Eoghan McTigue, 'Taking Place', CIRCA Magazine, Winter 1999

The title Taking Place1 collapses the terminology of 'site' and 'event'; it suggests that one is always implicit in the other. At the same time, containing a verb, the title implies that the job is never quite completed; it suggests a continuous and open-ended interplay between the space of the site and the activity of the event. Looking at art projects for public spaces from the point of view of events seems pertinent at the moment for two reasons. The first is that a lot of what has been commissioned recently and what has passed under the rubric of 'public art' either has been installed for a temporary period or the artwork itself has specific temporal aspects to its form. In either case the work has to be experienced by its audience in a given space for a limited amount of time. A second reason is that while there is an aggressive assertiveness, implicit in the title, that characterises a lot of today's site-related artworks, the more progressive of these initiatives are the ones that address the logic of 'the site' in a critical manner. They address 'site-specificity' as an active mechanism that situates the audience in a dynamic relationship to the representation of the site as put forward by the work. The 'event' of the reception of the work becomes not only a focal point in the work's meaning but, in some cases, an active and conditioning element of its form.

In a recent analysis of the shifting emphases 'site-specific' practices have undergone over the past 30 years, Miwon Kwon has registered the overlapping conditions and contradictions that have characterised the use of the term.2 To be 'site-specific' used to mean being responsive to a set of given determinants, be they topographical, cultural or social; it used to mean subordinating and tying the art produced to a predetermined context, where meaning was fixed. Similarly, the combination of the site and the artwork was together to generate a meaning that was unique and therefore unrepeatable in other contexts. Today, however, as the concept of 'the site' continues to expand in an electronic age and as the constituency of publics increases as new communities are identified, the question of how to reintroduce cultural specificity without resorting to some blindly nostalgic, pre-representational notion of 'place', and without surrendering to a nomadic indifference, remains a continuing concern. Commenting on the distinguishing characteristics of today's "site-oriented" art, Kwon suggests that now the artwork needs to engage in a process of "double mediation"; it needs to inhabit a middle ground between mobility and specificity, to be, as he terms it, "out of place with punctuality and precision."3

In a curious way this concern—to maintain these seemingly contradictory positions simultaneously—was identified in relation to works of art from the field of semiotics as far back as 1962.4 In his elaboration on the nature of "openness" in works of art and literature Umberto Eco has catalogued a series of modern forms of art that mark a radical shift in the relationship between artist and public, requiring of the public a greater degree of collaboration and personal input in extracting meaning from the work. However, stepping outside of the traditional dictates of reader-response criticism, Eco went some way towards detailing the semantic structure of "the open work". He defined "openness" in terms of the levels of "ambiguity" explicit in the work, the result of the work having breached established or expected conventions of expression, thereby leading to a greater number of interpretive possibilities. But also, importantly, he defined it in terms of the visual and linguistic sign's own self-reflexive and "poetic" structure. Paradoxically, while one element refers to a more dynamic interpretive exchange between the work and the audience, the other, the auto-referential and reflexive nature of poesis, "the fact that most of the signifiers harken back to themselves"5, refers to the work's own autonomy and self-sufficiency as a sign. According to Eco the work had to bridge this semantic contradiction before it could be said to be "open".

In Eco's analysis, therefore, "openness" is a reflexive entity, a combination of interpretive potential and poetic autonomy. For our use here it might characterise work that can be deployed and re-deployed over successive contexts, interpreted and reinterpreted by successive publics; it might characterise work that is both specific and generic at the same time, in place and out of place with equal definition.

Susan Philipsz' disembodied aural interventions, relayed through the tannoy and in-house speaker systems of various public spaces, has an explicit (and literal) public address while being, at the same time, distinctly reflexive. Philipsz records her own voice singing songs without any accompaniment. The songs are stripped down to the core and are sung simply and clearly. There are tinges of imperfection, blunt shifts in pitch and scale, pauses, moments where the artist catches her breath, all recorded with a full-bodied but strangely eerie melancholia. Her work focuses our attention on the song's narrative content and on the quality of the voice, its accents and timbre. However, in this work the familiar expectations of song and singing are jarred slightly: hearing a song, whose pacing and lyrics you are semi-familiar with, replayed without the reassuring padding of its musical accompaniment, or without the familiar voice of its original singer, is unsettling. This is not because of a perceived theft, but because the singing removes the trappings surrounding a song that we are unconsciously dependent upon, because in this work the channels through which we identify with songs have been altered.

