The Power of Site Unspecificity
by Sam Stedman
In its narrowest, modernist definition, site-specificity would seem to imply that the artistic work has some integral connection to the location in which it is situated; that "to move the work is to destroy the work" (Serra 194; qtd. in Kaye 2). In a climate, however, in which such reductive thinking has been repeatedly challenged - that is, each and every work can be seen to have an integral connection to its venue insofar as it is received in its particular context - what can be said of site-specificity? Or, of particular interest here, what can be said of site-unspecificity or site-genericity? By this, I do not mean work in theatre venues like black boxes that strive for an unspecific quality, for to do so would be to accede to the inherited notion that the stage is an empty space ("Empty of what?" one might ask, with a whimsical smirk), waiting to be filled with the transformative magic of theatrical illusion. Rather, I am referring to theatrical situationsin which a venue's generic everydayness has equal or greater interpretive impact upon reception than the specific narrative or cultural baggage by which the venue is marked.
In such cases, the generic everydayness of the venue threatens to exceed containment within the theatrical illusion, thus generating alternative and sometimes competing narratives. Its generic qualities take on a weight of their own, potentially creating a receptive disjunction between work and site. This situation is quite unlike, for instance, that of a work about Don Jail prisoners produced inside the Don Jail, in which work and site are relatively unified by the perception of a more or less authentic connection between them; that is, the show belongs there because it is about, or at the very least set in, that actual place. Though there are many exceptions to this general rule that should rightfully be considered on a case-by-case basis, and it would be appropriate (in a more rigorous study) to consider relation to site on a continuum, with considerable grey area between the poles, there is a generalized operational divide between these two situations that may well guide an audience's reception along different paths.
DNA Theatre, based in Toronto for over two decades, under the artistic direction of the company's founder Hillar Liitoja, has at times made use of generic venues that vigilantly resist this sort of perceived unity between venue and work. Two instances in my almost ten-year history with this company stand out most clearly in memory - Phalanx (1998; remounted in 1999) and Paula and Karl (2001) - although each worked toward different interpretive effects. The majority of Phalanx took place on the streets and alleys and in the parking lots of Toronto, around the King and Bathurst area. Paula and Karl took place in a studio apartment on nearby Niagara Street. Although colonized by theatrical representation, the venues of these environmentally staged productions remained explicitly marked by the everyday functionality of their generic qualities, which often resisted narrative containment by and within the work.
The streets were undeniably still everyday streets that did not respect the fact that a theatrical production was being enacted upon them, as exemplified by the uncontrollable pedestrian and vehicular traffic encountered by spectators and performers alike as they travelled through the city. The apartment housed the generic, utilitarian things that one would expect to find in an average Toronto dwelling. Despite the presence of a consumptive force as formidable as theatrical illusion, incursions of these generic realities into the field of illusion generated non-fictional, self-reflexive narratives that interrupted the typical flow of theatrical reception. The force and disruptive efficacy of such incursions is, of course, largely dependent upon the dramaturgical structure of the performance: its relative conventionality and the degree to which it consistently engrosses an audience's attention.
Let us turn our attention first to Phalanx. After purchasing tickets at Liitoja's house, some of the audience were instructed to wait for the show to begin on the outdoor patio of the Wheat Sheaf, a restaurant/bar at the southwest corner of Bathurst and King Streets. The rest were instructed to assemble in front of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church on the west side of Bathurst, one block north of King. The performance began with a white van screeching to a halt on the street, directly adjacent to the Wheat Sheaf's patio. After a few minutes, the back doors of the van burst open and seven performers emerged, running full speed across the street to the north side of King. Simultaneously, a performer planted on the patio leapt over the low fence separating her from the sidewalk in order to join her compatriots and another performer on a bicycle, her movements precisely choreographed so that she reached the corner at the appropriate moment, dropped the bike and ran north with the others. A general commotion ensued, as spectators hurriedly followed the performance that threatened to leave them behind. The spectators already assembled in front of the church had a different experience, watching the performers and patio-based audience approach them at a rapid pace.
