Some salient words & meanings with regard
to site-specific dance:
A surrounding or pervading mood, environment, or influence.
Of the present time.
“A current location which comprises a unique combination of physical elements.”1
“Conceived with the site in mind; the site sets the parameters and is, in part, the reason for the sculpture. […] But our process of recognition and understanding of the ‘work of art’ is still keyed (referenced) to the oeuvre of the artist.”2
“At the heart of every [time-based art] project is the idea that time cannot sit still and cannot be reclaimed.”3
No more modernism
California sculpture artist Robert Irwin popularized the term site-specific in the 1970s. He devised an entire spectrum onto which works of “conditional” art could fall. Site-specific was only one of four kinds of art on the spectrum. According to Irwin, art is “site-dominant” if it is [largely] imposed onto the site, like a monument of a public figure. If the work is created in the artist’s studio and then transferred to the site at hand, this is “site-adjusted.” Then comes “site-specific,” which indicates that the art is a response to the actual site but still bears the artist’s calling card, so to speak: her various techniques and aesthetics, employed not only at that site but elsewhere in the trajectory of her work.
Art that “draws all of its cues (reasons for being) from its surroundings […] requir[ing][…] an intimate, hands-on reading of the site,” is the “site-conditioned,” which, it seems from his book Being and Circumstance, Irwin has been most invested in making. Since the term gained traction in the ’70s, the scope of what art is considered site-specific has expanded, particularly into the realms of the -adjusted and -conditioned. I’ll use “site-specific” when discussing what contemporary dance is doing with alternative performance spaces, since so much of dance—not just the site—requires specificity.
In a time when art was valued largely on its virtuosity of content and experimentation with materials inside the frame, the turn toward site-specific work seemed inevitable. Artists were increasingly tired of ceding their art works to the highest bidder. Irwin, like many, rejected making art meant for galleries and living rooms, museums and coffee tables. Instead, he was interested in following “the principles of phenomenal, conditional, and responsive art by placing the individual observer in context, and at the crux of the determining process, insisting that he or she use all the same (immediate) cues the artist used in forming the art-response to form his or her operative-response (judgments).” [Emphasis added.] In other words, artists in the ’70s turned toward art that could be “readable” by the audience the same way it was “writable” by the artist, and which blurred (erased?) the line separating where real life stopped and art began.
Sculpture merges with dance
During the 1960s and ’70s, postmodern choreographers experimented with all the good stuff: improvising, incorporating pedestrian movement, challenging traditional modes of performance, questioning the role and placement of the audience, and so on. Choreographers and movement artists Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Eiko & Koma, Stephan Koplowitz, Mark Dendy, and Ernesto Pujol are some of those more well-known artists who began experiments (and then, entire careers) that focused on site-responsiveness. In all cases, what seemed to characterize site-specific dance in the past, and what characterizes it now, has been the practice of a layered, complicated presence.
Dimension, gesture & physicality
Site-specific dance takes into consideration the aspects of a place that make it uniquely itself, and responds by amplifying or reimagining those elements: audience perspective, historical versus contemporary uses of place, who was there before, how it relates to the institutions that support or maintain it, material and texture of its fixtures, ambient noise, the way natural light filters in, reasons to dance at the site at all.
When I saw Eiko & Koma perform their final evening of Naked (2010), I experienced an entire universe of possibilities in live performance I had never conceived of before. It was not hard to recall that the term site-specific largely has its roots in sculpture, as dimension, gesture, physicality and materials were all very much in play. Whether this was textbook site-specific or not, given that it happened inside a space already built for performance, is missing the point of this work’s specificity: the collaboration between their ever-so-slowly-moving bodies, the feathers in a pile on the floor, burned paper walls hanging from the ceiling, and the sound of an irregular drip of water, rendered a site that was specific. I felt like I walked into some extra-human part of the world. I found myself going through a silent, horrifying list in my head of all the distractions and, frankly, time-wasting activities I focused on that day, and how beside the point it all was compared to what they were doing right now: being together and moving together, in the non-costumed costume of nakedness, progressing nowhere as time continued to pass by.
