Site-specific performance and the art of not leaving

Choreographic Practices Volume 9 Number 1

© 2018 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/chor.9.1.31_1





Denise Kenney and nancy Holmes

University of British Columbia



site-specific performance and the art of not leaving







endings environmentally

responsive site-specific work place-attachment ecological art


Endings are a perennial challenge when creating any temporal art form. This article is a reflection of the nature of this problem in the context of site-specific work. We are using this term according to Mike Pearson’s definition as cited by Wilkie: a performance ‘conceived for, mounted within and conditioned by the particu- lars of its site and the people it finds there’, but in our case the focus is on environmentally responsive site- specific work, work that is generated with and for a site’s ecological and historical and cultural systems and patterns. We propose that the problem of the ending, in such a context, is linked to problems of place- attachment, and ironically, for us, our reflections were generated in a site far away from our own place.


Endings are a perennial challenge when creating any temporal art form. As Robert Corrigan noted some decades ago,


we seem to be living in a world that lacks a form or meaning that an end implies. Our deep need for intelligible ends does not as yet correspond to our perceptions of the new emerging paradigms of thought and experience which will shape the ways we make sense of the world.

(1984: 162)



This article is a reflection of the nature of this problem in the context of site-specific work. We are using this term according to Mike Pearson’s definition as cited by Wilkie: a performance ‘conceived for, mounted within and conditioned by the particulars of its site and the people it finds there’ (2012: 203), but in our case the focus is on environmentally responsive site-specific work, work that is generated with and for a site’s ecological and historical and cultural systems and patterns. We propose that the problem of the ending, in such a context, is linked to problems of place-attachment, and ironically, for us, our reflections were generated in a site far away from our own place.

We live in the Okanagan valley (Okanagan or Syilx traditional territory) in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. The Okanagan valley is a fragile dry land region undergoing radical urban and agricultural development. It is a landscape of lakes and low mountains with suburbia crowding out the sagebrush, Saskatoon berries and ponderosa pines. Although there are orchards and vineyards all around, it is essentially a desert. Like all bioregions, the Okanagan is both a ‘geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness’ (Buell 2005: 83). Denise, performance artist and filmmaker, and Nancy, poet, are colleagues at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan who came to practice ecological art within this‘terrain’, from the sidelines. Denise was preoccupied with issues of mindful- ness and belonging and Nancy was preoccupied with issues of development and destruction. We found ourselves collaborating on projects that had little to do with our training and experience in devised theatre or poetry, convening students and local artists from diverse backgrounds and disci- plines, administering funds, investing resources from our institution into various community projects, working with developers and municipal employees, training students in woods and streets and learning about biology and about the place we called home.

As a body-based performance artist and a nature poet concerned with ecological issues, we also consider the body itself as a kind of geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness. This is not to suggest that the body itself is a site (the body) within a site (the actual site or terrain), but rather that the two are inseparable and symbiotic, not discrete entities. We are not on the land but rather‘in’the land and the land is in us. As such, ecological art situates itself at the intersection of human activity (the sensory body) and the environment within which that activity takes place (which includes culture and the natural world.)

As a body-based performance artist and a nature

poet concerned with ecological issues, we also consider the body itself as a kind

of geographical terrain, as well as a terrain of consciousness.


We position the emplaced sensory body more specifically as the site of ecological practice and belonging. Like David Abram, we have come to believe that the environmental ethic to which we aspire


[…] will come into existence not primarily through the logical elucidation of new philosophi- cal principles and legislative strictures, but through a renewed attentiveness to this perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empa- thy with the living land that sustains us.

(1996: 69)





Working on a project thousands of miles away furthered our thinking about our practice and its relation to home and belonging.

To explore this belief, we set up the ‘Eco Art Incubator’ in 2012, funded through a Canadian federal government grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Drawing on the idea of technology or business incubators, the goal of the ‘Eco Art Incubator’ was to become a creative incubator prototype focused on a particular kind of interventionist, socially conscious, sensorial, community and place-based art. The mandate of the ‘Eco Art Incubator’ was to engender a multi- disciplinary permanent eco art culture in our valley that would bring artistic ways of knowing into the discussion around development and conservation. As of 2017 we have created, curated, facili- tated or supported over 30 projects. The nature of our engagements and our questions is constantly evolving as we think about the challenges, satisfactions, beauties and inadequacies in our practice.

