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Staging Site-Specific Installation Art in a Museum Context

Contemporary artworks are called “site-specific” when their content, meaning, and/or form are derived from the location for which they are created. Nevertheless, these works are often acquired by museums and shown in circumstances different from their original ones.[1] In this essay, I reflect on this paradoxical situation in relation to Drifting Producers (fig. 1), an installation artwork created by the South Korean artist collective Flying City. Drifting Producers, as originally installed, was interwoven with its social and economic context. The work responds to the traditional methods employed by metalsmiths based in Cheonggyecheon, a district of Seoul, via three large city models and other visualizations of the artisans’ workshops, and was first shown during an international art exhibition near this neighborhood. Drifting Producers expresses its makers’ deep affinity with the craftspeople and street vendors who protested the city government’s plan to relocate the workshops to a remote district, which would destroy their businesses. Members of both the international art world and the local community, including metalsmiths and vendors, attended the opening. This established a locationally and temporally specific relationship between the exhibitions’ visitors and its producers, among whom I count the artists and the artisans and vendors whose production methods inspired the work. After traveling to several venues in Europe, Drifting Producers was eventually acquired by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Studying Drifting Producers’ journey illuminates many of the issues museums face when collecting and presenting site-specific art. In this essay, I elucidate how museums can successfully restage site-specific art by drawing on parallel practices in theater and music performance. In particular, the concept and techniques of dramaturgy—the study of the content, original context, production history, and contemporary relevance of a play or piece of music—provide a useful model for making decisions when re-installing site-specific artworks.1

In a large room with concrete flooring, several floating models made of cardboard, tape, and string are suspended in the air. Four white banners with abstract drawings in black ink are suspended behind the models. Behind the banners, a large wooden structure surrounds the perimeter of the floating models and banners.

Fig. 1

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers, Plug In #07, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, April 8, 2006–May 20, 2007. © Van Abbemuseum and Flying City.

Notes on the perpetuation of site-specific art

In art historical discourse, much has been written about the perpetuation of site-specific artworks. Art historians have often criticized museums’ efforts to prolong their lifespans, especially for artworks that originated in the European and American avant-garde movements of the 1960s and ’70s.[2] In her groundbreaking publication One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, art historian and curator Miwon Kwon states that, during this period, artists took a stance against the commercial gallery system by creating installations that were bound to the spaces in which they were produced, exhibited, and experienced such that the physical properties of these locations constituted part of the works themselves. Indeed, as part of their opposition to the commercial market for moveable art objects, site-specific artists asserted that these works could not be moved without being destroyed.[3] Within a few decades, however, museums began collecting and recreating these works through the use of photographs and other archival documentation, often (though not always) with the cooperation of the artists. Kwon considers this practice not only an annihilation of the works’ intended site-specificity but also an undesirable form of “commodification.”[4]2

Kwon’s analysis of the relationship between site-specific working artists and the institutional framework resonates with Brian O’Doherty’s argument that the exhibition space is not a neutral container, as modernist, commercialized views of art would have us believe.[5] Like O’Doherty, Kwon highlights the mutual relationship between the artwork, the viewer, and the site. In her view, site-specific art “should be singularly experienced in the here-and-now through the bodily presence of each viewing subject”—a principle typically prioritized in the display strategies of the historical avant-garde but often neglected by museums when showing these works to contemporary publics.[6] But rather than regard re-exhibition of site-specific art as obscuring or contravening the original intent, I contend that we may consider adaptations of an initial work to new sites an enrichment of the artwork’s biography and an opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with new audiences.3

Curators and conservators of site-specific art and other contemporary art that is highly context dependent have long been tasked with reconstructing and adapting these works to new circumstances, usually using the artist’s instructions as a guide. The material condition of the artwork and characteristics of the exhibition site may give rise to different manifestations of one and the same artwork, whether its physical components be newly made or simply reinstalled in an adjusted manner. Recently, instead of regarding the original manifestation as the benchmark for the identity of a contemporary work of art, museum practitioners and scholars have developed a more fluid notion of identity that allows for change and accepts that variation may occur over the course of successive iterations. With respect to site-specific art, Anne Ring Petersen, among others, has argued that all the variables of the exhibition context, including the work’s material components as well as the social, cultural, and political circumstances, are relevant to the work’s (changing) meaning. In consequence, she proposes that we regard site-specific artworks as networks of meaning production.[7]4

In addition, performance scholar Nick Kaye highlights the performative qualities of site-specific artworks—that is, the way in which they raise viewers’ awareness of the context in which they are being perceived and, moreover, often challenge their custodians by necessitating unusual practices in their installation. (For example, I have witnessed custodians prepare food, or bring massive quantities of water into the museum space, or construct a huge slide, with all the safety measures that entails.) Kaye argues that if we conceive the museum “as a conceptual framework rather than a built form,” these artworks are not only defined by the site but, conversely, “define the museum site just as well.”[8] By this logic, the materialization of site-specific art consists of the outcome of this interaction and thus, rather than conceiving such works as fixed forms to be restaged, we should consider them as events taking place in a specific context and time.[9]5

