era - from the 1950s through the late 1960s because he understood all of this very well. His ancestral home had simply disappeared into the Soviet bloc, and  he had an ambivalent relationship with the American ‘good life’, its products, its celebrities and its dangers. His genius is that he presents them all in the same flat, dry, faux-inarticulate way. The screenprints of Marilyn, Elizabeth and Mao are rendered in exactly the same way, leveling them: the frightful Mao offering a threat and an icon the same as the celebrity culture offered a threat and an icon.  Any discussion of site specific art should mention Warhol’s film Empire 1964, a wry, dry and bland presentation of an edifice laden with symbolism and promise.  Filming it in real time alone can be enough to bring it down. The film merely foreshadows the fetishistic repetitive footage accompanying the devastation of the world trade Centre, though the world trade Centre never had the same cachet as the Empire State building. Warhol and Empire presents this edifice - this site - in all of its rock steady massiveness, as the presentation of real-time is designed to give us space to think and maybe sleep or talk about other things. The solidity of the Empire State building is manifest yet it conjures up – post 1945 – equally resonant black-and-white images of bottomed out London, Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima – the building standing in for all the other buildings which have been obliterated.  Empire State survived because it was on the side of the winners; the son of Czechoslovakian émigrés is not so sure how true this would continue to be.
Empire brings us to question of  site specific as a consideration of place and the impact of places on human consciousness. It also raises the issue of permanence and change. If Empire State was permanent, the urban districts inhabited or explored by Matta Clark were not; he understood that most urban spaces are transient, mutable and above all highly contested. Away from the city Robert Smithson aimed to be directly in the landscape, not simply to paint it. Is the Spiral Jetty one of the most significant works of land art and investigation of landscape, or a stark cry of the human being desperate to make direct communication with the forces of nature? Nature inhuman, eternal and beyond the scope of man. One thing that we do know is that both Matta Clark’s and Smithson’s works are largely ephemeral, and  exist for us now mainly as recorded images: photographs and film.

To some extent of course, the embrace of the ephemerall is also oriented towards the rejection of commodification, the rejection of the artwork as commodity. This is quite extraordinary when you think about it, for since recorded time artworks have been commodities: not necessarily bought and sold on the market but certainly commissioned, negotiated, delivered and paid for. Although Marx himself said little per se about art, Marxism offered scope for general critique of commodification. When I like to the romantic notion of art as a spiritual location, it is not too hard to imagine how the idea of a non-commodified art – art that could actually never be brought to market – could take root. In some sense, Warhol’s critical over-commodification of art can be read as a kind of self-compromising satire. However, for many other artists this was not an approach they wished to follow. Making art for its own sake, art that was critical investigative conceptual was explored throughout the 1950s and 60s, and became an idea that took hold in the 1970s.

We must not be naïve: non-commodified art has still to be paid for, and so a complex of networks came into play to organize just this. Museums and foundations commissioned work and published handsome catalogues for sale. Dealers dealt in photographic and filmic records as commodities. Still other foundations provided funds that allowed artists time and space to create non-commodity works. And by the late twentieth century even the collectors showed themselves willing to collect work that could not be commodified: collecting traces, instructions, detritus and even collecting the idea, culminating perhaps in Tino Sehgal’s sales of his performances.

With site specific art in particular there is an impulse towards creating a very direct dialogue and a deep inquiry. On some level, experiences place cannot help but colour or influence the state of mind of the one who engages in the act of creation. As I write this text I am sitting on a rock several meters from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Who can say that the vastness and power of this ocean, its noise and roughness, has not affected my thought processes? These green grey waters connect me to Africa, to the Americas, to their respective histories and people. I cannot help being reminded of the broad sweep of the world, and that what we call ‘art’ is only a tiny part of the human creative endeavour; great swathes of humanity have no connection to the artistic tradition which we value so highly.

Site specificity is interesting because it acknowledges, even if implicitly, just this point. By not only siting the work outside of the sphere of art but actually creating a new sphere, offering dialogue and communication, it breaks out of the artistic tradition. Site specificity and site response is about investigating not only the materiality of the place, its history and current purpose and those who are affected by it, it is about the facts of this investigation.  The artist can trigger but cannot control the way the work is transformed into the tens or dozens or hundreds of views, discussions, arguments or dreams. Fed back to the artist, these dialogues can develop the work further enrich it and affect the outcome of new works.

