Collaboration With Location




Terms


The term site-specific is one that seems to have stuck; one finds it used to describe certain manifestations in almost all art forms: site-specific theatre, site-specific dance, site-specific art, site-specific installation. It strikes me as ironic that the term site-specific is generally employed as shorthand for work that takes place outside of cultural spaces like theatres or galleries. In this text I have little desire to define the term, classifying one type of thing as site-specific and another as not. Rather, I wish to offer some observations and principles that have shaped my practice, which has itself often earned the label site-specific.


Theatre takes place in a specific location, whether it be a street corner, a beach, a studio theatre or an opera house. Work may take place in more than one location and involve mediation through technology, creating jumps in time and space, yet the fact remains, the reception of live performance takes place in a SPECIFIC space of some sort. Terms such as physical theatre or visual theatre seem to me to principally serve the purpose of identifying certain types of work in order to aid their marketing. Marketing labels have the unfortunate tendency of fostering the notion that the rest of the theatre/art/dance world (delete as appropriate) may conveniently sideline such flash in the pan tendencies and continue as usual. The absurdity of this is clear in the case of theatre, as the theatrical form or situation, is inherently both physical and visual.


The tendency towards a marketing based definition of site-specific is comprehensible in the context of British performance at the beginning of this third millennium. Similar pressures to brand and commodify can be discerned within society as a whole. Whilst as an artist it may be perversely comforting to imagine a cartel of marketing executives dumbing down contemporary performance, such a picture is false and stems from a desire to exonerate oneself by simplifying a complex situation. The causality is pervasive and beyond my present scope. Suffice to say, it is necessary to understand marketing as a part of an artistic project and not relegate it to the status of vulgar production business. Marketing is often the first point of contact an audience has with a performance and so it can construct expectations that frame the performance. However as an artist it is vital not to conceptualise practice solely, or even predominantly, in terms derived from marketing. It is healthier to choose and develop terms and strategies that better facilitate artistic creation. This is far more than a question of semantics. Divisions created more to the benefit of marketing can and do support both conceptual and “real world” divisions between and within artforms that do not always serve artists best.


Without discarding the term site-specific there is for me, sense in supplementing it with that of site-sensitive. This term evokes more clearly the approach to performance and space that interests me. By sensitive I mean aware of and responsive to the actual space in the moment. Still, I am also aware that one vacates marketing terms at ones peril and imperfect as it is, I continue to make limited use of site-specific for marketing purposes. Site-sensitive doesn’t have the same ring to it and it may, in any case, be better to preserve some terms from the logic of the marketplace.


What I wish to do then is to consider site-sensitivity as a formal issue and not as a genre of performance. I wish to do this as it all too often happens that once identified by a specialist label, individuals, companies, festivals and seasons, carve out a niche for themselves while the wider significance of the approach is sidelined. I do not claim to be the first to offer a formal understanding of site and performance; others have done likewise staking a claim for work conceived and performed for a single site only, or for work created for generic types of locations. An objective of mine here is to understand location as a concern that applies to all performances and not solely to those occurring outside of the theatre or gallery. Furthermore, I want to stress the continuity, rather than difference, between work created uniquely for one site and work that travels between a number. I want to do this by discussing the impact of location upon performance and looking at some creative strategies that make porous the boundaries of performance and site.


Premise


Those who frequent a site are integral to it and in no way accidental to its identity.


For artistic and ethical reasons, I prefer not to sanitise performance locations by clearing them of their habitual inhabitants, that is to say those who frequent a site when it is not being used for a show. To understand a performance location I need to take account of both its habitual inhabitants and of an invited audience that come specifically for the event. I find it useful therefore to introduce the idea of a primary and secondary audience to distinguish between those who come to a work intentionally and those who come across it unintentionally. Primary is not here meant to imply of greater importance. It merely differentiates between those who are provided with the broader artistic framing and those who are not. Following this, it is possible to make some initial observations about how the two audiences can relate.