Recently, artists, too, have begun to reconceive their approach to place. During the 1990s and early 2000s, art historian James Meyer observed a trend in which artists discovered a new relationship between their creative practice and site-specificity, which he termed a “mobile notion of site.”[10] For example, Francis Alÿs involved hundreds of volunteers in his epic 2002 project When Faith Moves Mountains (2002); these participants walked up a sand dune on the outskirts of Lima while shoveling in unison, thus displacing the dune by a few inches.[11] Appropriately, given that this work may be understood as a metaphor for Latin American politics and society, the video of the performance shows not only the performance itself but also footage of the participants commenting on their motives for participating and their faith in social change, no matter how irrational and minimal the effort to “mobilize” the dune may appear. Many other artists, such as Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, and Christian Philipp Müller, found inspiration in a specific region, history, or culture of the world, and often teamed up with local communities to produce their work. According to Meyer, the literal site of the previous period of art history made way for a “functional” or “discursive” site that provides the content and method for artistic processes that make use of documentation, film, photography, and/or performance.[12] Meyer’s expanded notion of site applies very well to the case study of this essay, Drifting Producers.6

Drifting Producers in Seoul

The name Drifting Producers designates a project carried out by the artist collective Flying City between 2001 and 2009, and is also the name of an installation artwork acquired by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in 2006.[13] The question, of course, is the nature of the relationship between the two and what the installation artwork signifies, after it was acquired by the museum.7

During the 1990s, the urban structure of Seoul radically changed because of economic growth and the rise of mass tourism, with old neighborhoods replaced by apartment buildings, corporate parks, and highways.[14] The founding members of Flying City, who felt connected with the history and cultural heritage of the city, responded to these changes using a variety of art forms, such as design, film, performance (usually in public spaces), and photography, consistently imbuing these events and objects with humor and a dreamlike quality. As art critic Mark Kremer observed: “These artists are driven by the desire to depict the consequences of these changes: what Seoul looks like now but also what has been forgotten and suppressed in the process. These artists show Seoul as it is, but also as it could be imagined.”[15] The group’s lead artist, Jeon Yongseok (b. 1968), whose works have been exhibited worldwide, is also a theorist who teaches about the history and cultural heritage of Seoul at the Gwangmyeong Institute for Lifelong Learning (see fig. 2).[16] His influence is evident in the approach and design of Drifting Producers.8

A man wearing glasses and a brown leather jacket stands in front of a white wall next to wooden double doors. He smiles at the camera, arms crossed and gesturing upward toward a light-up sign that reads: “flyingCity.”

Fig. 2

Jeon Yongseok, lead artist of Flying City, at the Gwangmyeong Institute for Lifelong Learning, Seoul. Photograph by Tatja Scholte.

In the early 2000s, Flying City forged a relationship with the community of craftspeople based in the Cheonggyecheon district of Seoul (see fig. 3).  Over several decades, along the banks of the Cheonggye stream, metalsmiths and street vendors built a flourishing economy based on low-tech production methods and the barter system. In 2001, as part of an urban renewal project, however, the government announced plans to move the metalworkers’ shops from the Cheonggye stream to a remote district and create an eco-friendly waterfront in their place (see fig. 4). The residents of Cheonggyecheon organized a protest against this decision and Flying City joined them, using creative means to support their struggle.9

A man stands in a metalsmith workshop, surrounded by tools and machinery, centered under a large fluorescent light. He wears a white shirt tucked into black pants and looks off to the side with a neutral expression. .

Fig. 3

A metalsmith in his foundry, Cheonggyecheon, Seoul, July 5, 2003. © Flying City.

A narrow, shallow river in a city is flanked by modern high-rise buildings against a blue sky. Trees and white brick walls frame the river on either side, and greenery spills over the surfaces and at the corners.

Fig. 4

The Cheonggyecheon district, 10/03/2016.

Jeon and other Flying City artists walked around the area to meet metalworkers and build relationships with them.[17] In 2001 the artists started organizing a series of workshops for area residents to brainstorm alternative plans for Cheonggyecheon and build models of their ideal city out of cardboard, plywood, tape, and string (see fig. 5). In 2003, following this endeavor, Flying City created a mural-like composite photograph, Power of Cheonggyecheon (fig. 6), showing the metalworkers in front of the district’s labyrinthine urban network. The collective’s research eventually culminated in the 2004 installation artwork Drifting Producers (fig. 7), which included, alongside the city models and composite photograph, documentary material such as explanatory posters, banners, drawings of designed objects and tools, and a screen showing the street vendors’ protests. The models were entirely made by Flying City out of natural materials (except for the blocks of Styrofoam), in another deliberate echo of the workers’ shops in Cheonggyecheon.10

A model made out of cardboard, tape, and string features small gray boxes and cardboard columns that  are precariously connected by bridges and supports. There is a triangular structure on a platform on the left side of the model. The model rests on a wooden table.