By occupying a site – any point in the landscape – and making a manifestation within it – the artist automatically invites the those who occupy the area.  This is not necessarily an enjoyable experience for the artist, as the dialogue can contain criticism or lack of understanding even opprobrium. At this point we see how committed the artist is to site specific as a practice. Those who are committed enter into the dialogue eagerly and refuse to have it mediated through experts. An excellent example of this is Jeremy Deller’s action and film (made with director Mike Figgis) the Battle of Orgreave which is still highly relevant, increasingly so as the Orgreave question slices into the very heart of the body politic, a wound that will not go away.
Site specific art encroaches upon alien territory and invades space meant for public discourse. It is not possible to make ‘personal’ site specific work; it is always – however small and fleeting – monumental. It opines and so posits argument. It triggers and draws on hitherto unknown or unremembered things. It raises tangents and asides and above all it is invitational, and what it invites most of all is questions; these questions are for everybody, not for the artworld or for ‘clever’ people but for everybody.

If a building is empty abandoned and falling into ruin in plain sight people often cease to see it. The longer it stays like that the more unseen it is; taken for granted, sometimes it is admired as a piece of architecture, as a ruin, as a romantic fashion.  When the artist intervenes they form an active opening. The unseen becomes visible, entry is no longer trespass; the fear of ghosts or of the law dissipates. And all this is even before the artwork is mentioned. This is because the actual work made and presented is only 50% of the finished piece. The other 50% is of course the site itself. When the work of the site converge the work completes itself. To a point.

For there is a further stage that also must come into play. Up until now the work, being 50% created peace and 50% sightedness, is absolutely ephemeral. Once removed from the site and either disappears or is transferred into something completely different. A resited site specific work is not the same work; it is a completely new work. And so in most cases there is a desire to preserve, not the work, not the experience because it cannot be reexperienced, but an image of the work. Which is not the work.

Recording images of the work and sit to is the only way a modicum of the work can be preserved. I say modicum because the way that the artwork is perceived is a huge part of its being. The feeling one gets walking into a space – whether it is the Sistine Chapel the National Gallery or a derelict Berlin factory, contributes to the reception of the work. There has been some talk recently that people today treat art spaces – e.g. museums – as churches. This is absolute nonsense; churches and mosques were always made to be totally inclusive and to preach a straightforward message of redemption and salvation through one’s own agency (prayer). No such process happens within art spaces. Art spaces are both less inclusive and require less from the individual. But this is neither pejorative nor problematic. It is ridiculous and frightening to think that we could believe that the human practice of art-making can offer the same kind of total ‘salvation and redemption’ that a deity is purported to offer.

Instead, art offers us a space to think and to dream, a space outside of ourselves but deeply connected to it. It offers a space outside of the everyday world where questions are encouraged and very often contemplation is rewarded. So arts often offers us a chance to question. Church-based art invites us to question our own behaviour and belief and whether these live up to the expectations and God’s message. Mosque art, with its emphasis on patterns from nature, does the same although in a more abstract and less illustrated fashion; for nature is but another manifestation of God. Secular art on the other hand invites us to question not only ourselves but the messages we encounter in our daily lives. Notions of gender, sexuality, violence, property and ownership states – all of these can be raises questions by artworks. This is not to say that art made for religious purposes cannot do that; artists themselves and determine how composition, colour and structure impinges on well-known narratives and ‘religious’ art often has multiple layers of meaning beyond the narrative and illustrative.  While most secular art does raise a whole host of questions, site specific art is all about those questions.

Site specific art is always political because it is always trespasses upon territory that does not belong to art. We can if we like tried to divide up the issue by relevance to mind maps, one titled Art and the other Politics we to we soon see how the realm of art and politics overlaps. While all of art can be said to have a loosely political dimension, site specific art is all about this dimension: it is an intersection between the artist and the body politic. When artists claim the work is personal not political, or even if they say nothing but allow the commissioning institution to speak for them, something about work can appear to be cynical, opportunistic and forced.


However new problems are always raised: one artist’s broken down factory as a site for art making is another person’s former workplace. Many times I’ve had the experience of engaging with visitors who knew the site from its former use, either from working there or from belonging to the neighbourhood. This is manifested, when we consider two problematic works, problematic because they were criticised for failing to have a sense of responsibly to the wider public. This is not a criticism of the quality of the works, but as an illustration of the problems with site specificity. Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 house sites sited the cast of a typical London working-class house in Mile End, and (deservedly) won a Turner prize. But for plenty of onlookers, particularly in the immediate neighbourhood, the project raised upthe controversial question of housing. In a rapidly over populated city with terribly expensive housing, and in an East End where discourse of right to the almost nonexistent housing stock was fiercely debated, House stood like a serene and unconcerned bourgeois folly. Comments such as “wasting a perfectly good house” to many “money that could’ve been spent on housing” echoed and still echoes to this day (the expenditure on the project of course not nearly enough to make the smallest dent in the housing issue). Despite being a superb piece of art Whiteread, possibly because she is not a site specific artist, and commissioner Artangel were unable to engage with these voices and at the same time crucially could not work out a way to use them to enrich the work. This was further underlined by the neo-dada KLF foundation prize which was given to House as the ‘worst work of art’.