Cultural spaces like theatres generally attract an almost entirely primary audience for their scheduled programme whereas invisible theatre (after Boal) may be played solely for a secondary audience. Coded performances can potentially exploit the gap between primary and secondary audiences by performing actions not clearly out of the ordinary in their context, but potentially significant to the informed spectator. My performance D-P-M played to primary and secondary audiences by taking a small audience on a bus journey that concluded with a highly visible performance on the street. Those who travelled with me throughout were the primary audience, as they had access to the full frame, while those who saw parts of it were the secondary audience. Actions performed for an entirely secondary audience can attempt to bring some into the position of a primary audience in for example the manner of street entertainers, or one may perform to a secondary audience and reach the primary audience through documentation. Candid Camera and other practical joke TV programs adopt this approach recognising that the presence of a primary audience can change the nature of an event. Without exhausting the possibilities of play between these groups it is clear that this simple distinction (more graded ones are possible) offers considerable possibilities.


Sites and non-sites


Some sites are consciously designed to be unobtrusive. The black box theatre and the white cube gallery are two types of spaces that are designed to focus their occupant’s attention onto something other than the space itself. In the black box theatre focus is directed onto the stage and in the gallery upon the artworks. Both posit an idea of neutrality surrounding the work. Black suits contemporary western theatres as it permits highly controlled stage lighting and allows the audience to relax in relative anonymity. The shift in the visual arts since minimalism towards installation, particularly to work that consciously integrates itself into the architecture and social space of the gallery, has not been so pronounced in theatrical performance. With notable exceptions, the norm remains the projection of fictional space upon the actual space of the theatre, probably due to the continued dominance of narrative. The black box theatre is in this sense a location that is typically used in a way that suppresses its actual space.


I consider sites as inherently populated and the social rules of those who frequent a site as an integral part of the character of a site. I therefore find it valuable to make a cold analysis of potential performance sites, their inhabitants and behaviour patterns, so that these factors may be consciously played off one another. This is not to pass a value judgement on any particular space or set of conventions but rather to view these things as givens, source material that may be exploited or rejected. Conventional spaces like theatres can be quite beneficial for performances where one wishes to subvert and surprise. It is easier to catch an audience off guard in spaces and events where strong expectations and codes exist. I regard theatres as sites like any other, in most respects, the main distinction being that there is a history and complex set of codes specifically relating to fiction and representation that need to be considered too. I like to work with theatres in terms of site, as they can be easily left behind in the rush towards site-specific performance.


Self-reflexivity of for example the Pirandello variety, is a well-established approach to playing with the situation of theatre within the theatre. More radical is that of the Croatian theatre piece Art Parasite (1) in which an actor entered the stage of a play unannounced to the audience, actors and director of the scheduled play, which continued regardless. The occupation of a stage using non-theatrical pretexts is an approach I used to start a performance D-P-M (2). I brought the festival’s organisers onstage for a warranted show of general appreciation, followed by an explanation of necessary logistical details that were deliberately withheld prior to the show, and so on. The use of deliberate mistakes and even the announcement that the performance is cancelled and replaced by a lecture (3) are similar strategies I have played with. These movements towards demystification and re-mystification require considerable shifts in the performer’s presence to be credible but when effective can spark a major re-evaluation of the situation. A sizable history of the creative manipulation of situations, within and beyond the theatre exists and it is not my intention to construct one afresh. It is enough to note that the instability brought about by the slipping and overlapping of the social and artistic framing of a situation, is a powerful device that is intrinsically linked to the site of performance. 


