Notes on the Idea of Site

Notes on the Idea of Site
Text for Sideshow
British Art Show Fringe Festival

Notes on the Idea of Site

It is, perhaps, a truism today that art is self-aware of the role that the site of art can play in determining how art is encountered. It goes without saying that the context in which art is seen will go to determine, to some degree and in some sense, the ways in which that art is seen. The physical environment, the site of the work, is an element of this context. Nevertheless, the particularities of this relationship between art and site are often underanalysed or taken for granted. I contend that there are various ways in which the relationship between art and site can be conceived in theory and constructed in practice: it is the distinctions between these positions which are not often articulated.

There are always different reasons for someone to define what they do as alternative or oppositional. However, ideas about alternative sites for art are often associated with the desire to escape from the perceived constraints of non-alternative sites in some way. There are reasons for alternative sites to be defined as alternative; adopting such sites is accompanied by the adoption of a specific vocabulary. Terms such as “alternative site” or “non-art site” imply a division or opposition between work bound in obvious ways to the most conventional structures that distribute art (galleries, museums, public plinths, sculpture gardens, etc.) and work thought to be escaping these things in some way. But these ideas of alternative sites are now routine: they form part of the conventions of contemporary art.

Alternative sites do not have to be occupied by art with any sympathy or consideration for the site. One possible and actual relationship between art and site is for the art to impose its logic on the site. At its simplest, this is the placement of art thought to be self-contained or autonomous in unusual surroundings. The underlying assumption is that the qualities of art are to be valued regardless of, or independent of, the context of display. Within this logic, where the white gallery wall was supposed to provide a neutral backdrop, the alternative site provides a more colourful backdrop but no more than a backdrop nonetheless. Public statues of illustrious figures, for instance, impose their own symbolic and aesthetic logic on a site, which may or may not have been carefully chosen.

Art which seeks to impose its own logic on a site does not have to be blind to the site, however. There is a common idea that art can somehow transform, for the better, the site in which it is located. Thus artists can make work specifically for a particular, unusual site, without letting this situation affect in any way his or her conception of art: a conception of art as the bearer of unchanging and unquestioned values and qualities. This is to say that accommodation to the particularities of site need not challenge an artist’s pre-existing beliefs and hope in art in general: it is intended that the art be judged according to the meanings and criteria of this belief in art rather than in relation to the meanings of the site. If the idea of art still acts as a guarantor of the artists practice, then the site will always be a secondary and lesser concern.

This idea has taken hold not only amongst some artists but amongst public planning officials. It is now all but official government policy that art should be used as a social emollient and local councils across the UK. have for decades thrown bits of public art, with undiluted optimism, into places of the worst social deprivation. Such policies perpetuate the idea that culture can be some kind of compensation for social and economic hardship, if not a tool of social engineering. These policies can have unexpected results. In the East End of London, public murals have become equated exclusively with social deprivation to the extent that a new mural leads to an immediate drop in local house prices and the fury of local residence. In different social circumstances, public art has an economic function in the development of real estate; in signifying cultural worth and quality, art is in the service of promoting the needs of private capital.

Council estates and the development of real estate are not necessarily the sites that first come to mind in talking of alternative sites for art. However, they should act as a reminder of the fact that all sites have ideological and economic forces acting upon them and that any art placed within them will be subject to these forces.

A second possible and actual relationship between art and site is for the art to accommodate itself to the existing meanings of a location: the site determines the possibilities for the art in some way. This idea arises out of the neglect or absence of an adequate formulation or recognition of the idea of site in the first relationship, outlined above. In this case, it is the site which acts as a guarantor of meaning for the art. This is to say that such art seeks to be encountered according to the parameters of the site: a particular site is imbued with desirability for some reason such as its history, materiality, marginality, social use, etc.. The art is subsequently made and intended to be seen according to its adequacy and interest in relation to these concerns, which emerge from the site, rather than existing criteria within art or the practice of the artist. 

Although there is a neat distinction in theory between art which imposes itself upon a site and that which responds to a site, the distinction is not so clear in practice. Art which cloaks itself in talk of site-specificity, responsiveness and the rest, can equally be in thrall to the idea of the power of art as to idea of the power of site. Indeed, the two can exist in the same practice, in the same way that some religions can accommodate more than one god, where each god has his or her own area of expertise. 

In contrast to this dichotomy, which treats art and site as having separate systems and structures of meaning, art and site can be treated as products of the same world. This is to conceive of the circumstances and mechanisms which determine identity and meaning as the same for art as for everything else: to conceive of art and site as always already a totality. Within this schema, it would be wrong to talk of the relationship between art and site rather than the position of both within a greater system of relations.

In practice, this totality means to make work that is self-aware and critical of its own conditions, which include those of its site whatever or wherever that site may be. This is to say that neither art nor site are conceived of in terms of their imminent properties but in terms of the mechanisms and structures which determine those properties. 

Rather than drawing a division between art and site, however either side of that division is evaluated, to conceive of art and site as a totality is to conceive of both being shot through with the same divisions, absences, contradictions and conflicts. These are, ultimately, the antagonisms and absences which structure contemporary capitalism. The fault lines run through art and everything else rather than between art and its others.

Self-aware and critical practice, as understood here, is to bring site and art within the same explanatory framework, one that goes beyond the usual limits of either. But there is a further step in conceiving of art as a transformative practice. This is to try to conceive of art as a practice which might change both what art is and what a site could be. This is not only to refuse to accept the existing and prescribed definitions and expectations of either; instead it is about self-transformation in practice: becoming something else. The implication of transformative practice is that one has to manage without guarantees: without a belief in art or in site because these things will become something else.

Seeking alternative sites for art will always carry the longing for an escape from the current restraints and absences with which art finds itself burdened. But putting art out of place, where it does not belong, so to speak, is no more than a gesture if that dislocation does not exacerbate the negations already within art rather than try to fix them: if it does not risk ceasing to be art. The only possible escape is not to a new site but in the future.