Nick Kaye
Performing the City
Nick Kaye examines the relationship between site specific art and place.
'site': substantive...
fragments of a given order, but operate as ordering activities, whether that activity
be walking, reading, listening or vi...
spoken word, is realised in a practice which can never rest in the order it implies, so
the representation offered by 'the...
something else' (Kaye 1996: 244). Translated into an address to a real city,
which, Etchell's suggests, 'is both a map of ...
individuals have with these spaces.' (Augé 1995: 78) Here, non-place is
characterised by a projection forward, in the indi...
as that relationship is one of displacement. Thus Augé points to the implication of
non-place in place and vice versa, sta...
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in …5

Nick Kaye Performing the City


Published on

  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Nick Kaye Performing the City

  1. 1. Nick Kaye Performing the City Nick Kaye examines the relationship between site specific art and place. '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. (Onions 1973) Place and Space In The Practice of Everyday Life (de Certeau 1984), the philosopher Michel de Certeau reflects on the relationship between 'place' and 'space'. Adopting the semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the langue, the complex of rules and conventions which constitute a language, and the parole, the practice of speech in which these rules are given expression, de Certeau reads 'place' as an ordered and ordering system realised in 'spatial practices'. Just as Saussure understands the langue to be always realised in practices, yet never wholly manifest in any particular linguistic expression or exchange, de Certeau proposes that space is a practised place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e.: a place constituted by a system of signs. (de Certeau 1984: 117) Defined by its internal stability, 'place,' like the langue, is an exclusive and self- regulating system of rules, 'an instantaneous configuration of positions' (de Certeau 1984: 117), which enunciation or practice at once realises and depends upon. As the order through which a practice obtains location, it is this 'place' which ensures that practices make sense. De Certeau states that: A place (lieu) is the order (of whatever kind) in accordance with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location (place). The law of the 'proper' rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in its own 'proper' and distinct location, a location it defines. (de Certeau 1984: 117) The order and stability of place, however, is not a property of the practices in which it is realized. De Certeau notes straightforwardly that spatial practices may give multiple expressions to the stability and orderliness, to the 'univocity,' of place. Space, he suggests, 'occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programmes' (de Certeau 1984: 117). In this sense, de Certeau does not read place as an order, but as an ordering system, while spatial practices do not reproduce
  2. 2. fragments of a given order, but operate as ordering activities, whether that activity be walking, reading, listening or viewing. Thus, different and even incompatible spaces may realize the various possibilities of a single place. Returning to the metaphor of language, de Certeau outlines a more complex situation, suggesting that: In relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a 'proper'. (de Certeau 1984: 117) The Practised Place Space, as a practised place, admits of unpredictability. Rather than mirror the orderliness of place, space might be subject not only to transformation, but ambiguity. If space is like the word when it is spoken, then a single 'place' will be realized in successive, multiple and even irreconcilable spaces. It follows that, paradoxically, 'space' cannot manifest the order and stability of its place. Thus, in comparing 'pedestrian processes to linguistic formations' de Certeau states categorically that 'to walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.' (de Certeau 1984: 103) Caught in the act of enunciation, perpetually in the practised place, the walker can never resolve the multiple and conflicting spaces of the city into the place itself. The walker is thus always in the process of acting out, of performing the contingencies of a particular spatial practice, which, although subject to the place, can never wholly realise or be resolved into this underlying order. For de Certeau, the modern city epitomises this transitory condition, producing an awareness of our perpetual performance of place but inability to come to rest in the stability of the 'proper'. He observes that: The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place … The identity furnished by this place is all the more symbolic (named) because, in spite of the inequality of its citizens' positions and profits, there is only a population of passer-by, a network of residences temporarily appropriated by pedestrian traffic, a shuffling among pretences of the proper, a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places. (de Certeau 1984: 103) In the city, de Certeau's walker realises the site in its transitive sense, always in the act or effort of locating, and never in the settled order, the 'proper place,' of the location itself. As de Certeau indicates, even the attempt to fix location through the 'symbolic (named)' participates in this movement. Here, where space, like the
