The word site has a rich and varied history in both colloquial and theoretical discourses. It has been adopted by architects and archeologists, economists and contractors, war historians and web designers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, site, as noun, means (variously) “[t]he situation or position of a place, town, building, etc.,” “a position in or on something, especially one where some activity happens or is done,” “a plot, or number of plots, of land intended or suitable for building purposes,” and “a piece of ground or an area which has been appropriated for some purpose; the scene of a specified activity.” Its Latin root is situs, meaning place or position, a root shared by the word situation. Situs is also the foundation of the Latin phrase in situ, meaning “in its original place; in position.”
In media studies, site is often used interchangeably with several related terms, including space, place, and location. If we are to come to a useful definition of site, it seems necessary to differentiate it from its near synonyms. Yet the variety of uses for these terms, coupled with a certain degree of semantic slippage or metaphoricity, makes it all but impossible to establish a ground on which they can be distinguished. The following is but one way to think about how these terms are utilized in media discourse, especially in aesthetic theory and art history.
Space can be theorized as the broadest of the four terms. It can denote a “continuous, unbounded, or unlimited extent in every direction, without reference to any matter that may be present…,” as well as “[a]n area or extent delimited or determined in some way.” Space can include objects, or be between objects; objects can include, or delimit, space. Space can be a vacuum, and it can contain multitudes. Kant posits that space is “the ground of all outer intuitions. One can never represent that there is no space, though one can very well think that there are no objects to be encountered in it.” For our purposes then, space should be considered the background, the condition, for place, location, and site. This relationship extends to the digital realm as well: cyberspace, understood as the virtual space of the Internet, is the condition for the web site.
The differences between location, place and site are more difficult to discern. Location is defined as “[t]he action of placing; the fact or condition of being placed; settlement in a place”; or “the fact or condition of occupying a particular place; local position, situation.” Location appears contingent on place, which means “[a] particular part or region of space; a physical locality, a locale; a spot, a location”; “[t]he amount or quantity of space actually occupied by a person or thing; the position of a body in space, or in relation to other bodies; situation, location”; “[a] building, establishment, or area devoted to a particular purpose.”
Thus, both location and place are positional, serving to orient subjects and objects in space. Heidegger theorized place as the result of a “clearing-away” of wilderness, i.e., space, for human habitation; places “hold something free gathered around them which grants the tarrying of things under consideration and a dwelling for man in the midst of things.” For Heidegger, place indicates a physical location which orders the infinitude of space; it implies a centeredness, a home. In colloquial parlance, when a person feels “out of place,” he is uncomfortable in his surroundings; one often refers to his home as his “place.” W.J.T. Mitchell gestures toward Heidegger when he posits that sculpture “wants a place to be, a location or station or site where it can be seen, encountered by other bodies.”
While location and place primarily suggest physical space in media discourse, according to Miwon Kwon that is only one potential valence of site. Kwon posits three paradigms of site specificity – the phenomenological or experiential; the institutional/social; and the discursive – operating in site-specific art, the medium that has most consistently interrogated the notion of site. The phenomenological paradigm, epitomized by the work of first-wave site-specific artists like Richard Serra, requires that “[t]he art object or event…be singularly and multiply experienced in the here and now through the bodily presence of each viewing subject, in a sensory immediacy of spatial extension and temporal duration…” This concept of site hews closely to the Minimalist aesthetic of the 1960’s and 1970’s. For the Minimalists, the artwork was no longer a closed system of intrinsic relationships that the spectator passively encountered and interpreted, but rather was an object that gestured extrinsically toward the circumstances of its exhibition – the room in which it was placed; the play of light in the room; and the angle at which the spectator viewed it. The art critic Michael Fried derisively referred to Minimalist art as theatrical, because “the experience of literalist [Minimalist] art is of an object in a situation…” A site-specific artist working in the phenomenological paradigm takes this situation as the point of departure.
Kwon cites Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) as the exemplar of the phenomenological paradigm. Titled Arc, a 120-foot steel wall erected in New York’s Federal Plaza, was described by Serra as “a site-specific sculpture…Site specific works deal with the environmental components of given places…The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site. Thus, works in the phenomenological paradigm are shaped by the site, form part of the site, and are inextricable from the site. But Serra’s sculpture also points toward the social/institutional conception of site: Tilted Arc divided an otherwise contiguous space commonly used for relaxation and recreation, thereby calling attention to the socioeconomic disjunctions and inequalities that underlie any nominal “public space.”
The notion of site not just as a physical space but also a flashpoint of social, economic, and political vectors provides the ground for Kwon’s social/institutional paradigm. First mobilized by conceptual artists practicing institutional critique in the 1970s and 1980s, the social/institutional paradigm conceives “the site not only in physical and spatial terms but as a cultural framework defined by the institutions of art.” For institutional critique, the site was not simply the physical circumstances in which a work was shown, but rather the institutional structures of art creation and exhibition in toto, from museums to galleries to the art market.