The movement towards a suppression of site within the theatre is never complete. Despite the dominance of fictional over actual space, the single point of focus and theatre-going conventions, site is impossible to abolish. A further reason theatre can never shake off a sense of place is its geographic locality. Two identical black box theatres, one in Doncaster and the other in Madrid will be radically different as their audiences will be different. International artistic mobility has increased to the point that it is frequently relevant to consider site and performance not only within the immediate context of the building, social situation and city but also within the performance’s national and international contexts too. The status in which a performer or show is held changes as they play to one audience and to another. It is curious to observe how reception of accent can shift with geography from being practically fetishised in one place to provoking profound scepticism elsewhere. As a British man performing in Europe or the US for instance, I am aware of being inscribed with a network of references that owes more to the BBC than to my work. When performing within the UK however, nationality is less of an issue and instead class and gender become dominant frames of reference. Any good casting director is well aware of these predispositions and so too should those of us devising work be aware of how we come over to our various audiences. When performing in the London/New York run of No One (4) my inclusion as a British performer amongst an American cast helped to broaden the locating of the work. This helped forestall a crude British reading of the show as a group of Americans complaining about their country and helped shift it instead onto a level of language and complicity.


This living context of a performance is one that takes place within the language or languages particular to the show, the locality and audience. I include locality too as performing in English to an ex-pat audience in Saudi Arabia, is different to performing to an English speaking audience in the UK. Speaking somewhat in generalities, it is my experience that venues in some counties are quite willing to programme work in languages other than the local language as their audience is multi-lingual. Mainstream venues in more mono-lingual countries, such as France or the UK are usually more reluctant or require a very specific context such as an international festival. This places a very particular artistic frame around the work. Work that is performed in a language other than the audience’s is often (though not always) attended with an air of exclusivity; the act of understanding and enjoying an international product sits atop that of viewing the performance itself. When performing to an audience whose first language is other than that of the performance, comprehensibility becomes a major issue if one plays for the actual and not ideal audience. Even when a language is shared, such as English is between the UK and US, nuances often play out quite differently. In response to this situation I have in performances played with this social fact of a language’s status, incorporating the second language through translation and mistranslation (5). More simple but no less important, is making adjustments in speed, vocabulary and emphasis to make the work more widely comprehensible.


Presence


My impulse in using locations other than designated cultural spaces has never stemmed from finding an “exciting” or interesting location. Their use has come from a meeting of artistic inclinations and practical conditions. I have used sites that have offered creatively interesting relationships with my audience and of prime importance has been the qualities of danger, fragility and instability. These have helped me generate presence in myself as a performer and in the event as a whole.


The basic starting point for the actor is that his body is sensitive to the immediate landscape where he is performing. The full attention of the mind and the body should be awake in that very space and in that very time (not an idea of time) and with the very people who are also in that time and space. 


(Joseph Chaikin The Presence of The Actor 1991: 65)


I suspect contemporary interest in presence is connected to its increasingly deferred nature. Networks of technologies (phone, car, walkman, broadcast media, surveillance, internet) work to efface distance and enclose individuals in realities that are less and less dependent upon their physical locality. When this is allied to the economic and cultural segregation of space, the result is that most of us live in bubbles. The fracturing of social space is not a contemporary phenomenon; racial, economic and religious differences have always conditioned the conception and use of space. What our contemporary technologies do is make segregation more portable and total. Networks abstracted from brute space can co-exist in the same location with the result that the whole notion of public space is demeaned.


This gradual withdrawal of an open social presence from public space, or as I call it the psychic (and actual) privatisation of public space, is something of a ground condition when performing in major western cities. The tendency towards the closure of public space is one I do not wish to support in my performances and countering this line has aesthetic consequences. In my work this means attempting to accommodate performances within each space without fundamentally changing the nature of a site in order to allow my actions to take place unimpeded. Irrespective of whether a performance is completely invisible or highly confrontational, the fact remains that its consequences should be accepted if the site is to be accepted. To do otherwise is to attempt to transform pluralistic spaces into controlled environments. I therefore aim for a porous relationship between performance and site, one that must necessarily exist in the moment of performance. This results in a particular form of presence in me the performer and in the event as a whole. This is not without risk and if a relationship with the audience, both primary and secondary, is presumed but not earned, the results can be very awkward or even embarrassing. It can however also be a highly effective approach to break through the smothering of presence that is so much a condition of contemporary social space.