After a few movement sequences performed around, behind and in front of the church, the performers created a statuary tableau in its front courtyard. The five female performers were posed on the front steps of the church "like living vestal virgins" (Walker), while the four male performers took up gargoyle-like positions, off to each side, at the bottom of the stairs. For quite a long time the performers made sharp, minimal movements while the "uninformed" passers-by came and went, trying to make sense of this strange encounter upon which they had stumbled. For most of the show, the nine performers alternated between moving as one, in an adaptation of the ancient Greek phalanx formation, and breaking apart to move independently, exploring a range of motion from running full tilt to standing completely still, occasionally breaking this stillness in short eruptions of precise movement. The audience followed the phalanx through the city as the sun set and the environment changed, stopping here and there as the performance dictated. At certain moments, the white van pulled up and two men emerged to mysteriously abduct the performers, one by one, until there were only three left to lead the audience back to an installation set up inside Liitoja's house, which was the final site of the performance.
Those who witnessed this production were afforded significant opportunity to actively explore their relationship with the various sites. Beginning with the relatively static church-front tableau and throughout much of the rest of the performance, I engaged in the following practices and observed many others do the same:
The urban setting and its inhabitants had become an active part of the work's functioning. The production's unconventional dramaturgy, in combination with the urban nature of the site, invited unconventional interactions between the informed spectators, as well as between these spectators and the uninformed passers-by. The result, for me, was a peculiar kind of self-consciousness; my inhabiting of the site was not comfortable, largely because I was being watched just as I was watching, which activated a perception of the city that could not be adequately framed by the performance taking place within it. As I focused more attention on the uncontained generic reality of the city, a self-reflexive narrative began to develop around my own use of the site/street as both pedestrian and spectator. For instance, at one point I realized that I was (unconsciously) walking in step with the performers and immediately rectified the situation by walking at a different pace in order to separate myself from the performance. In essence, I had been self-consciously alienated from my conventional use of the street, yet I was unable to settle comfortably into a clearly defined new use: I was both pedestrian and theatrical spectator (and performer?), yet neither fully. These competing narratives created an interpretive impasse that stayed with me long after the performance had ended.
Though far more narratively cohesive, a similar phenomenon was at work in Paula and Karl, a hyper-realistic performance, based loosely on the home life of infamous criminals Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Though Phalanx's pulsing reality of urban streets and their users was absent, the generic studio apartment in which Paula and Karl took place had its own equally formidable private reality. The space was furnished like a normal apartment - it was, after all, exactly that - with only a handful of items, including a wedding photo, that were obviously specific to these fictional characters. Such items became increasingly conspicuous for me throughout the production precisely because of their explicit narrative specificity within an otherwise generic landscape.
Abandoned by the usher in this environment twenty minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, again I found myself with ample time to actively negotiate a relationship with the site without the need for strict attention to conventionally fast-paced and high-stakes theatrical action. Karl (James Thomson) was absent from the space, and though Paula's (Veronika Hurnik) everyday activities kept my attention for a little while, the majority of my time was spent tentatively exploring the apartment, in part with the goal of discovering the secrets of Bernardo and Homolka's home life, with an eye to finding some reason or explanation for the crimes committed. What sorts of books did they read, what music did they listen to, and so on?
The performance's unconventional dramaturgy, like that of Phalanx, involved bursts of activity separated by long periods of relative banality. The conventionally high-stakes segments of the action - notably a scene involving sadistic sex play with a dildo - consistently reaffirmed the assumed belief that Bernardo and Homolka were/are highly dysfunctional individuals. This narrative, in turn, reaffirmed the validity of my search for clues that could explain these character traits. Yet my search was fruitless: I discovered nothing but the generic markings of a Toronto apartment and a few character-specific items that certainly did not suggest the heinous criminal activity of the Bernardo/Homolka narrative that I sought. The overarching genericness of the apartment garnered even the wedding photo - which at first recalled for me the wedding photo of Bernardo and Homolka and the cultural anxiety it came to signify through incessant reproduction by the media when the story first broke - with a quality of resistance toward this narrative. The more extensively I searched for environmental explanations (and I made great effort, at one point actually opening the sock and underwear drawer in the bedroom), the more my frustrating lack of satisfactory results focused attention back on my motives for searching in the first place.
