Michael Fried’s often quoted essay Art and Objecthood1Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, first published in Artforum 5, June 1967. derides the idea of theatricality in art; his term refers to the blending between disciplines, and to the mutable, experiential position of the viewer.2Fried is particularly concerned with the ‘face of painting’; the address to and from the viewer. But a counterbalance to his views on Manet, to take a notable example, are perhaps countered a little in Foucault’s Manet and the Object of Painting, in which a work disrupts and disconcerts the viewer, and places them into the space of the painting-object. It does not stretch his comments too much to say that it suggests a spatialized, ‘installation’ quality in the work. We became aware of how, despite the passing of the years since its publication, his thesis continued to exert a significant hold, and argued against it in our publications3Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry, Installation art, Smithsonian Institution and Thames & Hudson, 1994. Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry, Installation art in the New Millennium: Empire of the Senses, Thames & Hudson, 2003. and exhibitions. Installation moved from a marginal practice to the mainstream in a few short years, and the theatrical aspects noted by Fried, perceived as radical, soon became commonplace markers for a form of art that travelled freely between disciplines and locations.
In the 1980s and 1990s the term ‘site-specific’ had a particular resonance for artists and curators and featured in many large exhibitions including Jan Hoet’s Chambres d’Amis (1986), Mary Jane Jacobs’s Places with a Past (1991), and Kaspar König’s Skulptur Projecte Münster (1987 and 97). Arguably this was not simply due to a rejection of the White Cube, associated with High Modernism, a project relatively defunct by then, but rather with the establishment of Installation as a discipline in its own right. The idea of the Site rapidly became associated with it, as a kind of home in exile. The specificity of the artwork’s place gradually became synonymous with Installation.4The same effect perhaps takes place in the work as well, as the specificity of the artworks a space plays host to begin to accumulate. Even in an archive of works as diverse as this certain broader identities emerge; between the various exhibition spaces, and between certain artists. There are also recurring artists, and other kinds of recurring collaborators. None of these are fixed ‘trends’ in the curatorial practice, but nonetheless form an accumulating narrative. Over time they form ‘sedimentary beds’, as Deleuze and Guattari might say.
The quest for sites also began to open new locations for art in the city. At MOI, we were actively searching for spaces in which projects might happen, as were many other artists, and certain other organisations.5Artangel has perhaps been the organisation most consistently showing site-specific works in Britiain and beyond (1992 to the present). We visited vast inaccessible cold-stores by the river that were pitch-black and freezing, even in Summer, warehouses that had been tipped over onto their sides by explosion, a dilapidated brick cavern hung floor to ceiling with the rarest of traditional oceanian masks and costumes and an old shipwright’s house lacking floors and electricity. Most of these, amazing though they were, proved entirely impractical.6These are spaces that were not used; exhibition spaces of potential energy charged by shows that did not take place. The anti-matter of an archive. All matter relates to antimatter in someway, even if we think about antimatter less often than we do matter. Instead, we craned 6 Portakabins over elevated tubelines to make a group exhibition,7Day for Night (1998) Group exhibition of 5 Installations at Lewisham College grounds, Deptford. encouraged an artist to cut plaster off the wall in one of the vast rooms at the British Museum to reveal a vestigial capital,8Capital (1995), Terry Smith, British Museum, London showed a dray-horse in a glazed shopfront,9Content (1994), Group Exhibition, Blue Circle, London Bridge and suspended 5 miles of gold paper within the towering core of London’s last remaining diorama.10Fall (1991) Adrian Scrivener, Diorama, Regent’s Park, which was then coincidentally programmed by the artist Gillian Wearing. A Diorama is a pre-cinematic space of son & lumiere entertainment. The title Site 1 was always reserved for our gallery base in London, while Sites 2-10 denoted other spaces, in London and elsewhere. Accordingly, the gallery was also considered as a location, rather than as a place of suspension, devoid of content; we came to realise that the idea of the gallery was arguably the most challenging topic to address when exhibiting Installation.11The exhibition models we developed later bear out this argument; when researching a project, the gallery is initially addressed as a problematic space, rather than confirmed as the work’s immediate home. The expanded field of curatorial practice has taught us that all manner of other spaces have an equal claim to the display of works: books, publications, film-screenings, broadcasts and the like.
