Site-Writing

Jane Rendell’s site-writing module offered a valuable opportunity to conduct my research in collaboration with tutors and students who recognize the complexity of arts and humanities research which functions beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries and scholarship. I developed a ‘palimpsestuous’ method, which combines an interdisciplinary and creative practice-based approach to writing about architecture and archives. Site-writing engages with the limits of criticism and the situated presence of the critic. It is important for me to continue working within this space, which is somewhat at odds both with distinctions between traditional scholarship and practice-based research, and disciplinary edges. 


Emma Cocker’s practice is shaped by an interdisciplinary, hybridised approach, operating restlessly along the threshold of writing/art, including experimental, performative and collaborative approaches to producing ‘texts’ parallel to and as artistic practice. She asks: How do we read / write / converse as artistic researchers? Against utility, against informational acquisition: what other critical-poetic practices might we cultivate; what different kinds of sense making become generated therein? How does the ‘how’ of reading / writing / conversing – the very act, event or process itself – organise us and shape our understandings? How might we reorganise ourselves differently through reading / writing / conversing conceived as aesthetic practices?


I work with writing as a critical spatial practice by making use of narrative life writing genres, and recommend the article ‘Narrative writing as art based practice’ published in Synnyt/Origins: Finnish Studies in Art Education (3/2018) as an example of such a practice. The main question is: What are the potential possibilities of narrative life writing genres to contribute to shape creative and performative art based practice for scholars across the arts, design and science? In my practice I explore epistemological questions about the author as creator and storyteller is useful as a catalyst for such practices. Inspired by auto/biography- and life writing, feminist theory and literary fiction, I promote the idea of artistic self-portraiture where the writers at work perform their writing selves in specific situated locations, power relations and inter/disciplinary contexts. 


I understood the way I was writing when I first read Marguerite Duras. Before that, I had no reference points. I also discovered the language writers of North America: Nicole Brossard, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lyn Hejinian, and others. I’m also a fan of Blanchot, Barthes, Derrida, and Jullien (and others). Writing spreads out, sites are endless. 


Ed Hollis writes stories about buildings and interiors. There are two rules: the stories must read as if they were fiction; but the author must not, in fact, make anything up. The functioning of these stories is contained in their form, which is carefully designed act as the verbal analogue of the spaces they purport to describe: the stories of historic buildings which are passed from generation to generation are expressed as folk tales, similarly transmitted; those of interiors, such as the one presented here, as fleeting assemblages of little vignettes. The ultimate purpose of these little works is to do what drawings cannot: to set spaces into time, driving, and driven by human actions, and the traces it anticipates and forms around them.


As writers, artists and thinkers, our work is a palimpsest of those who have inspired us, as well as our subjecthood.  For one who journeys through a practice such as site-writing, it is near impossible for this approach to thinking not to bear huge influence over what comes after.  I, for example, am indebted.  Since site-writing, my work contains a more localised and ethical approach to histories of architecture, and those who inhabit architecture’s tangible and intangible spaces.  Further, site-writing has expanded my definition of what the history of architecture means and what architecture can be; from the micro of buildings, up to the scale of the urban; now from policy, systems and discursive encounters, to people, communities, habits and more.


This play script, based upon a recalled memory of one night and one morning spent in a windowless hotel room, develops a site writing methodology to interrogate the universality and subjectivity of the room in relation to its temporary inhabitants. The three fragmented narratives of this memory converge to form a three-act script, comprising stage directions and dialogue. In this scripted form, the narrative and the roles enclosed await occupation by the reader. Manifested physically and graphically across the scripts’ open pages, the reconstituted memory finds physical site here.


My work has evolved a critical-creative form of history/theory writing in architecture. It responds to the critical thinking of feminist, philosophical, psychoanalytic and social researchers such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Jane Rendell, Walter Benjamin, Rosi Braidotti, Kath Shonfield and Michel de Certeau, the art writing of Meike Bal and more recently the creative ethnographic research of Trinh T. Minh-ha. The critical is positioned in dialogue with creative and fictional pieces which establish the often lost or silent voices of women protagonists into histories of architecture – these draw on the literary writing of Virginia Woolf, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Maggie Nelson, and on the architectural drawing and art practices of Jennifer Bloomer, Diller and Scofidio, Sophie Calle, and Sharon Kivland.


