Issue Seven: Responding to Site Specificity
Jennifer Anderson and Lea Hogan
The works in this issue resist the urge to associate mediums with specific venues, to provide more opportunities for artists to seek out new sites for practice when traditional venues such as the theatre (both film and live), the concert hall, the museum or gallery reject their craft. Within these spaces, there are limited opportunities to expand artist intentions within their own practice, due to the venue’s scope as what may be deemed as meaningful or thought-provoking art. An audience’s engagement is informed by the rules and guidelines enforced by their respective venue; thus, site specificity is one practice where artists can work within non-conventional space.
Site specificity poses the need to consider the space chosen for art creation. The space itself has an explicit relationship with the art performed within it. This is to say that although you can stage William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in an abandoned factory, the space alters the context of the play, based on what the space provides, and thus must be considered when conceiving the concept for the show. Site specificity calls for artists to seek out new spaces and incorporate the inherent physical, historical, and emotional context of that place into the creation process. Audiences will feel welcomed to explore new modes of watching, by the way the artist learns from the space they work with.
To this end, site specificity operates as an institutional critique, turning away from formal venues. Land art or Earth art, emerged in the 1960s as a way for visual artists to incorporate new natural materials such as dirt, rocks, water, grass, and other organic facets. The Land artists brought focus to the environment in order to reject urban lifestyle and bring a return to nature. The most famous work of this canon is Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty (1970, Rozel Point, Utah), formed on the northern area of Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson’s intention was to draw a stark contrast from the rundown oil rigs and equipment that inhabited the area, constructing a spiral formation from rocks and earth, still seen in the lake. The piece can be hard to find as the water submerges it through the seasons, but when it becomes exposed, it showcases beauty where there is none. In The Ethics of Earth Art, Amanda Boetzkes (2010) argues that it is precisely the earth that makes this art malleable, since the earth is not “fixed,” or predetermined as in a gallery. Each environment is at the whim of its location, due to the scale of the artworks, the area, and its inhabitants (11).
As visual artists explored other new sites for creation, so too did musicians and composers. Music is traditionally curated in music halls, palaces, and by commission. This began to change after the turn of the twentieth century, when musicians began to question what could be considered as music, who could create music, and by what means. In Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, Alan Licht (2007) borrows from the Land artists, as experiments with setting pushes music composition as an organized sound to an art form where the source of sound is not tied to the constraints of time (21). Different locations inspire new compositions, where musicians draw from their surroundings as a creative source. Bill Fontana’s Earth Tones (1992) involved burying six low frequency exciters on a farm in Sonoma County in Northern California, each exciter emitted sounds from all over the world, broadcast on the farm (Collins, Schedel, Wilson 2013, 154). The low frequency machines would shake the ground erupting a quiet rumble from the ground itself. This installation changes its sonic character and quality depending on the site in which it is installed, in this case becoming uniquely tied to Fontana.
Site works are in constant physical, social, or political negotiations with their environment. Nick Kaye writes that the Fluxus movement challenged the existing discourse around art, questioning how art should be presented, and where it could be presented so to increase the general public’s exposure to art (Kaye 2000, 91). With Smithson’s piece, one would have to arrive by plane to the location to take in a full view, pointing to general viewer’s ability to make the trip at all.
While the Jetty has a permanency, site specific pieces are frequently temporary. Archway by Eli Keszler (2013) is a sound installation that tunes and pulls sixteen types of piano wires 1,000 feet in a few different directions across the DUMBO Archway of the Manhattan Bridge in New York City. The wires are attached to portions of the archway, the surrounding architecture, and the nearby lampposts to propel the resonances to travel beyond the area. The strings vibrate with the local traffic; mechanical beaters hitting certain strings that are attached to lampposts; as well as the vibrations produced from the architecture themselves. There is a musical quality to piece that occurs alongside the installation. This piece draws attention to the location that houses it while amplifying the hyper-social aspects of New York City. The piece comes ‘alive’ with more traffic, or rather, traffic becomes musical in the piece.
In this issue, we engage with what happens when art moves between traditional and non-traditional spaces, we consider the ethics of using venues and community for site specific art creation, and we contemplate the historical significance of the site. We found a few concerns arose as we considered the discourse of site-specific work: What are the power dynamics being addressed in the art and space? Is the artwork/performance in dialogue with the space they inhabit? If so, what is the discourse created through spatial interactivity? If not, where do we see the disconnection? On whose land are the artwork being presented on and how does the artwork/performance acknowledge that land’s history? How is the audience situated in space and how is their engagement dictated by the art/performance site?
