“Site-specific” refers to a work of art that was conceived in relation to the dynamics of a specific place or environment. Museums, galleries and non-traditional performance settings such as urban or rural areas are among the private or public spaces where site-specific art projects may unfold. As a term, “site-specific” is associated with practices and experiences formally categorised as installations, land art, architecture, arte povera, video art, happenings, performance art, or with several hybridisations that result in a variety of interdisciplinary projects. Performing arts works are also often created for or in response to a specific site. The main feature of site-specific works is the possibility to engage artists and spectators in dialogue with places and often the communities that inhabit them. Terms such as site-sensitive, site-responsive, site-generic and site-sympathetic demonstrate the degree of connection and dependence of artistic practice on location (Hunter 2015).
In Site-Specific Art. Performance, Place and Documentation (2000), Nick Kaye points out how we can read a site-specific work of art in relation to geographical, aesthetic, political, and/or institutional discourses. Site-specificity, then, can be understood as a process and a site-specific work as an outcome of aesthetic features and meanings that result from relationships between an object or an action and the surrounding space. The close relationship between the sites and the artworks presupposes that moving the latter means to “re-place” or radically transform them. Michel De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1988) suggests distinguishing the notions that are relevant to spatiality in “places” (lieux) as sites determined by coexistence and “locations” (places) as sites determined by ordering systems. In a site-specific work, the relationship between the artwork and the site can be articulated around the notion of space as a “practised place”.
“Site-specific” is often associated with recurring key concepts in the contemporary arts, such as audience development and engagement, participation and cooperation, all seen as forms of co-performance and co-authorship. From the perspective of dance-making, “site-specific” can refer to a place where a new dance piece is created and shown or where a dance work from the past is reenacted, often adapted for the camera. In this sense and from a choreographic perspective, site-specificity may also involve a reflection upon memory in relation to the history of a place, as well as knowledge transmission, and the notion of body-archive that is enhanced by the connection of body with place. Site-specificity is also linked to its potentially conflictive or ephemeral nature, especially when the site needs or tends to retrieve the original functions prior to the artistic intervention.
Site-specific dance performance or site dance has a long tradition, but has received a moment of great attention in the experiments of postmodern and avant-garde choreographers of the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to engage the contemporary dance world. In site-specific dance pieces, space is practised and considered a functional element of choreographic research. Site-specificity can also be the expression of a lack of proper space for a dance to be created and shown to the public, or of a decision to take a dance performance to a specific area of a city to involve a community. But more often it expresses an artistic desire to avoid the illusion of the theatrical stage and to physically explore the relationship of the body with its surroundings (Kloetzel and Pavlik 2009). When a dance piece is conceived in relation to a particular place, the location becomes as much a part of the performance as the dancer’s body. As stated by Valerie Briginshaw in her Dance, Space and Subjectivity (2001), the conjunction of bodies and spaces is important because it is through our material bodies in contact with space that we perceive the world around us. This is why human bodies and the spaces they inhabit can develop strong connections within the wider realm of live art.
A site-specific dance performance engages with new audiences and helps reinvigorate a sense of communal space by eroding the conventional boundaries between performers and audience that are defined by conventional theatrical spaces or even the supposedly neutral black box. For the spectators, site-specific projects can be part of a devised programme (for instance, a dance festival) or casual and unexpected encounters. This is especially true when site-specific projects are situated in public urban spaces: the audience can be randomly and unpredictably reached as the performance happens among the dynamic contingencies of daily social life. From this perspective, public urban space discloses the power of art to reveal the fragility of shared behavioural codes.
Within museums, dance projects aiming to develop artistic research in situ are common and their focus is on the work of art as a site or even the specific architecture of a museum building. Dance can reach wider and varied audiences and receive greater financial support while challenging the traditional role of museums. Site-specificity brings a displacement of the spectator’s attention from the artwork perceived as isolated to the artwork as immersed in a specific space. This happens especially with participatory or relational practices that embrace site-specificity as a parameter according to which artists develop their creative processes and their ways of delivering artworks to the visitors. Therefore, the audience is triggered by experiential stimuli and the museum can be regarded as a place that exceeds the mere displaying of objects and works of art.
As site-specificity is also connected to the possibilities of human encounters, site-specific works need to consider discursive approaches to space as crucial factors in their realisation and modes of presentation. The set of relationships and agency that are active within the paradigm of site-specificity construct a system in which body, site, creativity and production processes coexist in a dialogue between spatial and social practices and serve as tools to create alternative experiences.
Briginshaw, Valerie (2001) Dance, Space and Subjectivity. New York: Palgrave.
De Certeau, Michel (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley; Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Hunter, Victoria (ed.) (2015) Moving sites: Investigating Site-Specific Dance Performance. London and New York: Routledge.
Nick Kaye (2000) Site-Specific Art. Performance, Place and Documentation. London and New York: Routledge.
Kloetzel, Melanie and Pavlik, Carolyn (eds) (2009) Site Dance. Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces. Gainesville: University Press Florida.