Fig. 5

One of the city models created by participants in the workshops Flying City facilitated in Cheonggyecheon, 2001. © Flying City.

A long, horizontal color photograph depicts a panorama of an urban street. Two street corners with aged concrete buildings anchor either end. Three people wearing white T-shirts and jeans pose on the left, as other people, along with Korean signage, are scattered throughout.

Fig. 6

Flying City (South Korean, 2001–2009). Power of Cheonggyecheon, 2003. Composite photograph; 358 × 80 cm (140 15/16 × 31 1/2 in.). Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. © Flying City.

Wood framing is arranged in a room with white walls. On the left, a poster with Korean text features a photograph of a white tent in front of a rectangular yellow building. On the right, a TV showing a talking person sits on a short table.

Fig. 7

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers, Art Sonje Center, Seoul, October 23–December 5, 2004. © Flying City.

Flying City submitted Drifting Producers to the 2004 Hermès Korea Missulsang Art Award, hosted at Art Sonje Center in Seoul.[18] At the exhibition in Seoul, they presented Drifting Producers as an installation that occupied the entire gallery, titled All-Things Park. The photograph was displayed on one of the walls; the city models were placed in the center of the room and an open framework made of wood showed the other components of the work (see figs. 7–9). Drifting Producers was chosen as a finalist. Art critics praised Flying City’s ethnographic research on the community of craftspeople and vendors of Cheonggyecheon and their artistic response to the challenges of “an organic model of a city called Seoul.”[19]11

A model made of cardboard, wood, and string is suspended in the air. Behind it, a white banner displaying an abstract drawing in black ink is also suspended. The model includes a ramp made of cardboard and several cardboard platforms supported by strings and thin wooden columns.

Fig. 8

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers, Art Sonje Center, Seoul, October 23–December 5, 2004. © Flying City.

A detail of a model made of cardboard, wood, and string. On the left side, several long, rectangular sheets of wood are supported in the air with metal wire and thin columns made of wood. On the ground  numerous architectural-scale figures seem to walk around small structures made of wood and cardboard.

Fig. 9

Detail of one of the city models in Flying City’s Drifting Producers installation at Art Sonje Center. © Flying City.

Activism and the European Avant-Garde as a Benchmark

Before detailing the trajectory of the Drifting Producers installation following its exhibition in Seoul, it is worth noting that the project was also inspired by an intercultural exchange program. As part of the wave of increased international connectivity in the art world during the 1990s, curators Hou Hanru, then based in France, and Charles Esche, then based in Sweden, organized a series of international workshops in Asia aimed at stimulating cross-cultural dialogue among artists, curators, and theorists, with a particular focus on institutional frameworks.[20] Hou and Esche’s objective was to raise awareness among participants of the activist potential of art in relation to urban developments in both Asia and Europe, and, according to Esche, to create “conditions where a particular community at particular places in the world can become activated.”[21] Esche’s ideas resonate with Flying City’s research into the socio-geography of Cheonggyecheon and their initial art-and-community project. And, although their work displays similarities with artistic practices noted by James Meyer, these artists went a step further in their attempt to bring about actual change. As Jeon recalls:12

[In spite of social conflict and struggle], people can make creative use of the condition by activating the social network. We offered Drifting Producers as such an example. Furthermore, as we were not simple outsiders but rather willingly part of the network by providing imagination, we were certain that we were part of a constructive journey.[22]13

Yet we find evidence of the applicability of Meyer’s notion of discursive site-specificity—underlining the intertextuality between different time periods, histories, and narratives of site—in the cross-cultural workshops related to Drifting Producers. From conversations with Esche and Jeon, I learned that they introduced participants in these workshops to the European avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s, giving special attention to the Situationist International movement and its leading figures, including Guy Debord, the French Marxist theorist, activist, and filmmaker, and Constant (Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys), the Dutch artist and activist.[23] The Situationists’ critique of consumerism and modernist city planning mirrored Flying City’s own sociopolitical engagement, and the collective found inspiration in the artistic methods of this earlier era. For example, a typical Situationist approach was to explore the urban environment in a playful manner, by “drifting” around and exploring the “psychogeography” of the city.[24] Constant appealed to Flying City in particular, especially for his famous urban project New Babylon (1956–74), which envisioned a utopian city that would embrace pleasure and “intensify the experience of the people moving through it.”[25] Over the course of twenty years, Constant expressed his views on New Babylon by creating a large number of urban models, paintings, and drawings, as well as a magazine titled New Babylon (see fig. 10). Within a shorter time span, but with a comparable diversity of artistic means, Flying City created Drifting Producers. The installation itself, however, is a contained work of art, with the city models at its conceptual and physical core and other materials generated by the project positioned around them.[26] Clearly there are striking parallels between New Babylon and Drifting Producers, which adds an extra layer of meaning to Flying City’s project. On the one hand, the installation is conceptually, socially, and physically connected to the site of Cheonggyecheon, but on the other hand it still intersects with the international avant-garde and its rich history of artistic production. For this reason, I believe that the cross-cultural workshops were fertile ground for exploring the interfaces between dream and reality, as well as the connections between different art historical periods and geographical locations. Moreover, the workshops marked the start of a personal relationship between Esche (who later became director of the Van Abbemuseum) and Jeon.[27] In 2006 Esche acquired the installation and took up the challenge of mediating Drifting Producers for a museum audience.14

An intricate model is made of plexiglass and metal and supported on a painted white slab of wood that rests on a black table. At left is a white, multi-level circular structure balanced on black supports. The top level of the model is made of yellow plexiglass and is supported by various structures made of metal and iron.

