Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 163-180.
Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010
Belgium is Happening
Nontheatrical Performance (1976)
Traditional theater: an empty room except for those who've come to watch. The lights dim. End of performance. Audience leaves.
West Berlin, 1973. Wolf Vostell arranged a Happening called Berlin Fever. It involved close to a hundred participants. Driving from various parts of the city, they converged on a vast empty field near the wall dividing Berlin's western and eastern sectors. Above the wall in a tower were armed border guards. At one edge of the field were small flower and vegetable gardens tended by local residents. The field itself had been cleared of the ruins of buildings bombed in the last war. It was a warm, sunny September weekend. The plan given to the participants read:
(A) Come with your car to Osdorfer Street in Berlin Lichterfeld (dead end), last stretch of the street on the right side.
(B) Take up a position with your car in rows of ten each, as thickly as possible, with the cars next to and behind one another.
(C) At a signal start all the cars and try to drive as slowly as possible. Try to remain as tightly grouped as you started.
(D) If you have a companion in the car, he should write down how many times you shift gears, clutch and step on the gas. If you're alone, try to be conscious of every smallest action. Add up all these activities in your brain as psycho-esthetic productions.
(E) After 30 minutes of this extremely slow driving, get out of the car (turn off motor) and go to the trunk of your vehicle. There open and close the trunk lid 750 times; and put a white plate inside and take it out 375 times. This ritual should be accomplished as fast as possible, without interruption, and without dramatization.
(F) When this event is completed, lay strips of cloth on the ground in front of the columns of cars; then place the white plate which is in your car trunk, onto the cloth.
(G) lake a handful ot salt out ot a bag beneath the biggest nearby tree. Pour it onto the plate which you've previously placed on the cloth.
(H) After this, the auto columns begin to move again at the slowest possible speed. All cars pass over the cloths, the plates and the salt.
(I) During the whole passage, lick the hand you previously held the salt in.
(J) Now the motors are turned off again. Everyone sews up his overridden plate or its remains into the strips of cloth. A derrick arrives along with supplies of wire for hanging purposes.
(K) Everyone now goes with their cloth to the tree where the bag of salt lies. Each one decides where in the tree their cloth (with sewed-up plate) should hang. With the derrick's help the cloths and their contents are fastened to the branches.
(L) The notebook with records ot clutching, shitting, stepping on the gas, etc. should be fastened with Scotch tape to the inside of the trunk.
(M) When you next have a fever, take the notebook out of the trunk and tear it up.
(N) 3 days after the Happening, Berlin Fever, meet with Vostell for a talk. Note your dreams for these 3 days and bring the notes to the discussion.
Vostell's Happenings have always been grandly scaled. Their images are consistently charged with impact: border guards, banners in trees, lanes of slow-moving cars . . . Spectacle and apocalypse re-echo in whatever he conceives. Yet they are only for the participants to experience. The guards in the tower watched curiously and strollers in the gardens beyond gazed for a few moments before going their way. Such casual observation is accidental, without information or expectations. The participants, however, were voluntary initiates in a quasi-ritual, for which the ongoing world, undisturbed and hardly caring, was the context. This, for me, was part of the piece's poignancy.
Like any experimental work, the Happening's language was strange. Only gradually, while going through it, did the participants begin to sense its pervasive political references: West Berlin's ideolog-
ical and economic isolation in Communist East Germany; its reduction to an artificial island confined by a wall and three foreign military encampments; the piped-in, superficial affluence in the midst of surrounding austerity and a disadvantaged Turkish working force; an island whose population is dwindling and whose industry is leaving; an island whose artistic culture is imported or pumped up by political machinery, mainly in Bonn and Washington; this island's "fevered" self-consciousness; and saddest of all, its present garrison-town identity compared with the impressive city it once was. The symbolism was personal, but it was based on so many other Vostell works over the years that such a reading could be intuited at the time.
I have spoken of the casual passerby. But not even intentional watchers could have experienced this drama or these references without literally opening and closing a car trunk 750 times (hearing the drumming thumps of other cars), without tasting the salt on their own hands, without actually feeling and hearing the plates crushed under their own cars, without sewing up the broken pieces into white shrouds to be lofted by a derrick to hang in a giant tree. The internalization would escape such an observer. But that is what Vostell was seeking, not esthetic detachment.
Vostell built into the Happening an aftermath—a telling of dreams three days later and the task of remembering at a next fever to tear up the account of gear shiftings, starts, and stops, along with all the sensations felt during a particular thirty minutes of Berlin Fever. On the one hand, he was curious about its possible effect upon near-future fantasy, and, on the other, he wanted to keep the past alive by binding a person to a symbolic pact: associating a personal fever with Berlin's.