Filter, 1998, and lnternationale, 1999, are both work that seem strangely out of place in their own company. The Internationale, the aural emblem of revolutionary socialism, is sung here by an individual in a slow and measured pace without any of the triumph or gusto of previous renditions, while Filter, a compilation of four more contemporary and better known songs, each alluding to themes of alienation, estrangement and loneliness, is barely recognisable in its a capella version. The will to identify with a throng of like-minded individuals that The Internationale facilitated, or the teenage need to affiliate with articulations of isolation, are still active factors in these songs. In fact they are resurgent aspects of our reception of this work; they well up in our consciousness as we recognise these lyrics again. However, the circumstances within which they are delivered radically alters our perception of them; now there is no structure, no community in place to facilitate this blind identification. Our urge to let ourselves be carried away, to immerse ourselves in the connotative associations, integral elements of the songs in other contexts, is stopped cold as there is no apparatus in place to allow us to do this. In Philipsz' version the Internationale does not lead us anywhere except back to itself as a phonic entity, while the wistful melancholia of Filter is cut adrift from its contemporary rock context as it floats aimlessly in the setting of a bus centre. At the same time the singing of Filter is extremely reflexive: each song narrates its own story of withdrawal and disengagement—"I sit and watch as tears go by," "Don't ever ask your love of me," "Who cares what it does..." etc. All the lyrics signify a retreat from public life, a cocooned withdrawal for protection; this meaning is amplified as the metaphors within the songs become synonymous with the method of their delivery. In this sense the work is "semantically reflexive," insofar as it becomes a part of what it means.6 In the specific context of the Laganside bus centre then, with its familiar and reassuring ergonomics and signage, where every sign has a strict and definite meaning, where all the codes of communication are adhered to rigorously and unambiguously, the singing has a destabilising effect. Equally playing the Internationale into a public thoroughfare in Valencia in Spain, given the nation's own recent history and the associations with the song, tests its ambiguity to the limits of public acceptability. To use Kwon's term, both these pieces engage in a process of "double mediation": they defy the positivism of the technology they appropriate, reintroducing the human voice through the cable ducts and tannoy systems of these overdetermined public spaces, while at the same time refusing the tendency to regress into the glibly comforting or utopian as the ambiguity of their delivery never offers solace or hope. Instead the works pit us in a dynamic relation to the space; they create a strange sense of self awareness. The urge to identify with the song, with the vulnerability that the lone voice represents, the memories and associations that it brings to the fore, is made visible to us as they are experienced out of context.

Any event we experience has a conditioning relationship to the space within which it takes place. Triggered by the song, certain interpretations of the site are drawn to the fore. The song can direct our attention towards characteristic aspects of the site, forcing us to read it in a particular way. This reading in turn recodes our interpretations of the songs within that context. In a similar way the texts of Martin Heidegger set out to displace a certain conception of architecture within the philosophical tradition. His work repeatedly identifies "construction" with the production of a view that produces the ground it appears to be supported on. In his essay The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger opposed the philosophical determination that an artwork is merely an addition to a site, a 'superstructure' appended to a 'substructure' which in turn is added to the ground. He refused this ontology, offering a more reciprocal interpretation that directly involved the shifting perception of the viewer. He maintained that "...it [a building] is not simply looked at by the eye, aesthetic or otherwise. Rather, it constructs the eye. Furthermore this newly constructed eye is not directed from the building towards its site. It produces what it sees. The building produces its site."7 Turning these ideas into practice, Le Corbusier, a contemporary of Heidegger, made famous appeals in his architectural programmes to the specificity of "climate, topography geography, race." At the same time the sites he was 'responding' to were being radically transformed through the building work his projects entailed. For Le Corbusier, the 'site' meant the project, the developed complement of building and ground apprehended from the point of view of a subject situated within the site. The landscape is produced by the architecture that in turn frames and directs the subject towards it. Equally the site is constructed by the building that provides a view of it, or provides a view of some aspects of it while editing out the rest. This, however, is not just a recognition of this architect's conflicting positions. As with all of Le Corbusier's projects "site-specificity" and "typological integrity" are entangled together from the start. But it is to acknowledge that the architect unambiguously constructs the viewer's perception of the site by controlling his or her view of it from a position within the site itself.

Mark Orange's soundwork interviews refer directly to the mechanisms by which sites are constructed, both physically and perceptually. They work like a kind of audio two-way glass, in which we can apprehend numerous aspects of a building simultaneously while, at the same time, being able to figure ourselves and others in terms of those representations. Adopting the customary format of a standard radio documentary, the audio element is a montage of established documentary formats, interviews, newspaper reports, baseline soundtrack etc. His interviews nudge an interviewee, usually the architect responsible, through a given building, drawing out his views and intentions. Within the interviews there seems to be a genuine aspiration for a half-decent exchange, Orange offering his own views and opinions as much as facilitating the architect's patter. The discussions range from the purely topographical (the use of materials, the facades, walkways and vistas) to the aspirational (the aims and achievements) to what is represented in a broader context (how these buildings have shaped and influenced people's experiences). Toor O' Fable, Pearce Institute, Glasgow, and Interview with Victor Robinson, Belfast Waterfront Hall, both 1997, are typical. Both consist of a CD soundwork played through a portable radio and placed alongside a free-standing photograph, a stretched facade shot of the former Lyceum Cinema in Govan, Glasgow, and a fashion photograph of a model perched, splay-legged, on a bench in the Waterfront Hall respectively. Both sound works take us on a guided tour that starts on the outside and leads us through the space, ending up in each of the buildings' core auditoriums.