Fig. 10

Constant Nieuwenhuys (Dutch, 1920–2005). New Babylon, Gele Sector, 1958. Blotting paper, copper, ink, iron, lead, metal, oil, paint, plexiglass, and wood; 21 × 87.3 × 77.5 cm (8 1/4 × 34 3/8 × 30 1/2 in.). Art Museum The Hague. © Constant Foundation.

Transition to a Museum Context

Drifting Producers started its international trajectory in 2005, first appearing in the exhibition Kollektive Kreativität/Collective Creativity at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, and later that year at the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun.[28] At the latter, to emphasize the industrial context of the Seoul metalworkers’ shops that inspired the project, Esche and Kortun selected a former tobacco factory as the exhibition site. As Esche put it, this venue was a suitable place to express the “narrative of the installation.”[29] Instead of copying the suspended display method used for the city models at the Art Sonje Center, here the models were placed on large workbenches, emphasizing the production practice of the artisans who initially inspired the project (see fig. 11). After the Istanbul Biennial, Esche and Jeon agreed that the artwork would be acquired by the Van Abbemuseum. Furthermore, Esche and Flying City agreed to conduct a conversation in Eindhoven in conjunction with the installation’s display in the museum’s exhibition Plug In #07 (see figs. 12–13); this conversation would serve as a follow-up to the initial cross-cultural dialogue.[30] Esche and his staff planned to organize programming on urban planning and local craftsmanship alongside the exhibition, to which they planned to invite the Flying City artists as well as architecture and industrial design professionals and students.15

A detailed view of a model made of wood and cardboard. Several stairs and ramps make up the composition of the model, with wooden supports that keep the structure upright. The model occupies  a white room amid square columns and, backlit by  several windows behind it.

Fig. 11

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers, 9th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, September 16–October 30, 2005. © Flying City.           

In a room with white walls, an LCD television showing a video of two cars driving along a ramp in an urban area is mounted on several long pieces of plywood. Behind the television, two models made of cardboard, wood, and string are suspended in the air, alongside a white banner displaying an abstract drawing in black ink. To the right of the television, a gallery label displays information on the installation.

Fig. 12

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers in the exhibition Plug In #07, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, April 8, 2006–May 20, 2007. © Van Abbemuseum and Flying City.

Three models made of wood, cardboard, and string are suspended in a large room with white walls and gray linoleum flooring. Two white banners displaying abstract drawings in black ink are suspended behind the two models at left. Behind the third model, a long horizontal photograph is displayed on a white wall with additional drawings or diagrams.

Fig. 13

Installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers in the exhibition Plug In #07, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, April 8, 2006–May 20, 2007. © Van Abbemuseum and Flying City.

Unfortunately, the desired exchange did not take place, and Drifting Producers has not been on view since Plug In #07. Though it is understandable that these plans did not come to fruition given the pressure on exhibition programs and the competing priorities for the limited gallery space available (with Drifting Producers’ case not helped by the fact that the work requires a large amount of space to exhibit), the physical and emotional distance between Esche and Flying City may have played a role as well. Were the artist’s and director’s expectation that their cross-cultural relationship would last unrealistically high? Was it too complex for the custodians to stay involved with the dynamics of the project, as they had aspired to do? Or might the plans have fallen through because, a few years later, the museum initiated a new exhibition program that pursued intense collaboration with Eastern European countries (for instance, with the program L’Internationale)?[31]16

Esche has confirmed that all of these reasons might have been at play.[32] But he also asserted that, despite the desire that things would turn out differently, he and the Van Abbemuseum knew there was a good chance that the installation would become disconnected from its original context over time. Discussing this possibility, Esche referenced New Babylon. After years of neglect, Constant’s city models were rediscovered in the 1990s by Art Museum The Hague, which recognized their significance as art objects and has displayed them ever since. The models have also traveled to other venues in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. However, seldom have these displays emphasized the original context of the project, in particular Constant’s opposition to modernist city planning of his time.[33] According to Esche, there were similar obstacles to restaging Drifting Producers: geographical distance interrupted communication with Jeon, but, regardless, there is a general “finiteness” to site-specific art projects once their physical components are owned by museums: in a sense, their site-specificity terminates.[34] Esche draws out the comparison:17

