108. Phil Smith, Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook
One of the reasons I decided to read this book—aside from the fact that it discusses The Weyburn Project, which I saw almost 20 years ago—is that I thought it might be useful if I ever get to teach a course on site-specific theatre and performance. (Hey, it could happen.) Smith has taught courses (“modules,” in UK academic lingo) in site-specific performance for the past 20 years, at Dartington College of Arts, the University of Exeter, and the University of Plymouth, and my guess is that much of what’s in this book comes out of those experiences, as well as his decades of involvement in creating and experiencing site-specific performance work.
Smith begins with a prologue about the role of sites in site-specific performance, which includes a story about an event that took place in an “enormous medieval barn”:
As I tentatively entered the almost pitch darkness of this barn, I could hear something. I thought at first that it was the sound of water dripping; then maybe of a clock softly ticking. I stood stock-still. Perhaps it was breathing, and I was interrupting a theatrical action? In the deep gloom I thought I detected a very gentle, rhythmic movement. I stared hard into the shadows. The giant roof beams and the grey lines of the cavernous space of the barn gradually emerged from the murk. After that, i sensed nothing additional to these initial impressions. The clock continued to drip and the spectral, almost abstract movement in the shades of darkness, possibly an effect inside my eyes rather than anything in the barn, continued to shift. I left after 20 minutes, still unsure whether I had experienced some very subtle theatrical scene or accidentally trespassed alone into an off-limits part of the heritage complex. Whichever it was, I exited the barn with an impression that has never left me: that with or without human performers a site will always have an agency of its own that can hold a spectator rapt by its performance. (xii)
This idea is central to this book: sites can overwhelm the performances that take place in them, or those performances can use the power of the site. Site-specific work, in other words, is not just about taking something outside of a theatre and sticking it somewhere else; the relationship between performance and site has to be carefully considered, because sites are worthy of care and attention.
The book proper begins with a section entitled “Finding a Site,” but the first chapter in that section asks an important question: “Why Make Site-Specific Performance?” (3). That’s the right place to begin, I would think. “There is good cause to challenge any use of the word ‘site,’” Smith begins:
The word implies far more than, say, “space” or “place.” It suggests that a human choice has already defined its boundaries, meaning and identity. A site is always the site of something; with the implication that it is a kind of container for what is really important, for the valuable property that is in it but is different from the space itself. It says that space accrues its meaning through its use by humans; which, in an overwhelmingly unhuman cosmos, is an odd way of describing things. . . . (3)
Along with questioning the word “site,” Smith questions the need for site-specific theatre, “if only to dispel the idea that sites are neutral, natural places, blank pages upon which you can write with impunity” (3). Site-specific theatre is “a choice with its own traditions and legacies,” and practitioners need to be aware of them (3).
Smith’s genealogy of site-specific work begins with Dadaism and the “excursions” that Dadaists organized in Paris, “most famously a 1921 foray to the repeatedly adapted and repurposed Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris where the Dadists yelled gnomic slogan-poems at passers-by” (4). “The ‘moment’ of Dada has become something of an event horizon for radical art, a phenomenon from which little information is allowed to radiate,” Smith continues. “Dada’s principles of rupture, rootlessness, fragmentation, nihilistic repetition, anti-art, irony and parody have often prevailed both in subsequent cultural practice and in critical theory, and they continue to inform an important seam of site-specific performance which is often closer to live art than theatre” (4). But there are other stories to tell about the origins of site-specific performance, including “the fusions of land art as practised by the likes of Kazuo Shiraga and the Gutai group, Robert Smithson or Ana Mendieta,” all of which have informed site-specific performance (5). “These artists, given their prioritising of sensitivity to and enthusiasm for materials . . . and their preference for immersion in and communion with terrains, over rupture and separation from them, showed that site-specific works could be just as critical and political as those based on modernist fragmentation and disruption,” Smith continues (5). Other “strands of influence” come from “building-based theatre,” which involves “varying degrees of adaptation of the play to their new ‘grounds,’ and varying degrees of adaptation of the spaces themselves” (5). Many theatre companies in the UK and elsewhere specialize in making such work, and “[w]hile it is possible to question quite what it is about many of these performances that is ‘specific’ to their sites, a significant proportion of what is described as site-specific theatre . . . looks much like this” (5-6).
However, Smith continues, “building-based theatre” has had another influence on site-specific performance: Symbolist Theatre “set out to dissolve and transcend the same conventions and frames that the Dada would smash, disrupt and escape (6). Symbolist productions questioned “the physical frame of appearance and representation itself. They point theatre out beyond the container of the theatre building” (6). The work of Robert Wilson is “[a]n example of the continuing resonance of this Symbolist theatre for site-specific theatre,” Smith suggests (6). His 2008 Walking, for instance, “required its audience/participants to walk around for three hours at half pace, one by one, at intervals, along a designated path through dunes and bushes, encountering various portals, installations and soundscapes, both natural and artificial” (6-7). “Wilson and his collaborators were careful to leave literal space and symbolic ambiguity through which their ambulatory audience could explore their own associations with the augmented landscape by way of an altered moving and seeing,” Smith continues. “These theatrical strands of influence share some things in common with older lineages of performance that were, or are, sited outside of designated or conventional performance spaces,” from high modernism to theme parks and religious festivals (7-8).
“Developments in technical, artistic and productive practices and a renewed attention to terrains have all been crucial to repeated ‘turns’ to site-specificity,” Smith writes, “but theoretical ideas have also been influential,” including “the idealisation of fluidity and the privileging of rhizomic dispersal over and against fixed, vertical rooting in the work of critical theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari”; “the popularization of neo-vitalism”; Lucy Lippard’s ideas of the “lure of the local” and the dematerialization of the art object; “the ideas of the vibrant energy of non-human things in the work of Jane Bennett and the Object-Oriented Ontologists”; “the study of the performance of everyday life developed from the pioneering work of Erving Goffman”; the “spatial turn” in geography; the “mobilities paradigm” advanced by geographer John Urry; “and the increasing seriousness with which disciplines outside the arts, like human geography and anthropology, have come to regard performance as a tool of research” (9-10).
Smith offers a “cautionary note” regarding the “temptation to assume that a common idealism, generous politics and thoughtful ethics inform all these works” (10). That’s not in fact the case: “some artists have been accused of an indifference to the impact and sustainability of their interventions in the terrain involved in making spectacular land art”; an attention to localism “can turn into petty nationalism and chauvinism”; and “opportunistic commercialism and neo-liberal individualism” have been identified in “some of the more immersive examples of site-specific theatre” (10). “There is nothing easy here,” Smith argues (10). Taking over a site, however temporarily, is a way of taking ownership that is comparable to other forms of private property (11). Such arguments, while perhaps reductive, are correctives to performances where the ecologies of sites are ignored (11). “Instead, site-specific performance making is an eclectic, conflicted and ambivalent business; and requires a matching set of inspirations, motivations and justifications,” he suggests (11).
