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The text below is the unedited review that Ann Murphy sent to Wendy Perron before it was edited (for length) to be included in the Notable Dance Books of 2022. It is included here with Ann Murphy's permission.
On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation
By Stephan Koplowitz
Oxford University Press (2022)
Reviewed by Ann Murphy
Choreographer Stephan Koplowitz, a familiar figure in the world of site-based performance, has been working in the genre for more than 30 years. His large-scale events, from Fenestrations at Grand Central Terminal (1987 and 1999) and Genesis Canyon (1996) at the Natural History Museum in London to the immersive site event The Northfield Experience (2018) in Minnesota, exemplify his interest in architectural scale, organized bodies in space and time, theater, media, history, metaphor, and a capacity for complex project creation and management.
Now, so does his new book, On Site: Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation published in 2022 by Oxford University Press. In this comprehensive, wonderfully organized volume, he shares his extensive knowledge of a multi-facted genre, and he does so with elegant logic, along with a spirit of generosity and care. This care extends to a large array of “guests”—24 fellow artists who also make work in non-traditional spaces and share their thoughts, creating a subtle, antiphonal rhythm throughout that makes the role of collaborators--both in the volume and in site-specific work--palpable.
On Site is no dry or abstruse tome. It’s an homage, first and foremost, to performance in non-traditional spaces, and it is a stunning template that takes the reader step by step through the processes, beginning wide—with site visits—to constructing structures, gathering partners, participants, pr, money, budgets, tech, costumes, documentation and, at the end, designing and making assessments. While intended for artists and performers, it’s the kind of text that could benefit other explorers and creative experimenters. It’s also a worthy desktop bible. If you’re worried you’ve forgotten some detail before you put your unpermitted performance on the city street, you might consult On Site.
The organization of any how-to book can be one of the toughest problems for an author to tame, but in On Site the structure of information is a triumph of clarity and nuance. It’s organized with meticulous use of clean, serif-less headings, bold-faced subtitles, simple but elegantly boxed-in quotes, and highly legible tables, creating a seamless reading experience. This allows one to grasp in an instant what is being transmitted in each chapter or section. It’s conducive both to deep dives and to browsing, and, presumably, readers will do both, repeatedly, as they search for how to navigate co-producing, or nailing that parade permit overnight.
At the outset, Koplowitz brings his colleagues and peers into the discourse. On page one, following a boldfaced heading (Introduction) and a subheading that functions as a subtitle (Inspirations and Definitions), Koplowitz asks: Why Make Site-Specific Work? To answer we hear the voice of Anne Hamburger delineated in a box afloat in white space: ”There’s something exhilarating when I’m outdoors producing a show and thinking, my stage is as high as the sky and as far as I can see….” (p1). Next is a photo of two hieratic figures in white with upraised arms and clasped hands from Stonewall, Night Variations, Tina Landau’s piece from 1994 at Pier 25 in NY. The photo is captioned: Photo Introduction.1. (And here, Koplowitz uses the opportunity to demonstrate the sorts of archival notation that is so important to any process of artistic documentation.)
On Site is organized in six sections and 19 chapters plus appendices. It unfolds sequentially, asking, first, how to we start?, then moving on to how to make a master plan and organize research goals. Here, in the research phase, he underscores the centrality of knowing one’s site. The artist is no longer in the seemingly “blank” space of a theater; a site, regarded seriously, is at least in part an unknown, perhaps even a mystery, and by meeting, engaging, and learning about it, one opens oneself up to inspiration and transformation. The site becomes a partner, even in cases where the site incidentally—or accidentally--conditions a work, as in Merce Cunningham’s Events in the environment.
Rather than diving into the discourse on what, exactly, constitutes site work, Koplowitz lets readers know that his interest is in defining the type of approach to site work not assigning labels. To that end he creates a large canopy to shelter existing and, I’d argue, future subgenres of a form that continues to evolve. He does share his four major types Site-specific, Site-shaped; Site-reshaped; and Site-reframed. He also notes that the categories are in flux, hybrid forms exist, and that when a work moves from the original site to a new site it becomes Conceptual site-adaptive work. Immersive theater and Flash mobs also get a nod. (p7-15)
I can imagine that future editions of On Site will add to this list.
One of the many highly effective tools in On Site is Koplowitz’s use of enumeration. He orders and nests information numerically, and his use of numbering calls up the essential place of numbering in dance and music, and the clarity that counts give to movement phrases.
As he demonstrates ways to take audiences through multiple spaces in a sited piece, Koplowitz leads us through the four parts of his own Genesis Canyon. In the section on negotiations and contracts (chapter 6) he heads a section Two strategies for determining your fee. In chapter 11 he offers Four Areas of Artistic Collaboration. Virtually all of these examples are presented as options, not the sum total of possibilities. Numbering supports that.
Nuts and Bolts and Quiet, Radical Acts
There is a wonderful radicalism in the act of building a template for others to use to create work in an era when creators seek to monetize every click and wink. That brought to mind some of the radical how-to books of the last quarter of the 20th century, like the Foxfire volumes that resurrected the art of homesteading, or Rodale Press’ books on quilting, bike repair, and farming, to name a few. On Site also seems to channel a New Dance Group’s ethos of community and solidarity.
But Koplowitz isn’t looking back, and no apparent utopian vision motivates the text. His solidarity with fellow artists is earthy and muscular as he invites them to present ideas and inhabit the volume. This is collaboration in action and a commitment to generosity, which may be one of the 21st century’s more radical acts. Koplowitz approaches even the rather daunting administrative elements of creating site-based work in a spirit of equanimity and brings to it a practice reflexive engagement that encourages one to decenter themselves again and again to meet challenges with curiosity, engagement, compromise and self-assessment.
It’s not a bad recipe for living.
And on a practical note, On Site is a good reason, if one is needed, for educators to build a class around creating site-specific work. It could even invite collaboration across disciplines, perhaps outside the arts. Theoretical texts could be added to a syllabus to deepen a student’s grasp of the role of performance in the environment and its philosophical and ideological implications.
The end of the volume with its array of additional source recommendations prompted me to circle back to a line Koplowitz writes immediately before chapter one begins:
“This book aims to support the notion that you are not alone in your desire to create something new using the world as your inspiration.”