Site/Context Specific Performance
All performance is site and context specific. It's just a choice whether the makers acknowledge and take advantage of the space and context, or if they're even aware of the option. There is a long-standing mythology in Western performance that the proscenium or studio theatre are inherently neutral spaces. This has been a useful construct and serves to allow for the development of complex realities supposedly unbound by the goggles of the time and place. While this construct is often still useful, and is in fact why many people love the theatre, it is never strictly true. Recognizing the implications of this may free the makers to take into account the context in which they are creating as it interacts with the affect they are hoping for. They may then utilize all resources at hand to more completely craft their audience’s experience.
I am not suggesting that all performance work should include jumping over the seats of the theatre and climbing on the architecture. That may do nothing to further the intentions of the maker. Rather I am speaking for a theatre where the frame for watching is recognized as a primary force in the perception of the content. Choices about what kind of notes go in the program or what kind of pre-show music is playing are part of setting the frame. Is there already action happening on stage or in the lobby as the audience enters? How is the audience viewing area set up? Are there seats? If there are no seats are they given instructions or visual cues about where they can go or left to define the boundaries of interaction themselves? Is there an announcement before the show starts?
In this day and age, none of these questions can be taken for granted. The scaffold of the theatre has been long since exposed. After decades of creation in every thinkable space, proscenium theatre no longer has a monopoly on live performance. The artist has been given permission to explore the edges of the art of communication and representation. Whereas once upon a time they had freedom to play strictly with the content, they now have licenses, and thus necessity, to define the rules of play. Nothing can be taken for granted. There is no problem with creating proscenium performance, but it must now be viewed as a choice that affects the nature of the art.
This idea is not new. In the early to mid 20th century, Bertolt Brecht and others created what they called the “Epic Theatre.” According to Brecht, "It is most important that one of the main features of the ordinary theatre should be excluded from [epic theatre]: the engendering of illusion." (1964, p.122). Brecht, highly influenced by Marxism, wanted to expose the means of production. In the interest of drawing attention to the fabricated context of the theatrical experience, Brecht and his contemporaries became known for such strategies as bright stage lighting, songs that interrupt the action of the plot and expository asides and placards. His intention was to interrupt the theatre’s ability to transport the audience into passive witness of an alternative escapist reality and thrust them back into critical thought and personal response to the material at hand. Looked at as political allegory these efforts made the audience self-conscious of their own role in maintaing the continuity of the theatrical (or by metaphorical extension, oppressive political) institutions.
I see this legacy continued in the contemporary works of artists like Kieth Hennessy or Kathleen Hermesdorf. These artists often address the audience directly in their performance work. Much of the time they will tell the audience what they're going to do and what the relevance or "schtick" underlying the action is. There is a continued emphasis on devaluing virtuosity that alienates based on polished practiced skill, while striving towards a virtuosity of inclusion that celebrates challenging tasks that the artist must physically struggle to achieve.
I remember watching Hennesy in a performance at Ponderosa in East Germany years ago. An image that stands out is him donning a mask and struggling to climb and balance between two posts at an angle such that the distance between them gradually increased. He climbed them without hands, awkwardly scooting higher. The audience was on the edge of their attention as Hennessy was on the edge of his capacity and engaged in authentic risk. Moment's later he was back down on the ground, mask in hand, lights shifted from dramatic to banal and we were all in the room together again as peers.
Brecht, Hennessy and countless others who engender to expose the fallacy of the theatrical context have done a great service by forcing the acknowledgement of assumed constructs. When the context is exposed, it is up to the maker to decide whether the context serves. Brecht’s insistence that the form never be forgotten is an absolutist stance and sacrifices the flexibility of a self-defining means of communication. While this tactic was useful for fulfilling Brecht’s own intention, and while it played a role in acknowledging the assumptions of theatre that allowed makers for years to ignore context, it does not suit all purposes.
It is as if we collectively have looked up the theatre's skirt. At this point we've looked up the skirt enough times that looking up the skirt itself is no longer enough. Now the question is, does the skirt serve the fashion of the piece, or does the piece under construction require bloomers. The recognition of all performance as context specific acknowledges the makers' active choice as to whether the frame sinks to the background or rises to the foreground, and, in particular, what they do with that frame to consciously create their intention.
Decades after Brecht, the experimental performance renaissance of the late 60s and early 70s birthed a veritable flood of performance work that challenged site, audience/performer relation, representative performance versus witness to unfolding experience, and many other previously held assumptions. A great deal of this performance has overlap with a concept I will unpack in the next section, Experience Crafting. For now I will focus on a few examples from then and now.