Logan Williams complicates the relationship of Land art and capitalistic hypocrisy in his article, “Aesthetics of Solar Energy: Approaches to Site Specific Land Art through Visual Culture and Performance.” Williams presents the image of solar panels as contradictory, where the image of solar panels on farms alleviates the overwhelming anxiety produced by global warming, these images mask corporate negligence in the fossil fuel industry. While artists who pose larger scale site specific projects face resistance from governmental funding, they must contend with seeing large solar panel constructs made on these lands. Williams critiques the aesthetics of solar farms as a happy image that masks corporate tactics, discussing how Land Art practices advocate for cleaner environmental possibilities.
In “A Community Target: Practicing a Community-Specific, Site-Specific Art,” Robert Motum explores the ethics of creating a verbatim site-specific theatrical performance based on the failures of American Retailer, Target, and their integration into the Canadian Market. Motum interviewed former employees of Target Canada and staged the resulting script in a former Target store. Motum grapples with the ethics of using personal stories without disrupting the community established in Target’s brief stint in Canada.
In “Conversations With You,” Joey Zaurrini records sound from Vancouver’s Victory Square and stages a sonic experience at the Audain Gallery at Simon Fraser University, School for Contemporary Arts. Zaurrini comes to grips with his own presence as a spectator and looks at Victory Square as a site for untold stories from the people who occupy the park as a community space, a protest space, and a refuge in an impoverished neighbourhood. Zaurrini’s sonic compositions at the Audain is an institutional reflection of Victory Square, close in proximity to the gallery, and standing in stark contrast with the community hub.
Warren Enström’s “Restaging Hi Red Center’s Cleaning Event” examines various restagings of music performances and grapples with the complication in reproducing a historical music piece. Enström identifies location, material, context, intent, and style as significant elements that make restaging more efficient.
This issue also features a conversation between visual artist Carrie Allison and scholar and editor Lea Hogan on her beading practice as Land Art. In this discussion, Allison describes how her beading practice connects her to the land, her history, and her maternal ancestry. Allison addresses the importance of passing down knowledge through beading, tufting, and other textile practices, as strategies of resistance against colonial oppression. Her beading projects draw upon different river bodies as an homage to their histories while connecting herself to her own familial history. The resulting conversation challenges people to consider how using objects found in the land can be an act of honour and resistance.
This issue aims to explore various site-specific approaches in art practice and reception aesthetics. In many cases, non-conventional venues may not escape conventions totally, yet there remain the many ways that site specific art forms have expanded artistic practice and critique. We understand site specificity as a relational exchange between art, practice, audience, and space. This relationship continues to build as new approaches and thoughts about site specificity further enhance our knowledge of art, space, land, and the world.
Boetzkes, Amanda. The ethics of earth art. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Collins, Nick, Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson. Electronic music. New York, Cambridge
University Press, 2013.
Eli Keszler. Archway, 2013, Manhattan, New York.
Kaye, Nick. Site-Specific art. New York and London, Routledge, 2000.
Licht, Alan. Sound art. New York, N.Y.: Rizzoli International Publications, 2007.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, 4.572 m × 457.2 m, Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah.
About the Authors
Jennifer Anderson (she/her) is a third year MFA candidate in the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on new music practices, coding in music, and musical instrument building. She has also explored embodied practices and kinetic resistances in musical performances while conducting her research. As well as an experimental musician, she is also an audio engineer in both live sound and studio, field recorder, and sound editor that works in conjunction with her practice, as well as a teaching assistant in the music and sound areas at the School of Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University.
Lea Hogan (they/them/their) recently completed their master’s degree in Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. Their research focused on aesthetics and reception in YouTube videos created by trans artists. They explored a sensory approach to locating queerness in nature spaces using an auto-ethnographic walking practice while documenting responses through video and journaling. Hogan has a practice in the theatre, they are a stage manager, lighting and sound technician, actor, and dramaturg. Hogan has worked as a teaching assistant in the School of Contemporary Arts and School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, and as a catalogue compiler for Pride In Art Society. Hogan will be presenting their research as part of an event inspired by the FASS 3 Minute Thesis event, Graduate Research for Social Justice: A Dialogue with Sheila Watt-Cloutier on February 25th, 2020.