One Place After Another (Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity)

By Josephine Berry, 28 November 2002

At face value, ‘site-specificity’ in art might seem like a fairly innocuous subject of investigation. After all, the term has been part of common art parlance since the ’60s and the artwork’s escape from the white-cube penitentiary a fact hardly worth stating. Miwon Kwon’s excavation of the origins of site-specific art and its subsequent multiple mutations reveals, however, anything but a set of obvious truths. In effect, Kwon’s book traces a certain current in the fraught history of art’s ‘democratisation’, here premised on its placement in public space.

It is the complex contestation of public space, its function as an ideological football, which this history partly reveals. For Kwon, it moves from the minimalists’ exploration of non-art space in its most literal sense (the physicality of the gallery and beyond it), through the ’70s creation of art-as-public space (basically, art as glorified street furniture), to the community-based art of the ’80s and beyond in which public space is primarily conceived in social terms. In examining the vying discourses around how art should occupy public space, and how/if it should reflect and dialogue with its attendant community, Kwon effectively steps into the hornet’s nest of the ‘direct democracy’ debate. How can political/aesthetic representation avoid dangerous distortions, and, conversely, is it possible to find a common language in which difference can be indefinitely preserved? By extension, Kwon, in dialogue with her own critical community asks, what is the role of the artist vis-àvis the expression of a community and its interests?

Is the community artist, as Kwon’s primary interlocutor Grant Kester would have it, comparable to the self-serving delegate who ‘claims the authority to speak for the community in order to empower himself, politically, professionally and morally’? Is Critical Art Ensemble’s pessimistic view of the community artist as agent of the commodification and reification of marginal groups universally applicable? Does community art perform a disciplinary function which can be compared to community policing, as the Chicagoan community artist Iñigo Monglano-Ovalle believes?

Kwon defers conclusions but does offer prescriptions. Rightly identifying that what is at stake is the very definition of community, she turns to Jean-Luc Nancy (academia’s current favourite authority on such matters) to provide her with philosophical conclusions. Community, claims Nancy, is not premised on ‘common being’, a kind of ontological resemblance, but upon ‘being-incommon’, the sharing of social relations. For Kwon, community art should selfreflexively explore the inoperative nature of community – making it and unmaking it by turns. For Kwon, this inoperability of community maps perfectly onto the deterritorialisation of place within the flux of globalised techno-capitalism. Her conclusion is that site-specific art should develop a highly relational sensibility – to be ‘out of place with punctuality and precision.’

Given this conclusion, it is a great shame that Kwon’s book is not itself more appositely out of place. Her narration of a nearly exclusively US art history avoids any self-reflexive positioning of its own, and seems to make the assumption that this US art canon is the orthodoxy. Also, given her stated endorsement of ‘collective artistic praxis’ as against ‘community-based art’, it seems extraordinary that this history doesn’t even touch on collective articulations of political and cultural community such as graffiti, dance cultures or the collective enunciations of struggle. If Kwon’s book was less of an academic operator, its own resultant inoperability might make it a far more provocative proposition.

One Place after Another : Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity // Miwon Kwon // MIT Press // June 2002 // 200 pp // ISBN: 0262112655 // hb £22.50

Josephine Berry <josie AT> is a freelance writer and deputy editor of Mute