Indeterminacy in site-specific performance

In This Article

University of Technology Sydney, Australia


‘Site-specificity’ is typically aligned to those practices of visual art where their meanings are inextricable to site; however, its theorisation has been elaborated through a defense of disciplinary boundaries. In One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon begins by referring to site-specific art as: ‘Site-determined, site-orientated, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-related’. Yet site-specificity in relation to site-performance, would I propose, be better served by negotiating the intersections of body and site. Site-specificity and indeterminacy will be considered through what happens between site and performance: disruption, undetermined and permeability. Detailing a number of projects from my own practice including: White Trash 2006,Toulouse, France; En Residencia 2009 Gijón, Spain and Patrwn 2010 Minde, Portugal, I will highlight the indeterminacies of site and boundary, performance and spectator through the practice of site-specific performance.

Keywords: site-specificity, performance, indeterminacy, boundary, spatial opportunity.


The discursive nature of site-specific work implicates site as subject and performance as the embodiment through the indeterminacy of spatial boundaries. Responding to the physical conditions of site: spatial, historical and material; performance and spectatorship are worked through indeterminacy that evolves performance and equally site. Unbounded by borders or parameters of program, the nature of indeterminacy brings attentiveness to the mobility of site to encourage spatial transformation. In theatre space, the architecture of the theatre, held to spatial separation and set to spectacle appearances, relies mainly on the intervention of scenographic images for spatial transformation. In theatre spaces, space is determined, bounded by conventions for scenic representation. In site-specific spaces, space remains in a constant state of flux, responding to the spatial opportunities of site.

Countering determinacy as exampled in theatre space towards a spatial practice for indeterminacy permits, I will suggest, new possibilities for spatial encounters, appearances and transformations in site-specific performance. Jose V. Ciprut in his book Indeterminacy: The Mapped, the Navigable and the Uncharted, positions indeterminacy by highlighting its counterpoint:

Determinism is the philosophical conception and claim that every physical event and every instance of human cognition, volition, and action is causally determined by a continual, uninterrupted sequence of prior events. It confines chance, jettisons mystery, limits the inexplicable, and restricts doubt of total randomness (2008, p. 1).

Interpreting Ciprut’s explanation of determinism where limitations are placed on restricting uncertainty creates the opportunity to forward an enquiry for what determinacy isn’t. Surprisingly, in site-specific art, Miwon Kwon in her book One Place After Another points out that determinacy is characteristic of site-specific art practice for it is ‘(s)ite-determined, site-orientated, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-related’ (2002, p. 1). Differently, Pamela Shaw and Joanne Hudson in their article: The Qualities of Informal Space: (Re)appropriation within the informal, interstitial spaces of the city, looks at how determinacy in urban terms, actuates informal and marginalised spaces where ‘(i)nterstitial, dilapidated, dis-used and marginal sites punctuate the staged and controlled official public spaces and the everyday, ubiquitous spaces of the contemporary city’ (2002, p. 2).

Comprehending the above opening accounts from the various theorists’ positions in regards to spatial determinacy, asks how we might think about indeterminacy as transgressing the conventions of site for a more adaptable performer and spectator experience. Applying variant spatial transgressions in working with indeterminacy the article explores how indeterminacy evolves both space and performance. Referencing three works from my practice in scenography and dramaturgy: White Trash (2006 Toulouse, France), En Residencia (2009 Gijón Spain and Patrwn (2010 Minde Portugal), I will highlight the spatial intersections indeterminacy affords in working the conditions of site and the transgression of boundaries in realising site-specific performance.

Performing indeterminacy

My first exploration of working with concepts of indeterminacy in performance came from a series of collaborations undertaken by Good Work Productions 1 (Anderson, 2013, p 109-118). Established in Berlin in 2004, Good Work Productions was founded by German choreographer Isabelle Schad, French lighting designer Bruno Pocheron and me, Australian, as scenographer and dramaturge. Our first work California Roll (2005) explored site and performance as a site within itself. Indeterminate to the various gallery and theatre spaces in which it was performed, the scenography consisted of an unbounded topological landscape of second hand clothes, which the performers patterned, reposed and reshaped. The second work White Trash (2006), the first of the three examples to be cited, explored ideas of simulation and affect between two performers through an indeterminate narrative 2 .