I like to see it in the same way as Constant’s New Babylon. There is a direct correlation between them, although Drifting Producers has been made in a very specific region. The problem is that art history always tells us to isolate the artist from his social environment, his living. I would like to change that, but probably eventually Drifting Producers will become an aesthetic object too instead of something that can talk about a particular social moment.[35]18

Esche’s observation accords with Miwon Kwon’s claim that the social impact of site-specific art is strongest at the moment of its creation. With the passage of time, these artworks come to be seen as documentary agents that reference a particular historical moment and geographical context. My plea, however, is for museums to make an effort to revive the past by recontextualizing these artworks in ways that reactivate their content in present-day society—through activities such as adding contextual information (both from the past and present) and conducting conversations—rather than present the work as a historical fact. In other words, I argue that museums should adopt Nick Kaye’s view of site-specific art as an event that “speaks” in the present tense.19

When Drifting Producers arrived at the Van Abbemuseum, for example, the conservation department conducted just such a dialogue around the conservation and restoration of the city models. The fragile objects had been damaged in transit and as a result they needed treatment, such as adding wooden support layers and creating custom-made storage crates (see fig. 14), in addition to general restoration. Instead of asking a conservator to carry out the treatment and make the models look as if the damage had never occurred, however, the museum invited Flying City artists to restore the models themselves. The artists took up this invitation and tied broken parts together with bits of rope and strutted weak parts with extra pieces of plywood. Museum staff members debated these interventions fiercely, as treatments in a museum environment typically aim to avoid visible traces of repair. Yet these improvised fixes were in keeping with restoration practices employed for buildings in poorer areas of East Asia such as Cheonggyecheon, and were thus in keeping with the spirit of the work. In the end, the staff members found this intercultural exchange valuable, which testifies to the impact that a site-specific artwork can have on the institution that acquires it.[36] In collaboration with the artists, Van Abbemuseum staff also created a wooden frame that made the models fit the dimensions of the room in which it was displayed for Plug In #07 (fig. 15). Through these measures, Drifting Producers was adapted to the museum context and safeguarded for the future but, for the reasons cited above, it nevertheless became dormant after Plug In #07.20

Two models made of cardboard and wood are inside of a large wooden crate, separated by plywood. To the right of the crate, two people look at one of the models and seem to be in the middle of a conversation.

Fig. 14

Custom-made crates and support layers created by staff members of the Van Abbemuseum for the city models of Drifting Producers. © Van Abbemuseum.

An aerial view of an installation model made of wood. Three wooden models rest inside of an open-faced cardboard box.

Fig. 15

A model of the wooden frame that Flying City made for Drifting Producers for its exhibition at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, October 23–December 5, 2004. © Van Abbemuseum.

Restaging Drifting Producers and the Role of Dramaturgy

The possibility of a future staging of Drifting Producers raises several questions. Is it possible to revive the artwork’s site-specificity in a museum context, and if so, how? Should the artists be involved, and if not, what are the alternatives? To answer those questions, it is worth looking to recent discourse that reimagines the conservation of time-based media art and installation art through an analogy with the performing arts. Namely, conservation scholar Pip Laurenson has described the realization of a time-based media artwork as a two-staged process comparable to the performance of a piece of Western classical music: the first stage is the work of the composer, who defines the musical composition in a score, and the second stage begins when musicians perform the notation of the score in the concert hall.[37] According to Laurenson, there is room for interpretation in the gap that occurs between the conception of an artwork and its actual realization in the gallery, although conservators and curators need guidance to assure a genuine performance in the form of installation instructions (the score), preferably provided by the artist. The degree to which the artist specifies the instructions for reinstallation may vary and, in practice, caretakers may need to compose the instructions retroactively. Especially in the event of long stretches of time between successive iterations, museum professionals will face challenges in reinstalling the physical form of the artwork, and they often need to make their own decisions for safeguarding the work’s integrity.21

In reviving the site-specific content of the artwork, there is something else at stake as well. For example, Drifting Producers originated from a spatially and temporally defined project and would not have the same activist potential that it did in the early stages of its biography. What would be needed to honor the intended intercultural dialogue of the original installation, and what (or who) would be the steering force behind it? In the spirit of the aforementioned analogy between installation art and the performing arts, I propose that museums take a dramaturgical approach to meeting these challenges—an approach that, in practice, would assign an active role to a team of conservators and curators aided by exhibition designers, educators, and other relevant experts.22

