The Rapidian

Nomadic placemaking: Art designed to help communities see future potential

SiTE:LAB's projects, and the new experiences the public has with the property through them, have the potential to use art to facilitate a more expansive vision of the property's future.
State of Exception at SiteLab's Rumsey Street location

State of Exception at SiteLab's Rumsey Street location /Holly Bechiri

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We frequently use the term "nomadic" to describe SiTE:LAB. I love that word choice because it makes it clear that our business model of moving from place to place is a conscious choice. The most frequent questions I get asked by visitors to SiTE:LAB events relate to the rationale behind that choice. Wouldn't it be easier to operate out of a fixed location? Why would you spend so much time fixing up a venue only to move out months later? 

There are many factors that led to this decision. Some of it is economic. We feel that we can devote more of our resources to presenting great exhibitions if we do not have the carrying costs of a fixed location. But I suspect that even with a big budget, we would still choose to be nomadic.

The thinking behind this business model is tied up in the concept of site-specific art. The work SiTE:LAB exhibits is created in response to a specific location – its history, architecture or neighborhood. Rather than fill a space with art, the space and art become one. By conducting projects in changing locations, we ensure that each project provides a new opportunity (and challenge) to participating artists, and that the viewing experience is likewise unique. 

SiTE:LAB curator Paul Amenta's thesis work as a graduate student at New York’s School of Visual Arts explored the phenomena of the art opening. Amenta filled gallery spaces with elaborate bars that blurred the distinction between the opening event and the artwork. This interest in art as event has continued through Amenta’s work as a curator. In his projects through SiTE:LAB and its predecessor ACTIVESITE, Amenta has used site-specific exhibits to create experiences that are more than art installed in a room. These events change how the community sees and experiences a place – often a space filled with memories.

Previous SiTE:LAB locations have included 54 Jefferson, once home to the city's natural history museum, a space that still triggers memories of residents who came there on grade school field trips. Other projects have used prominent vacant commercial buildings such as the Harris and Junior Achievement buildings, as well as 833 Lake Drive, now home to LaFontsee Galleries, and The Morton, a once grand downtown hotel. In each case these structures had been long closed to the public, and in each case the projects helped the public see the buildings for their future potential, rather than just their past. 

The Rumsey Street Project, SiTE:LAB's current endeavor, aptly illustrates this. The project occupies over three acres acquired by Habitat for Humanity of Kent County as part of a major neighborhood redevelopment effort to be commenced in 2017. The now vacant buildings that occupy the space include the former St. Joseph the Worker Church, and its rectory, convent and school. These structures played a major role in the lives of surrounding residents until the church relocated to 32nd Street in Wyoming in 2008.

During the installation of the exhibition, many neighbors stopped by to share their memories of having been baptized or married at the church. Many of the projects making up SITE:LAB's ArtPrize exhibition, including Nick Kline’s "Stripes for St. Joseph," Filippo Tagliati’s "Relocations" and Lynn Cazabon’s "Uncultivated," respond to this history and the role the church played in the neighborhood, as well as the hole left by its relocation. These projects help us understand the role that public spaces play in establishing a sense of community.

Other projects respond on a much more personal level, recognizing the many marks left by the individuals who occupied the residences on the property – some for decades, and some on a very temporary basis. These include Mandy Cano Villalobos’ "Undocumented Histories" and LaMarre and Dancers’ "They Were Displaced… And Again."

A major aspect of Habitat's plans for the Rumsey property is the engagement of the surrounding residents and businesses in identifying the needs to be addressed through the project- which is how SiTE:LAB came into their plans. As is often the case, planning for the future can get caught up in the past. We fail to see the potential for a space because our vision is limited by memories of what once was. Habitat recognized that SiTE:LAB's projects, and the new experiences the public has with the property through them, might facilitate a more expansive vision of the property's future.

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