Ideas for White Trash were shaped through notions of composing empathy and indifference within the performance 3 . The focus of the work was based on a physical injury–a result of a car accident sustained by one of the two performers. The passing of the injury from one performer’s body to the other, allowed the emergence for a physical connection between them, creating and constructing the overall theme of the work. By exploring the indeterminacies of acknowledgement and reflection within each performer permitted the perceptual and emotive disparity in the transference of the injury. The associative conflicts arising in each of the performer’s movements evolved the choreography where empathy and indifference assumed the status of an impassive benevolence.

To embody the physical transference of the injury between each performer, a duplication of movements and actions were developed, one mirroring the other; damaged body to receiving body. In the Analytical of the Sublime French philosopher Jean François Lyotard postulates a visual context for the nature of reflection by declaring: ‘The “weakness” of reflection is what also constitutes its “strength”’ (1994, p. 2). Devising the inseparable mirroring of space and body, movement and spectatorship, each weakened and strengthened movement generated a reflective reciprocity. Identifying and expressing indifference of the reflective and the real was explored through a simultaneous recognition/disconnection in the physicality of the performers’ bodies. Recognition was portrayed through mirroring the wrapping and unwrapping of the now shared injury with layers of tissue paper resulting in both performers casting the same injury and, equally, restricting their movement. Indeterminate in each reflection, their shared physical simulation created a space of discarded casts that filled the space with the remnant parts of the injury. The indeterminate nature of embodying recognition and disconnection of another, presented the opportunity to separate narrative and performance, leading to simulated, yet displaced movements.

A performer leans sideways on a chair while a female dancer moves across the floorFigure 1. WhiteTrash 2006 Toulouse. Performers Benoit Lachambre and Isabelle Schad. Photo: author.

Separation and simulations between the performers was further expanded in the bleached-out performance space they inhabited. The intensely lit whitened-out space was conceived to blur the space and to create a hyper-visual intensity to filter indeterminacy through the spatial separation between performers and the performance space. A third working of performing indeterminacy was to shift the perspective of the work’s spectatorship to establish a collective experience of the performance. Positioning the audience into fields of effect and affect, hearing and seeing, expectation and experiencing continued the transference of recognition and indifference contained in the work. In her book Relationscapes, Erin Manning argues that: Affect passes directly through the body, coupling with the nervous system, making the internal felt. This felt-ness is often experienced as a becoming-with. This becoming-with is transformative …’ (Manning, 2009, p.95). The spatial transformations explored through the body were formulated by tracing the performers’ bodies so that affect ‘passes through, leaving intensive traces on a collective body-becoming’ (Manning, 2009, p. 95). Each performance of White Trash was based on the visual foundation for appearance, disappearance, memory, pose, and ultimately affect. Conceiving indeterminacy within the performance was activated through a relocation of performer and spectator, allowing each to be un-sited, yet united through transferences of recognition and indifference.

In making White Trash what became apparent is that constructing an empathic reflection between one body and the other is only present if it can be directed to its spectatorship. It is through this exchange that the performance envelops the performance space, dissolving the determinate territories between performer and spectator. Out of determinism’s dissolve within the aesthetically bleached space redraws the territorial claims of the work where causality, chance and mystery collaborate to create a collective rendering of the work; both audience and performer combining through indeterminacy. Given White Trash was performed in theatre spaces, the question remains to ask what happens when indeterminacy and performance are coupled with multiple spaces? Does the linking of spaces bind indeterminacy to multiple sets of indeterminate territories, and if so, how can these be traversed?