In theater productions, a dramaturg studies the text of the play, the circumstances of its composition, and its performance history; the dramaturg’s conclusions then inform the director’s plans for the current performance. The heritage scholar Julia Noordegraaf has applied this idea to curatorial practices as well, stating that, in the visual-art context, a dramaturg analyzes the composition of the artwork and studies the history of previous iterations, on the basis of which a new “performance” of the work can be shaped. This approach distinguishes two temporalities, one relating to the core of the work and which remains more or less the same, and one relating to the unique “live event” in which the work is realized and which is always situated in a specific space and time.[38] Following Noordegraaf, I argue that the principal benefit of a dramaturgical approach to site-specific installation art is that it releases us from a fixation on the physical appearance of the artwork. Like a theatrical dramaturg, a museum dramaturg would study the artwork’s biography, considering the physical, social, political, and symbolic relationships between the artwork and its manifestation in successive display locations. But how fluid is the work’s identity, and how could it be adjusted to the present site? Has there been an ideal installation scenario that could serve as a point of reference? How would the work fit into the broader context of the exhibition or collection rotation in which it appears? Apart from the decisions involved in physically installing the artwork itself, a dramaturgy for the display would ponder these questions and articulate the curatorial aspirations for the artwork’s presentation and communication.23

A Scenario for the Future

If I were to oversee a future installation of Drifting Producers, I would first ask what constitutes the core of the artwork, and I would identify it as the city models and the composite photograph of the metalworkers. I would next seek to identify the “ideal installation scenario” to use as a point of reference. Either the first installation at the Art Sonje Center or the one at Plug In #07 could be seen as the preferred state to inform future installations because the wooden frame used for the installation at Van Abbemuseum was authorized by the artists and resembles the one used in Seoul, although the exact dimensions differ. It would be an obvious choice to use the frame again to show all the elements, but this would ground the installation in the exhibition space of Van Abbemuseum in a way that might not be essential to its meaning. I believe that it would be equally acceptable to put the three city models at the center of a display and mount the photograph on the wall but vary the way in which other elements are displayed. It would also be worth exploring whether all of the original parts need be included, and whether new components could be added, based on the curator’s view of how the artwork acquires meaning for contemporary publics. My rationale for this flexibility is that the artists themselves made several variations of Drifting Producers, all bearing the same title but varying in their contents. For example, in 2006 Flying City created a version for a hotel lobby in Seoul that included the composite photograph and city models but omitted many of the other parts and displayed photographs of the community of metalworkers on the wall. Moreover, this time the models were not made of natural materials, as in the installation owned by Van Abbemuseum; instead, they were constructed from combinations of light projections and metal objects—media frequently used by Jeon Yongseok (see fig. 16). Furthermore, over the course of time, Flying City created an extensive website devoted to the project Drifting Producers, offering images of their own designed objects and of performances and workshops held during the duration of the project (2002–09), as well as philosophical and political essays by Jeon Yongseok.[39] Including such information in a new staging of Van Abbemuseum’s installation might recontextualize the project in the present place and time and deepen the public’s understanding of the work. Last but not least, if I were serving as a dramaturg for a re-installation of Drifting Producers, I would aim to revive the conversations around the topics of the installation, such as craftsmanship, human networks, and city planning. Not only were such conversations meant to take place during the display of Drifting Producers in the Van Abbemuseum, they would also revive the cross-cultural dialogue that had been part of the original conception of the work. I would consider this a performative quality of its restaging. And finally, I would consider including even more recent works made by Flying City artists—in particular the installation Running from Metallic Moon, which Jeon Yongseok created for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2016. In this work, the artist shows his undiminished fascination with dreamlike, networked structures; this time metal objects rhythmically interact with each other. Exhibiting such works would maintain Drifting Producers’ initial focus on craft and human networks while situating this concern not only in the work’s original social context of Seoul but also in the realm of human interaction more generally. Indeed, Jeon has recently stated that human relationship is the essence of Drifting Producers, which aspires to connect people and demonstrate the potential of craft and creativity in difficult situations, such as Cheonggyecheon’s.[40]24

Several cogs, rotors, mechanical chains, and other mechanical parts rest on a board. The rotor at left is made of a clear material, and has vivid blue light reflected on it by a spotlight.

Fig. 16

Detail of an installation view of Flying City’s Drifting Producers (second version), 2006, Central Tourist Hotel, Seoul. The installation was on view from 2006 to 2011. Photograph by Tatja Scholte.

I am aware that my suggested approach might seem radical, given how it deviates from museums’ tendency to equate a work of art with a particular physical instantiation. Nonetheless, this attitude would not necessarily be out of keeping with the essence of Drifting Producers, since Flying City itself experimented with different forms of the work and considers raising awareness of the socio-political context in which art operates part of the work. For these reasons, I call on conservators and curators to not by default emphasize the appearance and physical form of site-specific installations but rather examine the ideas and experiences from which these works originated and how they were meant to communicate. There is a strong case for regarding those ideas or experiences as what the work really is about. 25