A key challenge that erupts over and over again in our work and in the work of those with whom we collaborate is ‘how do we define home?’. We are always confronted within ourselves and in our processes with the problem of how we can belong to this particular place when few of us are origi- nally from here and when the land itself is deeply contested not only in conflicts between conserva- tionists and proponents of development but also through the very fact that the Okanagan, like most of the land in British Columbia, is unceded First Nations territory – no treaties have ever been signed here and indigenous people have never given up their claims to this place. Constructs around home and belonging constantly trip us up as we work with the places and people around us and as we come to grips with our own rootedness and attachment to this region, and how our minds and bodies move, perform and live here.

Working on a project thousands of miles away furthered our thinking about our practice and its relation to home and belonging. In April 2017, we were invited to facilitate Eco Art Incubator Cyprus – Sites Embodied, in collaboration with the European Dance Network and Dance Gate Lefkosia as part of the Paphos 2017 European Capital of Culture. This workshop and performance series brought together local and visiting artists from various disciplines throughout Europe to research ecological art methodologies as they pertain to a particular contested site. These artists shared their expertise and used site-specific embodied research to generate new artistic and


ecological resonances. The intent was for artists to experiment with their own practice through a thematic lens and to seed practices for ongoing engagements in this region.

The Eco Art Incubator Cyprus – Sites Embodied shifted our thinking about home and belonging in a number of ways. Here we would like to unpack two observations that we made during the workshop. One came out of an introductory exercise that we did with workshop participants and the other came out of the resulting workshop performances. We believe that these two observations are connected.



Context: The workshop/ performance series

Our first visit to the Akamas Peninsula in Cyprus was in November 2016, when we arrived on its rocky shores to explore potential sites for the workshop. We were wooed by a land where old crone trees were bent out of shape from some mythological mishap, politics and history carved compli- cated stories and allegiances in bodies and on the land, and Aphrodite took the dense form of a black rock. After our visit, we wondered about many things. Were we yet another wave of colonizers in this place– albeit for a short time? How could we possibly do meaningful site-specific work in six days? How might we collaborate with locals? Were they interested in us? How might we plant seeds that might resonate beyond the workshop?

In the end, we chose the site of the small mostly abandoned village of Androlikou and the area surrounding the village, a site that had a palpable legacy of political and ecological upheaval. We decided that the purpose of the six-day workshop should be to develop an international network of ecological art practices and practitioners and to expand the participating artists’ own artistic ways of knowing by collaborating with this complex, contested, inspirational place fraught with social, cultural and ecological anxieties. Our aim was to witness and acknowledge these anxieties, not to offer to solve or remediate them.

The village of Androlikou, mostly depopulated after the Turkish invasion of 1974, is home to several villagers who live alongside ghostly abandoned stone houses. The village contains the ruined home of Cypriot poet Tefkros Anthias; a large quarry that visually dominates the panoramic view; rich red clay banks scooped out for pottery-making; a Turkish Cypriot graveyard, in which is buried a couple whose story is featured in the film Akamas, the love story of a bicommunal marriage by director Panicos Chrysanthou; rock-strewn agricultural fields with old fig and orange trees bordered by stone walls and villagers’homes; deep bio diverse gorges; and stunning views of the Mediterranean sea. Large parts of Akamas Peninsula are ecologically protected under the EU’s Natura 2000. In Androlikou and the surrounding area there are serious issues of land tenure, political residue around ethnic cleansing, religious and cultural conflicts, and contending views around economic benefits of the land-destroying quarry and potential resort development versus environmental stewardship of the gorges and the seaside.




Our aim was to witness and

acknowledge these anxieties, not to offer to solve or remediate them.


In mid-April, just before Easter, we met our participants: thirteen performance artists and danc- ers from Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Norway. We also had considerable participation from our organizer on the ground, Arianna Economou from Dance Gate Lefkosia, and her intern, Justyna Ataman, a Polish artist based in Scotland, and local photographer Ergenc Korkmazel, who served as our guide and documentarian throughout the process. For the first half of the workshop, participants spent most of their time at an abandoned schoolhouse in the village learning about the place and being given access to various creation resources. We planted a garden in the schoolyard and explored various exercises aimed at aligning the artists with them- selves in the new context. We also toured the village, its cemetery, the quarry, the gorge and Sotira Mountain. Filmmaker Panicos Chrysanthou, environmental educator Daniella Mouyannou and potter Vassos Demetriou visited us. The second part of the workshop was dedicated to the partici- pants working independently in/on their chosen site to create experimental pieces for the perfor- mance series and weekend gathering of the European Dance Network. These pieces were not fully fledged works, by any means, but nevertheless were created and performed within the context of our gathering.