Spatial indeterminacy

An opportunity to develop indeterminacy across multiple spaces came through an on-site inter-disciplinary laboratory titled En Residencia (2009). The project involved reoccupying the abandoned spaces of the Universidad Laboral, a huge complex of buildings built from 1946-1956 in the Renaissance style during the dictatorship of General Franco. Located on the outskirts of the Spanish city of Gijón in Asturias, much of the complex had fallen into disrepair and as such has been closed from the public for more than 25 years 4 . A co-funded project by the Spanish and Welsh Arts Councils brought together fifteen artists from Wales and Spain working in performance, visual art, interactive media and film. Each artist was given a choice of interior and exterior spaces throughout Laboral including: classrooms, stairwells, offices, antechambers, landings, a decaying swimming pool, a church, the surveillance centre and the central square to make their work 5 . Many of the interior spaces were strewn with discarded objects and pieces of furniture, which the artists could incorporate in their project. Occupying the various spaces of the complex allowed the artists to explore processes through which art and history, body and site could converge to establish new imaginative forms and territories in site-specific performance. In discussion with the artists, I proposed that space does not define the body rather it is the body that defines the space in which it appears. To conceive the dramaturgy in forming the overall project of fifteen works in fifteen different spaces of Laboral challenged my still nascent practice of working with indeterminacy in site-specific performance.

Dark storm clouds fill the sky behind Laboral church and forecourt.Figure 3. The Renaissance inspired architecture of Laboral, church and forecourt. Photo: author.

Apart from the spaces chosen by the artists, the artistic thematic for En Residencia was derived from an archive film that showed the inauguration of Laboral in 1957. The documentary style film detailed the construction process from planning to building, the opening ceremony and various recreational activities involving Laboral’s residents. Each artist selected a segment from the film to reflect on its imagery and incorporate this in some way into the spaces in which they were making their work. The dramaturgical structure of connecting indeterminacy within each abandoned space and each artist’s work was to express the associations between dereliction, the abandoned objects and memory of each site. My initial experience of walking through the various unlit spaces brought a haunting yet sublime attraction to each of the spaces I was encountering; each space a museum to the history of Laboral. In The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler argues the experiencing of such spaces emerge from the sublime attraction we have to haunted places and spaces. Referring to Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Asher, Vidler tells us that:

… all the tell tale signs of haunting were present, systematically culled from his romantic predecessors. The site was desolate; the walls were blank and almost literally “faceless,” its windows “eye-like” but without like–“vacant.” … the furnishings were dark, the rooms vaulted and gloomy; it was, in fact, already a museum (Vidler, 1992, p.18).

Coming on the back of Freud’s unhomely concept that was developed during his studies of World War I soldiers’ experiences of the spatially displaced No Man’s Land–the strip of land that separated opposing armies from their dug-out trenches–Vidler’s unhomley is derived from the uncanny conceived as the sublime disjunction in experiencing space. In Architecture and Disjunction, architect Bernard Tschumi refers to spaces of separation and the sublime where:

The architecture of pleasure lies where the concept and experience of space abruptly coincide, where architectural fragments collide and merge in delight, where the culture of architecture is endlessly deconstructed and all rules are transgressed. No metaphorical paradise here, but discomfort and the unbalancing of expectations (Tschumi, 1994, p.92).

Tschumi’s ‘unbalancing of expectations’ is pertinent in how it describes the problematic I was facing in connecting multiple spaces to my concept of spatial indeterminacy. In dramaturgical terms, it was crucial that the works would not be experienced as fifteen random dislocated interventions. Rather the overall abandoned condition of the rooms and passages strewn with furniture, papers and layers of dust would determine the relationships between performers and site. The aim was to shred the attraction and spectacle of the ruin so that site and performance could be formed with equal spectral attention. In The Society of the Spectacle Guy Debord reminds us that, ‘THE SPECTACLE IS NOT a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (Debord, 1994, p. 12). Further to Debord’s ‘social relationship between people’, Martin Jay’s Scopic Regimes of Modernity in Hal Foster’s volume Vision and Visuality, argues ‘… vision hostage to desire is not necessarily always better than casting a cold eye …’ (Jay,1998, p.19).My adoption of Jay’s ‘casting a cold eye’ came through acknowledging the spatial thresholds and, in functional terms, create the journey the audience would take from one space to the next. Predictably, the spatial indeterminacy of each site, performance and spectatorship came not by highlighting the territorial thresholds between each but by grasping the indeterminate nature of site-specificity. Site and performance, I came to understand throughout the development of the project was in a constant state of flux between each site, the performances and the audience.