There remains, however, the question of who is authorized to intervene in the display of such works. For ethical and legal reasons, these decisions would have to be extremely well thought through and formulated by the dramaturgical team, such as I proposed above. Obviously, the artist or their representatives would need to be consulted wherever possible. But in the case of Drifting Producers, although Jeon has been the lead artist, the artwork is the outcome of a collective process, and this authorizes museum staff to operate differently than they might otherwise. Drifting Producers has been coproduced by a network of many human actors; the artist collective Flying City, the Cheonggyecheon community, and the relationship between Jeon and Esche have all played a part throughout the work’s production, distribution, and acquisition. For this reason, I believe that Laurenson’s notion of “distributed authorship” in performance art applies to Drifting Producers as well.[41] And assembling a team of people with knowledge of the work—from inside and outside the museum—could thus allow the museum to give the work an afterlife in the spirit of those who created it. As a start, I appeal to the museum to invest in this human network and try to re-establish contact with Jeon, because—as this research demonstrates—safeguarding the material object alone is not sufficient to keep site-specific art alive. Site-specific works are dynamic and relational, and they need human engagement at all stages. Or, in Jeon’s words: “The live network is the site.”[42]26

Banner image: Detail of fig. 8.27


  1. Many thanks to Jeon Yongseok for taking the lead in creating Drifting Producers and for his openness about the underlying motives, as well as to Charles Esche and Christiane Berndes for sharing their thoughts and providing access to the Van Abbemuseum archives during my research.
  2. Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002); and Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, ed. Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 38–63. See also Douglas Crimp “Serra’s Public Sculpture: Redefining Site Specificity,” in Richard Serra: Sculpture, ed. Rosalind Krauss, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986), 41–56.
  3. For instance, Kwon cites an interview with Robert Barry in which he declared that each of his wire installations was “made to suit the place in which it was installed. They cannot be moved without being destroyed.” Richard Serra made a similar statement during a hearing regarding the planned relocation of his 120-foot Cor-Ten steel sculpture Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York: “It is a site-specific work and as such not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.” Both quotes cited in Kwon, One Place after Another, 13.
  4. Ibid., 38.
  5. In Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty takes a critical stance against the supposedly placeless environment in which modern art is shown: “The white wall’s apparent neutrality is an illusion. It stands for a community with common ideas and assumptions. Artist and audience are, as it were, invisibly spread-eagled in 2-D on a white ground. The development of the pristine, placeless white cube is one of modernism’s triumphs—a development commercial, esthetic, and technological.” Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 79.
  6. Kwon finds an answer to the illusion of the white cube observed by Brian O’Doherty in the avant-gardist notion of site-specificity. “The space of art was no longer perceived as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, but a real place. The art object or event in this context was to be singularly experienced in the here-and-now through the bodily presence of each viewing subject, in a sensorial immediacy of spatial extension and temporal duration (what Michael Fried derisively characterized as theatricality), rather than instantaneously ‘perceived’ in a visual epiphany by a disembodied eye.” Kwon, One Place after Another, 38.
  7. Anne Ring Petersen, Installation Art: Between Image and Stage (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2015), 359.
  8. Nick Kaye, Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place, and Documentation (London: Routledge, 2000), 191.
  9. Ibid., 215.
  10. James Meyer, “The Functional Site; or, The Transformation of Site Specificity,” in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, ed. Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 32.
  11. Francis Alÿs, in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, “Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains),” video documentation of a performance in Lima, Peru, 2002, 15 min. 9 sec.,
  12. Meyer, “The Functional Site,” 25–27.
  13. Flying City was established in 2001, under the leadership of Jeon Yongseok, with Jang Jongkwan and Kim Gisu as cofounders. The artists styled the name of their collective flyingCity, but in the scholarship it is often styled Flying City. The collective dissolved in 2009. There is no universal standardizing system for English renditions of Korean names. In this essay and its notes, I follow the Asian convention of putting family name first, followed by given name.
  14. Ryu Jeh-hong has written a history of Cheonggyecheon and its modernization at the turn of this century: “Naturalizing Landscapes and the Politics of Hybridity: Gwanghwamun to Cheonggyecheon,” Korea Journal 44, no. 3 (October 2004): 8–33.
  15. Mark Kremer, “Flying City ‘Invitation to Drift,’” in Facing Korea: Dutch-Korean Contemporary Art, exh. cat. (Seoul: Yellow Sea, 2003), 158.
  16. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in Gwangmyeong aims to provide opportunities for self-development to low-income citizens.
  17. Jeon Yongseok, conversation with the author, March 20, 2011.
  18. The Hermès Korea Award for Contemporary Art was organized by the Hermès Foundation Missulsang and took place in the Art Sonje Center, Seoul, October 23–December 5, 2004.
  19. The jury report focuses on the city models, which Flying City at the time called All-Things Park: “The group has submitted for this exhibition All-Things Park, which is based on a design whose structures and circulation were drawn from the problems they identified after having conducted ethnographic research. It is a theme park, industrial complex, a market, and a playground as well as an ancient structure, stadium, dwelling, and a road. In other words, it is a park of all things that stands as an organic model of a city called Seoul.” “Jury Report,” in Chan-kyong Park et al., Hermès Korea Missulsang, exh. cat. (Seoul: Hermès Korea, 2004).

    Whereas critics were impressed by the work, some of the project’s citizen-participants were less enthusiastic because they felt that it was inappropriate that their craft and protest had been used for an art project.

