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Because life is such a first-person experience, I’d have guessed that when the long-running SITES series finally ended, my strongest memories of it would be performing in it, as I did for four hours over two nights at Gibson Girl Vintage in March.
But now that the time has come, as founder and organizer Stephanie Leathers prepares for the final SITES show this weekend, I find that what I remember most are two performances she was involved in.
One was in the fall of 2017, when Leathers, a dancer and choreographer, spent four hours exploring Arcana with a clump of rope, having spontaneous interactions with unsuspecting patrons, as Tom Rau performed an ambient soundscape.
The other was a year before, when Leathers and three other dancers gave an unauthorized, improvised performance around and upon the fences and barricades of the One City Center construction site. For a series aiming to draw attention to Durham development by placing experimental performances in public spaces, it was something akin to a visual mission statement.
Each new version of Durham risks overwriting the old, but those performances froze the city as it was at those moments in my mind. These aren’t just my favorite SITES moments—they’re some of my most memorable Durham moments, when I felt I saw and understood something about the city.
After more than seven years (the series, formerly called Sunday SITES, developed gradually enough that it’s hard to pin a start date), SITES found itself in a city transformed, in which it had activated most of the spaces it could. Leathers is retiring the series after this weekend’s finale at PS37 on Foster Street, where she’ll perform a two-hour endurance work with music by Rau and projections by Krista Anne Nordgren.
In addition to furnishing me with so many piercing Durham memories, the SITES show I did with my electro-poetry band, Streak of Tigers—our first performance in our current incarnation—was a catalyst, giving us something specific and unique to work toward and a respected platform through which we were offered other shows by attendees.
That’s my personal testament to what SITES did for Durham, one that many artists who participated have their own version of. To send off the series, we collected a couple more stories and asked Leathers to reflect in an exit interview. SITES may be over, but we trust we’ll see its afterimage for years, both in the spaces it indelibly touched and the possibilities it opened for the next wave of artists.
INDY: Why was it time to wrap up SITES?
STEPHANIE LEATHERS: It had run its course. Durham is in a place now where it feels like time to take a breather and acknowledge all the expansion that has happened. SITES has been in the places it needed to inhabit. We spent time there, drew awareness. It’s time to look back and see what SITES has done and acknowledge the people who’ve been involved.
Organizing something like this is hard and time-consuming and often thankless, and you’ve been doing it for years. I wonder more what kept you going than why you’re stopping.
It’s being in awe of all the artists in Durham, visual artists, music makers, dancers, choreographers, poets. I’ve always wanted to bring these people together in the same space at the same time, in spaces that are unfamiliar, drawing attention to those unseen spaces. That’s motivated me, seeing varied artists in different spaces and sharing that with the community.
SITES was always attuned to development without making any claim that it could stop it. Instead, it was about not letting our attention slip away from it. Do you feel it did that?
Yes, everything is just going to keep on going in terms of development in Durham, but SITES has left a mark in certain places that are high-rise buildings or condos now. When I went to the artists and asked them to be a part of it, they had specific things they wanted to focus on and spaces they wanted to inhabit, and they’ve done that, and I’ve done what I wanted to do.
Even if those spaces don’t have art in them now, surely SITES played a role in conditioning artists, audiences, presenters, and business owners to see experimental performance in unusual public spaces. Other people are doing that work, too, but SITES has been such a consistent presence.
Yeah, totally. I feel like artists have been reaching outside of the boundaries of the proscenium environment and experimenting in public spaces. Not that SITES started that, but I think it was an influence, and it’s going to be really awesome to see how the community expands that in the future.
In terms of what you thought SITES could ideally be, are there shows that stand out?
Oh, gosh. Every single one of them. Anna Barker gives me chills when I watch her dance, and she performed in the pool at the skatepark. The energy and time and effort and the way she engaged with the space, you could feel it vibrating. It was very touching, because the landscape around her is the condos being built on Foster Street, towering above her, and she’s moving in this intricate space. She’s struggling at times. A lot of people came [intentionally] to see that, but it was also like, “Yeah, this is what SITES is about,” because people were stopping who had no idea what it was, and there were skaters in the park asking questions. It brought the community together for a short period of time, and they were able to witness something beautiful. It existed, but it’ll never happen again, and I will always think of that performance when I walk by the skatepark. And hopefully, the people who witnessed it remember it the same way, as a part of Durham’s history that was artistic and positive.
And there was a performance at Golden Belt by Ashlee Ramsey that I really wish everyone could have seen, because she used every inch of that building, and it’s no longer there. It’s a brewery now. That was such a special piece of Durham, because there were dance performances there before—more a proscenium environment, but a place where people would present work. To see it being torn down and setting the stage for the development about to happen there, and to see Ashlee using every inch of the space, took my breath away. For a couple of hours, she did it alone, with one other person there.
The two I remember most vividly were ones you were in. There was the one at Arcana with Tom Rau, where you had these interesting social interactions, and one in the construction around One City Center, where you were climbing the fence. Those respectively drew attention to the social and physical landscape of the city.
Right, there’s also a way in which SITES was about breaking the rules a little bit. But also, it was about members of the business community allowing us to use their space for free. The Fishmonger’s building, I was able to use that thanks to Matt, who said, “Here’s the key, take it away.” It’s like, people in Durham do that kind of thing.
Memories of SITES
“What struck us the most was the unbelievable support we felt from Stephanie. She chose us because she wanted to get us out to be seen by more people. That was really flattering. By finding atypical performance spaces, she challenged us to engage with space and audience in unique ways and discover what would happen. We performed under the stairs at the Accordion Club and were lit by flashlights, and we performed at the Visitors Bureau in a long corridor where others walked through. We also performed in front of the Central Park School in their sound garden. Jude changed the sound-processing aspect of her soundscapes according to the sites. Jody explored constricting spaces, emotions, and movements at the Visitors Bureau and exactly the opposite in the sound garden, dancing with the breeze, leaves, and water. At the Accordion Club, she danced with her own shadow, which was not previously planned. Stephanie’s documentation with her photographs and films demonstrated how much she honored each performer. They were rivetingly unique.” —Jody Cassell and Jude Casseday, SITES performers
“I’ve been a frequent SITES collaborator, often creating a bed of sound or music that Stephanie or other dancers can interact with (and vice versa). On a personal level, SITES performances highlight two things in art that I cherish: freedom and exploration. I’ll never forget the moment when we were performing in Arcana when someone in the audience just stood up spontaneously and started mimicking Stephanie’s movements. For about ten minutes, they moved in lockstep around Arcana, at one point even sharing the weight of a chair that they dragged behind them with rope. It was a beautiful spontaneous moment; it felt like the world was glowing. When I am performing with SITES I always feel like I am live-scoring this amazing story. And that, like Durham and its development, I don’t really know what is going to happen next, but that something beautiful and amazing will happen if we are able to have the right conversations, both as a city and as artists while we are performing.”—Tom Rau, SITES performer
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at email@example.com.
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