Many of the works produced for En Residencia came out of the response to the history of the site. An example of one project conceived by Simon Whitehead, a performance between fathers and their sons, came through incorporating site and absence in referencing Laboral’s history as an orphanage for boys. Another work, undertaken by performer Cai Tomos spatially recreated the gymnastic display of 300-orphaned boys who performed in the central square in the opening of Laboral in 1957. Spatial indeterminacy was further explored in a work undertaken by the author that was sited in the disused church located in the centre of Laboral. Containing one of Europe’s largest elliptical domes, the dilemma of working within the imposing scale of the church’s overwhelming volume was conceived through an underground venture into the labyrinth of corridors beneath the church. Filling these subterranean spaces were the church’s discarded pews stacked in rows and caked in dust. Standing one pew on end and visualising that en masse, I became aware of the possibility of bridging the height of the vast dome through an optical reconfiguration of its volume, creating in effect a false ceiling.

The pews were assembled in a series of 3 and 5 triangulations braced with wooden beams held together with red clamps that radiated outwards from the central axis of the inlaid marble floor. Spectators could wander through this inner space and ascend to the first and second levels of the church to view the pews in plan. The upending of the pews had a profound effect, drawing intense emotional responses from the public. Later it was revealed to me that each pew accounted for a tree that was cut from the forest of a former Spanish African colony and transported to Laboral. In collaboration with choreographer/dancer Tanja Råman, a performance work was made in and around the pews, where the dramaturgy conceived did not determine the choreographic or spatial order of the dance.

The re-territorialising of the absent forestall owed spectators to be both in and outside the ‘felled’ forest. In Robert Pogue Harrison’s book Forests, The Shadow of Civilization he equates the felling of forests as required to the needs of the time. Harrison cites the Athenian navy’s need for wood during a period in the 4th century BC in which he describes the felling and transformation of a Mediterranean forest to a barren landscape where: ‘Forests became fleets sinking to the bottom of the wine-dark sea. Trees became masts, drifting among the waves of Poseidon’ (Harrison, 1992, p. 55). The turning of African forest into church pews continues Harrison’s historical argument of the forest as the site of desecration. Upending of the pews signaled the return of the forest and offered the opportunity to spatially arrest indeterminacy through a conceptual reconfiguring of the forest.

Inside Laboral, church and forecourt the audience stands watching a dancer.Figure 3. Forest, En Residencia 2009 Laboral. View of installation and performance by Tanja Råman. Photo: author.

Incorporating indeterminacy within my sculptural and dramaturgical practices had now entered the realm of relational positioning; embracing the program of architecture as the apparatus to work with and occupy. Returning to Tschumi’s ‘unbalancing of expectations’, the spatial indeterminacies between each site of performance for En Residenica resulted in a synergy of seamless territories. Negotiating the multiple sites and buildings, spectators formed their spatial interactions and dialogues with each site and performance, establishing a resonance of reflections with each other. Realising the fifteen projects created opportunities in understanding how indeterminacy could be programmed through the convergence of site, place, history, language and performance to create a coherent theme connecting each work. The final example exploring indeterminacy and site-specific performance focuses on a series of abandoned factories where performance and spectatorship are transgressed through the ruins of the abandoned site.

Transgressing indeterminacy

Spatial indeterminacy in site-specific performance was further explored through a series of planned yet unrealised performance propositions sited inside three decaying textile factories in the Portuguese town of Minde. Located 100km north of Lisbon, Minde was once the centre of Portugal’s fabric industry until its decline in the early 1990s when many of Minde’s factories closed as cheaper manufacturing became available in Asia.

Now a town dotted with decaying factory buildings, the opportunity arose through an invitation to work with their derelict state and the surrounding industrial wasteland. Working with long-term collaborator Marc Rees, we conceived ideas to thread performance and visual art across the three abandoned textile factories located one kilometre apart. Welsh for pattern, Patrwn was conceived to reflect both Wales and Portugal’s former textile industries and the funding of the project through their arts institutions.

An old derelict building in the countryside.Figure 4. Exterior view of abandoned textile factory, Minde, Portugal. Photo: author.