There is also a paradox at work in site-specific performance that might cause makers to stop and think: “because site-specific performance is now communicated as a ‘thing,’ a discipline . . . a recognisable and significant cultural activity, each specificity that a performance maker now approaches, whether that be a new site or a performance idea, is likely to be interpreted by others . . . through conventions shared with others engaged with making site-specific performances” (17). In other words, site-specific work is always at risk of “succumbing to a site-specific homogenisation” (17). However, “[b]y acknowledging these conventions . . . it may become possible to do more than discuss the problem as a recognisable one, and either skirt the conventions or transform them” (17). Therefore, “in order to realise a genuine and rigorous specificity to your site not only will it be necessary to surrender some of your accustomed power and autonomy . . . it will also help (or be necessary) to know what the tics, habits and etiquettes of similar work might be, in order, if appropriate, to strip them away and get to what is special about your site” (17). On the other hand, using those existing conventions might be necessary “in order to create work that plays between what you bring to the site and what you find there” (17).
One of those conventions, Smith writes, “probably best avoided,” is the notion “that an essential identity for a site can be discovered in the documentation of its past; that the everyday and living transformations of the contemporary site are but an ephemeral distraction from the essence that can be established by historical (or some other absolute) veracity” (18). This danger applies to any performance that seeks “to find and expressed the fixed essence of a site,” particularly those that approach such sites “in a rigid, doctrinal and monocular account” (18). Instead, there needs to be an interaction between the site and the performance, not unlike the “partnership between performance maker Mike Pearson and archaeologist Michael Shanks,” in which both found “a mutual illumination of their own disciplines in the workings of that of the other” (18). In fact, “they also found traces of each other’s disciplines in their own” (18). The work of Victoria Hunter and of Pearson and Shanks together constitutes
a general ‘why?’ for site-specificity that is not about its veracity to a fixed idea of the site, either to its past history or to its present-day norms, or even about fixing the meaning of the site in the moment, but—by acknowledging a performance’s implication in the production of the space in materials and meanings; a process that is never completed, even in the fluidity of performance—it takes responsibility for the next iteration of the place, for its part in its production as a new space and the transformation of its contexts from one set of frames to a whole new other. (19)
Site-specific performance practitioners “emphasise the reciprocity that was not always acknowledged: that the ‘why?’ of site-specificity is equally, maybe primarily, about how its attention revives the site” (19). In other words, Smith asks, “Is the primary emerging ‘why?’ of site specificity the making of new sites?” (19).
“If a theatre maker approaches their site with the assumption that they are not entering a fixed state or exploiting a backdrop, but addressing themselves to living systems, then, by understanding what those systems are and how they work, those makers can amplify, prolong and entangle their interventions,” Smith continues. “Spending sustained periods of time in a site can reveal all sorts of unexpected dynamics,” such as the sounds of a space in an office after hours, or bats in a suburban garden (20). “The question, then, for the observant and site-engaged performance maker is how to ‘recruit’ these reliable rhythmic systems; dancing to the creaks of the building may be all it takes,” he writes (20). “The ‘why’ of performance shifts the grounds—and is the bridge—from a moment when you are most interested in how a site affects you, to one where you are more interested in finding out how—by using its own resources—you can affect it,” he concludes. “This is the moment when neither the site’s agency nor yours need be dominant; when site-specificity becomes a kind of reciprocity” (21).
The second chapter, “Drifting and Quest: In Search of Sites,” is about finding and choosing a site, something that “is more than an instrumental matter”—“[p]articularly now, when the performative qualities of ambulatory exploring are emerging as part of the continuum of site-specific performance itself” (25). (I was expecting a chapter on the intersection between site-specifity and mobility, and here it is.) Walking artists “and other nomadic thinkers have been exploding the notional fixedness or any sense of the ‘at rest’ of the site of site-specific art,” Smith continues, noting that “[e]xponentially increasing numbers of artists, performers, dancers, geographers and others are now using performative journeys as part of their production process, or as the product itself” (25). Walking art is no longer “the preserve of a few high-profile individuals” or made up of “one-off, often spectacular actions”; instead, “performative journeys, even when epic, are likely to have a convivial or social quality,” such as The Walking Library by Deidre Heddon and Misha Myers, which “gathers together groups of walkers who carry, and read from, a selected library that evolves along the way” (25). “Among other factors speeding this shift from ‘sites’ to ‘routes,’” Smith writes,
are the superior versatility of many human bodies over exploratory machines. The multi- and anti-located properties of Wi-Fi that allow a walker connections to elsewhere through area networks, the attractiveness of walking’s sustainability, the rising popularity of (often now secularised) pilgrimage and the influence of relational aesthetics have also been factors. Given its minimum cost and lack of the need for mediation, a prepared, disrupted and improvisatory walking is often seen as an egalitarian and nonspecialist performance without an audience. (26)
Yes, “without an audience”—some site-specific walking performances are private and don’t involve an audience, although sometimes they do involve other participants (if the distinction I’m making between audience and participant holds water, that is).
Smith notes the importance of psychogeography as an influence on these mobile walking performance practices:
the “dérive” is a walk for gathering information—“psychogeography”—to be used in creating “situations.” These “situations” are temporary manifestations, including performances, constructed against a manipulated life that has become mediated by images. Hyper-sensitivity to ambiance on a “dérive” enables a radical walker to intuit and ap anomalous areas that are resistant to the brutal homogenisation of planned cities and the image-soaking of space by the mass media and social media through handheld devices. These are places where it might be possible to live outside the dominant ideology, places where everyday life might be “taken back,” experienced fully and transformed. (27)
Other influences include the 19th-century flâneur and flâneuse, early 20th-century “trampers,” and “literary walkers from Thomas de Quincey to Virginia Woolf” (27). “The tactics and techniques of the dérivistes, flâneuses, occult psychogeographers, space-activists, urban explorers and literary wanders are a resource for a maker of site-specific theatre and performance, particularly at the start of their producing process,” Smith continues; “the emphasis on sensing the atmosphere of a place, and on how a place’s shaping, symbols and texture might invite particular actions, or contain certain histories, are deployable in the search for sites for performance” (27-28).
The third chapter, “Journey Performances,” is about the “entangled performance journey, capable of engaging with and transforming its route” (37). “There are many different modes of journey-based performance,” Smith writes:
Sometimes these modes involve . . . the ‘carrying’ of a performance on a journey, stretching a narrative over terrain. At other times, however, the journey itself can be the performance. The exploratory and improvised “drift” often has performance-like qualities (spontaneous or planned); however, there is a more formal journey performance in which the route (the geographical line of a journey) is set and mapped, the score refined, the action rehearsed and then an audience is invited. At other times only a concept of a journey is set, the destination is uncertain, the route unplanned and the audience consists of strangers encountered at random. (37)
“If the performance is porous enough these accidental encounters may be full of chances for understanding,” Smith continues, although “the mingling of rigorously instructed audiences with passers-by at a disadvantage can lead to an uncomfortable privileging of those ‘in the know’ or an unhelpful misreading by the chance witness” (37). “The multiplicities of the street are such that too strict an address to them, or too simple and formal a dynamic, can generate complex and unintended meaning-making, though the resulting performance may achieve considerable success in terms of popular attendance or media reach and acclaim,” he notes (38).
