Curators in Context Response - Site-Specific and Off-Site    Andrew James Paterson



The term “site-specific” (“in situ“) has become quite prevalent in art world circles and systems over the last forty years or so. It refers to art, installed inside or outside of traditional gallery settings, which specifically engages in a dialogue or relationship with its immediate environment or its site of installation. Now one might argue that all art must engage in such a dialogue with its host sites, even big traditional or historical paintings hanging on the classical white walls. Indeed, the practice of curation has always involved paying attention to installation.


However, “site-specific” art generally refers to art that engages in immediate dialogue with its location. Inside an institution or gallery, this means that the particular installation or object comments on and even possibly critiques its host — not only the room or the space within the gallery but also the institution’s history, its relationship with audiences and neighbouring communities, and more. Site-specific art within institutions tends to address the power dynamics and aesthetics of the host institution, drawing attention to its own relationship with the ongoing operation of that institution. Site-specific art inside galleries is often, but not always, temporary. Site-specific curation inside galleries can involve play or intervention with the gallery’s collection, and therefore with its history and its public image.


Site-specific art both inside and outside of galleries has coincided with an increased emphasis on curators and on curating and curation. As the role of the curator has shifted radically away from its traditional definition of keeper and custodian of the collection, curators have been employed to create programming which should constitute a specific exhibition, which should engage an audience verbally and visually. This means that the installation of the exhibition is of premium importance, and that the room or space itself is a key component of this exhibition. Jan Allen, in her dissertation for the Curators in Context conference, uses the word “resonance” to considerable effect. Each individual component of the exhibition must itself resonate, in order for the entire exhibition to resonate. “Resonance” is an audio-rooted word and, in using it, Allen is referring to how audiences should be able to listen to the works in the show even when those works are silent (or about silencing). “Resonance” also implies that there must be space for individual audience members to do their looking and listening, even when the exhibition itself is social or performative by nature. Without an appropriate room tone, or foundation, the structure is by definition flawed.


“Site-specific” is also sometimes used to mean “off-site”, although the two phrases are not actually synonymous. Off-site exhibitions are sometimes classified under the rubric of “New Genre Public Art” (see Mapping the Terrain: New Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy, Bay Press, San Francisco, 1995). Sometimes off-site art can be seen as a variant of “relational art” in which the art itself is the space between the artist and the audience and which for some can be most effectively realized outside of a gallery or institutional space. But while new genre public art does overwhelmingly occur in public rather than private spaces (there is an unspoken assumption here that gallery spaces are private even when they are not commercial or privately managed), site-specific art can be exhibited or performed in any location where the location itself is addressed by the installation or performance. In general, new genre public art tends to involve collaborations between artists and members of specific communities, unlike much of what could be labelled site-specific or in situ art.


A few of the curators at the CIC conference drew clear-cut demarcations between what is suitable for programming inside their galleries and what could best (or only) be programmed outside or at a site-specific location. Leanne L’Hirondelle, of the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, differentiates between what is suitable within her institution’s mandate and what has to be curated outside those walls. This distinction involves her desire to situate exhibitions where they can be visible to non-art audiences, to those who either haven’t got the time or the inclination to attend galleries. L’Hirondelle also speaks of the bureaucratic processes necessary with regard to gallery programming, and of the possibility of bypassing those bureaucratic quagmires by means of off-site initiatives that can be quickly organized. Thus, L’Hirondelle strategically divides her curatorial practice between the institutional and the independent.


Dermot Wilson of WKP Kennedy in North Bay is another believer in the power of off-site installation. Wilson cites Mikhail Bakhtin‘s dictum that ”it is only within the viewer where art and life can mingle” but goes on to opine that “in many of us this integration becomes mechanical when there is no interpenetration between the two” (“Ordinary Resistance Through Displacement: A Discussion of Intervention and Curatorial Practice, Dermot Wilson, CIC, Banff, 2005) Wilson uses the phrase “ordinary resistance” to refer to an anti-spectacle — his own and others’ suspicion of what becomes subsumed in The Spectacle (large-scale site-specific artists such as Christo, for example). Wilson cites art-oppositional precedents such as the Russian Constructivists, The Dadaists, and the Situationist International — he does not refer to new genre public art or relational aesthetics. His not unspoken assumption is that the museum has collapsed or become redundant. Well, yes, the museum has indeed been thoroughly discredited, but museums still exist and still employ people — including curators who must work within their mandates and curate site-specific installations and exhibitions for which the institution itself is the specific site. Audiences still like to pay their admission fees and to go to the museum.