More recently Roger Hiorns project “Seizure” 2008, which is a brilliant piece of work also commissioned by Artangel, came up against a housing debate even more fraught and vitriolic. The site was described simply as “a block of condemned social housing on a 1960s council estate” and all the reviews and discussion in the press mentioned the ‘awfulness’ of the estate and its flats – no mention was never made of the people who inhabited the ‘failed’ housing experiment and who lives were uprooted by the council’s controversial regeneration scheme. Artangel and Hiorns entered into this highly contested situation and failed totally to engage with the political discourse. But failing to engage does not exempt. Site responsive art MUST engage, must be critical, must be inclusive to the site’s contestation. I personally love this work, which has now been moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where it is now stripped of its political aspect and is an attractive and fascinating piece. House as it well known, was demolished, which is a pity. But the fact remains, these were  contentious interventions into  highly charged situations which failed to accept that it was so. Today, all traces of the criticism and discord around the portrayal of the ‘wretched’ housing estate have been expunged from the discourse around the work. It is an act of erasure, an insult – even if unintentional.

The area surrounding the House project and the estate chosen for Seizure was, for much of the audience, a horrible working-class shithole.  The kind of place where art is a stranger, but paradoxically the perfect place for art to ‘intervene’. The audience would not live here. The people who did live here were invisible, the space was an empty vessel, prized for its emptiness, obsolescence and availability. And yet this estate was home to many people who still lived in similar flats or similar estates in the vicinity and indeed throughout London. For many people actually the flat and estate are the norm, not the exotic strange location offered up to art goers.
To be fair this is a constant  problem in doing site specific art in spaces of private use. It’s too easy to encroach on personal territory. Without perhaps meaning to, Seizure is not the only project raises the spectre of class exploitation. As Johnny Lydon memorably put it, it’s often a ‘cheap holiday on other people’s misery’. Working in places of formerly public use raises its own issues but as the spaces were usually meant either for everybody (a hospital or hotel) or for specialists (e.g. a factory) the ongoing issue of class fades. Yet it was entirely possible to make both House and Seizure engage with the discourse of the locale and the community, but this did not happen.

As discussed elsewhere on the site, I Am Here operated within continuously occupied private space yet did not engender a sense of class exploitation or condescension. Nor did the TRO project Lichtkugel in Berlin. Both happened and amid contested frameworks of public housing and industrial decline yet both opened an extended and spirited discussion of participatory, offering enjoyment and a recognition of the role of the audience and community.  Lichtkugel, a  project rather similar to Seizure in that it had no participatory element, was viewed as a beautiful ‘gift’ to the locale. Perhaps it is just that nobody bothered to ask what the local people thought and felt, or questioned the media’s repetitive discourse of the ‘dodgy council estate.’

The Record

After the artwork is completed, it is either removed or disappears of its own volition; what is left is simply the record. These recordings remain as artifacts to continue the debate and invite further discussion. They are records of a moment in time, points within a wider discourse that is mediated for once through art. Rarely actually ‘about’ politics, it is moving always toward the political. For the recordings to have real value in a sense they should be artworks in their own right; that is to say, of sufficient quality and breadth of vision that they can be exhibited or reproduced in satisfying ways that engage audiences. Again Jeremy Deller’s works come to mind, particularly Battle of Orgreave.

How then to present what is essentially visually a series of photographs and video recordings is the next issue. One of the problems is making a false scarcity out of digital and infinitely reproducible data sets . If editioning means that the record is  therefore limited to what can be commodified, this will then totally fail to fill the original purpose of the action – to engender dialogue. If - after the work is gone and the action over, the space closed up or torn down - the recording becomes inaccessible, the whole purpose of the action is lost. So editioning cannot work as the outcome of the original intention. The best and least lucrative solution is to put the work online, freely accessible. Alternatively, presenting the work in film screenings or as installation video can also facilitate access. But we cannot turn the work into something it is not. Even the means of recording is itself a funeral:  digital recordings become quickly obsolete;  systems collapse and corrupt. From nitrate film to MP3 recordings, everything is mutable and eventually will disappear. All we have is the record, but it too is ephemeral.

“The opening of the site to art is a brief, interventionist moment, not a permanent condition.”
Luna Nera


©Gillian Mciver 2011 All rights reserved. May be used with attribution.