Minde’s abandoned textile factories provided the opportunity to conceive ideas for indeterminacy and performance by focusing on spatially transgressing the thresholds of their decaying interiors. Working within each sites’ interiors would bring into contention the seduction and aesthetical value of ruination normally associated with the archaeological site. To conceive the various relationships between site and performance would not be determined by scenes of decay but through the now indeterminate conditions of each site. In his article … badlands, blank space, border vacuums, brown fields, conceptual Nevada, Dead Zones... Gil Doron describes the characteristics of the industrial ruin.

The industrial ruin is an indeterminate and volatile place: structurally, since it is dilapidating, and socially because, in contrast to formal public space, where the rules of behaviour are determined by norms and laws (often place-bound by-laws), the industrial ruin’s space has no such laws. It is agonistic and radically democratic since the ways of being in this place are negotiated between the various groups and individuals who use it rather than those who pass laws elsewhere (2007, p. 17).

To negotiate each of the factories’ interiors meant working with spatial concepts of indeterminacy directly onto site. To define the nature of each performance required foregrounding the material qualities of each environment. Traversing the decaying conditions of the factories’ interiors meant negotiating the structurally unstable environments to be governed by calculated risk and public safety. Combining performance and spectatorship within the ruins of the factories brought to attention the sublime affect ruins exert in our imagination as En Residencia had previously done. In The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Jean-Francois Lyotard remarks that the sublime can be defined by the limits of difference:

[t]he sublime is not a pleasure, it is a pleasure of pain: we fail to present the absolute, and that is a displeasure, but we know that we have to present it, that the faculty of feeling or imagining is called on to bring about the sensible (the image) (1991, p. 126).

Lyotard’s notion of the sublime and my experiencing of the factories’ interior ruins can be further highlighted to Jacques Derrida’s conception of self-ruining in self-portraiture painting: ‘In the beginning, at the origin, there was ruin. At the origin comes ruin; ruin comes to the origin …. With no promise of restoration’. (1993, p. 65). In spatial terms, Derrida’s concept of self-ruining in self-portraiture painting and Lyotard’s sublime concept enacted through displeasure raised a third spatial concept–the transgression of relational territories between performer and spectator. To transgress space is to cut across the spatial boundaries of the factories’ interiors and a connecting urban program. ‘These are either spaces in-between or at the edge and their interiority transgresses the boundaries of open/close, interior/exterior, private/public’ (Doron, 2007, p. 17).

The performances conceived for Patrwn were to be denoted through the capacity to negotiate spatial transgressions of each site rather than applying spatial compositions onto each site. Combining the factories’ dereliction and ruin to the subject of each performance, meant building new connections to their materiality; the presence of the ruin and the absence of their former industry. Doron tells us that the concept of the industrial ruin is a vacant space ‘neither physical nor occupational—it is temporal. Vacant land is de facto never empty but is sometimes empty of human presence …’ (Doron, 2007, p. 17). Continuing with Doron’s thinking, French theorist Henri Lefebvre asks: ‘To speak of “producing space” sounds bizarre, so great is the sway still held by the idea that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p.15). In the case of Doron, abandoned spaces are ‘… never empty’ in that they were filled with the presence of their former function but nevertheless ‘empty of human presence …’ (2007, p. 13). The crux of Lefebvre and Doron’s propositions lies not in finding an answer but to ask what does it mean to reproduce space? It was this notion that informed the foundation of how Patrwn could be experienced by the audience throughout the factories’ interiors and exteriors.

Developing the potential for spatial indeterminacy through transgression of the three sites challenged how I had previously practiced dramaturgy. I recognised that the spatial dramaturgy for each site and work would require the performer’s ability to negotiate the unstable structures and surfaces of ruin and decay, as much as the audience’s ability to occupy the same spaces for their viewing. In spatial terms, Derrida’s concept of self-ruining in self-portraiture painting was helpful to our project where: ‘Anticipation guards against precipitation, it makes advances, puts the moves on space in order to be the first to take, in order to be forward in the movement of taking hold, making contact, or apprehending’ (Derrida, 1993, p. 4). ‘Taking hold’ of the space required negotiating the residue of industrial waste; miasma of toxic odors, seepage from inks, dyes and fabric bleaching, still very evident in the factories’ interiors. To avoid excessive toxic exposure, performers and the audience would need to be constantly on the move resulting in chorographical ‘writing’ of themselves within site and the performance through a continuance with time and occupation. This combined ‘room writing’ with each site would determine both the performance and its spectatorship formed out-of-site. Transferring this notion of writing the performance establishes a duality in the authoring of the works being produced without consciously acknowledging a role in the production as Derrida alludes:

But when, in addition, I write without seeing … in the night or with my eyes glued elsewhere, a schema already comes to life in my memory. At once virtual, potential, and dynamic, this graphic crosses all the borders separating the senses, its being-in-potential at once visual and auditory, motile and tactile (Derrida, 1993, p. 4).