In this exercise, we asked participants to describe their home without using place names.

The problem of home

Because we were such an internationally diverse group, we thought it would be useful for us to introduce ourselves in relation to our own far away or not so far away (in the case of the Cypriot artists) places. In this exercise, we asked participants to describe their home without using place names. This is not an easy task. First, one must internally identify where‘home’is, and then one must describe it using sensorial or other characteristics of that place rather than the names/structures superimposed upon that place. Essentially one must reconstruct the coordinates of ‘home’.

We were surprised by the results of this exercise – so much so that we are left pondering the notion of home in the context of ecological artistic practice. Many participants, especially the younger ones, expressed feelings of homelessness. There was a kind of erasure of identity and a universalization of experience. In the end there was a longing for home that was expressed by many, but conflicted feelings as well. Many seemed to be experiencing a kind of ‘Root Shock’, a term used by Mindy Thomson Fullilove (2005) to talk about a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruc- tion of one’s home or emotional connections to places. Without exception, all of the artists taking this workshop had done extensive training far from their place of origin. Many continued to live and practice their art away from that place of origin. While Cypriot artists trained in England, an English artist trained in Canada. While Cypriot artists trained in Greece, a Greek artist trained in London and the United States. While Cypriot artists trained in Germany alongside Spanish and Norwegian artists, we met German artists living and working in Cyprus. In addition, many of these artists also


lived in an urban setting rather than the more regional or rural ones of their childhood homes. As usual, we were challenged to think deeply about what‘home’means in this time of fraught relations between human and other-than-human worlds, especially as we continually destroy homes of others through development, political strife and climate change. Many people around the world are mobile – through choice or necessity – and the contemporary human being seems to abandon homes and places of origin with great frequency. However, even more strongly, we were made aware of the problem of home in the context of artists’ lives. How do bodies feel ‘in place’ in such a context?

This scenario is not unlike our own experiences. Most training programmes for performers and professional performance companies in Canada are located in urban centres. Kenney grew up in northern British Columbia, just below the Alaskan panhandle, and yet her most formative educa- tion as an artist took place in the heart of Paris, France, at the physical theatre school of Jacques Lecoq. Holmes grew up and attended school in four separate cities and in two provinces on the opposite ends of the continent before moving to the Okanagan in 1992 to find work as a teacher of literature and Creative Writing. Performance as a European-derived art form has been mostly an urban endeavour, and training programmes and employment opportunities are located in larger cities. These performing arts centres are often situated, like fortresses of culture, within urban cultural districts and their seasons highlight contemporary performance artists and a cannon of old and new plays but rarely reflect the realities of the neighbourhoods and ecosystems within which they are housed. The research relationship that we developed with each other and The ‘Eco Art Incubator’project was born because of this situation: we were attempting to reposition our art prac- tice in the rural Okanagan environment. Yet, like the workshop in Cyprus, we find ourselves train- ing students from all over the world and then watching them migrate elsewhere – often to larger cities.

In our global and migratory world there are very few performance practices that are not affected by relationship to‘home’but site-specific performance teases out these frustrations precisely because it moves beyond generic stages, black boxes and gallery spaces and into environments in which the body experiences specific sensorial triggers and provocations. This became abundantly clear during our work in Cyprus and we began to ask ourselves what this complicated relationship to home meant for site-specific performance work. How do the artists’experiences of rootlessness and hope- lessness about finding a sense of home affect the work that is created when responding to a very specific place? What is the value of ecological art and site-specific art activities in such a migratory context? How do we come into meaningful alignment with ourselves and with place when we are so busy moving around? At this stage, we honestly do not know. Ironically, while we were focused primarily on one village in Cyprus and we had several Cypriot artists with us, the workshop was yet another transitory experience that mimicked this confusing context – most of us were from away,


many of us were unclear about what‘home’or place-attachment meant to us, especially such a rural place, and many of the Cypriot artists were deeply ambivalent about their relationship to their own country. For the young Cypriot artists who expressed feelings of disconnection with their country, some of our site-specific exercises, the local support team and the invited artists enabled them to see their homeland through a different lens. It is our hope that because of this experience, these young Cypriot artists may find inspiration for seeding practices in Cyprus that will resonate into the future beyond the confines of the workshop.