Smith gives one example of a walking performance that isn’t entirely foreign to my own walking: just after 9/11, Donna Shilling walked from Devon, UK, where she was a student at Dartington College of Arts, to her home in London, asking people along the way what was important to them. “While a journey like this might serve to gather materials for a presentation, book or blog, it was also already performance enough,” Smith writes; “the questions and answers became sufficient dialogue, the encounters constituted a score that did not require repetition or representation” (38). However, he continues, “such resonant acts are often porous ones, with more resilience than their apparent ephemerality might suggest”: in 2008, when it was announced that Dartington would close, Shilling recreated her walk, but in reverse, accompanied by a fellow alumnus and others as a way of saying goodbye (39). Another example is Bram Thomas Arnold’s 2009 Walking Home (Again), a walking journey from his home in London to the village in Switzerland where he was born. “Rather than an end in itself, Arnold used the findings of his walk as the material for an exhibition, embedded within which was a two-hour performance,” Smith writes (39). These journey performances, Smith suggests, “are characterised by a gentle political engagement; an argument with borders and property that arises from the restrictions of a route, a dialogue with conviviality and strangerhood that emerges from the walk’s encounters, and an enquiry about the nature of identity and transformation that comes with the pilgrimage-like experiences of many ambulatory performers” (39). However, these qualities are chosen rather than inevitable. For instance, in 2006 the Chinese performance artist He Yun Chang carried a rock around the coastline of Britain before returning it to the beach where he found it. That performance, Rock Touring Around Great Britain, “developed very little real dialogue with its route; it was a performance of an ordeal originally scheduled for the island of Manhattan” (39).
“Despite their linear quality, and perhaps because of their association with such repeatable transits as pilgrimages, journey-performances lend themselves to re-enactment,” Smith notes. For instance, Esther Pilkington walked half of Richard Long’s Crossing Stones walk, “turning Long’s documentation of his walk into an instructive score, and adding an autobiographical warmth . . . to Long’s simple, dour text” (42). Han Bing’s series Walking a Cabbage in Beijing “is a comment on the upturning of traditional values in contemporary Chinese society; cabbage, formerly prized as a sign of affluence and sustenance in winter, is increasingly snubbed, while trophy dogs are paraded by many of the newly wealthy. So Bing walks a cabbage” (42). This performance was repeated in Srinagar by the anonymous “Kashmiri Cabbage Walker” in a more provocative way, addressing issues of militarization and occupation in that region. “In both cases, the walkers are challenging passers-by to question their (often extreme) responses to their performances’ minor absurdities,” Smith notes, “while all around them, unremarked, what passes for normalcy is skewed by consumerism and military oppression” (42-43).
“Ecstatic or numinous, the street and the road need not be blunt instruments,” Smith writes:
The exigencies of journeying offer a range and volatility that push beyond the limits of buskers’ “spots” or showpeoples’ “pitches.” The route may be too extensive and detailed to research for any intense specificity; there has to be a flexibility, some imposition perhaps, and certainly improvisation. . . . The specificity is to the unfolding of the path, route or vector, not the path, route or vector itself. (45)
The “flexibility and autonomy” of journey-performance can bring to it “a range of specialisms and everydayness; it shifts back and forth between acts that emphasise the rough materiality of terrains and those that embrace the airy ambiguity of the spaces of non-representational performance” (45). So the Walking Interconnections project led by Sue Porter and Deidre Heddon “used an expanded and de-normalised walking (including numerous journeys made by wheelchair users) to challenge the absence of disabled people’s voices from debates around sustainability,” and Bill Aitcheson’s The Tour of All Tours “collapses the many tours in a city into one tour,” a variation on the “‘mis-guided’ tours that challenge the dominant discourses of the heritage and tourism industries” (45-46). William Pope.L’s The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street “is a protest about and through degradation; an agitation around the spaces of race, power, dignity and fantasy” (46). Other journey performances us automobiles, trains, boats, or air travel, as documented by Fiona Wilkie in her 2015 book Performance, Transport and Mobility (47).
Chapter 4, “What is a Site?,” begins by stating, “[s]pace is not a container; it is not an empty carton just waiting for us to fill it” (53). The idea of space as a container of action is one from which “geographers and philosophers have increasingly moved” (53). This chapter (which Smith invites his readers to skip over) discusses “theories of space, key strategies for activating sites (archaeological, chorastic, mobility and Deluezo-Guattarian) and challenges to the very ideas of site and specificity” (53). “While these subjects may not immediately appear to offer very much for performances makers,” Smith writes, “abstractions and a powerful personal vision may at times be all that stands between you and the demands of commerce, repetition and what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls ‘scalability’: the making of products that are indifferent to the scale or texture of contexts and encounters” (53).
Smith begins this theoretical discussion with Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space, and its “three-fold replacement of ‘empty space’”: “firstly, space is ‘the product of interrelations, it is made by the meetings and assemblages and exchanges of people and things; secondly, space is a combination of unlikes, a multiplicity, and without that unevenness there is ‘no space’; and, thirdly, space is ‘always under construction’ . . . it is never completed and never virgin” (54). “If we take these propositions seriously, then, there is never a neutral zone or blank slate for a perofrmance artist to write magisterially upon,” Smith writes. “There is, instead, a seething and volatile set of changing layers to shift with and respond to in order to write anything legible at all” (54). Space gives us “difficult entanglements across borders,” “spills, evaporations, tides and gusts that defy and defile whatever limits we choose for them” (54). “A maker of site-based performance, then, may need to be a multivalent one, capable of engaging with multiple partners, human and unhuman, including the active presence of space itself,” he suggests (54). “Given this mutability in the quality of space, you might be sympathetic to Claire Doherty’s suggestion to challenge ‘site’ rather than ‘specificity,’ proposing an alternative category of ‘situation-specific,’” Smith continues (55). I’ll have to read Doherty’s text, because I’m not convinced that changing the word one uses would have much of an impact on the complexity and changeability of space.
“Choosing any one place over another to be the site of a performance implies some concession to limits and a narrowing identification,” Smith writes, “even if it does not exclude ‘multiplicity’ and ‘heterogenous relations’” (56). But acknowledging the uniqueness of a site “is not necessarily an elitist or exceptionalist articulation of the place” (56). Places have a “conditional uniqueness,” which can be embraced by “acknowledging that an ethical ‘attending to’ and ‘tending’” (Smith is quoting Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik here) “is at least partly obliged by the violence of site-making itself,” and such an embrace “may help a performance maker avoid undermining their otherwise vivid work, at least for the more attentive among their audience, by a crass spatial illiteracy” (57). For instance, Smith recalls a conference where one presenter noted that their use of the performance space “had sealed off a shortcut used by homeless people,” a statement that “did not seem to arise from a callous disregard for other users of ‘their site,’ but rather by the panicky pragmatism that can kick in if one approaches a place as needing to be controlled rather than cooperatively engaged with” (57). Some site-specific performances fail because the artists make “[a]ssumptions about the passivity and benignity of space, and its subservience before the authority of the performing presence” which “coalesce into the belief that territory will, and should, fit itself to the art. This is an attitude that will, almost always, come back to bite a performance maker” (57).
