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The Happening Was the Progenitor of Performance Art

Performance Art Grew From 'Happenings' - Rolf Broberg

Installations, Events, Happenings, Environments were favoured by 1950/60s art and drama students: just kids having a laugh, or claim to a serious artform?

The term ‘happening’, as in ‘what’s happening, man?’ was a very 1960s one. In fact, it described a particular form of performance theatre arising from and fusing with visual arts. It’s not fully understood in contemporary performance circles, but The Happening was instrumental in paving the way for performance art to be an artform in its own right.

It was an ‘event’ or ‘situation’ sometimes billed as ‘art in random places’ (empty shops, old houses, warehouses, streets), with little linear narrative, but reliance on mixed art forms with the audience frequently involved, willingly or not. Scope for improvisation (much as Commedia dell’Arte actors did in the 16th Century) lay within their structures.

They blurred boundaries between visual art and performance, and between performers and watchers, destroying the ‘fourth wall’. Gradually during the 60s ‘happenings’ were any loose hippie collection, where two or more were gathered in the name of ‘staying cool’.

Some Theory

British director Peter Brook described a Happening as a ‘powerful invention’, destroying at one blow many deadly forms, like the ‘dreariness of theatre buildings’ and what he loathed, ‘the charmless trappings of curtain, programme and bar’. By contrast, they could be anywhere, any time, of any duration.

For the man who wrote The Open Space which called any space a performance area, this mattered. Happenings could be formal or spontaneous: anarchic, generating intoxicating energy. Nothing was required, nothing was taboo. Behind a Happening, for Brook, was the shout ‘wake up’, jolting the spectator into new sight. He enthused about the concept, but warned ‘the sadness of a bad Happening must be seen to be believed’.

The seminal work Happenings was published in 1965 by Michael Kirby in which he accounted for their influence and outlined scripts or plans of some 14 performance pieces. There were others that came after the mid-60s (the idea was adopted by hippies, drama students and street performers), but the essence was already established.

Kirby refuted the mythology that there was no script, no control, no rehearsal and things just happened. These events were frequently attended by a handful of people, no exact repeats, many of whom saw them as entertainment or in the spirit of the times, rather than serious works beyond the superficial.

He asked in his book that if Happenings were not improvisations by a group ‘exhibiting themselves’ at a party, if they were not ‘sophisticated buffoonery designed to give a deceitful impression of profundity’ nor ‘controlled audience participation, what are they?’ Each event had different outcomes, depending on audience response, so definitions were always fragmented.

Professor of Art History, Allan Kaprow, said that Happenings were less new style, more a moral act, an ultimate existential commitment. For him, once artists were recognised and paid, they ‘surrender to the tastes of the patrons’. He told Kirby that he had a ‘multi-leveled’ attitude to painting. His abstracts were ‘toy soldiers at war, my girlfriend in a corner, musical structures or literary stories. Anything under the sun!’

Some History

Kaprow seems to have come up with the term ‘happening’ in 1957 at an art picnic to account for the scene around him. Later, Jack Kerouac called him ‘The Happenings Man’ and when media, artists, writers and others took off with the term, it quite quickly came to mean almost anything.

Chance played a big part in determining inputs and outcomes. Early devotees were attracted to the Dadaists’ Methodical use of Chance. Audiences were frequently unsure what they’d seen. If something had gone ‘wrong’ nobody knew, as there was no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The event was whatever it was.

Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), with a detailed script of how to employ screens, poles, lights and tin cans is often cited as the first Happening, though an earlier work by musician John Cage, Theater Piece No. 1, with readings from ladders, Rauschenberg showing paintings, wax cylinders of Edith Piaf playing and Merce Cunningham dancing, preceded it.

Some Examples

Event titles often revealed clues about the location or intention, like Kaprow’s A Spring Happening and The Courtyard; while Coca Cola, Shirley Cannonball? didn’t. Robert Whitman’s The American Moon, Mouth, Flower, and Water pieces started from pencil sketches, watercolours, captions and verbal notations, in much the same way drama is devised and improvised today.

‘Red’ Grooms, a multimedia artist renowned for pop-art constructions of frantic urban life, said his Burning Building (1959) was inspired by love of travelling shows and circus. He told Kirby interest in fire was ignited by wooden buildings. ‘Firemen and their apparatus offered a good vehicle for my medieval melodrama’. He built sets, got into 3D making of an environment, film, painting, woodpile, canvas and glue.

American pop artist Jim Dine’s work was sometimes called ‘funny’, but Car Crash wasn’t, though some audiences tittered in embarrassment. It was a short dialogue while a car circled, honking, followed by crash sounds. The outline was published by Kirby.

Claus Oldenburg was a Swedish sculptor famous for his public art installations of large replicas or soft sculpture versions of everyday objects. He called his troupe Ray Gun Theater and they produced Injun, World’s Fair II, The Store, Store Days II, The Home, Bedroom Ensemble, Blackouts, Fotodeath, Gayety and Autobodys among others.

He told Kirby they were to do with objects: ‘typewriters, ping-pong tables, clothing, ice cream, hamburgers, cakes….’ The Happening ‘used objects in motion including people’. So, anything to hand, anything that struck a chord, an emotion, a prayer, a fear, a laugh; all the starting ingredients, in short, of any work of art down the ages.

Fusing art forms, seriously or as ironic humour, harnessing old ideas like commedia dell’arte and performing absolutely anywhere didn’t start with hippie Happenings. But continuing interest in all things 1960s should rekindle interest. The fact is that they were a small but significant part of performance art history and deserve study in their own right for what they tell us about breaking old boundaries, challenging mindsets.

First published on Suite 101, 5 September 2011

Image: Performance Art Grew From ‘Happenings’ – Rolf Broberg

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