Joanne’s work celebrates the ‘in-between’ qualities of the site-writing module as an interdisciplinary critical spatial practice by reflecting on her own northern, working class heritage to translate and democratise architectural and social histories that are often marginalised. Whether in-between the public and the domestic, class racial, and gender binaries, to be in this space is to be out of place and not quite belong.  In this moment of increased polarization, the in-between is a place that holds optimism and promise. It is from here that we can understand multiple points of view, making it an important space from which to mediate, form new connections and build empathy.  


I tried to tackle one of the concepts that we frequently discussed during our site-writing classes: subjectivity. I realized through this project, that the concept of subjectivity manifested itself in the physical qualities of the spaces, cultural gestures and language (of the interviewees) as well as in my position as the researcher and finally the gaze of the viewer. This work explored the articulation of a site that ‘revealed’ itself through site visits. During and after these visits, I had to bodily engage with and develop a response towards the site, which was essentially how I understood site-writing.


This project has evolved into a form of transcoding that explores the spatiality of a given piece of writing by revealing its underlying infrastructure of punctuation. By practicing a close reading of a text’s infrastructure, systems of signs are revealed which allow additional interpretations beyond common reading methods. All this leads to a method of partially deleting, yet adding, literary meaning to selected literature. In other words, by exploring the spatial quality of chosen textual ingredients, transcoding opens up unexpected layers of interpretation.


In my work, the difficulties I face when encountering archival material and building, as I attempt to find the exact location of the accident, is emphasised in relation to questions concerning the positionality of the historian. The spaces where encounters with works take place, and the way we talk about them, are of critical potential to Rendell, as she argues how the ‘critic encounters with the work influences the process of criticism.’ Our movement through the building, captured by audio and reintroduced into the building, depicts a historian who faces uncertainty. The project spans from 2 February 1926 to 23 May 1926, and again 2 February 2016 and 23-26 May 2016, accentuating the temporalities at play in history: the way I follow and come after Norberg-Schulz, or the way he never met his father, who died month before he was born. Beyond the specific work in question, I have specifically explored the critical and spatial potential of the essay form in film and writing through a focus on the key terms framing, mobility and self-reflection, in my genre invention the fenestral essay film. 


My work is an attempt to practice not only storytelling and storyshowing, but also storyperforming. It challenges the ways in which some certain sites, memories, and meanings could be manifested into spatial object and thus enabled them to be disseminated to wider audiences. 


Exploiting the author’s material and tools, the aim of this site-writing project is to explore the potentiality of the critical act not in writing about the object, but in writing as the object.  I conducted close readings of this specific book in order to apprehend it. This engagement allowed me to go as far as to utilize it to the extreme – interfere with its materiality and reconfigure its fragments. Criticism as a process suggests to me an interaction with the artwork that allows a reformation of the criteria of criticism, rearticulating the critic’s position. The Arrival’s Reader manifests the experience of critical reading, as an invested activity, and criticism itself as a form of practice.


I had long been interested in making writing that related to and with other practices in a non-hierarchical relation, so that the one is not interpretive and the other interpreted, but both are considered as parallel practices. I wanted to work with Jane as my PhD supervisor as I admired the way that site-writing engaged with the situated and embodied presence of the critic, and their relation to the site and the text. In my writing I have adopted a spatial manoeuvre of Entstelling or distortion from Freud’s dream analysis, along with the chiastic literary pattern to write about archives of Antarctic exploration.


Designing Architecture as a Performing-Ground was influenced both by the notion of writing as an object within site-writing, and the relationship between this textual object and the reader/writer generating new ways of knowing. Within the work, the text manifests as a set of complementary and contrasting ‘voices’. The design of the page itself permits for spatial relationships within the text to be visualised and experienced by the reader. The practice of site-writing is also expanded within the work. Combined with the structure of aleatory performance, site-writing is used to act as a generative design tool for architects to reflect upon and overcome ethical design quandaries. 


My work has adopted site-writing practices that focus on the encounter between the work and the researcher; specifically, as Jane Rendell suggests, employing ideas of how one might write with the work or to the work. I have borrowed this site-writing technique to explore multiple sites (‘works’) such as sites of listening, reading, architectural sites and the site of my own body. This has been developed to encompass spatial practices such as hair cutting and transgender transitioning. The performative aspects of site-writing have been particularly influential, asking how the text itself can enact aspects of the spaces, places and locations being researched.