Montreal-based Marie Fraser is another curator who prefers to situate her practice outside of galleries — in urban and public space. Implicit here is an equation of institutions with “private”, even though Fraser has curated in collaboration with artist-run spaces and makes it clear that she bears no animosity toward institutions. Like Wilson, Fraser sees the public realm as being more “real” — she prefers artistic practices and performances to be integrated into the everyday. Fraser specifically appreciates small performative gestures in spaces generally taken for granted by urban citizens and tourists. She advocates intervention without usurpation or any form of destruction, noting that “Such exhibits have the potential to become public spaces, spaces for negotiation, a type of platform.” (Marie Fraser, “Exhibit as Platform, abstract, CIC, Toronto, 2005). Fraser’s definition of “platform” allows for interaction or social interstice between curator, artist, and audience. It also encourages interplay between artist and audience after the curator has stepped aside and let things proceed without controlling presence. Like Wilson, Fraser defines audiences as being composed of individuals as well as groups or crowds.


Tagny Duff describes another incidence of an extremely ephemeral site-specific exhibition or performance. In Time Zones, Duff curated two performances by Cuban artists Glenda Leon and Tania Bruguera. The latter produced Vigilantes: a dream of reason, a series of in-flight performances on airplanes between Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago, and also an artists’ booklet publication. Bruguera made three trips, and “ the plane was the site of her performance intervention, and so there was no audience except for the people who were sitting next to her on the plane, and also myself via conversation on a cell phone before take off and upon landing” (Tagny Duff, “Performing the Curator: Staging Unstable Relationships, CIC., Toronto, 2005). Duff is highlighting many unstable relationships intrinsic to off-site and indeed to relational art — the fluctuating and sometimes volatile relationships between artist, curator, location, institution, and audience, as well as the fact that subtle and even unsubtle gestures are visible to some members of “the public” and not to others. Somebody in one aisle can be an audience member while somebody in the next aisle will remain oblivious. This clandestine performance is and is not in a public space — air travel may well be accessible to anybody who can afford it. However, not only are airplanes owned by mega-corporations, but the very idea of “intervention” on an airplane course suggests such loaded verbs and nouns as “hijack”, “terrorist” and all the other bad words that Bruguera, Duff, and others are committed to deflating. Also, parallel to much ephemeral and performative art, the documentation of the event — the artists’ publication — will be available to a much wider audience than the performative gesture itself.


Career Bureaucrats A and B have emerged from another extended coffee (or perhaps gin- and-tonic) break. They have heard strategic separations between on and off-site exhibition and curatorial practice before.



A: Yes, well now that the museum has been demolished. I mean, really? Discredited, perhaps. But “demolished” is a big word.


B: It seems so final.


A: People have been talking about the death of the museum, the death of the institution, and the death of art for so long.


B: And they don’t mean death at all. They mean regeneration or rebirth. Art is always dying so that it can be born again.


A: Art is a vampire — it needs to eat its own blood in order to survive.


B: Very good, A. Anti-art movements are by definition art movements. What’s the Guy Debord Situationist quote about Dada and Surrealism?


A: “Dadaism sought to abolish art without realizing it, and Surrealism sought to realize art without abolishing it. The critical position since worked out by the situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art.”


B: So…one is making art while one is not making art. One is outside the art-system while inside it, because one can never be outside of art systems even when one is literally working outside them, or off-site.


A: Right. And… simplistic separations between on and off-site — what belongs inside and what can only be outside the gallery — are also problematic. Agreed, B?


B: Well, yes and no. Site specific is specific to the site, wherever the site may be _ the site that must be contested or rebooted or whatever.


A: But stating that art and life can only be genuinely integrated outside of galleries and identifiable art institutions…isn’t that just reinforcing the initial separation?


B: Art-Art is inside and Life-Art is outside. Oh yes, A. We are getting into serious binaries here. I mean, there are independently minded curators working inside public galleries and museums…and even artist-run centres…who would at least like to think they have some licence to play with the sites of their employers’ institutions themselves.


A: Dermot Wilson rhetorically posits — he doesn’t declare — that, since so many public artists are not primarily concerned with aesthetics … .


B: Hmmmmm…I wouldn’t make that generalization.