Although Vostell was a participant too, he viewed his piece as a consciousness-raising device, as teaching, as behavior changing. This goal was, I recall, hard to measure, but it is crucial to take into account his hope to see Berlin Fever extend into the real lives of all the participants.
By way of contrast, a much cooler effect comes across from the text or "program" of an Activity of mine. Its printed language is sparse, its repeated -ing verb endings convey a continuous present, its images are low-key and perhaps a little funny, and its context is the home environment of the participants.
("ailed 7 Kinds of Sympathy, it uses a modular participational unit of two persons (A and B), who carry out a given program of moves. The program was discussed beforehand with five other couples, who
then separated to perform the piece and reconvened the next day to exchange experiences. As usual, I was one of the participants. 7 Kinds of Sympathy, whose text follows, took place this year in Vienna.
occasionally blowing nose
copying A blowing nose
(later) B, reading A's writing
occasionally scratching groin, armpit
A, watching copying B scratching
(later) A, examining something
occasionally feeling for something in pocket
copying A feeling for something
(later) B, examining A's object occasionally coughing
A, watching clearing throat in reply
(later) A and B, close together
B, holding tissue to A's nose
A, occasionally blowing into it
B, clearing throat in reply continuing
(later) B and A, close together
B, describing and pointing to itching in groin and armpit
A, scratching where B itches occasionally coughing
B, continuing description instructing A until relieved
A, occasionally coughing
(later) A, feeding silent B
copying B's mouth movements saying: open chew swallow
The notes accompanying the program intentionally pointed out guidelines to interpretation. It is worthwhile mentioning this aspect of the preparation for participating. An unfamiliar genre like this one does not speak for itself. Explaining, reading, thinking, doing, feeling, reviewing, and thinking again are commingled. Thus the following comments accompanied the main text:
There is the well-known story of a little boy who was being loudly chastised by his mother for misbehaving. The mother ranted and raved while the boy stared curiously at her, seeming not to listen. Exasperated, she demanded to know if he had heard her. He answered that it was funny the way her mouth moved when she was angry. The boy had ignored one set of messages and focused on another.
In 7 Kinds of Sympathy primary and secondary messages are similarly contrasted. A person "sympathizes" with a partner by copying secondary, normally unconscious, ones (blowing the nose) while disregarding the primary ones (writing). The observer/observed roles are then reversed and the original primary message is attended to while a secondary message (scratching an itch) is sent out and copied.
The exchange continues, with coughs and throat clearings added, next developing into a virtual repertory of such moves. The partners come much closer together, one helping the other to blow the nose, scratch an itch, and finally to eat. Primary and secondary become thoroughly mixed up, as do observer and observed. And unlike ordinary behavior, both partners are aware from the start of all these factors as they perform the program; hence the socially acceptable and personally private are also mixed up.
But the partners will naturally tell about themselves in other ways,
sending perhaps tertiary messages; these may be picked up quite consciously, thereby provoking quarternary ones, and so on . . .
What occurred in the doing was, on the surlacc, a vaudeville routine in seven simple parts, requiring neither special skills nor anyone's loss of identity. From a briefing and the notes, the partners expected that there would be more to it than the schematic plan suggested.
They understood, for instance, that since durations were unspecified except by the words continuing and later, they could stretch on and on or be quite short. They understood that prolongation of mimicry could become caricature and that too much brevity might prevent attentiveness. But since the Activity used mutual scrutiny as the partners' means of finding out about each other, they had a protective formula in the very absurdity of their moves: absurdity allowed them to drop their normal constraints and go with the program as long as it seemed appropriate.
As always, there was a range of responses to a commonly shared plan. There was, to begin, a certain self-conscious indifference and some laughter. Then there were loaded silences, subtle aggressions, artful manipulations, and dodges of the uncontrollable messages going back and forth between individuals. There were also feelings of closeness (perhaps born of the absurdity of what each participant was doing), intimations of ceremonials, sensations of vulnerability (each one wondered what the other "saw"). And of course there was a feigned disregard and simultaneous acknowledgment of the sexual connotations of scratching a partner's itch "until relieved." Finally, at the end there was that vague feeling that "sympathy" implies carrying the burden of another's foolishness. It is important to record here that my own prior knowledge of the concept did nothing to jade me to these experiences; if anything, it sensitized me.