The problem of endings

During the second part of our workshop, when performers worked independently and then performed their site-specific works for an invited audience, we made another observation. We began to notice that many artists were ending their pieces in a similar way. Performers would often walk away, sometimes over a hill, into the glorious Cypriot sunset, through a waving sea of grass, or behind a crumbling stone wall. It always produced a romantic and nostalgic image, but in almost every case they would leave the audience to ponder their shared (and recently ended) experience. As we contemplated this observation, we realized that many of the site-specific performances that we have witnessed over the years have ended similarly. Simply put, it is difficult to end a site-specific performance and it would seem that the strategy often used is to leave the audience on-site while performers remove themselves. Backstage spaces and performance conventions found in culturally sanctioned spaces (which host performance often created elsewhere) mitigate this problem some- what, often by exploring temporal dynamics more than spatial dynamics, but for site-specific work, the way in which the performers‘hold’the space for their audience changes drastically, given the way in which they co-create the experience with the environment itself. It would seem that the‘letting go of that holding’ is difficult to design. This is not a new observation about site-specific work: Anne Étienne notes that in site-specific work‘[o]ne […] is rarely given the opportunity to clap since either the performers vanish into thin air or the spectators are invited out in lieu of the performance ending in a conventional way’ (2016: 75). However, our focus on eco art makes us wonder whether the conventions used and the strategies employed to end site-specific work mimic our own confusion, migratory behaviour and our loss and detachment from home.

We are artists whose instruments are our senses and if we are honest with ourselves, we often end

up perpetuating our embodied and actual experiences even if our intention is to question or challenge them. Site-specific performance endings unleash all the problems around how to connect, and, it seems, not intentionally. We cannot imagine how to remain in place and so our endings sabotage, in a way, the experience of an embodied and sustained connection with that place. Why is this? Is this tendency ingrained in us, a small manifestation of humankind’s expansionist and colonial history?



Figure 1: Home. Photograph copyright Ergenc Korkmazel. Cyprus, April 2017.



Figure 2: Ida Johannesen (Norway). Photograph copyright Ergenc Korkmazel. Cyprus, April 2017.    39



Figure 3: Antonis Antoniou (Geopoetics: Cyprus/Greece). Photograph copyright Ergenc Korkmazel. Cyprus, April 2017.


In contrast, First Nations rituals and cultural practices such as dance and storytelling are often clear embodiments of remaining in place: ‘We think of our language as the language of the land’, explains Jeannette Armstrong of the Okanagan Nation.


This means that the land has taught us our language. The way we survive is by speaking the language that the land offered us as its teaching. To know all the plants, animals, seasons, and geography is to construct language for them.

(2006: 37)


What is our language as artists and how is it being shaped? Canadian poet Dennis Lee wrote an essay entitled ‘Cadence, country, silence’; in this meditation on place, art and failure, he tells us that ‘cadence’ is the energy of process that underpins and energizes all great poetry (and art in general) – but that it can be ‘blocked at a deeper level than the personal’. Since, he says, it comes from ‘hereness, its local nature […] if we live in a space which is radically in question for us, that makes our barest speaking problematic to itself’ (Lee 1998: 9–10). Most of us are living in a space that is radically in question for us – places that have no link to our pasts, places where we import colonial baggage, places we are passing through, places where we are economic or political refugees, places where we are culturally isolated, places where we have no community in the deepest sense of that word. Sometimes, as in places such as British Columbia, we know at some level that our pres- ence here is a problem for the original inhabitants (both human and other than human) and we are uncomfortable with that even if we call the place home.

During our home-description exercise we realized that many artists were reaching into them- selves in an effort to ascertain what place or landscape ‘felt’ like home. During the experimental works, we realized that many artists were at a loss when it came to ending their site-specific works, with the number one strategy being abandonment of the site and the leaving behind of the tempo- rary community of the audience. Is there a connection between these two realities?

