Rebecca Novick: Site-specific

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Rebecca Novick, Director of the Triangle Lab It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

Keyword: Site-specific

That’s Not My BART Stop: One of the Triangle Lab projects we’re producing right now is called Love Balm for My Spirit Child.  It’s a series of performances sharing testimony from mothers who have lost children to violence.  We’re calling this series “site-specific” because they’re performed on the spots where each murder took place.  Site-specific in its strictest definition means a performance created specifically for a non-traditional space, often using physical characteristics of that space, or of the community who gathers there, to influence what the performance will be. In a more general or lazy way, we often use “site-specific” to simply mean “not performed in a theater.”

As more institutions experiment with performing work outside their traditional venues –work often labeled site-specific — I have become impatient with this term.  It feels like one more artificial division of performance into professional/amateur, into important/marginal, into traditional/experimental.  In fact, all our work is site-specific, we just choose to erase the impact of our ordinary spaces — with their red curtains, or their funky black walls, or their gleaming floors — on what gets performed there and who feels welcome to see it.

A few weeks ago I went to one of the Love Balm performances, the testimony of Bonnie Johnson, Oscar Grant’s grandmother, performed at Fruitvale Station, the BART stop where he was shot.  I was nervous on the way – I’d never gotten off the BART there, didn’t know exactly where the performance would be, or what it would feel like.  When I got there, to find a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered for the invocation that would open the performance, I was one of the only white attendees.  (certainly an echo of the experience audiences of color might have attending an arts event at a theater with a majority white audience).

Before the performance started, a friend of mine asked me if I had brought my children (who are 4 and 6) and I was surprised by the question.  “Of course not,” I answered without thinking about it much, “I didn’t know how I would begin to tell them this story” Then I looked around the crowd filled with children, at my other friend sitting with her Black son in her lap, and heard the privilege in what I had just said.  My white children don’t know the story of Oscar Grant yet, haven’t yet needed to understand that sometimes the police are not the good guys, that there are places where you shouldn’t go because the color of your skin makes you a suspect.  Fruitvale Station is not – on many levels –  my BART stop.

This ambitious and powerful performance embodied for me what site-specific might really mean.  It brought me somewhere I don’t go, into a community I don’t belong to, to understand a story in a new way because of the place it was performed in.  The woman offering the invocation poured water on the ground and — I think for everyone there — the performance began to cleanse that spot. To turn it from a murder scene to a place for community sharing, somewhere where perhaps healing can begin.

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