Simone Forti was one of the major contributors to the experimental scene that birthed around Judson Church. She experimented, like many of her contemporaries, with improvisation, pedestrian movement, and animal movement. She was interested in “the simple presymbolic games of children, as well as the activities of animals and plants” to “provide her with movement material that when performed on the adult body makes it a “defamiliarized” object (Banes, 1980, p.21).” She was also was one of the main forces of the time to discover the power of moving live performance into art galleries. Placing performance in this new context allowed viewers to enter the relationship with new vision. When viewers go to a visual art show they take responsibility for their own experience. They stay with the piece as long as it is of interest to them, and from a contemplative receptive place, they see what the presented images call up in them. The responsibility of meaning creating is left largely to the viewer. In live performance, the audience often expects a beginning, middle, and end, and a point of view. Some viewers may expect to be entertained. It is largely the performer’s job to keep the audience interested.
By placing performance art in a gallery there is generally a different audience who is exposed to it with different historical reference points. What might be written off by one audience familiar to particular movement explorations as contact improv, may be read by an unfamiliar audience as a striking ground-breaking exploration of power roles, social hierarchies, vulnerability and manipulation. It’s all in the context. Forti and those who followed in her footsteps force the question of what is art and how is it viewed. They challenge the assumptions of the fine art world as well as the performance world.
Tino Seghal is a contemporary art maker who has taken the intricacy of the questions proposed by gallery performance to another level. “What all of Sehgal's works have in common is that they reside only in the space and time they occupy, and in the memory of the work and its reception. (Unknown, Marian Goodman Gallery, 2007).” This is a description of performance. However it becomes an original artist statement by Tino’s firm commitment to placing himself in the field of fine arts. His works can be bought (for six figures sometimes) as editions. He, or someone associated with him, must be there to oversee the execution of the work. If changes are made it will be considered a fake.
“Things are a problem for Tino Seghal… He thinks the world has too many of them, that production is ceaseless and technology destructive. His art is a response to these perceived realities as they play out microcosmically in the context of the art industry. (Cotter, 2010).” In one piece The Kiss, he recreates images from famous paintings with a live couple. For this piece, as presented at the Guggenheim, all other art along the walls where the piece took place was removed. The Kiss is not owned by the Guggenheim, but by the MOMA, who has exclusive rights to lend or sell it as they would with a painting.
By landing himself in the visual arts world and choosing to operate based on its constructs, Seghal completely changes the context and thus perception, not just for the viewing of his art, but for the commerce and agreements that surround it. Seghal is clearly of the anti-market lineage descendant of the Happenings and other attempts of the 60s and 70s to pull art away from its value as commodity. Having seen how these artists were reincorporated into the market through documentation, he has insisted on lack of documentation and contracts in all of his interactions. The forms and contexts with which he handles the business aspect of his affairs is very much a part of his conceptualization of his work.
Usually the term site-specific does not call up images of work in galleries, but rather work in cityscapes, abandoned buildings, ports, beaches, or any number of other outdoor or architectural venues. The reasons for creating work on-site and in the public sphere are many. Here are just a few, cut and pasted from a grant proposal I wrote for a worldwide community dance event called Dance Anywhere that invites people around the world to simultaneously perform dance in parks, apartments, city streets, offices, and site-specific locations throughout their communities.
“Presentation in this way acts as a reclamation of public space from the mediation of commerce and hands it back to the inspiration and creativity of the commons. It invites the performers and audience to interact directly with their environment, with how it is viewed, and with their assumptions of appropriate interaction. By placing moving, ephemeral images in public spaces the landscape gains new layers of character and history. Memory facilitates the viewers’ perception of previously familiar surroundings with the infusion of a mythic life long after the initial event has ended.”
In this day and age, the exorbitant costs of rehearsal and performance space make the prospect of site-specific work fiscally appealing to many artists. The tendency for live, especially experimental art to be insular and often viewed primarily within a small group of fellow performance makers is another factor as, often, site-specific work is viewable by anyone who happens to be passing by.
I will offer some illustrations of site-specific performance from my own experience to help illustrate the breadth of this currently thriving genre.