Film: archive or performance?
Eiko & Koma’s documentary Dancing in Water: The Making of River (2009), makes clear that site-specific work is relatively “translatable” from site to archived film. Thirty-six minutes into the extended rehearsal footage, Eiko suddenly breaks from conversation with Koma, holds onto a frame-like collection of branches, and, for lack of a better explanation, becomes the water. She melts into the slow-moving river current and tilts her head back, hovering half submerged. After a few seconds, Koma tells her to “stay there” so he can reposition the camera. She does not. She keeps moving like water and, by the time the lens finds her again, she is relocated somewhere new. Seeing this notable pair of movers inches from my feet in Naked at The Kitchen was a visceral experience that can’t be replicated on film, but in watching The Making of River film I still felt like I was experiencing an intimate performance.
I reacted similarly when I watched a filmed excerpt of Noemie Lafrance’s Rapture (2008). I felt gravity change, as if my nervous system understood the risk involved with dancing on the side of a tall building. The mechanics, physicality, and aesthetic goals for a site-specific performance seem more easily recognizable—and perhaps also easier to talk about—than those performances that take place on a stage. Being at a given site when the performance occurs is of course the point of site-specific dance, but in an increasingly digital moment, where music videos (like Ryan Heffington’s choreography for Sia’s “Chandelier”) and commercials alike feature highly choreographed movement (including Lafrance’s own commercial work for musician Feist and the shoe brand Clarks), it doesn’t seem unrelated that site-specific dance like Lafrance’s can be captured and shared creatively after the live performance ends, as its own kind of art. What might that mean for the ephemerality of live dance performance, and the standard places and times at which we see dance?
Dance-for-camera is an artistic genre in and of itself, with institutions like The New Museum using “choreography” as their curatorial theme for exhibitions and programming. It is unlikely that the kind of dance with the potential to “go viral” or play in salient little chunks in the midst of a larger, multi-media installation would be the kind performed on a stage as an audience sits quietly watching. The rest of the world is out there waiting to be danced upon.
Scarcity (an aside)
Site-specific and filmed dance seem primed for reaching new audiences more so than dances meant for performance spaces—however progressive, researched, and nuanced these spaces might be. In 2003, Gia Kourlas wrote that the dance community’s “next enormous challenge will be to make the proscenium stage […] fashionable again.” Instead, as choreographers, with our limited resources and expansive hopes to reach people with our art, have we grown so fond of site-specific work because it is an alternative to presenting on the stage in unsustainable, or at least insular circumstances? If so, is that problematic, or is it survival?
And in moving into new spaces, what are the new implicit agreements? Any space that presents a choreographer’s work would prefer to publicize that the dance is tailored to it in some way, or else why have a dance inside that particular space at all? However, if this tailoring is done out of necessity as a mutual understanding between the choreographer, who wants the dance seen, and the presenter, who wants audience to come to the space, that doesn’t necessarily mean the work is site-specific.
On that note, another way dance is spreading into new contexts is through museums as actual live performances. If visual artists in the ’70s were excited to get their work out of museums, what about contemporary dance is cutting edge—or, for that matter, site-specific—about placing dance inside the MoMA’s atrium and entering into the museum/gallery circuit?
Whether or not a dance is housed in a more traditional performance space or on a pier near Wall Street (or a river or a library or a church or a forest), it has the capacity to reach past its immediate context. The same way artists in the ’70s wanted to reach out of the museum as their “frame,” dance could evolve and become more relevant to more people if taken out of performance spaces and into the more quotidian, accessible facets of society. However: it is magical to enter into a space knowing that what’s about to transpire is purely dance. Of course it’s not an either/or situation—the more varied ways a dance can live, the better.
