In this seminal essay, Miwon Kwon maps out—almost in a spiral—the expanding notions of site specificity in art practices of the past forty years. These various shifts occur parallel to one another, she observes, negating the appearance of a logical (almost Hegelian) series of developments and dematerializations: 1) Whereas the autonomous artwork used to be the site of authenticity confined by the limits of the object, in the 1960s and ’70s, the artwork became contingent upon its physical setting and the phenomenological experience of it in a specific time and place within the context of the white museum or gallery space. 2) From the physical site we then shift to a dematerialized, cultural site, a practice of site specificity that revolves around notions of the institution of art and its social framework. Rather than letting the site become the space of its presentation, the site now becomes the space of presentation itself, says Kwon. 3) From the cultural site, we move toward a discursive site. Site specificity attempts here to engage in everyday life beyond the walls of the institutions of art so as to embrace non-art and social issues. The locational and cultural sites become here subordinate to the discursive site. 4) A discursive site may also exist between sites, says Kwon, a transitively experienced site that is not a map, but more like an itinerary. Site is a theme only. This sort of site between sites requires an artist as instigator. The artist turns into an itinerant artist traveling from one place to another making critical interventions. 5) The artist via his or her history becomes, then, a kind of site, that is, he or she becomes the necessary author to authorize and authenticate an intervention in a site. Consequently, the assumed uniqueness of a place is marked by the artist’s “interventionary services” (103, 33n).
To Kwon, the unhinging of site specificity is a surrendering to capitalist expansion, which she marks as the commodification, serialization and, thus, homogenization of locational differences. The erasure, which she claims will take place, brings to mind the omnipresent McDonald’s. But if one compares her claim to W. Benjamin’s erroneous belief that mechanical reproduction leads to the loss of aura because the reproduction is detached from its authentic site and appears everywhere, is it then necessarily the case that an artist jumping from one place to another in sequence or serialization doing site interventions will result in homogenization and the lack of uniqueness of site and work? Kwon argues (aided by Henri Lefebvre) against globalization on capitalistic terms, but I hesitate to make the jump she makes that lets artistic interventions necessarily lead to spatial indifferentiation. Her solution to the capitalist notion of an artist as a service provider is to think of a “double mediation” where site specificity, as an artistic practice, becomes a “terrain between mobilization and specificity” (109). Kwon: “This means addressing the differences of adjacencies and distances between one thing . . . next to another, rather than invoking equivalencies via one thing after another” (110). Globetrotting contemporary artists and the cities and institutions that commission them require taking on a “relational sensibility” that will engage the artist in the local community in a way that weaves together local themes and problems, and leaving strings and continuities generated on the site’s terms rather than units of capitalist productions irrespective of local differences. Kwon’s article makes an important contribution to the understanding of the practice of site specificity today as well as its political ramifications or alliances, but I am not convinced that each intervention by the same artist will result in the same intervention without respect and regards for the contingencies and differences of each cultural place and, moreover, that jumping from one place to another is necessarily so distinct from the relations, contextualizations and weaving that Kwon is seeking.