- Site-Specific Performance by Mike Pearson
In a North Lincolnshire village festival, the Fool stands on his designated hillside stone to recite the rules to the players of the Haxey Hood. Not far away at the Aberystwyth railway station, members of Mike Pearson’s own company, Brith Gof, hang in the buff against the bricks and iron rails of the station interior. These are performances inseparable from their environs. According to Pearson, site-specific performances “reside within, and [are] inseparable from, a set of topographical, cultural and social conditions” (48). In this book, he charts and explores an open map of the methods and analysis of site-specific performances, which he argues require a fundamentally different rubric and set of questions than that of auditorium performance. Indeed, the book convinces readers that the inherent conditions of site-specific performance shift attention to a broader engagement with environments, histories, audiences, and systems of production. Whereas performance studies scholars might find this approach less than novel, they will no doubt feel edified by its greatest success in suggesting the added and exponential possibilities of site-specific works.
First, as Pearson points out, “if the stage is essentially synechdochic—in which limited resources stand in for the complete picture, as when a table and chair suggests a domestic scene—site is a complete picture, site is frequently a scene of plenitude” (1). Staging performance outside the auditorium, therefore, presents the opportunity for a theatre already furnished in abundance. Pearson is concerned with what to do with this abundance—in particular, how to discern the physical, social, and cultural conditions particular to not just another stage, but an altogether different kind of stage. Ultimately, Pearson argues, these abundant environments of site-specific performance implicate time, space, and the embodiment of actors and audiences in wholly different ways. Not only as material additions to the stage—the rock or the rails—site-specific performances bring meaning to and enliven the relationships among people, the land or surroundings, and their embedded histories.
Where site has become an almost inescapable term, the introduction anchors site-specific to the event: devising and sequencing by time and the event’s reception. As found spaces or places of worship, work, or play, site is a subject committed to a previous history, one that acts as another character in a living or haunting way; a site talks back, a site is already fully alive and persists well after the “show” is over. In another way, sites are infused, created, and bound to the social engagement that makes space into place; a place for one person’s play might be another’s work. Worship and sacred sites might imply entirely different sets of assumptions, which for Pearson move far beyond the mimetic and representational limits of a presumably “neutral” auditorium stage.
Pearson’s swift and largely unmediated review of scholarship in the introduction and first chapter is, as he says, an attempt to “hold open an emergent field” (xiii). The value is a collection of raw citational data that lays out the major conceptual turns of the last decade, what Pearson relays as a shift from fixed sites to paradigms of mobility and relational modes where both “being and environment are mutually emergent, continually brought into existence together” (16). This chapter closes with a useful table comparing attributes of auditorium and site-specific performance.
Chapter 2 presents the analytical strength of this book, situating the witness/participant/actor in relationship to place. Pearson presents an immersive model for a self-reflective practitioner, a model that benefits scholarship and ethnography as much as it does the actors who enter space as tourists, walkers, [End Page 177] flaneurs, derivists, psycho-geographers, nomads, or ramblers. Referencing the cartographic impulses of the Situationists—Deleuze and Guattari, among others—Pearson focuses on the positioning and reconstitution of self at the point of arrival. In one way, this assumes a found space, a discovery, a distance between the artist and the place that belies a cultural specificity to how one encounters sites, land, and found territories as much as what actually...