Smith warns his readers that writing on space “slithers between spatial metaphors that stand in for ideas and ideas that seem to be more about real places than abstract concepts” (59). “Just as the places we encounter are not ‘pre-given’ and are always ‘open to change,’ similarly our ideas about place and space have also been on journeys; they carry some of the dust of those journeys with them, but they are also missing parts of themselves,” Smith suggests (59-60). In fact, “rather than providing clear or neutral analyses of, and strategies for, uncomfortable and contested sites,” theories of place and space “actually themselves constitute other sites of discomfort and contest” (60).
Next, Smith offers some useful (if not necessarily compatible) examples of theory and/or practice “with which to approach sites in general terms” (60). First is archaeology, drawn from Theatre/Archaeology, the 2001 book by Pearson and Shanks, which draws attention “to different ways that site performance and archaeology interleave each other, from the documentation of performance’s remains to the more subtle overlapping of processes” (60). In a later work, Pearson “proposes that the most intense connection of the two might be in relation to what is sometimes called the ‘contemporary past,’ the present that is already passing” (60). In response to this passing, “people are making their everyday spaces archaeological,” curating past and present together (60). By looking obliquely, by paying attention to texture and detail, Pearson suggests “that we can recognise how, even in apparently mundane places, there are traces of the immediate and ordinary that constitute ‘an archaeology of us,’” and from those marks “we have access to an existing score of how place is being, and very recently was being created and performed” (61). A performance that attends to the “apparently mundane and its juxtapositions” can take the form of a curation or assemblage, “made up from the assembling, arranging and rearranging of ordinary spaces and objects,” creating a multitemporal present (61).
The second example is the idea of chora or “‘chorastic space’”: spaces which “are regularly seized upon by performance makers as having a certain magical affordance for generating experientially intense or immersive performances” (62). Such spaces “might wear the marks of aging or nostalgia, or display traces of history, wear and tear and abandonment,” but at the same time “there is something dynamic and utopian there” (62). The term chora (described by Stephen Wearing, Deborah Stevenson, and Tamara Young) comes from Plato through Elizabeth Grosz; it refers to “a space where multiple possibilities are not yet closed down in resolution or synthesis,” “a space that resists exchange, commerce and the oppressive obligations of gifting and reciprocity” (62). A chora “works by an evasion (rather than a violent dissolution) of identities and hierarchy, suggesting that what is being found by performance makers in these places is a temporary space where things are in suspense and meanings can be performed before they are understood or recognised” (62). But chora isn’t just about space: “[i]t also applies to the participants’ self-conscious reconstitution of their site-making selves” (62). Chora “is an energy that presages things, perhaps because chorastic spaces are often in some form of disruption or dis-assemblage through redundancy or closure or repurposing” (62). That energy, Smith suggests, “develops new kinds of what Raymond Williams called ‘structures of feeling’: common values or experiences that have not yet reached expression in the form of works of art or institutions, but have enough in the way of structure to be experienced and repeated” (62-63). This description is very suggestive, but I would have to turn to Wearing, Stevenson and Young (if not Plato and Grosz) to really get a handle on what it means.
Next, mobility and the “‘mobilities paradigm,’” which “re-addressed site as a bundle of trajectories and changes, not as stasis, fixed things, boundaries or hierarchy” (63). The mobilities paradigm “challenges specificity as a conservative anchoring of meaning to fixed and located things” and unseats “sedentary thinking” (63). “It is an invitation to make work that frees specificity from site, and vice versa; instead, affirming performance as an expression of transition and velocity, of the ideal of nomadism in ‘smooth space’ advocated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,” Smith writes (63). “Expressed in those terms, the mobilities paradigm sounds a little like the Futurists’ glorification of speed and transport in the 1920s,” he continues, noting that “there are concerns that it advocates a reactionary perspective in progressive terms in a way comparable to the Futurists” (64). Some scholars have pointed to the various restrictions and obligations and responsibilities involved in global travel to challenge the reality of the mobilities paradigm (64). “The paradigm’s subversive, disruptive, liberating and multiplicitous qualities are susceptible to reactionary and frozen ideas that commandeer the same qualities that ‘mobilities’ proposes to set free,” Smith suggests, and the mobilities paradigm is a cautionary case “that suggests that smooth space, acceleration and travel are not always reliable contexts for efficacious disruptions of fixed sites, but practices that may themselves require disruption” (64).
Finally, Smith comes to the notions of smooth, striated, and holey space, derived form Deleuze and Guattari. The terms “smooth” and “striated” were borrowed from the composer Pierre Boulez, Smith points out: “Striated space is marked by stress and pressure”; “it fixes place as an immobile point, and it fixes people to that immobility, enforcing dwelling against wandering” (65). However, life “is a wandering force; smooth space does not so much facilitate that movement as enable life to sustain it in multiple and discrete (even contradictory) motions without collapsing all its differences into anything that would bring it all to a halt or conclusion” (65). For Deleuze and Guattari, a third form of space—holey space—is the counter to striated space; holey space “includes mines, sewers, caves, bunkers—places where those who oppose restrictions have often hidden out and organised” (66). Some have extended this idea to cyberspace (the Dark Web?) and forests (66). “There is a considerable overlap here wiht the kinds of spaces that are attractive to site-specific performers, and to related activists such as urban explorers,” Smith writes. “As well as identifying holey-ness in virtual space, there is also a connection to the use of public space as a kind of hiding in plain sight; mapping the invisible and overground tunnel systems and blind spots that exist in everyday public spaces” (66).
There are other theories about space and place that might be useful (or not): structuralist synchrony; Kenneth White’s “geopolitics”; Manuel Castells’s “space of flows”; Tim Ingold’s “meshwork”; Michel de Certeau’s tactics, “tiny and everyday acts of resistance at street-level that compromise the blank space of power”; or Smith’s own mythogeography (66-67). “Or you might want to shake any complacent ease you have detected in these pages, any sense that little is at stake except for careers and egos, and make performances in spaces where ‘stability of geography and the continuity of land . . . have disappeared . . . [where] identity is confined to frightened little islands in an inhospitable environment,” Smith writes, quoting Edward Said’s Orientalism (67). Said’s words “could apply to many for whom any performance on any ground might require an act of decolonialisation,” Smith suggests (67).