Derrida’s writing ‘without seeing’ had resonance to my own practice of how I ‘read’ the factories’ interiors without consciously determining site-performance-audience relationships. What comes into play are ‘sense visions’ in reading the potential of site, the performance and audience spectatorship. Returning to Martin Jay’s argument as referenced in En Residencia that ‘… vision hostage to desire is not necessarily always better than casting a cold eye, a sight from the situated context of a body in the world may not always see things that are visible’ (1998, p. 19). Jay’s formulation as to how vision constructs our ‘social and historical’ conditions is by involving ‘the body and the psyche’ formulating the combined visual experience.

Sensing and visioning performance in spaces untried can be aligned to the concept of ‘blind writing’: ‘[a]s rare and theatrical as these experiences may be—I called them “accidental”—they nonetheless impose themselves as an exemplary mise en scène … by feeling out an area that he must recognise without yet cognizing it’ (Derrida, 1993, p.4). Derrida’s accidental mise en scène is pertinent to developing the performance for Patrwn by foregrounding, negotiating and occupying the factories unstable material conditions. Ciprut’s position of indeterminacy as cognitive disruption, imagination and chance, demands a realignment of how we proceed to encounter site-specific performance. The indeterminacy I was exploring in developing the dramaturgy for Patrwn was constructed through a framework of unframed spectatorship, forming a seamless connectivity between site, performance and audience; each constructing the other in the perception of the performance.

Inside an old derelict building, desks and papers are scattered across a dirty floor.Figure 5. Interior view of performance site in an abandoned textile factory Minde, Portugal. Photo: author.

Common to the three projects cited in this article is the exploration of indeterminacy in site-specific performance. Returning to Cirput’s supposition whereby determinism “… confines chance, jettisons mystery, limits the inexplicable, and restricts doubt of total randomness” indeterminacy on the other hand is the unconscious apprehension of space as denoted in Derrida’s concept of ‘blind writing’. Indeterminacy I had become to formulate is the folding of spatial/performance relationships, giving opportunities for alternative performance and spectator programming of spatial exchange. Abstract as this may be, indeterminacy is the pulling away from determinacy of spatial programming of the performer’s and the spectator’s relationships that are established in the architecture of the theatre. We experience determinate spaces through our daily spatial encounters whether they are shopping arcades, entertainment spectacles, national celebrations, public spaces, the workplace and the home. Defined by their program these spaces regulate and adjudicate our perception of these spaces through the limitations of indeterminacy. To work in site-specificity is to explore site through temporal modes of occupation, performance and spectatorship. To work with site-specific spaces is to explore performance and spectatorship in a constant state of flux. Patrwn, En Residencia and California Roll evolve indeterminacy through incomplete spatial transgressions of site in realizing the performances and finally their spectatorship.


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  • Manning, E. (2009). Relationscapes–Movement, Art, Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • Shaw, Pamela and Hudson, Joanne. (2009). The Qualities of Informal Space: (Re)appropriation within the informal, interstitial spaces of the city. Occupation: Negotiations with Constructed Space, Conference proceedings held at the University of Brighton 2nd to 4th July
  • Siegel, A. (2003). Empathy, documentary film.
  • Tschumi, B. (1994). Architecture and Disjunction, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.
  • Vidler, A. (1992). The Architectural Uncanny—Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

This article has not been published, submitted or accepted for publication elsewhere. However, parts of the article specifically relating to En Residencia appear in the 2013 publication Out of Space, The rise of vagrancy in scenography, Performance Research, On Scenography (pp. 109-118) Taylor and Francis.

© 2015, Benedict Anderson