Simon Dove, an independent curator and dance educator, is co-curator of “Crossing the Line,” the annual trans-disciplinary fall festival in New York.
A site is the location, including a theater or museum, where any performance or art event takes place.
In art circles in the 1970s, the term site began to be used to refer to a particular place for which an artwork was specially created, such as Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) for the high desert in western New Mexico or Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece (1971) for multiple SoHo rooftops. Soon after, any artwork, visual or performative, that was experienced anywhere other than in the gallery, museum, or theater began to be designated site-specific. This use of the term site tends to perpetuate the erroneous notion that the gallery, museum, or theater is in some way a “home” or neutral space—the supposedly optimal platform for art that is believed to show the work at its best, is internationally reproducible, and is an architecturally recognizable and suitably expensive packaging for products that are for sale or consumption.
However, a theater or a gallery is actually a very specific type of site—physically, culturally, and economically. Far from being neutral spaces, these sites have a significant influence on the artwork and often define both the form of the work (size, medium, duration, etc.) and the public’s way of experiencing it. This notion of neutrality desensitizes us as a public to the context in which we experience the artwork. Just as we quickly “tune out” a constant hum in a room, the discreet continuity of art spaces diminishes our awareness of the relationship of the work to the context in which it is made and in which we experience it.
Even more pernicious is the impact that this “neutral” infrastructure has on the work of artists. These buildings shape the artwork itself—physically, culturally, and politically. They determine the scale, the duration, the materials, and the mode of presentation. The corresponding economic model also requires that artists repeat products, making more works similar to those that sell well.
The evolving practice of artists requires a much more inclusive definition of site. As performance events can now be experienced in many different contexts, from a quarry near Minneapolis (Merce Cunningham’s Ocean ) to a pier in lower Manhattan (River to River festival), as well as in repurposed buildings (the Armory in New York or Tramway in Glasgow), the very idea of what constitutes a “theater” is expanded. If a series of dance events is presented in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium in a formal manner—with start times, fixed audience seating, and specific lighting—what makes this different from seeing the same work in a theater, with many of the same formal presentational conventions? This question is increasing both artists’ and the public’s awareness of how a context shapes the perception of a work of art. It also informs artists’ practice as the context or site of the work becomes a necessary consideration in the conceptualization and realization of the project. This also influences the nature of working in a theater or museum, as any presentation format clearly cannot be isolated from the way in which the work is realized or perceived. As artists and audiences develop this awareness of site or context, the idea that there remains anything that can be considered a neutral space for an art encounter is eradicated.
The notion of site then takes on a critical role in the work, and for many artists the site of the work proposes the content, the making process itself, and the resulting form. Socially engaged artists often involve the people who are most closely related to the site as participants, performers, even collaborators. The London-based dance maker Rosemary Lee worked over the course of a year with residents of four squares in central London to create Square Dances (Dance Umbrella, London, 2011), celebrating these specific urban spaces and the communities living there. The residents were the source of the material and narrative content, as well as being the multigenerational performers, all presented in the public spaces of the squares themselves.
Through its deep engagement with the site and all that it proposes for the work itself, socially engaged practice, as exemplified by Square Dances, does not just produce a final performance for consumption but also builds an extensive set of skills in artists and the public around methodologies of engagement, research, communication, facilitation, leadership, creativity, and dialogue. This extensive skill set is what travels with the artist, rather than the performance product, so that each subsequent process at other sites can build even more impactful projects. Equally, the level of engagement and reflection developed in the participating publics leads to a deeper understanding of what an art project can be and how it can connect to individuals, a community, or a place. It is changing society’s ideas about the relevance of the arts and what an experience of the arts can be. It is empowering all of us to explore our creative imaginations.
“Crossing the Line,” annual festival of transdisciplinary artists in New York each fall, produced by the French Institute Alliance Francaise.
Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011.
Rosemary Lee, Apart From The Road, 2001–.
Rosemary Lee, Boy, 1995.
Ivana Müller, We are still watching, 2012.
Ivana Müller, Thinking of each other like good friends would, 2008.
Ernesto Pujol, Speaking in Silence, 2011.