In Toor O'Fable the soundtrack starts off as dramatically as the building's facade: the booming pomp of an unacknowledged voice recounts an early newspaper report of the impressive and ceremonious experience of walking through the main entrance of the former cinema. This is intercut with a local architect's genuine and heartfelt streetside analysis of the façade's current state of disrepair, and an elderly discussion group's attempts to grapple with their own fast-fading memories of characters and films they remember from the cinema's heyday. Three alternating perspectives take us through the building's various stages. Here the site is not defined as a precondition, rather it is generated through the work; the cinema comes back into being as a site through these multifarious and contingent articulations. At the same time the illusion of an unmediated encounter, implied by the 'actuality' of the narrative segments, is undermined both by experiencing so many subject positions within the same frame of reference, and because the mimicking of documentary style dramatises 'verité' as a combination of representations that are bound to their own codes and conventions.

Interview with Victor Robinson gives less away. An interview with the building's architect is offset against a soundtrack by David Holmes. The dialogue is a one-dimensional monologue from the architect who never quite manages to raise his game above the purely technical and presentational. From the fine civic sentiments of the outset, connecting the "roundness" of the building to its "public" duty, through its vistas and walkways and on to Robinson's account of the imperceptible "cocoon" of air conditioning that surrounds each individual member of the audience in the core auditorium, we get a sense of the ever-decreasing circles of civic space envisaged by the building's detailing and the concomitant spiralling aspirations for community interaction. However, even if the building is slightly over-determined structurally, it is nevertheless presented as 'open' and unprogrammed—there is an implicit invitation to "be part of what's going on in the building"8. In keeping with this spirit of optimism, the photograph, a reference to that genre of fashion photography that uses architecture as a backdrop, is used here by Orange as "a way of trying out the buiIding"9. This is an invitation that is reflected back to us in the model's image. Her pose extends a mirror image of our own posture, sitting on the seating provided, tilting our heads, ears straining to catch the fragmented monologue. The importance of the mirror in this context is not to reflect the subject's image back to the subject but, as Henri Lefebvre would put it, to extend "a repetition" of the subject, "immanent to the body into space"10. In both pieces the combined elements of each installation reflect aspects of 'the site' back to us and facilitate our self-projection into the spaces represented. This creates a degree of self-awareness as we decide when and with which image we should identify. However, instead of arriving at some transparent consciousness, we come to acknowledge the contingency of our own perceptions. Our identification with one or other of these representations only points to our will to identify and not to some underlying truth. More so: we see ourselves as a constituent element of the representation we decide to go with.

In recent debates in architectural circles in relation to site-specificity Mark Wigley has maintained that "the discourse calling for site-specificity only arises in the absence of such a specificity. It is always a sort of nostalgia lamenting the loss of conditions that were never there, producing an image of something and claiming it is being lost..."11 The return to 'the site' is seen as an expression of a certain cultural anxiety, a desire to assuage a sense of loss. However, while both the artists mentioned have registered 'loss' and 'absence' as signifying features in their 'site-specific' work, this has less to do with the discourse surrounding melancholia and its relationship to site-specificity or with the restorative aspects of some 'public art', and has more to do with the interpretive space this absence opens up for us as an audience. In maintaining a tension between the constituent features of the works' 'openness', their own self-sufficiency and autonomy, and the interpretive potential their ambiguity releases, these pieces reconfigure 'lack' and 'incompletion' as positive elements. The space that is opened carries an implicit invitation for us to move in; we don't just meet the work halfway but we use it as a mediating element in constituting our relationship to the site. The work is 'in place' only provisionally to facilitate our identifications and then once again 'out of place' and disjunctive as an autonomous sign. 'Taking our place' suggests that it is up to us to be equally assertive as an audience, to bridge the 'site-specific' works' autonomy and to navigate where they take us. In the context of works such as those discussed here, we become aware of this responsibility. Taking over places in a way that facilitates our 'taking place' is the event which these works enable.

Eoghan McTigue is an artist based in Belfast.

1. The title is appropriated from numerous, scattered texts by Jacques Derrida, quoted and paraphrased in Mark Wigley's Derrida's Haunt: the Architecture of Deconstruction, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 183-190.
2. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity, October, Vol. 80, Spring 1997, pp. 85-110.
3. Kwon, op cit, pp. 109-110.
4. Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
5. Eco, op cit, p. 33.
6. Philip Wheelwright, quoted in Umberto Eco, op cit, notes p. 255.
7. Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, in Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p. 41.
8. Victor Robinson in Interview with Victor Robinson.
9. Mark Orange in discussion at the seminar Correlations in Contemporary Art and Architecture, organised by Catalyst Arts, Belfast Waterfront Hall, May 24, 1997. Transcripts published by AN, October 1997, pp. 10-14.
10. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, notes p. 182.
11. Wigley, op cit, p. 130.

CIRCA 90, Winter 1999