Location as Material

by Caitlin

“Working with site has something to do with the encounter of ghosts.”

Tom Burr, Artist

A Cloud in the Fog, Bruno Humberto

A Could in the Fog, Bruno Humberto

Spending the weekend in the process of critically situating my practice, or counter practice, to take a leaf from Andrea Fraser’s description of her work, I have been looking into the history of site specific art work, alongside the movement of context art.

The term “site-specific art” is still controversial because there is dissention as to whether it applies to work made specifically for a site (e.g. a public art sculpture such as Richard Serra’s works or Gormley’s Angel of the North or the Trafalgar Square Empty Plinth initiative) or to work made in response to and encounter with, a site. The latter is the process and practice that I am most interested in taking into account when developing new works. It is an approach that takes into accounts the frameworks, identities, functions, meanings and ghosts of site, when considering the installation of work to a specific site.

Site response in art occurs when the artist is engaged in an investigation of the site as part of the process in making the work. The investigation will take into account geography, locality, topography, community (local, historical and global), history (local, private and national). These can be considered to be “open source” – open for anyone’s use and interpretation. This process has a direct relationship to the art works made, in terms of form, materials, concept etc. Of course, artists, like anyone else, respond to these “raw materials” in individual ways.

Artist Tom Burr, describes location, or site as material. I too consider site as material, and am interested in the psyche of space. The stories that are situated in a particular location, object, material or even spatial memory. Situating my practice outside of the critical and social confines of the White Cube, invites a plurality of engagement. Art outside the White Cube provides a public and more inclusive access for people from wide walks of life to interact, challenge, dismantle, play with, deface, obfuscate, or remove my work by the audience; the wider public. Such site specific positioning  builds on the premise of Context Art, which is the role of art as an actor in shaping social reality. Context art, examines the context behind the content of art. This means that artists working under this term, examine social, economic, political, linguistic, psychological frameworks that inevitably shape the individual and society. Context art is important, as this practice builds on practices from the 1960’s, such as Situation Aesthetics, Situationism, Minimalism, Earth Art, Environment Art and Relational Aesthetics, that critique and challenge the dominant commercial art voice and space; that of the White Cube.

Artist, Philosopher and Critic Peter Weibel summarises Context Art below.

“It is no longer purely about critiquing the art system, but about critiquing reality and analyzing and creating social processes. In the ’90s, non-art contexts are being increasingly drawn into the art discourse. Artists are becoming autonomous agents of social processes, partisans of the real. The interaction between artists and social situations, between art and non-art contexts has led to a new art form, where both are folded together: Context art. The aim of this social construction of art is to take part in the social construction of reality.”

I am linking together key concepts that underpin my work as an artist. These key conceptual frameworks include Art as Social Practice, Context Art, Site-Specific installation, Durational Performance, Situation Aesthetics and Relational Aesthetics. Although different, there are similarities that run through all these theoretical frameworks. The commonality, is that a site specific, and especially art situated in the public sphere pushes against what Brian O Doherty (1976) describes as exclusive in his essay against the White Cube gallery space in Inside the White Cube.

“Aesthetics are turned into a kind of social elitism, the gallery space is exclusive……Never was a space so designed to accommodate the prejudices and enhance the self image of the upper middle classes, so efficiently codified.”

Brian O Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 1976

Aware that contemporary art is often situated within the upper middle class codes of economic elitism, and the ascription of value to what arguably often has none or at little, apart from the cultural capital assigned to it by nepotistic critics, I am keen to disassociate myself from this sphere of a capitalist and selective materiality.  Instead through my practice I examine possibilities for enhanced, more nuanced and experiential interactions and exchanges with site, language and ultimately each other. I am motivated to create works that invite participation, communication and generosity. So this is about situating works in public spaces that use a range of mediums (currently sound and digital interactivity) that invite people to alter their monotony, to share their stories, perspectives and emotions; to co author the sensory re definition and re use of their public space. My work is also concerned with describing and defining transience and temporality. What is good rarely lasts, and so it lasts in memory. Two artists describe what I’m trying to get at here. Allan Kaprow, artist, lecturer and founder of the term Happenings, describes a characteristic of site specific processes and installations as “Small gestures in Specific Places.” Post Minilmalist, Robert Smithson has a description for relationship of site to work, which acknowledges the transient nature of experience of art over the the more permanent nature of possession of art. “Once you get there, there’s no destination……the site is evading you, all the while it’s directing you to it.”

Allan Kaprow’s happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963

Allan Kaprow’s happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963

It is this impermanence that I am interested in incorporating into my work. Sometimes there, sometime not. Unpredictable and scarce. Special because of it’s inconsistent presence. Delicate, curious and removed. Intimate yet distant. This work of mine does not live in the walls of the White Cube, but in the collective conscience and day to day of the pavement, the road, the wall. All those forgotten spaces, redundant but for hidden dreams and unclaimed desires are where my work belongs. Free to claim for all, outside of the critical gaze and narcissism of the gallery, the white wall, the white cube. It is the voice of the many, dissonant, rowdy, delicate and crude. There is space to use art as a framework to create new methods of relating to space, each other and identity.