Next Smith takes on Miwon Kwon’s criticism of the notion of site-specificity as a weak category that shifted from a place to a discursive vector, leading to a nomadism that generated a greater commodification (69). Kwon, Smith argues, “makes a categorical assumption about site that establishes a dichotomy between location and mobility and limits her thesis to a set of art practices that mostly do not include performance” (69). The journey performances Smith has described “are as obdurately unmarketable, uncommodifiable and tied to their particular routes and the ‘physical attributes’ of them as any of the early site-specific artworks that Kwon describes” (69-70). Nevertheless, “Kwon’s criticism of how repeating the same processes for different sites leads to diminishing returns” and rote and generic art “has force and significance; not only for some of the ‘headlining’ companies and individuals in receipt of invitations from large global capitals, but also for artists who operate across limited local or regional terrains” (70). Both the extremes of localism and placelessness “are at odds with Massey’s idea of space as a multiplicity; one a vapid ideal, the other a frozen identity,” Smith writes (70). “Instead Massey argues for the validity of the unique features of particular places,” while resisting any notion of place that is too rooted and “‘too little open to the externally relational,”” he continues, quoting Massey (70). I am going to have to reread Massey’s book; it is clearly a tremendous source of ideas, and my once-over was not sufficient.
These theories generate important questions for performance makers, particularly in relation to what a site actually is:
Are you choosing sites that are conducive to, even protective of, human performance? Is the escape from the theatre building or gallery a step sideways to spaces outdoors that offer something comparable to the facilities of theatre buildings, or an escape to wider horizons that avoid a sedentary audience’s closer attention to script and theme? do these choices, when taken together, imply a proprietorial understanding of the world as benign, inhabitable, consistent and welcoming of the performers’ presence; or of a terrifying world at odds with human presence? Is your site trying to kill you? (72)
Should performance makers “be preparing for a site-practice that addresses what Don[n]a Haraway calls the Chthulucene, in which, partly but not exclusively by our own actions, humans face, and not for the first time, the monstrous on and in and of this planet?” (72).
The book’s second part, “Generating Performance,” begins with a chapter entitled “Visiting Your Site.” The chapter was initially entitled “Exploring Your Site,” but the colonial implications gave Smith pause; the notion of visiting “suggests something closer to the relationship of a guest to a host than that of an invader to an unwary local” (77). “So, what happens if you consider yourself a guest rather than an explorer?” Smith asks:
What if you consider yourself not as a privileged arrival, but as a compromised visitor with something to prove or redeem? Someone with an obligation to respect another’s hospitality? What charge or price might you pay? What gift might you bring? What kinds of exchange should you prepare for? Are there conventions of greeting and welcome that you would extend to a human host to which you can find an equivalent for a geographical host? How will you announce your arrival; it might be a knock on a door or a ring on a bell at the home of a human host, but how might you address your site before you enter? Or will you wait for the site to invite you in? Perhaps, rather than dashing to its centre, you might work your way around its edges, slowly. Or is that too furtive? Maybe you need to allow the site to “see” you, allow it time to move to include you.
Who has the most power in the exchanges between you and the site? (77-78)
But, Smith continues, if the site is not a blank slate, neither is the performance maker: “we all carry our own baggage of associations, accumulated skills and past experiences” (78). Finding the relationships between sites and artists, he suggests, “may be usefully thought of a a search for the best arrangement of voids, in order that things (objects, ideas, information, emotions, connections) flow back and forth between site and artist” (78). He cites Cathy Turner’s term “deep dramaturgy” in this regard: a sense of porosity or permeability between artist and site (79). Because of this porosity, embodied research might be a good way to approach site-specific performance, along with practices associated with ethnography, such as participant observations, field notes, and case studies (79). Such research practices acknowledge that knowledge is incomplete and uncertain, an idea that might help performance makers avoid a futile search for the “truth” of a site (80).
However, considering embodied research to be the only research method “seems unnecessarily puritanical,” Smith suggests. “If we think of sites as meshworks of connections then to understand any particular one it may be necessary to track and trace movements to and from it that cross its horizons and borders” (82). That might mean looking for written documentation about a site. “It is rare that lack of information about a site is a problem; more often, it is a case of how to deal with the incoherent avalanche of disparate forms and contents,” Smith notes, a problem exacerbated by the limited amount of time usually available to prepare for a performance (82). For that reason, one might end up relying on “[r]apid searches, intuitive leaps, shortcuts and sideways connections” (83). One “may trace the same narrative (up and down) through a multitude of layers,” or “find that different kinds of information spiral outwards from a single narrative to gather multiple thematic or associational threads” (83).
According to Smith, site specificity “is not a reductive process of authentication based on the latest stage of academic learning” (86). Instead, at best, it
knowingly and openly . . . embraces the inauthentic, fabricated, wilful, nonsensical, paradoxical and criminal where it is particular to a place. In that sense there is nothing that is necessarily, in any other terms, efficacious in a genuine site-specificity except the care and integrity . . . with which it addresses what is present there, in the site, whether convenient or inconvenient, consistent or inconsistent. (86)
“No ‘site’ has an original, permanent base or real identity to authenticate and be authenticated (that is the work of popular historians and nationalist poets),” he continues:
the site-artist has the more complex, if less heinous, task of making a meshwork-sense of the multiple eddies of materialities, sufferings, dreams and memories, documentations, diaries and monuments, fauna and flora past and present, architectural revenants and planning applications, pub chat, local ‘urban legend’ (how local is that, ever?), administrative structures, trash, informal markers, dignities and indignities . . . and so on. (86)
Like science, “a site-specific piece of work moves forward by a fascination with what it does not know or what it can barely even imagine a meaning for, but that begs the investigation: What is this place? What is happening here? What does all this mean? How could this be?” (86-87). Site-specificity’s paradox, Smith argues, “is that, if genuinely pursued, it brings us to an uncontainable and promiscuous multiplicity of possible ‘heres’ . . . and it is the judicious combining of those possibilities that constitutes the litmus test of the art” (87). These are important ideas for me to remember; it would be too easy to identify (or misidentify) a “truth” of rural Saskatchewan and ignore its contradictory layering.
Chapter 6, “Site Aesthetics,” begins with the words, “There is no right or wrong way to make performance in any site. Or to put it another way—there are only relative and contextualised right ways that will not apply to everywhere” (97). The purpose of this chapter is to “address how for a rigorous site-specific approach, the aesthetics of each performance intervention are forged in a tension between the qualities of the site and the predilections of the performance makers,” with the performance makers involved always, to some extent, “threatening to lose touch with their raison d’être and obscure the object of their desire: the site” (98). Smith offers “three overarching aesthetic approaches to site-based performance in the knowledge that they are necessarily generalised, not necessarily discrete and open to whatever adaptation and traducing the specificity of any use will subject them to: transparency, camouflage and symbolist” (99).
The first approach, transparency, is about “light, self-effacing and non-invasive performances through which a site can be performed and witnessed” (99). This approach will suit quieter sites where the performance is less likely to be drowned out by surrounding activity (99). Transparent performances call upon spectators to be “active witnesses . . . to the effecting of things (including people) by other things (including people) (100). The audience of a transparent performance is obliged to be attentive: “in this ‘transparency’ the focus has moved away from the human ‘act-er,’ whether artist or audience, and is displaced to the material consequences of things, and to the ‘other’ human experiences, an ‘other’ that has to be imagined, a challenge that can only be properly met by empathy” (100).