I worked for two summers with the Copenhagen based company Live Art Installations. The second summer, we produced a Submarine Ballet and a number of site-specific performances that took place on the decks of a docked boat and on the water and land surrounding it. The Submarine Ballet was a procession that went two kilometers in each direction down the canal in the center of Copenhagen. There were a series of platforms each with a different self-contained universe. As the name suggests, there were two submarines. The larger one had about eight women with big red wigs and wet suits climbing its sides and stoically standing tall as the submarine submerged and rose. The next submarine had two men and a woman standing atop it doing balletic movement and lifts. Other platforms had fire shooting cannons, a post-apocalyptic cocktail party, a string orchestra in concert dress, a royal family, and a straggling caboose of a broken down raft with a sofa, a lounge singer, and a drunken groupie. The audience watched from the shore, often from above, while the images neared, passed by them and left again. The performers were out for 3-4 hours, but the audience saw only a few minutes of each moving image. The inherently limited time frame of a traveling stage gave the (accurate) sense of seeing a moment of a world in progress. The omnipresence of the dark water and the separation between the different floating worlds added to a sense of isolated co-existent realities.
Body Cartography Project is a Minneapolis based company run by Otto Ramstad and Olive Bieringa. I participated in a film they directed as a commission from Lower Left Dance Collective called Dry Wash. We filmed Dry Wash at Joshua Tree National Park while camping on site. The film opens with us in blue formal wear convulsing in a dry wash in the desert. The image calls up shards of the blue sky above cast to the earth to figure out how to co-exist and inhabit the foreign land (of the desert? Of culture? Of being human?). From there a series of scenes exploring domesticity, migration, and the socialized and unsocialized animal unfold. Each scene was constructed either in direct contrast to the environment (i.e. domesticating the wilderness) or by borrowing from the environment (i.e. mimicking the patterns and habits of the local fauna). Meanwhile, our living situation, camping in a harsh and unfamiliar landscape, echoed and shaped the content of the film.
The first performance I directed in a collaboration that would become Shah and Blah Productions, was called Bones. It was a one act play by Aliza Ansell that took place in the confines of one woman’s mind. Two aspects of the same woman retell her (apparently) often retold story of the List. This list, one of many she makes, is made of words like blood, guts, teeth, bones, mucous, and so on. The conflict between the two story re-tellers is whether or not she will tear up the shameful list again this time. I directed this piece outdoors in a grove of tall birch trees at the edge of a clearing with a thick forest behind. Through most of the dialogue of the show the two women sat civilly in front of a tall, suspended, white fabric that offered containment and two-dimensionality to the space. At the moment when the conflict peaks the fabric drops revealing a bonfire, and a large pack of masked and costumed creatures, complete with drummers and a mobile electric violinist. The revelation of space allowed for the hiding of the wilds behind a thin illusory veil of separation. The site-specific context allowed me to place the piece physically where it existed thematically; at the edge between civilization and the wilds. It allowed me to offer sudden physical depth and elemental ferocity (i.e. bonfire). The space had the bones of a sweat lodge that call up ritual and prayer and immediacy of experience. There were hand built stone walls that speak of a time when man’s labor was firmly grounded in the stuff of the earth. To create the same level of counterpoint in the sterile man-made context of a theatre or studio would have been far less believable and honest.
At this year’s E|MERGE artist residency at Earthdance in Massachusetts, myself and the other curators produced an evening of site-specific performance in a church parrish house. The actual church of that congregation had burned to the ground a few years before and weekly services were now held in this old New England shell of a building. Earthdance, which hosted the residency, has historically had very little interaction with the surrounding community and is a lit bit of a mystery to many of the residents there.
There were two groups who performed here. Both groups had interviews with the minister and took an active interest in the unique context they were asked to perform in. One group used the architecture, piano, and pews of the church very effectively in what would surely be called site-specific. The other group did additional interviews with the congregation and drew the material they gleaned into the primary content. The form of their piece echoed the form of a Sunday worship, complete with greeters at the door, handing out of programs, and making of offerings. They even had the woman who plays piano for the church play during the piece. They wove the stories and experiences of the congregations history into a tapestry with their own experiences of living at Earthdance. Their seamless weaving brought the two communities into shared respect and understanding of their altogether similar experiences of the change, challenges, and losses of living and loving in a place and within a small group of individuals. The structure of the church service invited an ease of transition between structured participation and more traditional “look but don’t touch” performance. By taking the time to understand the context with which they were engaging they created a healing opportunity for the church congregation as well as a bridge for relationship between the community and Earthdance. This is the kind of opportunity that arises from taking the full context of the place, history, and social strata into account in the creation of a performance.