In 2012, I moved to Ireland to study Theatre and Performance at Trinity College Dublin. The fall of that year, my friend and I made our way across the river Liffey, to the north side of the city, to see a site-specific theatre performance as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival. Prior to this moment I was unfamiliar with site-specific work and attended the performance with the same expectations I had for most other shows seen in my Undergraduate days. I was prepared for a “comfortable” theatrical experience. An experience where, no matter how difficult the content of the show, a predictability existed that separated myself from the world of the play. I had seen and been part of shows that challenged me, certainly, but all of them existed within the confines of a traditional theatre space. I thought I knew what to expect.
As it turned out, I didn’t.
What I experienced that day was far from predictable. After purchasing our tickets from a remote box office, my friend and I were abruptly led through the streets of Dublin. By led, I mean quickly instructed to hop into a cab while a man across the street shouted at us and to the sky. Was he part of the performance? I wondered. I couldn’t be sure. I was completely unsure of who was an actor and who was an ordinary passer-by, or where the performance even began or ended. We walked through strange buildings, were ushered in and out of cabs, into living rooms, bathrooms, were privy to intimate conversations, and startling arguments. I felt like an intruder, or, at the very least, a stranger who was suddenly implicated in some serious corruption. The performance set out to investigate violence, crime, and drug use in the city’s history. What I didn’t expect was that it would bring that history into my present experience. I remember at one point talking to a little girl who was involved in one of the aforementioned arguments and wanting desperately to help her escape with us back to the cab. Is she an actor? If so, why do I still feel the persistent need to help her? If my friend hadn’t been there with me, I undoubtedly would have broken down in tears. The events were stressful, and my empathetic heart was exploding. Eventually we were led back to the starting point of the “performance”.
Our walk home was mostly an attempt to process what had just occurred. Those Dublin city streets changed for me that day. The immortal words of the Bard, “All the world’s a stage”, rang with literalism; those streets were permanently altered as a result of that performance. I saw the city differently, saw its inhabitants differently, experienced myself in relationship to the space differently. Even if I tried to comfortably put the performance to rest, its stories would still be alive in those streets; a living memory. I have returned to Dublin several times since 2012, and each time I cross to the north side of the city my thoughts wander to that powerful performance. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still out there, on some endless loop, just a few streets over from where I am. It certainly never felt like it “ended”. There was no comfortable conclusion.
Site-specific work has the potential to share the stories of our cities and spaces in ways traditional theatre venues can only scratch the surface of. Site-specific work, as it relates to the arts, investigates the stories and histories of a space and strives to bring out those stories through artistic means. In other words, rather than bringing pre-determined stories into a space, site-specific work demands that the artist ask the space what stories it has to tell. There is inherent value in this type of work as it offers communities new ways of seeing familiar spaces and to develop new relationships with these spaces and their city. It has value for artists as they become co-collaborators with spaces.
While some of the stories that arise from site-specific investigations can be difficult ones, they can also be playful and poignant. There is as much variety in the types of stories told as there is in places to tell them. This winter New York City and Toronto both enjoyed the results of the Winter Stations Design Competition which offers art installations for the public to interact with. One of these installation projects, called Impulse, consisted of illuminated seesaws the community could play on. The responses to this installation from members of the community were inherently positive, offering some whimsy to winter days. The second of these projects, LOOP, is presently happening in Toronto and is an installation of glowing machines powered by those interacting with them. Creative placemaking, utilizing the arts to inform and transform a space, provides an avenue for creative makers and observers of all walks of life to be inspired and changed by spaces. When these spaces communities routinely inhabit can become stories, specifically, stories brought to life through site-specific art, is when exciting community building can occur.
About Rebekka Gondosch
Rebekka Gondosch is an actor and arts educator based in Hamilton. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s M.Phil. in Theatre and Performance program, has a B.A. in Dramatic Arts and English Language and Literature from Brock University, and a B.Ed. from Redeemer University. She was a member of Hamilton Fringe’s ALERT team from 2018-2019 which co-produces Hamilton’s site specific winter performance festival Frost Bites.