BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 11 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

Ortlose Zeiten

On the art of being truly site-specific

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 11 AUG 11

When I'm on the road for a stretch and get homesick for Berlin, I always go to IKEA. Other cities dont have my Berlin favourites: Alexanderplatz, the public transportation service BVG, Currywurst...But all outlets of the Swedish furniture store whether in Athens or Toronto feel pretty much like my Berlin outlet. I can't be the only one who gets a homey feeling from Billy shelves and Köttbullar meatballs. According to the BBC, one in ten Europeans is now conceived in an IKEA bed. All thats missing is a Småland passport to make that common origin official.

My uncanny cure for homesickness raises a question about site-specificity. How do sites become specific for people who move through them? The French ethnographer Marc Augé would likely qualify IKEA as yet another bland non-place precisely because the stores are interchangeable. Indeed, Alex, BVG and Currywurst are more unique than any Billy kit, but who is to say if they offer a more singular experience than assembling those crazy shelves and living with them? While cities can lose their specific charm to global chains and advertising landscapes, brands are not immune to local contamination. Since I visited IKEA first in Berlin, I dont associate the store with Sweden. Even a Stockholm branch reminded me of my life and home in the German capital.

Site-specificity has long become a shaky ground for artists on the move, whether they get homesick or not. Flying in and out of a city to work with a locale or the locals for yet another biennial can feel more like art tourism than site-specificity. But when the idea emerged in the 1960s, it must have felt like a radical promise to democratize the art work and the exhibition space. Breaking with the finite object, art could take on many forms that relied on sites instead of institutions or institutionalized mediums, from the restrictive frames of painting to the lofty pedestals of sculpture. After breaking out of the frame and stepping down from the pedestal, art inevitably ended up wandering through the museum, interacting with visitors and moving into the city as public art projects or street performances accessible to everyone.

The problems of endlessly expanding site-specificity became evident before the proliferation of biennials in the 1990s. Consider the formal divergence between the site-specificity of Richard Serras Tilted Arc (1981), which was never meant to be moved or removed from New Yorks Federal Plaza, and Michael Ashers ephemeral gestures that are meant to disappear. Relational Aesthetics could be deemed site-specific just as easily as Institutional Critique, although many critics view the movements as inimical. If any place can become a site for art if any work can be deemed site-specific then all such sites and works become somehow interchangeable, somehow non-places and perhaps non-works.

Olav Westphalen might have reached a similar conclusion when he was invited to make a project for the Public Art Fund in New York City just over a decade ago. His Extremely Site-Unspecific Sculpture (E.S.U.S) (2000) described as a cross between a U.F.O., a Weber grill and a childs toy was created for all sites and wandered from one to the next in the city: a nomadism that seemed to anticipate the title of Miwon Kwons art historical study of site-specificity One Place After Another (2002). If some artists today are returning to the pedestals rejected in the 1960s a phenomenon that Manuela Ammer explores in this issue  the return may reflect not only an exhaustion of sites but also a desire to explore whats specific to art alone.

Ultimately, the exhaustion of sites manifests a shift in our experience of space more than an evolution of art historical styles. Site-specificity seems to have spread with commercial jet travel (and waned with easyjetsetting). Not only perpetual motion but also mobile digital gadgets transformed geographical distance from an obstacle to a nuisance. Once-faraway friends are a text, skype or tweet away, not to mention books, photographs and music. Time is also losing its specificity, with old music, movies, videos and television shows available online. In retrospect, site-specificity may have emerged in the 1960s because sites were losing their self-evident singularity, which art could revive. Here and now was becoming anywhere and anytime.

One more confession: even when I go to my Berlin IKEA outlet, I feel strangely relieved since the store changes less than the city, which moved from the GDR into gentrification. Im not the only one drawn to a frozen, artificial past; witness the Mauerpark crowds wearing retro fashions, picking up trinkets at the flea market and recycling pop tunes at the open-air karaoke. Paradoxically Berlins site-specificity lies in perpetual motion and persistant obsolescence. This issue suggests two more municipal portraits in the discussions of the exhibitions 'Le Musée sentimental de Prusse' (1981), which took place in former West Berlin, and 'based in Berlin' (2011), which ignores its location in former East Berlin. Perhaps the 30 years that separate these shows produced Extremely Site-Unspecific People. That fate was once reserved for refugees; today, no passport can prevent a sense of feeling exiled from the present.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.