Camouflage, however, “means creating performance that is as variegated and demonstrative as its site, integrated by its theatricality and noisiness rather than its unveiling and illuminating by restraint. By excess and showiness a camouflaged performance flattens itself into the unevenness of its space” (102). This approach is best for places that are “rich in detail,” which threaten “to overwhelm any human presence no matter how histrionic,” which are “packed with existing ‘performance’ and narrative, florid in materials and design” (102). “After choosing such a site, making a performance with exaggerated and baroque qualities can be an entanglement with, and (paradoxically) a disappearance into the space that changes its nature,” Smith writes: “it can make ‘new space’” (102-03).
In the Symbolist approach, the way of describing a place is “drawn from some larger corpus of symbolism”: psychological, philosophical, biological, geological, “or other organisations of categories” (106). “In relation to a particular site, this ordering can be explicit and an integral part of the space’s design—as with, say, a Freemason’s temple or with the interweaving of liturgical script with the histrionic platform of a medieval cathedral’s layout—but it can also be imposed,” Smith writes, as in the case of Slavoj Žižek’s use of Freudian symbolism in his description of the Bates’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (106). “Any one space is always both reminiscent and symbolic of another,” Smith suggests, citing Gaston Bachelard’s account of how a deep-sea diver lost in the desert imagined that he was walking through water (106-07). “To create work in symbolic space is a process that blends the subjective with the real, the personal with the historical, in order to firm up its abstract meanings with precise, local materials and effects,” Smith writes (107).
Like the previous chapter, Chapter 7, “Personae, Presences, Characters” begins with a statement against prescriptiveness: “There is no generic right or wrong performance mode, style or discipline for a participant in a site-specific performance” (117). However, Smith continues, “there is also some sense, stronger perhaps outside of performance-designated buildings than within them, that a performer (no matter how masked or scripted) is always performing their personal presence, even their ‘inner self,’ as much as any fiction, script or bare list of tasks” (117). In a less-controlled performance environment, in other words, “the dislocation from an authorised performance space, somehow more pointedly exposes the performer’s performance of themselves” (117). Smith refers to Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Judith Butler’s notion of performativity to suggest that our identities are created, not just represented, by our performances of them (117). “Just as a place has a history, no human presence (no matter how deep within) is neutral, but is always unfolding as part of, and with, the space around it,” Smith writes. “The performer is also a landscape, or more correctly is threaded throughout, but not wholly coterminous with, one” (117-18). This idea suggests that, if you “attempt to adopt too rigid a portrayal of character and identity, as if these were fixed or given by forces independent of your site, there is a danger that you may light up a set of ideological dominances to delight an audience hungry to have its assumptions affirmed” (118). “Paradoxically, then, there is, as yet, no specific acting or performance method, particular to site-specific performance,” Smith continues. “Instead, there are many practices upon which to draw, in different combinations and with different levels of intensity” (119).
These include autobiographical and autoethnographic presences, in which performers “choose a site that constitutes a landscape of your own life story” (119). However, the actual spaces of one’s life can be “simultaneously too close and too distant; too unmediated in terms of their location and yet too distant in terms of the events there being now in a past that is not now there and therefore no longer present,” Smith suggests. “Performers, by choice or instinct, seem to mostly avoid this tearing of space from time” (120). This avoidance “suggests that performers exploring site-based work for the first time should exercise a certain wariness about the rawness or nakedness of their performance and its place. Space is never neutral, but the spatial host of autobiographical performance may be particularly loaded” (120). The places of one’s past, he continues, “may shelter revenants that will remain dormant until stirred by the intensities of performance” (120). He cites Deidre Heddon’s notion of “autotopography,” “the landscape of autobiography,” as a way of thinking about such places (120). “In an auto-ethnographic context, failures, malfunctions, cowardice or avoidance are differently significant from other more conventional disciplinary contexts,” Smith contends. “Because the auto-ethnographer must slide between their context, their research itself and their self, when things fail they still reveal, they still count as findings of significance rather than unproductive non-events or dead ends. Indeed, at times, they constitute findings that less reflexive disciplines find difficult to identity or collect” (131). In site-specific performance “mistakes and accidents can be as expressive and precisely communicative as a smoothly run show” (131).
Another performance practice is “ablative presences”: a non-mimetic form of “‘non-matrixed performance’” that eschews “tapping directly into the energy of a site, either by representing, reproducing or amplifying it” (132). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ablative” is an adjective that can mean, in languages where nouns have cases, an expression of “direction from a place . . . which is expressed in English by ‘by’, ‘with’, or ‘from’” (OED), or the destruction or subtraction of a thing from something else, particularly a diseased organ (in medicine) or processes of melting (in physical geography or astronautics). For Smith, who is drawing from Mike Pearson here, an ablative presence is a kind of “sidestepping” that suggests performance “‘in the presence of,’ ‘together with,’ ‘adjacent to’ the site” (Pearson, qtd. 132). Smith includes Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” as examples of performances that step aside from realism or mimetic representation (132-33); the separate sections of the happenings “were played out mostly alongside each other, in tune with Pearson’s suggestions . . . rather than in consequential sequences, thematic unfolding or an overlapping entanglement” (135). Stage hands doing their work in view of the audience are, according to theatre scholar Michael Kirby, another example of an ablative presence, Smith suggests (133). “Such a ‘non-performer’ is aware that they are being watched, but they are not trying to convey any message or motivation (other than completion of their task), and they certainly do not want to ‘star’” Smith writes; “they are organised, they have certain actions to carry out and they do these as efficiently as they can” (133-34). “This approach affects more than just performance presence, serving as a means to developing a relationship with a particular site,” Smith continues (134). Such subversions of naturalistic representation are related to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, which “disrupts any seamless weave of occurrences and psychology in order to uncover their contexts and represent their conditions” through a process of making those events strange and interrupting their continuity (135). Given that theories of space and place, such as Doreen Massey’s emphasize that sites are unfinished and in process, “the disruption of epic acting can be an equivalence to the incompleteness of space” (137). “In such a performance, the actor betrays and outrages their site; their narrative or projection of character or persona exposes the same contingency in which the apparent material solidity of the location as in their own actions (which might partly explain the attraction of sites in ruin or of those in transition between different uses),” Smith writes (137).
A third performance practice involves performing character is a site. Smith notes that realist acting methods, “when removed from the platform of the illuminated stage, can come over as overly contrived or, contrastingly, overwhelmed by the ‘flat,’ immense or baroque and distracting qualities of a site” (141). “Yet there is no special reason why psychological, naturalistic or expressionist techniques cannot be adapted for use in site-specific performances,” Smith writes. “The key to adaptation seems to be in finding space (and a role) for the site in the technique and, complementarily, finding the spatial aspect of the technique itself” (142). Understanding the motivation of an action, he continues, “is hugely valuable to the site-specific performance maker” (142). Stanislavskian psychological acting techniques can be used, but the challenge they present “is the entangling of psychological and geographical objectives” (142). Another way of performing character is Simon Persighetti’s “actor as signpost” concept, which “points performer and audience directly to the immediate site and its material specificies; it starts as a localist gesture, a grounding of the performing body in its immediate environment, its senses as active feelers-out of information, not from a passive environment, but from an environment ‘ready’ to feel out for the sensory-feelers of its visitors” (144). This notion “gives equal priority to site and performer, the latter of which is most valued at the sensorial edge of their being; pointing away from themselves and the internal mystery narrative of the labyrinthine subconscious” (144). “Motion is one of the signpost’s key elements: the encouragement to the spectator/participant to find their own trajectory,” Smith continues (144). “Where the focus on mobility and the here and now provokes a necessary disruption, there is also a complementary ‘healing’; resisting the privileging of some sites over others” (145). In other words, the signpost technique “is a democratising activity, enacting a social as well as an organic interdependency” through acts of collaboration that are “both social and physical” (145). “This social interweaving is a ‘connection’ of the sort that Delueze makes key to any strategy for change,” he suggests (145).
