Site-responsive art and performance: say what?

Written by Jessica Ruano for InTRANSIT Festival

Yet another term to wrap our heads around! Just like the sciences, the arts are full of niche terms to describe what’s new, what’s important, and what’s happening. So let’s talk about what ‘site-responsive’ actually means.

'Dolores' set St Paul’s Eastern United Church Kitchen, Canada (2013)
‘Dolores’ in St Paul’s Eastern United Church Kitchen, Ottawa, Canada (2013)

Until recently, I’ve used almost exclusively the term ‘site-specific’ to refer to art and performance that takes place in a particular venue – often a non-traditional art/performance venue – chosen to reflect the content of the piece. For example, if a play takes place in a kitchen, the director may choose to stage it in an actual kitchen, rather than in a regular theatre with a kitchen-like stage design.

Let’s try a diagram:

Art —> Space (i.e. the art inspires the choice of space)

This type of performance or installation has become increasingly popular in the arts world, as it is often far less expensive to produce work in these alternative spaces, and – more to the artistic point – it’s fascinating for both artists and audiences to witness a space transformed when used in a different way.

St Marylebone church: Stations of the Cross exhibition
St. Marylebone Church : Stations of the Cross exhibition, London (2014)

Site-responsive, as a term and as a practice, has its own twist on the alternative-venue trend. It specifically refers to the idea of artists responding to the space in which they’re choosing to create their work. For example, an artist may decide they want to design an exhibition for a church space, and then create a number of art works (paintings, sculptures, performance art) about the history of religious freedom in the United Kingdom. It is primarily the space that inspires the artist’s work.

Another diagram:

Space —> Art

And that’s just the starting point. As an audience member seeing the piece for the first time, you may have no idea if the space inspired the art or the art inspired the space. Sort of a ‘chicken or egg’ type of situation. But in the case of art, things aren’t so definitive (of course, the EGG came first; it came from a chicken-like dinosaur; everyone knows that): even if, perchance, the space ‘came first’, the act of bringing the performance or exhibition to the venue and inviting an audience means that the space, too, is being influenced, in turn, by the art. With all these stimuli circling around, who knows – or even cares – what came first?

Park Life_desk
Park Life in Cremorne Park (Nutshell Dance, Saturday June 27 to Sunday June 28)

Suffice it to say, you’re going to love seeing Akala perform his epic poem The Ruins of Empires in a cemetery, or watching Park Life dancers in Cremorne Park, or witnessing Acklam Village being transformed into an Urban Beach.

It’s all happening in just a couple of weeks! Be there, or be… an egg.

The chicken only thinks he’s won…

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