Was it my desire - having been overexposed to television crime dramas - to play detective, solving the crime before the fictional detectives could (who, to my surprise, did later arrive and question the couple), thus allowing me a comfortably omniscient role in the execution of justice? But the judicial proceedings had already taken place and I already knew how this story would end: The crimes had already been committed and the perpetrators incarcerated. And was I in any position to pass judgement based on an obviously fictional representation of these real people? Unable to find adequate evidence, had I unwittingly enacted a critique of the culture-wide obsession with causality, one that demands a clear and satisfactory answer to social ills so that we can lock up criminals and throw away the key with a clear conscience, free of any sort of systemic responsibility? These sorts of questions, brought about by the site's lack of specific connection to the overdetermined cultural narrative of Bernardo and Homolka through which all was received, became central to my experience of the production. The venue's lack of specificity consistently interrupted the narrative of dysfunctionality both inherited from the cultural narrative and actively played out by the performers.
Like Phalanx, this production alienated its audience from the conventional uses of its venue without providing an easy alternative, leaving spectators somewhere between being in a generic apartment, where things had a familiar substance and utility, and being on a theatrical set, where we tend to receive the environment in a more symbolic fashion (i.e., a representation of Bernardo and Homolka's apartment, where generic utility strives - and in this instance productively fails - to become hidden meaning). Unlike much site-specific work, in which the specificity of the site feeds cohesively into the work's narrative, the generic quality of these sites invited the construction of narratives that actively and productively resisted completion.
The difference between these two situations, if I may leap to an under-justified conclusion, is that a generic venue has greater potential to avoid reductive interpretations, as well as an enhanced ability to evoke an everyday genericness that remains in vigilant tension with the specificity of any given work, contributing a variety of potentially valuable effects. Though one approach is no better or worse than the other in a general sense, depending as it does on the intended efficacy of the work, the power of the generic venue has much unexplored potential, especially toward the further development of a postmodern political theatre praxis that could productively draw upon disjunctions between site and narrative.
1. A more comprehensive study might seek out the nuanced differences between the variable baggage a site carries and the degree to which it interacts with the narrative of the work.
2. One would want to consider the cultural baggage and conventional use of the venue, the cultural status of the narrative and its degree of perceived fictionality, along with the specific ways in which these elements interact with one another.
3. "The actor, although playing on the tarmac, brings [the footlights] along, thus isolating a little corner of the street and transforming it into a magic circle where yesterday's arrest or strike becomes unreal" (Ubersfeld 27). For more discussion of the theatre's power to colonize and consume reality, see States 29-37
4. Since audiences are extraordinarily familiar with the way in which realism contains aspects of everyday reality within its narrative structure, an exposure of the uncontainable everydayness of a generic venue may require an unconventional dramaturgical approach.
5. This installation was later remounted, independent of its original context, under the title Remnants.
6. I later discovered that the apartment was the everyday dwelling of James Thomson, the actor who played Karl, and the everyday things it housed belonged to him, along with what I presume to be a few of Veronika Hurnik's (Paula) personal items.
7. Audiences have a tendency to make cohesive meaning despite the best efforts of any artist. Such reductions are more likely to occur if they are invited by a perceived conflation of work and venue. On the other hand, when such cohesion is too aggressively withheld from a spectator, especially one with an unbending expectation of satisfactory meaning, she or he may very well reject the work as "bad art." Phalanx was certainly more prone to this unfortunate possibility than Paula and Karl.
Kaye, Nick. Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place, and Documentation.
London: Routledge, 2000.
Serra, Richard. "Tilted Arc Destroyed." Writings, Interviews. Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1994.193-214.
States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology
of Theater. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.
Ubersfeld, Anne. Reading Theatre. Trans. Frank Collins. Toronto
Studies in Semiotics, 3 vols. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999.
Walker, Susan. "Dancers Deliver a Pedestrian Performance."
Performance Review of DNA Theatre's Phalanx. Toronto Star 23
June 1999, Ontario ed.: 013.
Sam Stedman is currently in the final stages of his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto's Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, where his research is focused on the intersections among Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, audience reception and experimental performance praxis. He is also a director and a performer.
CANADIAN THEATRE REVIEW | spring 2006