Since hearing Jane Rendell give a talk about her writing practice when I was a postgraduate student, I have boldly adopted her method of site-writing whenever I can as a way of experimenting with writing (as opposed to writing ‘about’) my own and other’s work, as well as found objects and places that have been particularly inspiring to me. Whatever I call my writing now (sometimes creative-critical, sometimes commemorative), it stems from the seed of the idea that Rendell planted all that time ago: that to respond in writing can be to produce an artwork in its own right.


Tideline captures multiple stories and experiences of an undervalued space in east London. Using the Japanese poetry form, Renga, I wrote texts based on stories I was told, creating four multivocal, co-authored poems, which were installed along routes from Lower Belvedere to the Thames. The work looks to represent the rich history and personal stories no longer evident in the physical landscape, inserting text into the environment which invites the reader to imagine and understand different experiences of the space and to move through it in a quiet, reflective, attentive manner. (Sarah Butler)


In my current research I ask questions about what constitutes evidence in my own artistic-historiographical practice. The notion of site as produced by site-writing: made complex by taking in the “remembered, the dreamed and the imagined, as well as observations of the ‘real’” (Rendell, 2011) provokes questions for architectural history about what stories might figure in historical narrative; where these might arise from and what voice or voices are situated in the telling. The thinking introduced by questions of situatedness in site-writing, for me, offers a productive place from which to challenge the totalising voice of the historian. (Danielle Hewitt)


In Urban Literacy. Reading and Writing Architecture (2014), I developed three ‘scriptive’ approaches to architecture – Description, Transcription and Prescription.  

‘Description’ refers to the capacity of the literary writer to evocatively describe. Poetic writing is the tool I use to reveal the site-specific atmosphere and sensory perception of places. 

‘Transcription’ focuses on the investigation of the interactive relationship between author and reader, and consequently, between architect and user. As a mode of writing, scenes of daily narratives highlight the connection between architectural spaces and the spatial practices of their use. 

‘Prescription’ deals with the field of tension between reality and imagination, as indeed architects and planners are involved with the making of a not yet existing situation. Especially surrealist and magic realistic literary modes of writing come to the fore as approaches merging reality and imagination.


For me, ‘site-writing’ becomes a tool and an avenue for counteracting the suppressive narratives of pure objectivity and academic writing. By combining the ‘critical spatial practice’ tenet of asking both the reader and the author to question their relationship (physically, ethically, emotionally, and politically) to the subject of the writing, and Donna Haraway’s ‘heteroglossia’, one that imagines ‘a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right’, we can write well researched, factual, and comprehensive studies, but still force the reader to place themselves into the work, to confront the topic from the perspective of self, regardless of its universality. 


My work is always navigating between things; in between the disciplines of architecture and archaeology and anthropology and the undisciplined, between the representational strata within archaeology itself and here, in Metropolitan Salem, through disciplinary and cartographic layering. Here critical spatial practice provides a set of tools for making work within the ‘spaces of writing itself’ (Rendell 2011:162) between the strata of the ‘visual and the verbal’ (Cheatle and Mejía Moreno 2015); providing a palimpsestuous (Dillon 2007) space between.


My work is rooted in site-specific approaches to performance making. During the 1980s and 1990s, I gained an appreciation of potential relationships between performance and architecture through collaborating with Clifford McLucas; and between performance and archaeology through contact with Michael Shanks. In 2000, I created Bubbling Tom – a guided tour of the landscape I knew at the age of seven – and this lead to contact with cultural geographers. Performance has no mission to explain or enact the perceptions of other disciplines, but it can create both information and emotion rich expositions that reveal the qualities of places and their inhabitants.


By constructing a spatial response as a sonic environment which lives in digital space, site-writing becomes an open-ended dialogue that enables the simultaneity of the intersecting meanings stemming from the account of the dispersed cultural object and the utterances of the ‘displaced’ people, to create a space of unity and co-existence.