Part 3, “Shaping a Production,” begins with chapter 8, “Dramaturgy.” “There is a temptation in site-specific art—given its usually recognised origins in modernism—to automatically embrace the fragmentary, the obscure, the conceptual and the reflexive,” Smith writes (159). However, while there is no obligation to write a play that tells a story in site-specific performance, neither is there an “absolute obligation to conform to postmodernism’s urgent abandonment of an overriding, over-determining grand narrative and its replacement by a timeless and depthless immediacy that admits no unfolding of narratives at all” (159). There are “multiple alternatives,” Smith suggests, “that need not conform to a linear structure,” although the best alternative might be to think about the site’s own dramaturgy, its “physical ‘logics’ and institutional policing,” which “may dictate the limits of what is possible dramaturgically to what the material dimensions or the security forces of the sites will allow; but they may also provide a dramaturgical structure or trajectory” (159-60). “Or you own up to the importing of patterns that you, maybe inevitably, will engage with,” Smith continues. “Embracing what a totality has to offer to a site-specific performance; the creation of an ‘alternative world’ . . . which either accumulates layers until there is a qualitative change of site-identity, or uses fictions or other asymmetrical devices to change the totality of the site’s identity” (160). This isn’t just using the site as a backdrop; rather, “it is about transforming a landscape by the sinking of an aesthetic work into it; a ‘camouflage’” (160). “Alternatively, rather than accumulate the layers in some kind of consistency, you can emphasise the quality of the layering, so that the different elements of the site, in performance, retain their discreteness,” Smith suggests (160)
“With fragmentation, in any of these dramaturgies, and any consequent loss of narrative legibility—where narrative is relevant—there can be a temptation to anchor an audience in a single, fixed space in order to provide a substitute for the formal structure that is refused in, or failed by, the dramaturgy,” Smith contends. “Sometimes a formally innovative work can end up, becalmed, in conservative space. Equally, a mobile, agentive and inquisitive audience can quickly become an anxious and dissatisfied one if it feels that it is unable to find any meaningful structure, totalised or formally fragmented; or maybe just not find the action at all” (162). The point is to align performances with the sites they are made for. “Despite any talk of high political aesthetics,” he continues, “there is nothing to be ashamed about in seeking answers to the questions around dramaturgy in technical solutions” (162).
One strategy (following Doreen Massey) is to protest what is absent from the site. For instance, a performance in “an English ‘stately home’” might call attention to “those whose enslaved labour generated the wealth to build it, not as the exposure of a historical crime, but as an indictment of the site’s ongoing and living driver for continuing the exclusion of the Other (in this case the descendents of those colonised and enslaved) from spaces free from exploitation” (169). (Are there any spaces free from exploitation?) “Without the agency of people of that Other, a performance would struggle to escape from the force of ‘consistency’ implied in the time, text and building materials of the layers and palimpsest,” he continues (169). What if, then, “the agents of a site are constituted by its Other; is coevalness then possible for its performance?” Smith asks (169). He uses the example of Misha Myers relational walking performance Way from Home which, “by overlaying one place on another by inviting refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK to map a journey from ‘home’ to a ‘special place and then to walk that route, performing that journey, but in the place they are not, and in the company of walking partners,” “created a different kind of connection to a site” (169). “Through coevalness, site specific performance can look from the centre to the edges of its site, from the vertical, the digging down, to its horizon; looking for the arrival of the Other of the site from the margins,” Smith writes. “What that Other might be, and it is by definition a potential, always described within a future to which it does not have access yet, will still be specific to its site” (169). That Other will not guarantee any narrative or other kind of consistency or coherency, though: “to expect so it to de-Other it” (169): “Coevalness does not solve the technical issues, but adds one extra challenge to them” (169).
Chapter 9, “Scenographies and Enchanged Objects,” begins by suggesting that whether to introduce “recognisable scenic elements and props into a site” is “an existential issue” for site-specific scenography, because doing so “implies that the site is, by that intervention, subjected to the same aesthetics as a building-based theatre production; that the privileging of the site has been replaced by the ‘self-fascination’ of the theatre” (179). One response to that issue is scenographer Kathleen Irwin’s generation of “a sensibility that crosses between conventional stage space and what she calls ‘found space’; the site is not necessarily primary, but provides ‘a text among other texts, such as the script or musical score’” (qtd. 181-82). In Irwin’s 2002 The Weyburn Project, located in a former mental hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, “Irwin worked to recruit what she calls the ‘social energies’ hidden in the materials of the site as prompts to recover the memories and stories of those who had lived and worked there” (182). Irwin’s general approach, Smith continues, is to release the site into fragments which reveal “‘the interpenetration of people, place, culture, and history’” so that the performance’s site shifts from a geographical space to “‘the space of the glance between artist and spectator’” (Irwin qtd. 182). “Rather than agents in their own right,” Smith suggests, the site becomes an ambassador, or mediator, “between human agents or between human agents and themselves” (182).
Smith advocates phenomenology as a theoretical approach to site-specific performance (a reason to read Merleau-Ponty, finally, as if I needed one), although he cautions that it, “like any kind of philosophy, is always in dancer in becoming the subject of itself; the idea of experience standing in for experiences themselves” (185). “Site-specificity is equally vulnerable to performing an idea of itself, generating, demonstrating and commodifying the thrill of immersion rather than inviting others into the immersion itself,” he continues (185). Object-Oriented Ontology, a recent development in phenomenology, “challenges the idea of a human-centred cosmos, denying that things are ever drained of their presence or significance just because humans have stopped thinking about them,” an idea which is significant for site-specific work. Object-Oriented Ontology “asserts the independence of things from human perception and from each other,” granting “some discreteness to objects,” so that part of their “thingness” is their “resistance to being swept up and immersed in human-centred ideas about ‘full sensorium,’ about the flows and currents of all things or, indeed, any advocacy for a taxonomy of spaces” (185). “There does seem to be some object-oriented autonomy at work in the regularity in which certain objects, or categories of objects, appear in site-specific performance,” Smith writes. “Just as certain categories of site have repeatedly attracted performance makers, so there is also a taxonomy of objects that are similarly attractive: flags, water, salt, boats, and even the sun” (186). Object-Oriented Ontology isn’t restricted to things in a site, but “embraces sites themselves,” and “[i]ts emergence has coincided with several new publications proposing a similar agency of objects,” which Smith lists, including Jane Bennett’s 2010 book Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (186). One of the things I find valuable about this book, in fact, is the way it encourages further reading over a wide range of topics, including books I’ve intended to read for some time but haven’t gotten to.