The importance of the relationship between performer and audience cannot be stressed enough when working in locations other than theatres, as this relationship is less conventionally defined by theatre going behaviour. Whilst spectator habits die hard, other relationships can and do rise to the surface as the performance opens itself to the wider social situation. The rules of the encounter are therefore in far greater need of definition, and in this opening creative opportunities arise. This becomes truer the more the apparatus of the institution are dropped and the social rules of the site become the dominant frame of reference. The audience relationship typical of cultural institutions is particularly destabilised when a primary audience has to adapt its behaviour to that of a secondary audience. No longer does the spectator have the right to observe in anonymity, they have to adapt to the rules of the space and those who enforce those rules. This can generate considerable complicity between performer and audience, though if this is strained, coercion or irresponsibility may be felt, which tends to alienate audiences. One therefore has to generate trust in ones primary audience in order to then be given the latitude to defamiliarise.


Preferences


Over a number of years spent in various metropolitan sprawls, I have witnessed a topographic palette emerge in my work. I have made performances for cafes, parks, backrooms of pubs, main roads during rush hour and for dead ends. I have played in airports, museums, budget clothing shops, community halls, under bridges, on buses, in galleries and yes, I have given performances in theatres. These have taken place almost entirely in major cities in the UK, Europe and US and a background informing these choices of location has been a paucity of financial support and a lack of dedicated experimental theatres. These conditions have necessitated economic and spatial self-sufficiency. When using everyday sites it is much easier to bypass administration, which often kills the type of amiable chaos of more guerrilla style work. It is not solely for production reasons that my spatial preferences have formed. I actively prefer common everyday spaces to exceptional sites, which frequently have a whiff of the school day out. In flat and uninflected spaces one can work with first-hand memories and associations, close to each of us yet individual and precious. There is the possibility of reassembling everyday life in patterns that break the everyday patina, the deadweight of social experience that is so present when in these sites. Once the performance is concluded the memory of it can overlay the space, reawakened each time it is revisited. Finally, there is the reassertion that public space is a space of exchange, that it has a democratic function and that one wishes to situate work in this sphere. 


To return to the theme of site and sensitivity in the light of what has been discussed, the approach I favour to tackle the problem of presence, namely its continual deferral in contemporary society, is to foreground the site of performance. Through doing this the unique nature of the encounter between a performer and an audience(s) can be enhanced. I stressed the importance of this when performing outside of theatres but I should extend this to include when working inside of them too. Whilst different strategies may be called for, the challenge to be sensitive to what is, is shared. Sensitive means not only being aware of differences but also being able to respond them. Contemporary interest in the site of performance is welcome but if it is to have a positive legacy then it is best that the issues it throws up, be understood as just as pertinent to large-scale theatres as to those working on the margins. It does us well not to fetishise site-specific performance, hence my ambivalence towards the term’s current usage. For me, sensitivity is a term more apt for the far greater challenge of how to enliven our moribund cultural spaces.  


  1. (1)Art Parasite, directed by Natasha Stanic, performed in Ljubljana and Zagreb.

  2. (2)D-P-M a solo performance by Bill Aitchison performed in London and New York.

  3. (3)How Heavy Are My Thoughts  directed by Ivana Müller, written by Müller and Aitchison and first performed at Plateaux Festival, Mousonturm, Frankfurt, 2003.

  4. (4)No One, written and directed by Julia Lee Barclay, performed by The Present Company in London and New York 2003

  5. (5)Post note: See for example The Customer Is Always Wrong which is performed in Mandarin and Chinglish.


First published Dramaturgy Forum 2005




For site-sensitive performance workshops Contact Bill Aitchison Company


For a current site-sensitive production see The Tour Of All Tours


For further site-sensitive projects see, Standard Alert (2004), If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now (2003), Auto-Theatre (2008) and Biennale Foot (2013)