Collaboration is a key methodology for me. I often quote my favourite teacher, Professor Jane Rendell who said: ‘I discover parts of myself in my encounters with others’ – Jane Rendell, ‘Travelling the Distance/Encountering the Other’, David Blamey (ed.) Here, There, Elsewhere: Dialogues on Location and Mobility, (London: Open Editions, 2002) pp. 43-54, pp. 53-54. My other favourite comment on collaboration is by the American artist Mark Dion who said: ‘One great thing about collaboration is that it’s like taking a vacation from yourself, if you’re honest about it. I have a way of doing things and other artists have their way of doing things, and I learn a lot from that. Sometimes methods are very contradictory and it has to be their way or my way. It can be a struggle, things turn out differently. If I design a collaboration and it comes out exactly the way I thought, then it wasn’t a productive collaboration. If it looks nothing like how I imagined it would look, then it is really successful. The best test for me, personally, is how much the idea evolves with the influence of another person. My collaborators have always been strong personalities with definite positions, and so, while it is always rewarding, it is not always easy. Some collaborations are also simply good excuses to travel and spend productive time with friends. We enjoy working together even if it is a challenge.’Mark Dion in conversation with Zina Davis and Chris Horton, Collaborations: Mark Dion (Hartford CT: Joseloff Gallery, Hartford Art School, 2003) pp. 3-4.


Key to the work of Photolanguage is the construction of a particular relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘represented’ at the intersection of the photographic image and text. Our projects draw insight from the reflective nature of site-writing’s engagement and re-presentation of site as a contested space of desire and identity.  Often working in the context of regional histories of architecture and land use, we seek to bring to the surface suppressed narratives of identity, to revaluate the outmoded, to construct new meaning from the overlooked in a way that questions established hierarchies and encourages a productive suspension of the borders between fact and fiction, evidence and associative fantasy.


My practice is based on contesting existing perspectives on the relationship between Capital and academia, and curating modes of dissemination to create an outreach to the relevant audience. This is done through a close engagement with non-canonical accounts of history that present an alternate perspective and positions and thereby render the times with multiplicity. The transmedia works attempt to create a mode of scholarship which is art and create art that is a mode of scholarship. 


My work explores the idea that certain forms of play can also be critical.  Drawing from the concept of critical spatial practice I have coined the term critical play, which I understand as a relational situated process that is both highly engaging while allowing the distance for self-reflexive criticality. I see in the practice of critical play a useful methodology for dealing with contexts of social and urban conflict, or as a tool for enhancing our perception and relation with the built environment. 


For me, site-writing blew open the bounds of disciplinary practice, allowing me to delve into the site of writing itself as an intensely rich and inherently productive space from which narratives can unfold. My practice now seeks to remain resiliently indeterminate, slipping between architectural criticism, prose and poetry in an attempt to evade categorisation.


I am interested in fiction, writing that insists on a text’s affective charge, and the role of personal memory in experiencing architectural and urban sites. I am increasingly drawn to experimenting with ways of subsuming theoretical and historical material within literary fiction.


Over a number of years I have regularly contributed to Professor Jane Rendell’s MA Situated Practices Module: Critical Spatial Practice: Site-Writing delivering lectures and leading workshops and seminars. It has always been a real privilege to work with Jane and her colleague, Dr Polly Gould and a wonderful experience to spend time at the Bartlett School of Architecture. The students are very intelligent, receptive, generous, international and highly motivated. It has been a real pleasure to work with them.


As a European architect practicing within the ‘development’ environments of Sub-Saharan Africa I struggle to find a neutral-objective voice. Development is fraught with civilizing pathologies of colonialism that are obscured by neo-liberal discourses of humanitarianism and prosperity. Through critical spatial practices, my work has been able to find a distance between my traditional role as designer of buildings in these contexts and this voice, but within close proximity to understand the relations between ‘development’ built environments and colonial histories, discourses and sites of exploitation.


Since my early studies in architecture I have held in consideration the problem of criticism and the question of its agency, depending on its methods of production and distribution. Facing the broad range of methods, instruments and channels to share ideas in architecture, academic writing has seemed to me as limited, both in terms of its proper language and in terms of audience. Challenging – but also activating – the academic context of the module, the concept of site-writing helped me to rethink criticism by establishing more links between theories and publishing practices, in particular by defining the concept of ‘critical editorial devices’ as methods to create critical contents other than the typical essay, in a close relation between ideas, design, support and audience.


I’m interested in the performance of fieldwork in the sense of exposing myself to phenomena and contexts that challenge my habitual modes of thinking. My writing is underpinned by a strong element of affect; affect as in being jarred to think and feel, generating creative energy. I resist any hierarchies or distinctions between empirical work, practice and theory, since a phenomenological experience is always (already) framed by preconceptions, norms, language, feelings and ideas. I also confront the distinction between diachronic (over time) and synchronic (in time) approaches when investigating the built environment, since any material culture (like architecture) carries links – directly or obliquely – to what once was and was intended to be that continue to exert an influence on the present. I find the notion of method (from Greek: “the way”) especially interesting in being key for scientific knowledge production while remaining fundamentally ambiguous. Method holds the potential of escaping the confinements of subjectivity but is equally undermining notions of objectivity in being situated, contiguous and “messy”. In this essay, the question of method is intentionally queried since I’m being “set off track”. The criticality of this mode of writing is both directed towards allegedly neutral forms of academic representation, and freer and more “creative” modes of expression that ignore the depth of existing knowledge and the multiplicity of voices. Hence sources, references and footnotes are of crucial importance for what I call “transversal writing”. 