In chapter 10, “Communities, Audiences and Immersion,” Smith argues that “[a] dramaturgy is only ever likely to make sense if it is informed by an approximate idea or intuition of how it will be received by its audience; an attitude that is sure to establish some tension (creative or otherwise) with an art form that prioritises the existing site rather than a forthcoming reception” (193). This question is less important for site-specific walking performance, which tend to be private or rely on audiences that simply happen along, but it still arises, as Smith suggests: “the audience may not be arriving, but have been present for a very long time,” since “many, maybe most, sites of performance are places of belonging, home or neighbourhood” (193). Smith draws on the work of Josephine Machon, particularly her analogy that “a ‘full-sensorium’ immersion in the performance experience . . . can be like a bodily immersion in water” (203)—yet another book to read.
I skipped over chapter 11, “Technology,” because my work is deliberately low-tech, and skimmed chapter 12, “Site Etiquette,” which addresses “some of [the] disparate issues that may arise for you in making site-based performance” (223), from access to the lack of a backstage, to health and safety, duration, scale, and weather—all of which are important considerations. Clearing up after the performance is important: “[w]hat you leave behind in your site may be the most profound result of your performance,” Smith warns (226). He discusses whether performances can be adequately documented: performance theorist Peggy Phelan suggests they can’t, but Smith contends that there are forms of documentation, such as mapping, which are “something more than a residue and more like an ongoing ‘site’” (227). This chapter ought to be handed out to anyone thinking about making a site-specific performance.
Smith’s conclusion returns to the notion of mobility in site-specific performance, suggesting that “while mobility suggested that there might be some relativistic bridge between the immediacy . . . of the human cultural occasion of performance and the inhuman aeons of matter,” there is still a discrepancy that dancer and theorist Melanie Kloetzel “has discovered within the process of site-adaptation with significance for site-based performance in general” (232). “What might seem like a mutual resilience shared between its sites and a performance moving between them and adapting itself to them, obscures a ‘more disturbing’ rationale of ‘expendability,’” Smith suggests, quoting Kloetzel, who “describes how resilience often comes at the expense of the less privileged parts of a site: adaptation is applied to the site as much as to the performance,” and the “[l]ess convenient parts” of a site “are regularly dispensed with, excluded or ignored,” reducing the site to an object (232-33). For Kloetzel, this kind of “site-adaptive performance . . . re-establishes (and spreads) the conventions of the building-based institution, the ‘empty space’ of the blank theatre-designated building that returns to ‘zero’ at the end of each production’s run” beyond the theatre’s walls (233).
“There are at least two ways for a performance maker to respond to Melanie Kloetzel’s radical critique of the practices that I have spent this book advocating,” Smith continues:
one is to accept that it brings to a stasis and sad conclusion a series of bold experiments and disastrous compromises; another is that it represents an opportunity, an edifice just waiting to be hauled down, a poisoned playing field to be navigated, a stable reading to be cleaned out with performance fire. To me, Kloetzel’s critique changes the game. I have often felt out of kilter with those predominating tendencies to take a more laissez-faire or tolerant approach to categories and practices. Now, I want to ask again: What if the qualities that have been described as the reactionary limitations of place specificity, as giving oppressive location-meaning to a site, as nailing it to its past, obsessing on its materials, disrupting its everyday life by too aggressively addressing it, are what continue to be useful about performance? While, on the other hand, theorists who sought to mobilise and accelerate the categories around “place” and “site” and thus escape specificity’s limitations have risked thinning their meanings as they expand them and adding unintentionally to a broader ideological belief that technology and globalisation have transcended borders and expunged any meaningful remnants of colonialism and genocidal nation-building, consistent with site-adaptation’s illusion that it “allows us to . . . make the changes necessary with little real alteration of the status quo.” (233-34)
That’s a rather surprising statement, given where the book begins, and it suggests how powerful Kloetzel’s critique must be, and also that I’m going to have to read it. Smith suggests “that performers and researchers need to attend to the developments in vital materialism,” Object-Oriented Ontology, “in the more cosmic reaches of geophilosophy and eco-criticism as a torque upon the impetus to dissolving specificity in technologically enhanced acceleration and the commodification of thrills and ‘experiences’” (235). Location is important, even essential, and that assertion, “with all the layers of the palimpsest, is one of the torques by which a recontextualisation, a change in the limits and orders of a space, can begin—another being the arrival in the site of those historically made absent from it, the Other of the site, coming as new agents arriving from what, for much site-specific performance, has been the margins” (235). Such “torques” “can shift the focus back to the site, in the context of thinking about the matter of the cosmos, and add some modesty to strategic thinking about how such sites are changed by being expertly performed” (235).
“Given the difficulties, would it be more creative if ‘specificity’—even in its ‘purist’ form—was understood more as the rigour of its attention, of its ‘attending to’ and ‘tending of’?” Smith asks. “In other words, that while the meaning of ‘site’ can speak mostly for itself (if, hopefully, in more tongues that it did when you started this book), ‘specificity’ needs to be re-thought, re-defined and re-spoken; this time much less a geographical-research term and more as an ethical one” (236). An “ethical site-specificity,” Smith continues, “would reject site-adaptive’s expending of site and embrace an obligation to add to its multiplicity,” to what Pearson calls “‘its scene of plenitude,’” “extending the way it imagines its relationship in time with a site” (236). For Smith, this ethical site-specificity
means a more careful consideration of the choice of sites, not simply as the best containers for performance, but as actors-in-themselves (sites that are making their own demands for attention such as re-wilding spaces or spaces of abuse), with a more careful intention in leaving; not simply discarding the site after a performance is over. (236)
Kathleen Irwin gets the last word: the space of performance is left in the charge of “‘locally based spectators,’ who were always already ahead of the performance makers with ‘an enhanced kind of creative energy in . . . their knowledge of the place and its history . . . continu[ing] to frequent the place’” (qtd. 236).
Readers expecting a primer to site-specific performance—or even, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a handbook—are perhaps likely to be disappointed and/or confused by Smith’s Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance, because it is much more than either a primer or a handbook, as the complexity of his conclusion suggests. It’s not, in other words, just a book for undergraduate students taking courses on site-specific performance. I found the chapters on mobile performance particularly useful, and the range of texts to which Smith refers—the ones I haven’t read, at least—could easily form the basis of a reading list for a comprehensive examination on the subject of site-specific theatre and performance. So this book is useful, and it encourages me to move on to read other texts about site-specific performance, from Melanie Kloetzel to Mike Pearson to Kathleen Irwin. Perhaps my earlier reading of general texts on performance was frustrating because they weren’t focused on what I’m actually interested in for my current work, which is mobile, site-specific performance. I’m not sure; that’s something to think about as I turn, inevitably, to the next book.
Smith, Phil. Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook, Red Globe Press/Macmillan International, 2019.