By the late 1990s, the association with particular spaces used to generate content and context for the work had begun to give way to a different correlation, this time not spatial but social. The project Architecture Parallax (2003) organised by MOI with the Brazilian artist Alexander Pilis aptly captured both the idea of the site and its social context.12Another version of the work was shown in the previous year at the Bienal de Sao Paulo; there, the work was confined to the renowned pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer. By contrast, the London Project was not based in a single institution or location and included Tate Modern, the Laban Centre, the London Eye, Creative Perfumers, The Old Operating Theatre, the Greenwich Planetarium and the Sir John Soane Museum. Seven London locations agreed to participate; these were visited by the audience, made up of visually impaired and sighted people, and aided by an interlocutor or guide who recounted his/her own personal experience and story of the place.13The guides were selected and paired with particular sites; for example, the Taxi Driver knew London intimately as a horizontal experience, whilst, in the London Eye, he described the city through circular, vertical motion, perhaps reminiscent of the famous division of its denizens by Philosopher Michel de Certeau into writers – active within the crowd, at street-level – and readers who are given high vantage points and observe the activity, the doing from a detached distance. (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984, op.cit.) These included a black cab driver, a cognitive psychologist, an architect, a perfumer and so on. The visits were filmed by four cameras, each occupying a cardinal point, with a fifth roving freely; the resulting 26 hour footage was later rendered into simultaneous, multiscreen projections. Though the blind audience could not see the spaces, they were narrated to them, whilst, for the sighted viewers, the narrative distracted them from what was visible.14Julien Gracq argues that language ‘opens a distant horizon to life, while the image bewitches and immobilizes it’. (Julien Gracq, Reading Writing, Jeanine Herman (trans.), Turtle Point Press, New York, 1980, p.4.) Here, the artwork was not presented as an object of contemplation, but as a space of social experience.
The method of using the city as a mobile stage had its first trial in Berlin, for the project Seven Walks (1993), which also witnessed a blending of the roles of the curator and the artist(s).15Participants included Jeremy Wood, Camilla Wilson, Nicola Oxley and Nicolas de Oliveira. The exhibition was held at ‘From our Empty Rooms’ located in a former nunnery in Lindenstrasse, Berlin. Although not our first visit to the city, it remained nonetheless an unfamiliar place, well suited for a process of mapping; the city was treated in the manner of a palimpsest, to be re-inscribed by physical walking, projection and remembrance. The evidence was transcribed to large sheets of arcane carbon-copy paper, which were backlit and displayed on panes of glass.
In this instance, the site was not presented as a stable, historical and social entity, but rather as an abstract, hypothetical stage that housed an event. The site, in short, moved from revealing content to becoming a technique (of the artist).
Vanishing City (2001), an exhibition of 24 local and international artists at Programa Art Centre, Mexico City, took this premise a step further. The exhibition proposed a hypothetical city, in the way of Italo Calvino’s celebrated book Invisible Cities,16Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1972 to be populated by certain characters devised by the curatorial team and enacted by the artists selected for the show, but whose identity remained undisclosed. Each artist in Mexico was paired with another from Europe or North America, but remained oblivious to the rest of the group until they reached their destination.17A large Hacienda in Tepoztlan, 2 Hours outside Mexico City, curiously the film-location of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), itself a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). These pairs were encouraged to begin a dialogue well before their first meeting.18The concept was derived from French Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Rivette’s film Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), based on novelist Honoré de Balzac’s Histoire des Treize Stories (1833-35) in which each character’s identity remains hidden from the other 12; through plots and subplots, the characters become obsessed with uncovering the identities of the other members of this secret society.
The divergent approaches to the site were arrived at- and added to- by daily discussions between the artists, the curators and guest speakers (one of whom was a celebrated Nahuatl poet, who insisted on speaking only his native language throughout the proceedings; he later gave tours of the exhibition in this ancient Mexican language. Some of the artists were disappointed that they were asked to make works, when they were quite happy to continue the discussion. The site ceased to be a place that could be mined for historical or local context, instead turning into a productive event.19A site-object, to adapt the terms used by the philosophers mentioned above.