Ruth Barker

Making 'Sited' Work: Places, Risks, and Ideas.



Making ‘Sited’, Work: Places, Risks, and Ideas.


Not all creative works are supposed to be found in cultural institutions like art galleries, theatres, cinemas.

We know this.

White walls and black boxes create a space for art, but art does not always fit into those spaces. Art pokes out, into the street outside. Or art leaps into the parks and gardens before anyone ever tries to bundle it indoors. Or art is born and bred in a briar patch, and never gets an invitation to the preview.

We know this, of course we do. We know this. And yet the fact of it still raises awkward questions. I am a fan of awkward questions. Sometimes they provoke awkward answers. We know this, too.


Question 1. What is ‘Sited work’? Drawing on recent examples, discuss the difficulty of defining sited work.

a) A man and a woman stand opposite each other in a narrow passageway just off the Royal Mile. They are wearing laborious, hand-crafted costumes. Some people stand around them, watching. Others walk past, some with curiosity, others with something else on their minds. Then the man and woman begin to sing and to sign; wordless echoing voices that create an architecture of encounter, punctuated by the grammar of choreographed semaphore. It is part of an art festival. There is a budget, with fees. The people watching have booked in advance (though the event is free). Is this something ‘sited’?[1]


b) A young Romanian man in a blue jacket squats on the ground in a busy city centre. He empties two bags of sand onto the ground, then empties his water bottle onto the heap to dampen it. Using the bottle as a form, he drags the sand into shape, hauling it into the likeness of a slouching, flat-faced dog. He has a Tupperware tray on the ground beside him. He spends the afternoon taking flecks from the dog’s back with a little brush, and fiddling with the shape of its ears. Occasionally someone tosses him some change. Tonight he will sweep the dog back into the sandbag, and tomorrow he will come back to build it again. Is this something ‘sited’?[2]


c) On the wall of a shed in Lochmaddy a woman paints a face. Is this something ‘sited’? Do we need to know more about it? Who was the woman? What was the painting like? Who paid for what?[3]


Within the gallery or the theatre, we can be comfortable knowing what we are supposed to look at. The work has been validated by authorities that we can trust. Once we step outside this may no longer be the case.

Some sited work is contextualised by an external framework of validation and permissions: the festival, the gallery, the commissioning agency, the funders.

Some sited work is not: it comes unauthorised and grows solely from someone’s desire or need to make it. What do we do with these things when we encounter them? How do we know what to think?



Question 2: What is the nature of risk?

In arts venues there are rules – health and safety and all that! – and there are guidelines, like interpretation strategies and whatever. Artists don’t need all that!! They need to make the work!!! They need to shrug off the shackles of City Council drafted risk assessments and mealy mouthed cowardly programming decisions and step into the brave free world outside the logo-embossed doors. Of course they do.

But they need insurance. And they need to obey the law, obviously. And they need to be morally responsible, hopefully. And they need to be ethically sound, ideally. And they need to reflect the ethos of the funders, of course. And they need to represent the good name of the commissioning body, clearly. And they ought to make something that the majority of people will like, as that’s simply good manners.

In a small room, an artist sits on a chair with her hands in her pockets. How does she take a risk?

She joins a political party that is not the one you’d expect.

She commits small act of civil disobedience.

She swears, and disagrees with people.

She tells a lie (or she makes a mistake).

She is not a nice person (or she is a person whom we do not like).

And, after all, she is still an artist. And could her life be art? And if it is, is this something sited? And if she pays for her life herself, or if she doesn’t, does that change to whom she is responsible? [4]



Question 3: What it is saying or how it is made: Where are we supposed to be looking? At the chicken, or at the egg?

Art is made from stuff. It is made from people, from materials, from fabrics, tools, and stones. How do we understand art? We begin by categorising it. We say, this thing that is composed from men and women moving their bodies in time as music plays: let’s understand it by thinking about how it relates to other things in which men and women move their bodies in time as music plays. And we say, this thing that is a bit of stretched canvas with paint smeared over it in such a way as to resemble a face: let’s understand it by thinking about how it relates to other bits of stretched canvas with paint smeared over them.

I would like to suggest that this may not be the only way to go about things. Because the painting may speak to the dance. The dance may have more in common with a poem than with other dances. And the poem may have been learnt from a face daubed crudely on the back wall of some forgotten outhouse.

Languages are plural. Translations, mistranslations, and second guesses, are worthwhile. Outside the institution there are no disciplines of medium. There are no rules, so we must make things up. Shake things up, someone mutters. Break things up, another voice replies. Sometimes we must get things wrong. Sometimes we must make things badly. When we make art work outside the venue, we are not starting from a blank slate. There is no terra incognita. We are still ourselves, with responsibilities and cares. But we are also still ourselves, with ambition, curiosity, and love. And this is what can take us somewhere new. We know all this. Of course we do.


[1] I am thinking of Hanna Tuulikki’s SING-SIGN (2015), an Edinburgh Arts Festival commission.

[2] I am thinking of the sand dogs that are being made… well, everywhere at the moment, it seems. One sand dog sculptor is called Robert Marian, and was photographed for the Daily Mail (24/12/15) making a dog in High Street Kensington, London. The dog looks identical to one I have seen being made on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, by someone else.

[3] I am thinking of two things. One is the work Are you LOCATIONALIZED (2014) by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, commissioned by ATLAS Arts for ‘Generation’. The other is a work by an unknown hand in white emulsion on private property also in Lochmaddy, Isle of North Uist.

[4] After writing this, I think of Ellie Harrison’s The Glasgow Effect (2016) a research project that has caused a great deal of online criticism. The artist with her hands in her pockets is not Ellie. But perhaps this invented, notional, protestor might also face Facebook opprobrium. I wonder, do the ranks of the offended always get to choose? And should they? Because that, I think, really would be risky.