What would a rooted and home-building ending of a site-specific performance look like or be? Or what would a deliberate and intentional revelation of our deep disconnection look like or be? We believe that it might be useful for us to go back to our original ‘home-describing’ exercise. Perhaps we need to interrogate and unpack this idea of home again. What if, for example, a group of migra- tory artists were challenged to think about home, not only as a place where one ‘feels’ at home or ‘feels good’but also as a place where one is needed, a place where, if one were removed, there would be an absence, a hole and a privation? This brings to the forefront the notion of reciprocity so preva- lent in indigenous ideology. In an effort to embody reciprocity, would artists then integrate ritual more into their work, making the audience necessary for the enactment of the art? Would this reci- procity change the experience of ending? Of course this is a very common strategy, as is durational         41


and cyclical works that attempt to disrupt linear narrative (perhaps in an effort to avoid endings altogether?). The results of these experiments are as varied as the artists themselves and the places in which they are performed. Perhaps our hypothetical group of artists might also come up with other complications to the idea of home or other ways of defining what home might be, especially in the very migratory context of their lives that seems so contradictory to belonging. Perhaps out of these questions we would find new ways to think about ending site-specific works that do not re-enact abandonment and loss, but that work to re-knit and re-join us to places and communities. Or that at the very least help us think about what we leave behind. Perhaps we need to start devising work from the notion of endings, leavings and stayings, and work with our fellow artists and our communities to re-imagine what such a paradigm of connection and disconnection might mean. Ultimately, perhaps we can find a way to position the sensory body more specifically as the site of ecological practice and belonging and embody work that, in Abram’s words, will spark ‘a rejuvena- tion of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us’ (1996: 69).



Abram, David (1996), The Spell of the Sensuous, New York, Vintage Books.

Armstrong, Jeannette (2006), ‘Sharing one skin’, in Jerry Mander and Victoria Tauli Corpuz (eds), Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Globalization, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, pp. 460–70.

Buell, Lawrence (2005), The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Corrigan, Robert W. (1984), ‘The search for new endings: The theatre in search of a fix, Part III’, special issue, Theatre Journal, 36:2, pp. 153–63.

Étienne, Anne (2016), ‘Challenging the auditorium: Spectatorship(s) in “Off-Site” performance’, Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, 4:1, pp. 74–89, jcde.2016.4.issue-1/jcde-2016-0007/jcde-2016-0007.xml?rskey=j5fkOI&result=1&q=Etienne%2 C+Anne. Accessed 28 June 2017.

Fullilove, Mindy Thomson (2005), Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, New York: One World/Ballantine Books.

Lee, Dennis (1998), ‘Cadence, country, silence’, in Body Music, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, pp. 3–25, Accessed 28 June 2017.

Wilkie, Fiona (2012), ‘Site-specific performance and the mobility turn’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22:2, pp. 203–212.


Suggested citation

Kenney, D. and Holmes, N. (2018),‘Site-specific performance and the art of not leaving’, Choreographic Practices, 9:1, pp. 31–43, doi: 10.1386/chor.9.1.31_1


Contributor details

Denise Kenney is an associate professor at UBC Okanagan, co-artistic director of Inner Fish Performance Co. and Co-Investigator on the research project ‘Eco Art Incubator’. She studied at the Lecoq Theatre School in Paris and earned her MFA in film directing from UBC Vancouver. She has worked as a performer, creator and director in devised performance and community engagement and has written, directed and produced film and television.

Contact: Department of Creative Studies, CCS Bldg, 1148 Research Road, The University of British Columbia, Kelowna, British Columbia, V1V 1V7, Canada.



Nancy Holmes is an associate professor at UBC Okanagan and has published five poetry collec- tions, most recently The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poems. She edited Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems and for the past several years, she has been active in eco-themed, community-based research and art projects with her students and other artists. She teaches creative writing and lives in Kelowna, BC, Canada.

Contact: Department of Creative Studies, CCS Bldg, 1148 Research Road, The University of British Columbia, Kelowna, British Columbia, V1V 1V7, Canada.



Denise Kenney and Nancy Holmes have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the authors of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.






International Journal of Education Through Art

ISSN 1743-5234 | Online ISSN 2040-090X | 3 issues per volume | Volume 7, 2011



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Glen Coutts University of Lapland


Reviews Editor Nicholas Houghton


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