  3. 3. spoken word, is realised in a practice which can never rest in the order it implies, so the representation offered by 'the word' moves one on from 'site'. Just as these spatial practices function in the absence of place, in their inability to realise the order and stability of the proper, so the 'symbolic (named)' is tied to the experience of lacking a place precisely because representation, by definition, presents itself in the absence of its object. It follows that, ironically, the 'symbolic (named)' is antithetical to the presence of the authentic or real place it would reveal. In his discussion of 'The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,' Crimp argues that 'the desire of representation exists only insofar as it can never be fulfilled, insofar as the original always is deferred. It is only in the absence of the original that representation can take place.' (Crimp 1993: 119) To represent the place, is, in this sense, and analogously to its practice, to construct a removal from it. Like any of the spatial practices de Certeau describes, however, this very moving on also implies its own place. In Nights In This City, first presented in Sheffield in 1995 and subsequently relocated in Rotterdam in 1997, the British company Forced Entertainment foreground their work's roots in the city. Admitted to a tour bus by a performer-hostess, an audience of fifty begin a 'strange tour of various locations in Sheffield' (Etchells 1995). As a soundtrack plays over its speakers, the bus climbs to Sky Edge, above the Manor Park estate, beyond which the city centre and its industrial and suburban sprawl reach out into the distance. Here, once the driver Ray has pointed out the place where he first worked in the city, his home, and 'the place where he was married fifteen years ago', the party is joined by Alan, a 'professional' tour guide seemingly worse-the-wear for drink, played by company member Richard Lowdon. As the bus criss- crosses various parts of the city, Alan offers a guide to its streets and landmarks which becomes progressively more distracted: We're going to be taking you south on Love Street, past the place where they're thinking of building a new Macdonalds, and past the entrance to Knife Walk, so called because of all the murders that are commonly done there... All the streets round here got named after famous football hooligans from history and the buildings got named after ghosts and cleaning products and convicted kerb crawlers [...] Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Rome… (Etchells, 1995) In their self-conscious manipulation of appropriated textual fragments, Forced Entertainment emphasise the constructed nature of role, identity, and place. Reflecting their concerns with media and mediation, the group work, in their theatre performances, to heighten the artificiality of the elements they play through, allowing one 'fictional' moment to shift onto or be juxtaposed with another. Tim Etchells, who writes and directs for the company, suggests that such strategies foreground 'the inability of the performers to fully inhabit the texts and gestures which they perform' in an articulation of a sense that '[t]here's no utterance by anybody that isn't somehow a quotation of
  4. 4. something else' (Kaye 1996: 244). Translated into an address to a real city, which, Etchell's suggests, 'is both a map of space and a map of states of mind' (Etchells 1999: 77), the company engages in a 'writing over the city' which reflects the notion that: The space that we really live in is a kind of electronically mediated one. And it feels like one's landscape - the source of one's images, the things that haunt you - are likely to be second, third, fourth-hand. (Kaye 1996: 236) In playing this dream-like journey through Sheffield's backstreets and housing estates, the company play out the need to construct, build or state connections with a site or place. Yet through these incongruous representations of the city's spectacles, this journey evokes an inability to rest in the places toward which the audience's attention is directed. As a site-specific work, Nights In This City articulates a curious displacement from a site whose particularities cannot be easily or appropriately named. It is a displacement reflected in the approach to the re- siting of Nights In This City in Rotterdam in 1997, when company members elicited suggestions for a route by posing questions which implied generic narratives or events linked to dramatic themes: 'If you had killed someone and had to dump the body where would you take it?', 'If you had to say goodbye to a lover where in this city would you most like to do it?'. Like the performance itself, this process acts out a 'writing over' the site, a moving on from the real city inscribed into the very attempt to know it. In these ways, Nights In This City effects a twin movement over its site, at once moving its audience through the city, while playing out the effect of the 'symbolic (named),' in which this 'tour' perpetually moves one on from its object. Non-Place Yet this experience of lacking a place, or of a place characterised by mobility or movement, can be further articulated in relation to place and space. Extending the implication of de Certeau's reference to the 'symbolic (named)' in an analysis of the spaces of supermodernity, the anthropologist Marc Augé reflects on the notion of 'non-place'. Defining non-place in opposition to what he describes as anthropological place, Augé's analysis reflects distinctions between the transitive and substantive definitions of site. Thus, he notes that 'when Michel de Certeau mentions 'non-place', it is to allude to a sort of negative quality of place, an absence of the place from itself, caused by the name it has been given.' (Augé 1995: 85) While 'anthropological place,' Augé states, 'is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how' (Augé 1995: 101), where one's location or position is known, 'non-place' is produced in a passing over of place. More specifically, Augé argues, "'non-place' designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that