A: Since so many public artists are not primarily concerned with aesthetics, then does the gallery becomes a sort of repository for aesthetics?


B: Surely he’s not drawing a binary between reality outside and beauty inside?


A: Well…no. Wilson is speaking rhetorically — he’s set something in motion and now he wants to see where it’s leading. That’s what curators tend to do.


B: But beauty is of course such a relativist term, despite the classicists and their illegitimate cousins. What about institutional curators who play with expectations of beauty, not necessarily by inserting ugliness or reality in between art objects long classified as “beautiful”, but by juxtaposing oppositional definitions of “beautiful”, by mixing up their collections, or by making subtle curatorial interventions into sections of public galleries and even museums that audiences have been taking for granted for all eternity?


A: Well, yes, audience expectations. And what audiences are we talking about here, B? Those looking for affirmation in the mirror or those seeking out a little creative distortion?


B: Both, and more, A. Audiences that stumble over or into some displaced work that makes them wonder just what the hell is wrong with the picture. That, to me, is creative site-specific programming just as much as is the creation of what Hakim Bey calls Temporary Autonomous Zones inside or outside the building.



The two idling bureaucrats realize that they’ve run full circle when they find themselves referring to both Hakim Bey and audiences. Public galleries and museums, in both smaller and larger cities, are interested in exhibiting hot (usually) younger artists, and they employ curators who have their finger on those crucial pulses. Up-and-coming stars are good for the turnstiles, or a gallery’s public image. And not many of the widely known and rising artists of the last twenty years are makers of easily identifiable object art. Exhibitions are often not easily categorized by that catch-all term “installation“. “Trailer” has become an au courant term for many contemporary exhibitions (see Anthony Kiendl, Unspoken Assumptions About Curatorial Practice, CIC, Banff,  referring to Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, les presses du reel, 1998).  “Trailer” announces a big work to be completed — a film, a performance, a production — but the parts are never assembled into any whole comprising an object. Anybody expecting the dots to be connected doesn’t get it.


Many of today’s art stars create environments, making social art that encourages dialogue and discourse, often in relation to subject concerns but never with a propagandistic or heavily didactic tone. They may possibly deploy the white walls of the gallery but not to showcase traditional art objects.


 And it is the galleries’ responsibility to give audiences what they want or are likely to enjoy in order to bring people through the front door. So “relational art, art in which the art is theoretically the space between its creator(s) and its audience(s), has been au courant in high-profile galleries for nearly a couple of decades now, as this term can and does serve as an umbrella to describe the practices of many renowned and becoming-renowned artists. And these exhibitions are site-specific, in at least their uniqueness within the gallery and in comparison to the walls and walls of historical paintings and monumental sculptures and photographs et cetera. Many current stars and artists on the rise within the art world deploy particular familiar materials, but are neither restricted nor attached to them. Their exhibitions and installations cannot be conveniently labeled painting or sculpture or video or whatever. They are often a “living art” which is not performance per se but is performative. Michelle Jacques and Janna Graham refer to the relatively recent Swintak and Luis Jacob residencies at the AGO, in which these artists respectively brought their studio practices literally into a room in the gallery in order to “create a situation where we wanted to engage the public, and who were thinking about what it meant to interact socially in a public place like a museum”.  (Michelle Jacques and Janna Graham, “Aestheticizing Relationships or…Which Comes First, The Relational or the Aesthetics?” CIC, Toronto, 2005)


How successful are these exhibitions? What are the criteria for success? Do in-site and site-specific installations genuinely create Temporary Autonomous Zones or micro-communities within the grand old institutions — spaces in which audience members can enter into fresh and exciting discourses with other audience members in tandem with the exhibition(s) (which might well confuse those who have come to the gallery looking for “beauty” or the familiar)? Do these exhibitions challenge the visitor’s expectations of seeing themselves reflected in their usual familiar mirrors? Or do visitors attempt to make heads and tails of these temporary installations by rising art stars and ultimately shrug their shoulders while passing through to one of the neighbouring rooms in the gallery? Well, there are audiences and then there are audiences. Process art, relational art, whatever the terms — audiences are necessary to complete what the artists and curators have set into play. However, not all audiences complete equations in unison. If an exhibition site does succeed in forming a temporary community of sorts, will that micro-community be reflective of macro-communities, which are characterized by tension and even hostility as well as agreement and harmony?