Kourlas stated that dance becomes a conceptual event “by creating a specific atmosphere that overcomes a conventional space.” Similarly, when discussing her work with Gothamist, Lafrance advocated for the “power in gathering with people physically. Because at that moment you become engaged in the possibility for something to happen between you and them.” You are together in creating and sustaining that particular site.
That power of physicality and the creation of an atmosphere through dance seem to be what’s at stake in contemporary site-specific dance performance. However, then there is a dance like Vanessa Anspaugh’s we were an island (2014) at Danspace Project, which, whether it was site-specific or not, exemplifies these qualities and more. During that hour-long performance, as costumes caught the light, ambient-seeming noise bubbled up throughout, and I looked to my left and right to see people who were just as transported as I was, I could have been floating in the middle of the ocean finding that, sure enough, we were no longer an island. Dances like this that make an audience feel as though their presence is specifically sited, that they were invited into this space at this time for a reason, demonstrates that site-specificity is a powerful tool. But it is one of many powerful tools a choreographer can use to transport us.
Ernesto Pujol’s Time After Us (2013) in St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had performers walking counter clockwise in circles over the course of 24 hours, was as subtle and involved as Eiko & Koma’s Naked. Time-based art, which came to be in 1958 through Allan Kaprow and the “happenings” of the ’60s, supports site-specific art in several ways, all of which are relevant to Pujol’s work. If a site-specific dance or performance is longer than the traditional 60 – 90 minute (evening-length) performance, it literally extends the duration of the performance so that more people can see it. An audience can gather and witness the artwork in different iterations. As with most choreography presented through Lower Manhattan Cultural Center’s River to River, Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line, and Cape Town’s Infecting the City festivals, to name a few, performances are iterative and/or extremely long, which means as the audience we have choices as to how, where, and when to go and watch: in the morning, to start the day; during lunchtime, as a break from the office; at night, after the sun has gone down; for five minutes; for three hours. In extreme cases, as in Pujol’s Time After Us, the audience can essentially stay for as long as it wants over the course of an entire day, even if it’s three in the morning. Asking the audience to decide how they see the work means that much of the control a choreographer has over their rehearsals, and the overall concept of the piece, is relinquished. When audience members can literally see different parts of the same performance, choreographers suddenly have to question what the dance they’ve made really is. This expansion of time is also a chance to approach beginnings and endings with more ease: no rushing to make a 7:30 p.m. performance, knowing that your pre-purchased tickets can’t be reassigned to a different time.
What struck me most about Time After Us was that it was truly site-responsive, but also was able to create its own very autonomous and unique atmosphere. To walk counterclockwise for twenty-four hours as a collective, silent group of people in the middle of Wall Street, at the same site first responders during 9/11 took refuge, is to directly address and perhaps rework the passage of time. And yet, the performance experience was more than a historical response: it was also its own phenomenon untethered to existing narratives.
Robert Irwin called the art he made at a site his “sculptural response” to the site’s physical and invisible qualities. I am not entirely with Irwin in seeking out artworks that are responsive to an environment so much so that the artist’s unique sensibilities are secondary to those of the site. What the artist does in crafting the performance may also be a response to her intuitions, not just to the qualities specific to the space—which could potentially create a more comprehensive experience. To create a “choreographic response” to a site is perhaps a more complicated task: dance involves people. People have bodies; they have histories. They have the capacity for real-time reaction and response. People can occupy one space at one moment, and cross into another space the next. They, too, are the site of the dance. With that fluidity of sitedness comes possibility, and also a less clear delineation of what a “site-specific” piece of dance really is.
- Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, London and Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
- Robert Irwin. “Being and Circumstance—Notes Toward a Conditional Art.” Larkspur Landing, Calif: Lapis Press, 1985.
- Georgia Schumacher, “An Introduction to Time-Based Art & the Artists who Create it,” The Art Institute of Pittsburgh: June 17, 2013.