  5. 5. individuals have with these spaces.' (Augé 1995: 78) Here, non-place is characterised by a projection forward, in the individual's relationship with this moving on, and so in a mobility which suppresses the differences in which anthropological places are established. Non-place, Augé suggests, is realised in travelling by or through anthropological place and so in a process of displacement. In this way, Augé proposes that: "Space, as frequentation of places rather than a place stems in effect from a double movement: the traveller's movement, of course, but also a parallel movement of the landscapes which he catches only in partial glimpses, a series of 'snapshots' piled hurriedly into his memory and, literally, recomposed in the account he gives of them …Travel… constructs a fictional relationship between gaze and landscape." (Augé 1995: 86) Here, too, in this frequentation of places which specifically defines the journey, Augé argues, the spectator's gaze is subject to a deflection or reversal, where, in this passing over, by or through places "The individual feels himself to be a spectator without paying much attention to the spectacle. As if the position of spectator were the essence of the spectacle, as if basically the spectator in the position of a spectator were his own spectacle." (Augé 1995: 86) Nights In This City, then, can be read as articulating this movement and reversal. Alan's narrative, the promise of coincidences between the fictions of the text and the happenstance of the street, as well as the thought that amid this flow of the everyday there may be incidents constructed for the audience, demands that one looks for the piece outside. Yet in looking out, through the trace of one's own reflection in the window, this gaze is returned by passers-by and, on one occasion, performers, who simply look back as the coach winds its way through areas where such a journey is explicitly out of place. Here, the tour-bus is realised and reflected back to the viewer as a place for looking, provoking a self-conscious perception over which these representations of the city are played. For Augé, this self-regarding gaze suggests precisely a writing over of place through the anticipated image, a moving on epitomised by contemporary travel. Augé notes that: "A lot of tourism leaflets suggest this deflection, this reversal of the gaze, by offering the would-be traveller advance images of curious or contemplative faces, solitary or in groups, gazing across infinite oceans, scanning ranges of snow-capped mountains or wondrous urban skylines: his own image in a word, his anticipated image, which speaks only about him but carries another name (Tahiti, Alpe d'Huez, New York). The traveller's space may thus be the archetype of non-place." (Augé 1995: 86) Yet non-place, as Augé describes it, is not in any simple way the antithesis or negation of place. Indeed, non-place is defined, first of all, in relation to place, even
  6. 6. as that relationship is one of displacement. Thus Augé points to the implication of non-place in place and vice versa, stating that: "Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten. But non-places are the real measure of our time." (Augé 1995: 79) Here, the palimpsest, a paper 'which has been written upon twice, the original having been rubbed out' (Onions 1973) or 'prepared for writing on and wiping out again' (Onions 1973), not only provides a model for the relationship of non-place to place, but, in the context of a transitive definition of site, of site- specificity itself. Thus, Nights In This City approaches the real city as palimpsest, by acting out a writing over of sites already written upon. Furthermore, in this moving on from site, this site-specific performance attempts to define itself in the very sites it is caught in the process of erasing. It is in processes such as this that site-specific art and performance frequently works to trouble the oppositions between the site and the work. It is in this troubling of oppositions, too, that a wide range of approaches to site in visual art and architecture may also be read through the terms of performance. Indeed, where such work approaches 'site' in its transitive sense, and so in the act of locating or placing, then it is performance which returns to define site-specificity, not only as a set of critical terms and as a mode of work, but as a way of characterising the place that site-specific practices reflect upon. References Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso. Crimp, D. (1993) On the Museum's Ruins, London: MIT Press. de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press. Etchells, T. (1995) Nights In This City, unpublished manuscript. Etchells, T. (1999 [1995]) 'Eight Fragments on Theatre and the City' in Tim Etchells Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment, London: Routledge, 76-81. Kaye, N. (1996) Art into Theatre: Performance Interviews and Documents, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Press. Onions, C.T. (ed.) (1973) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Source: (Retrieved 09/11/2010)