My practice draws upon Jane Rendell’s concept of site-writing to address human relations with other-than-human worlds. Site-writing’s emphasis on situatedness and embodiment offers a multifaceted framework through which to observe and note how different species occupy, use and produce space. Site-writing’s reflexivity allows me to speculate on the potentials, limits and performativities of writing, including inscriptions produced by other-than-human agents, as well as my own performative writing experiments.


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David Roberts collaborates with community groups to re-enact and reactivate emancipatory spaces and ideals, drawing on critical acts of writing and performance as a mode of design, as a method of engagement, and a means of activism. On site, he gathers residents around their radical social, political and architectural histories to open a social, discursive and imaginative space from which to build collective knowledge and experiences and share this publicly through artworks, interventions and campaigns. This critical spatial practice brings site writing in dialogue with dramaturgy and devising to raise questions and amplify voices.


For some time, and more present in my recent work, I have adopted a mode of working which I frame as ‘working differently,’ and that draws upon Luce Irigaray’s, Hélène Cixous, and Rosi Braidotti’s ‘difference,’ Taking Place’s practising ‘differently,’ and Griselda Pollock’s ‘differencing.’ It is a working method that aims towards making visible power structures and normalised constructs, in order to raise awareness of their existence, their role in architecture and architectural culture more broadly speaking, but also of their partial nature. Doing it ‘differently’ is therefore a means to interrupt and disrupt them, to destabilise their normalisation, and to relate the ‘doing’ to the subjectivity of the tutor/student/researcher/artist through site-specific practices that can be material, performative, written etc.


Writing for me has been a way into developing a critical spatial practice (Jane Rendell) around ageing – a practice that situates itself both on and off the written page. I started out using writing as a tool for collaborative documentary-making (mapping out the infra-ordinary geographies of growing old). This has since turned into a generative tool (briefs for acted-out interventions), as a tactical device (that experiments with the boundaries of mainstream public policy and marginal forms of spatial practice), as a gently disruptive tool (that destabilizes the received language and vocabulary around ageing). Borrowing from and parodying different forms of writing across fiction, art and public policy writing becomes a way of drawing in diverse and varied readerships with the intention of creating a public space of communication and critical reflection around ageing. 


The insertion of new text into the Prism’s original shape works as a form of temporal montage that creates a sense of disruption. As Jane Rendell says in Art and Architecture, the type of operation that puts together ‘what has been and the now’ allows the creation of a space in between past and present, where the repressed historical aspects of objects and sites can emerge.


21 Orientations is a personal cosmographia, a representation guided by both drawings and texts for a collection of memories of 21 places that I used to call home, during a variety of rootless and voluntary displacements. … Questioning the contemporary notion of home means to investigate a trans-geographical narrative, going beyond of the notion of a physical place, accepting to enter a virtual territory – a rhetoric country. 21 Orientations is a personal geographical atlas, where memory and reality meet in a spatial template. Memory is a complex mix of continuities and breaks, of similarities and differences. The attempt to physically trace memory is the challenge of overlapping two different scales, setting a dialogue between personal and collective experience. As an “open work” the trace investigates the ambiguous dimension between illusion and reality, questioning the distinction between appearance and apparition, the delay between presence and representation.  This project relies on the multifold process of recalling by memory all the places I have been living in, stretching the spatial representation between experience and an architectural idea. Following this principle, the technical drawing occupies the territory of the unpredictable and the imprecision and its reliability is challenged. All drawings do not appear as confident as they should. The final result may be casual, but revealing: the boundary of home itself becomes something vague, mobile and contradictory, depicting a possible contemporary notion of domesticity. 


The work presented here, whilst engaging with a painted picture and the writing that appears within it, also takes the painting and its reworking as a site for critical reflection and argumentation through writing, linking the notion of site-writing to an artistic practice beyond the above-quoted ‘word-image opposition’.


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