SSW 06: Site Writing

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

01.11.2010 15 - 17 : SSW Session 06: SITE WRITING


Site Substantive or Transitive

'Site': substantive. local position .. The place or position occupied by some specified thing. Frequently implying original or fixed position.

'Site': 1. transitive. To locate, to place. 2. intransitive. To be situated or placed.

“If one accepts the proposition that the meanings of utterances, actions and events are affected by their 'local position', by the situation if which they are part, then a work of art [and a text about art], too, will be defined in relation to its place and position..

Reflecting thi notion, semiotic theory proposes, straightforwardly, that reading implies 'location'. To 'read' the sign is to have located the signifier, to have recognised its place within the semiotic system.

One can go on from this to argue that the location, in reading, of an image, object, or event, its positioning in relation to political, aesthetic, geographic, institutional, or other discourses, all inform what 'it' can be said to be.

Site-specificity, then, can be understood in terms of this process, while a 'site-specific work' might articulate and define itself through properties, qualities or meanings produced in specific relationships between an 'object' or 'event' and a position in occupies.

After the 'substantive' notion of site, such site-specific work might even assert a 'proper' relationship with its location, claiming an 'original and fixed position' associated with what it is.”

(Kaye, 2000: p.1)

In engaging with minimalist art which aimed to problematise notions of fixed or original location, 'Site-specificy', as the critic Douglas Crimp defines it is not resolved into the special characteristics of the object or event's specific position, but occurs in a displacement of the viewer's attention toward the situation in which the viewer and the object or event occupies..

Which emphasises the transitive definition of site (to location, to place), forcing a self-conscious and reflexive action on the viewer to do so.

(Kaye, 2000: p.2)

Further this transitory creation of site (engaging with the work or event temporarily) includes the beholder, time and space, and so becomes theatrical and a performative act.

This encourages Kaye to consider site-specificity with an emphasis on performance,

“prompted by a reconsideration of the operation of language in relation to location and site.

Indeed, where the location of the signifier maybe read as being performed by the reader, then the functioning of language provides an initial model for the performance of place.”

(Kaye, 2000: p.3)

Smithson's Dialectic of Site & Non-site

“Robert Smithson's dialectice of 'site' (non-gallery) and 'non-site' (gallery), developed in the 1960s and early 1970s, could be described as the first exploration of relational sites through art practice.”

(Rendall, Jane. 2006: 16)

“I was sort of interested in the dialogue between the indoor and the outdoor and on my own, after getting involved in it this way, I developed a method or a dialectic that involved what I call site and non-site … so I decided that I would set limits in terms of this dialogue (its a back and forth rhythm that moves between indoos and outdoors).”

(Robert Smithson, quoted in Rendall, Jane. 2006: 24)


Site Non-site
1. Open Limits 1. Closed Limits
2. A Series of Points 2. An Array of Matter
3. Outer coordinates 3. Inner coordinates
4. Subtraction 4. Addition
5. Indeterminate Certainty 5. Determinate Certainty
6. Scattered information 6. Contained information
7. Reflection 7. Mirror
8. Edge 8. Centre
9. Some Place (physical) 9. No Place (abstract)
10. Many 10. One

Robert Smithson, extract from footnotes, 'The Spiral Jetty' (1972); reprinted in Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, revised edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) 152-3.


According to Rendall, the implication is that site is assigned the more privileged position in the relationship (Rendall, Jane. 2006: 25),

and Smithson's “incapacity, or reluctance, to simulate this location in the gallery” (Kaye, Nick. 2000: 92).

“Rather than describe the site as a given topography or geography, Smithson recalls a particular kind of encounter, a certain perceptual exposure.

Thus he proposes in returning from the site, '[t]he artist who is physically engulfed tries to give evidence of this experience through a limited (mapped) revision of the original unbounded state'

(Smithson 1996a: 104)

“In its designation a location's specific properties, its limits and boundaries,

the Non-Site effects precisely the kind of imposition in whose suspension Smithson supposes the site is experienced.

Even in so far as the Non-Site casts the very idea of a work over a specific site, then it threatens to efface precisely that unbounded state Smithson seeks to map.

Here, in fact, the Non-Site reproduces the gallery's contradictory attempt to recollect, and so limit, the 'dedifferentiated' site.

Thus, where the experience of site is one of a limitlessness, the Non-Site establishes itself as a limiting mechanism, a differentiation, whose effec is not so much to expose the site as to erase it.

Smithson observes that '[t]he site has no seeming limits, but the Non-Site points to the site.

In a sense the Non-Site, although it points to it, effaces this particular region' (Smithson and Wheeler 1996: 198).”

Smithson's Non-Site points to the site, by exposing the limits and operation of the gallery itself, and the different functions of the art object and the gallery.

“Whereas the experience of site is of material scattered, Smithson notes, the 'bins or containers of my Non-Sites gather in the fragments .. exposing the absence of the site.”

(Kaye, Nick: 2000: 94)

Jane Rendall's Site Writing

“… In postmodern feminism new ways of knowing and being have been discussed in spatial terms, using words such as mapping, locating, situating, positioning and boundaries.

Employed as critical tools, spatial metaphors constitute powerful political devices for examining the relation between identity and place.