The practice of institutional critique occasions a brief discussion of site’s consanguineous term, situation. In media studies, the term situation is invariably associated with the Situationist International, a loosely affiliated coterie of writers, philosophers, and artists dedicated to a radical critique of mass media and its relationship to capitalism. The Situationists’ key theoretical text was Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, an aphoristic account of the submergence of reality in representations, i.e., the spectacle. The Situationists were primarily concerned with subverting capitalism’s norms by constructing situations – piquant transformations of everyday life through art that would expose capitalism’s contradictions. One favored technique of creating situations was détournement, or “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.” Through détournement, Situationist artists would (often comically) appropriate art historical tropes to critique existing institutional structures. Marcel Broodthaers’s work Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department (1968-1972), which began as an installation in his Brussels apartment, lampooned the concept of the modern museum through its itinerancy – different sections appeared in widely disparate locations throughout the museum’s “existence” – and its eccentric inclusiveness – the originary installation featured packing crates and picture postcards. Rosalind Krauss has identified this work as the “ultimate implosion of medium-specificity,” a rebuke of the Greenbergian theory of purity, and an exemplar of the “post-medium condition.”
While Broodthaers focused his attentions on subverting the apparatus of the art world, contemporary artists have widened their purview to include nonart contexts in their notion of site, a development Kwon terms the discursive paradigm. For these artists, the site is not necessarily an actual, physical space or an art institutional frame, but rather a “discursively determined site that is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate.” Thus, the site can be “a billboard, an artistic genre, a disenfranchised community, an institutional framework, a magazine page, a social cause, or a political debate.” Although site can still (and often does) denote a physical space traversed and engaged by human subjects, it has become increasingly capacious, allowing site-specific artists to appropriate almost anything as a site, including the genre of site-specific art itself. This capaciousness is evident in discourses other than art history as well: Edward Said describes the classical concert hall as a “uniquely endowed site”; Lauren Berlant refers to the concept of the nation as a potential “site of affective investment and emotional identification”; and Michel Foucault characterizes his archaeological text The Order of Things as an “open site.”
The discursive site – immaterial, intertextual, and broadly social – aptly characterizes what is perhaps the most important site for media studies today: the web site. The Oxford English Dictionary defines web site as “[o]riginally: a computer system that runs a web server (rare). Now: a document or a set of linked documents, usually associated with a particular person, organization or topic, that is held on such a computer system and can be accessed as part of the World Wide Web.”
In media studies, the web site – and its host network, the World Wide Web – can be seen as the realization of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the “global village.” Writing in the 1960s, McLuhan claimed that man had entered a new age, one in which electric technology was rapidly rendering mechanical industry obsolete. According to McLuhan, this transformation in technics engenders a compressed world, one wholly imbricated by the instantaneity of electric current. McLuhan couches this imbrication in the terms of political responsibility. With the “sudden implosion” wrought by electric technology, historically marginalized groups such as “the Negro, the teen-ager…can no longer be contained…[t]hey are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to electric media.” Although McLuhan was here referring to the American civil rights movement and its representation on television news broadcasts, the web site can perform a similar, instantaneous publicizing function. In the Iranian elections protests of 2009, the social networking web site Twitter became a means of organizing Green Movement supporters; and YouTube, the video-archive web site, was used to disseminate video of the government’s brutal response to the protests.
For media theorist Mark B.N. Hansen, social networking web sites such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr – all iterations of what is commonly referred to as new media – serve a dual mediatory function: they mediate actual human experience as well as the underlying and ubiquitous technicity that conditions those experiences – what Hansen calls “transcendental technicity.” For example, Flickr, a photo-sharing web site, allows users to archive their photos in a digital format, providing a functionally limitless space for the storage of (photographically mediated) human experience. But it also “mediates the situation of the user in the regime of networked computation.” In other words, Flickr mediates, or obscures, the new technological paradigm facilitating connectivity between individuals. The social networking web site, therefore, becomes not only a way of storing and disseminating human experience, but a site and condition of human experience itself.
Jed P. Cohen
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “site.”
Ibid., s.v. “in.”
Ibid., s.v. “space.”
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 175.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “location.”
Ibid. s.v. “place.”
Heidegger, “Art and Space,” 7.
Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, 259.
Kwon, One Place After Another, 11.
Fried, Art and Objecthood, 153; emphasis in the original.
Quoted in Kwon, One Place After Another, 12.
Grove Dictionary of Art Online, s.v. “Situationism.”
Debord, “Detournement as Negation and Prelude,” in Situationist International Anthology, Ken Knabb, ed., 55.
Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea,” 33.
Kwon, One Place After Another, 26.
Kwon, One Place After Another, 3.
Ibid., 28. Kwon writes that some artists “have reflected on aspects of site-specific practice itself as a “site,” interrogating its currency in relation to aesthetic imperatives, institutional demands, socioeconomic ramifications, or political efficacy.”
Said, Musical Elaborations, xix.
Berlant, The Female Complaint, xi.
Foucault, The Other of Things, xii.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “web site.”
McLuhan, Understanding Media, 5.
Hansen, “New Media,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, 180.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York, NY: Random House, 1970.
Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Heidegger, Martin. “Art and Space.” Translated by Charles H. Seibert. Man and World 6, no. 1 (1973): 3-8.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Knabb, Ken, ed. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.
Krauss, Rosalind. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
Mitchell, W.J.T., and Mark B.N. Hansen. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want?. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Said, Edward. Musical Elaborations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.