Allan Kaprow's Seminal 1966 Essay on Art and "Happenings," Translated into American
Women licking jam off a car? That's a Happening. Buying meat from a butcher? That's a Happening. A bunch of jabronis sitting down doing nothing? That's a Happening.
Allan Kaprow. Courtesy Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth
Who the Fuck Was Allan Kaprow?
Don’t you mean, “Who the fuck WASN’T Allan Kaprow?” He was an everyman—a real meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. First of all, he was born in New Fucking Jersey like five minutes before the Great Depression. Oh, I’m sorry, Damien Hirst, you were born wearing gold-fleeced diapers from a jade vagina? Get real.
Kaprow’s influence on contemporary art is pretty intense. Dude started out in New York for a minute doing action paintings because he liked jazz. But for Kaprow, painting wasn’t the right vehicle to totally make art all about life. Paintings are constructed, right? I mean, what if there was an art form that didn’t rely on things like composition, color, aesthetics, or talent? In 1958, Kaprow wrote an essay called “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.” You might remember Pollock as the alcoholic character Ed Harris played in the movie Pollock. Contrary to popular belief, he was a real person. Anyway, Kaprow demanded in this essay that the way that art was made be changed. He thought it should include things from everyday life that we don’t normally associate with art. The new mode of making art that Kaprow proposed was called “Happenings.”
The works Kaprow would do in the following years had a profound effect on art-making in general and later influenced millions of movements. You can blame Kaprow almost entirely for performance art, relational aesthetics, social practice, and net art. He died in 2006 in San Diego after a long career, numerous published works, and a lot of teaching (teaching helps pay the bills when you don’t make objects and are kind of a bitch about documenting ephemeral works).
Household, 1964, Women licking jam off a car. Happening. Presented for Festival of Contemporary Arts at a city dump, Ithaca, New York. Courtesy Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo © Sol Goldberg
What the fuck is a Happening?
Don’t you mean, “What the Fuck ISN’T a Happening?” Maybe reading this right fucking now is a Happening. It’s “happening,” isn’t it? What I mean is the idea behind this new kind of art was, like I just fucking said, to incorporate elements of everyday life. Fuck a maker. Fuck an audience. The nice thing about being an artist today is that because of Kaprow, you don’t need to actually possess any technical skills whatsoever. The fuck outta here, Powhida.
Do you have a room? You’ve got a venue. Do you know how to talk? You’ve got exchange. Do you like to do silly things even though you’re an adult? You’re an artist. Anybody, literally anybody, can do a Happening. That’s the whole fucking point. For centuries, artists trained long and hard, apprenticing under masters for years before they could make real art. Thanks to Kaprow though, all you need now is the privilege to go $90,000 in debt for your MFA, plus cursory knowledge of how to create a Facebook event.
Basically, to create a Happening you invite a bunch of people to some place. Give them suggestions of things to do. None of the tasks should require skill, or you’ll alienate them. I’d suggest telling people to maybe walk backwards for a little bit and then sit on the floor folding paper. It doesn’t matter if they’re having fun, it just matters that they’re there. Kaprow didn’t document his stuff much, but if you’re going to get a grant, you’re going to need to get photos of your Happenings. DO NOT document them with video. Participating in a Happening is boring; think about how much more boring it’d be to watch on a computer. Photo documentation works great because you can also make up lies about what occurred. Notice something weird in a pic? Like maybe a participant had their eyes closed? THAT’S YOUR ART. You fucking authored that, man.
What you need to realize is the game has changed. Get off your high horse and get on the Ephemeral Train. Ride it through the Exchange Tunnel and get off at Hangout Station. If you like friends, games and taking credit for the experience of others, Happenings are for you. To help y'all figure this out, I translated Kaprow's 1966 essay, "Notes on the Elimination of the Audience" into language someone living in 2014 could understand.
Allan Kaprow. Yard, 1961 with artist. Environment presented for Environments, Situations, Spaces sculpture garden, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063) Courtesy Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: © Ken Heyman
When artists started doing “Happenings,” they used tricks of the trade originally made up by other artists. They liked to borrow from Assemblages, which is when you glue garbage on a painting so it’s 3D (this was unusual for a painting). They also borrowed from Environments, which is where somebody who is not an architect builds something you stand in. Assemblages and Environments were kind of jazzy. Artists who did them made shit up as they went along. People who care about this shit will tell you that this hippie approach was a political act because it challenged talent. Who cares. A big issue I see with artists who first used Happenings was that the pieces (right?) tended to use standard things you see in performance art. This makes them not as “happening,” if you catch my drift. ;)
Happenings happened in places where you’d be like, “You’re doing art here?” Examples include apartments, classrooms, or school gyms. Some were in galleries, but always those galleries that nobody had heard of and all the people in the neighborhood saw them and said, “Here comes the gentrification.” Artists moved shit out of the way in the rooms so they could do activities—like Circle Time at preschool, but with more wine. People who came sat down and watched an artist and his/her friends do stuff. What exactly they were watching isn’t easy to describe because lots artists do lots of things, but most of it was bad. Once in a while, artists “broke the fourth wall” and involved the audience in games or whatever. Audience members got out of their chairs, or looked at shit, or stood in groups. A couple of times, artists even moved through the middle of the audience, forcing them to move around also. Wow.