  20. Together with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hou Hanru curated the traveling exhibition Cities on the Move (1997–99), which brought together various perspectives on the modernization of city life and globalization, with a focus on cities in Asia. At the time, Charles Esche was director of Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden.
  21. Charles Esche, conversation with the author, March 24, 2010. See also Leire Vergara, “Art, Possibility, and Democracy: Interview with Charles Esche,” Zehar 57 (2005): 28. In this interview Esche states that the ultimate goal was to establish an international think tank for new discourses or even new “forms of democracy.”
  22. Jeon Yongseok, email to the author, March 20, 2022.
  23. Guy Debord published, among other writings, two major book-length essays, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). The Fondation Constant publishes a website  on the history and philosophy of Constant’s New Babylon project: Fondation Constant, New Babylon 1956–1974,
  24. The concept of dériver (French for “drifting out”) is elaborated by Guy Debord in his 1958 essay “Theory of the Dérive,” available at The essay is, in essence, an instruction manual for “psychogeography,” or exploring a city by drifting around.
  25. Mark Wigley, Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art; 010 Publications, 1998), 9.
  26. Constant did not point out a specific location, but there is indication that his inspiration came from the then overcrowded city of Amsterdam. See the 1962 film Accompanying Simon Vinkenoog to Constant’s New Babylon, available at The film was recorded partly in the artist’s studio and partly in the streets of Amsterdam, which Constant calls a paradigmatic “automated city.”
  27. As a result of the connections established during the workshops, Flying City participated in the 4th Gwangju Biennial (2002), curated by Charles Esche, Hou Hanru, and Sung Wan Kyung. In addition, Flying City took part in a cultural-exchange program between the Netherlands Media Art Institute and the Marronnier Art Center of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation. Mark Kremer and Beck Jee-sook co-curated two exhibitions: The Postman is a Genius: Experience and Imagination in Seoul, De Appel, Foam, Canvas International Art, and the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Amsterdam, August 29–October 18, 2003; and Seoul-Asia Art Now: Modernization & Urbanization, Marronnier Art Center, Seoul, September 26–October 19, 2003.
  28. The exhibition Kollektive Kreativität/Collective Creativity was curated by What, How & For Whom / WHW for the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, May 1–July 17, 2005. The 9th International Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, took place September 16–October 30, 2005.
  29. Esche, conversation with the author.
  30. The exhibition Plug In #07 was curated by Charles Esche and Christiane Berndes for the Van Abbemuseum, April 8, 2006–May 20, 2007.
  31. A page on the Van Abbemuseum’s website explains the goals of L’Internationale: Spirits of Internationalism—6 European Collections, 1956–86,
  32. Esche, conversation with the author.
  33. One exception is the exhibition Constant – New Babylon, curated by Laura Stamps and Doede Hardeman, and held at Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, October 21, 2015–February 29, 2016, showing not only the art objects but extensive documentary material as well.
  34. Esche, conversation with the author.
  35. Ibid. Esche contributed to greater awareness of the project by reprinting Jeon Yongseok’s substantial essay “Drifting Producers” in Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 369–77; the essay was originally published in Mark Kremer et al., Now What? Artists Write! (Utrecht, Netherlands: Basis voor actuele kunst, 2004). Jeon also wrote a book about the project that was published in Korean only; Jeon Yongseok, Cheonggye Archive Metal Cloud (Seoul: flyingCity, 2009).
  36. Christiane Berndes, conversation with the author, February 2, 2017.
  37. Pip Laurenson, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media,” Tate Papers 6 (Autumn 2006). Laurenson borrows the idea of two stages from Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of art who distinguishes autographic art (completed once made) from allographic art (which requires some form of performance for completion). For an elaborate discussion of Laurenson’s proposition and Goodman’s philosophy, see Renée van de Vall, “The Devil and the Details: The Ontology of Contemporary Art in Conservation Theory and Practice,” British Journal of Aesthetics 55, no. 3 (2015): 288–90.
  38. Julia Noordegraaf, “Documenting the Analogue Past in Marijke van Warmerdam’s Film Installations,” Revista de História da ArteSeries W 4 (2015): 120. Noordegraaf’s point here builds on a quotation from Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave, 2008), 6.
  39. Although, unfortunately, the website is no longer publicly accessible, its content has been archived by the museum.
  40. Jeon Yongseok, email to the author, March 20, 2022.
  41. Pip Laurenson, “Charisma, Desire, and Understanding in the Conservation of Performance Art” (keynote lecture, Performance: The Ethics and Politics of Care: 1. Mapping the Field, Bern Academy of the Arts, Bern, Switzerland, May 29–31, 2021).
  42. Jeon, email to the author.

How to Cite

Tatja Scholte, “Staging Site-Specific Installation Art in a Museum Context,” in Perspectives on Place, ed. Elizabeth McGoey and Jeanne Marie Teutonico (Art Institute of Chicago, 2023).

This contribution has been reviewed through an open-review process.

© 2023 by The Art Institute of Chicago. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license:

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