Where I am makes a difference to who I can be and what I can know.

For example,
Donna Harraway's 'situated knowledges'
Jane Flax's 'standpoint theory'
and Elspeth Probyn's notion of 'locality'

all use 'position' to negotiate such ongoing theoretical disputes as the essentialism [some knowledge that underpins everything, the essential] / constructionism [that which is constructed through socialised experience and culture] debate.

In bell hooks' passionate claim for the margin to be understood and occupied as a place of radical difference, the exploitation of race, class and gender identieis is explicitly spatialised.

And in Rosi Braidotti's figure of the 'nomadic subject', a spatial state of movement describes an epistemological condition, a kind of knowingness (or unknowingness) that refuses fixity.

I am interested in how art criticism can engage with these concerns and investigate the spatial and often changing positions between works, the sites they are located in and the standpoints we occupy as critics materially, conceptually and ideaologically.”

Hal Foster, when discussing the need to rethink critical distance, warns about the differences in distance gained from optical and tactile senses..

Seeing and touching..

Where-as another critic, Howard Caygill, argues that

“there is no position outside the work from which the critic may make a judgement; rather a critic may make a discrimintate judgement by adopting a position at a moment of externality where the work 'exceeds itself' and 'abuts on experience'.

Strategic critique may use such moments in order to locate the work, and although Caygill does not acknowledge them as such, such proceedures are intrinsically spatial:

'Strategic critique moves between teh work and its own externality situating the work in the context of experience, and being in its turn situated by it.”

Rendall writes that “few critics have taken a close interest in the experience of an encounter with a work” … and..

“From the close-up to the glance, from the caress to the accidental brush, my interest in the site of the encounter with art investigates the spatial qualities of relations.”

“To move beyond notions of judgement and discrimination in criticism to consider questions of relation and encounter,

involves objective and subjective modes of enquiry as well as the taking of distance and intimate positions.

Italo Calvino has explicitly explored the relation the writer has to his/her writing in terms of different subject identities of 'I's. And Roland Barthes has described his choice of authorial voice in terms of four regimes:

including an 'I', the pronoun of self,
a 'he', the pronoun of distance,
and a 'you', a pronoun which can be used in a self-accusatory fashion or to seperate the position of the writer from the subject.

Feminists in cultural, literary and post-colonial criticism, such as Helene Cixous and Gloria Anzaldua, have woven the autobiographical into the critical in their text, combining poetic writing with theoretical analysis to articulate hybrid voices.

Yet fewer writers have acknowledged the position of the writing subject, the place of the personal and the role of the autobiographical in art criticism.

From those who theorise to those who tell stories,
from those who list items to those who describe personal memories,
from the dictionary definitions to records of informal conversations,
from artist's statements to critic's observations,
from the walk through the gallery to an alternative space from which to imagine a work,

my interest is the multiplicity of voice and variation of standpoint.

Such an approach can draw upon the remembered, the dreamed and the imagined,

as well as observations of the real, and challenges criticism as a form of knowledge

with a singular and static point of view located in the hear and now.

What happens when discussions concerning site-specificity extend
to involve art criticism,
and the spatial qualities of the writing become
as important in conveying meaning as the content of criticism?

My [Rendall's] suggestion is that this kind of criticism has concerns that go beyond writing about 'art'.

In operating as a mode of practice in its own right, this critical writing questions the terms of reference that relate the critic to teh artwork positioned 'under' critique.

This writing is spatial, it is active writing that constructs as well as traces the sites between
critic and writer,
artist and writer,
artist and artwork,
viewer and reader”

(Rendall, Jane. 2005a: 169-71)

“The sites explored are the material, emotional, political and conceptual settings of the artwork's construction, exhibition and documentation, as well as those remembered, dreamed and imagined.”

(Rendall, Jane. 2010)


Example: You Tell Me

“This is an essay written for the Kunsthalle, Thun in Switzerland, for a show called ‘(hi)story’ (2005) including the work of four artists: Jananne Al-Ani, Tracey Moffatt, Adriana Varejao, and Richard Wentworth.

In this piece of criticism I do a number of things:
I adopt different positions – in relation to the artists, and the figures, objects and spaces, which feature as the subject matter of their work. I set my own remembered spaces as parallel places, and through imagination I enter the work. I create different relationships with the artists, and the figures in their work, using first, second and third person pronouns, showing that the critic is not ‘outside’ the art, but in some ways already within it, attempting to re-evaluate or rethink what we might called critical judgment or discrimination, and in so doing to create a new kind of practice of art criticism.”

References shared in this session:

Docherty, Claire. (2010), Situations, Documents of Contemporary Art series, London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.

Kaye, Nick. (2000), Site-specific Art: Performance, place and documentation.

Rendall, Jane. (2005a). 'Site-Writing', in Sharon Kivland, Jasper Joseph-Lester and Emma Cocker (eds.), Transmission; Speaking and Listening, vol. 4 (Sheffield: Site Gallery, 2005) 169-71. Extract published in Docherty, Claire. (2010).

Rendall, Jane. (2005b). You Tell Me, Self-published. URL:

Rendall, Jane. (2006). Art and Architecture: A place between. London: I.B.Tauris.

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