BEEF: It didn’t matter how wacky and crazy artists were because even with those silly games, what happened was still an audience watching a show. That’s what I meant when I said Happenings used lots of shit you’d see in performance art. The audience and the performers were separate.
This made them not very fun/spontaneous. Think about this in the same way art galleries put restrictions on Assemblages and Environments. White walls are a prison. Let the art “breathe.” Play tag and have a good time. The weird thing though is that in Happenings, everybody was in a prison, too. The rooms or gyms boxed them in hard. Since this art was new and people didn’t know what to think about it, it felt like theater. But can you blame the audience for that? No. They weren’t included and that made them feel like they were just watching stuff happen, not making stuff happen. Every time a Happening went down, no matter how kewl and OMFG it seemed, it was just bad theater. And we all know theater isn’t art. What it REALLY ended up looking like was a nightclub act, circus routine, cock-fighting show, or theater made by poor people for poor people. It was like entertainment without content. I don’t mean a nightclub act can’t have content. I like getting drunk.
This sucks: Most artists doing Happenings missed the fact that making Happenings awesome was really hard. Even now, people who do this type of shit always promote it in “acts.” I mean, OK, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be radical (in the political way) or radical (in the bodacious way). Luckily, some motherfuckers knew something sucked. They worked at it for years and obviously made some dumb pieces because there’s always a big gap between how cool something is in theory and how cool something actually is when you do it (like sex in the shower). Finally though, artists started to understand what was NOT gonna suck and made one rule:
KILL THE AUDIENCE
Not like by murdering them, but by totally murderlizing the space between them and the performance. Think about it: Every fucking thing in the room can art: chairs, people, air, time, the ROOM ITSELF. See how Happenings relate to Assemblages and Environments? It’s like collage on mescaline. Once you realize this you transcend theater and make real art. If you paint (no), you know how hard it is to paint shit and make it look natural together. A group of people in a room who don’t move around and play with the artist are like poorly placed trees in landscape painting. Like a big splotch of some stupid color on an otherwise kewl painting, audiences that don’t do anything are dead fucking space. Movements cause movements (true in painting and Happenings). If you do a Happening and your audience just fucking sits there, it’s theater, dick farmer.
Let’s talk a bit about actually getting people to participate. You have to trick them into it because participation sucks. When artists ask for participation, the audience response is weak (if they respond at all), or it could get really violent. But when people do respond violently during a Happening, it’s because the artist was mean to them. But after a few years of antagonistic work being popular, audience responses got totally generic. If you are serious about Happenings being rad, you should not let this happen. (Happen. LOL.)
I gotta calm down. I just mean good Happenings work when they’re respectful. Let your audience know you’re gonna include them. They’ll be more likely to participate. Don’t be sneaky. Let everybody know what games you might play. On the Facebook event, post a schedule of things and what people can bring to the party. Happenings aren’t that different from what somebody does to prepare for a parade, football game, wedding, or church. And I know I’m fucking the dog here, but they’re also not that different from theater. I know; bear with me.
What sets Happenings aside from things that involve skill like sports/theater is that while it’s important to know what’s going to happen, nobody should be good at it. Happenings are like life (awkward, terrible). If you try hard to make a Happening look good, you’re missing the whole fucking point. To make sure your Happening is totally shitty looking, avoid inviting anybody with a background in theater, sports, or who has had a job. The best participant for a Happening is a complete jabroni. Participants should be unskilled, uneducated, and overly appreciative for being included. Keep this in mind because if for you are paid money to do a Happening at a biennial or something, you sure as fuck don’t want to split all that money with jabronies.
Still, you don’t have to only have willing participants. Something wild about this work is you can actually do it right in the street (“street art"). On a busy street, people walking by will totes stop and check it out—just like if a building exploded. I know you’re thinking, “But Allan, you said an audience who isn’t participating makes the work fucked.” OK, here’s the curve ball: People on the street are doing what they normally do. They’re different than somebody seeing a play on purpose. You never know what they’ll do. They could totally start participating, or not. Whatever they decide, though, they are real parts of the environment where the Happening is taking place, so they’re better than regular audience members.
One really neat thing that happens when you’re doing art on the street is that one of these motherfuckers walking by joins the piece without even knowing it. Example: a Happening about how fucked up meat is. You go into a butcher shop and buy meat from the butcher who never knows that he just participated in a fucking artwork—the butcher’s part of your art because you are better than him. Leisure rules.
Lastly: You can even design a Happening WHERE NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS. It’s totally legitimate to set up Happenings where people do nothing but sit there and watch each other sit there. This can take place anywhere except for a theater or a sports or music venue. If you take it seriously, it’s like meditating. One really fun thing to do is mix it up and have your Happening sometimes have people moving around and then sometimes not. Everybody runs around a bunch but then they sit down really seriously. When the people in your Happening stop moving, they are NOT being audience members. They’re more like a Greek chorus (they are an audience who is in a play). It doesn’t matter if that makes sense, it’s just important that you make sure to think everything in your Happening is important. I think you could also do something where like half of your participants are sitting doing nothing and the other half are all doing shit. Then they’d all switch and the people doing shit would stop doing shit and the others would start doing shit. The whole idea of watching would be like way more meaningful. They’d be like part of something big that was important.
Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing, and since 2012, Carney has been a member of GWC, Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and New York University. Follow him on Twitter here.