The texts of George Brecht's Events of 1959-62 are even more neutral than mine, but unlike mine were not likely to stimulate interpersonal action. If anything, they were finely attenuated thought, rather philosophical in their inclination, though never ponderous. Printed on small cards, they appeared to be a sort of shorthand, or chapter notes without the chapters. Their language, like their scale, was minimal, uninflected, and apparently as small in scope of operation as in implication. The impression was that you couldn't do much with them, but they were very impressive and very elegant.
Some pieces were in fact performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan, in Fluxus festivals and related performance presentations, using conventional theater formats and audiences. Others were carried out privately and were never documented or reported to the art press. Many were performed in the head.
But in any case, most of the cards were ambiguous about how they were to be used. It was clear to some of us then that this was their point: to be applicable to various requirements. Those wishing to conventionalize the brief scores (as Brecht called them) into a neo-Dada theater could and did do so. Those who wanted to project their tiny forms into daily activity, or into contemplation, were also free to follow that route. Here is one example that does specify a site.
For performance in a railway station.
The performers enter a railway station and obtain time-tables.
They stand or seat themselves so as to be visible to each other and, when ready, start their stopwatches simultaneously.
Each performer interprets the tabled time indications in terms of minutes and seconds (e.g. 7:16 = 7 minutes and 16 seconds). He selects one time by chance to determine the total duration of his performing. This done, he selects one row or column and makes a sound at all points where tabled times within that row or column fall within the total duration of his performance.
George Brecht Summer, 1959
Ten or twelve of us went late one afternoon to the station and were quickly lost to our own devices in the rush-hour crowd. Each interpreted freely the bare indications. For instance, sounds of any kind were to be made by chance selection of departure and arrival times listed in a train schedule. We were also to remain visible to each other. But the masses of commuters swallowed us and our sounds, and we became aware of what was, in the final analysis, a group of private performances.
In a version of 1961, that outcome was accounted for as the most logical result, so the group action and specification for making sounds were left out. The participant was given the responsibility of determining or discovering, in some fashion, what would happen.
In the following pieces, however, the absence of instruction leaves no doubt about their appeal to ambiguous use.
TWO ELIMINATION EVENTS
• empty vessel
• empty vessel
If Two Elimination Events is judged a performance score, one or more persons in any environment(s) can interpret the repeated word empty as a verb or an adjective; the two identical phrases can refer to two empty containers that should be accounted for somehow or can be taken as instructions that two containers be emptied.
As a Conceptual piece, the work invites participants to consider that these possibilities may be simply thought about. The title's key word, elimination, suggests a reductive attitude that can be assumed toward them—a getting rid of something undesired or unneeded. This could lead to the physical act of performance as such, and it could allude to the "empty" (but full) state of Zen.
Brecht's indirect call to the reader to share in the making of a piece is playfully revealed in
THREE WINDOW EVENTS
opening a closed window closing an open window
which prompts one, after a while, to ask where the third window event is. One answer is that the question is the third event; another is looking out the window; another is the thought that there are countless possibilities. Naturally, a performer can actually do what is described on the card and then add the missing component.
Three Aqueous Events, however, does explain itself exactly in three words, the solid, liquid, and vaporous forms of the universal solvent:
THREE AQUEOUS EVENTS
It tends to rest at that point as a Conceptual piece because the words are most easily read as nouns. But they can be felt as promptings, if
I III- SKY I N Ills
not commands: I once made a delicious iced tea on the stimulation of the piece and thought about it while drinking.
This fifth example, Two Exercises, depends on being read more than anything else.
Consider an object. Call what is not the object "other."
EXERCISE: Add to the object, from the "other," another object, to form a new object and a new "other." Repeat until there is no more "other."
EXERCISE: Take a part from the object and add it to the "other," to form a new object and a new "other." Repeat until there is no more object.
Nevertheless, if it were put into physical practice, it would quickly become apparent that the piece is written as a verbal smoke screen. Suppose there were two baskets of apples, one called object, and one called other. By substituting for the word object in the first exercise the word basket, and for the word other the same word basket and, further, by substituting for the next use of the word object the word apple—you will have a simple recipe. Rewritten, it would read: exercise: Add to the basket of apples, from the other basket, another apple, to form a new (or bigger) basket and a new quantity of apples. Repeat until there are no more apples in the other basket. The second exercise simply reverses the process and you end up where you began.
What Brecht does here, with some wit, is confuse the ear with repetitions and different applications of the words object, other, and another. Consequently, the mind performs and mystifies itself. It is a species of conundrum.
Ordinarily, a performance is some kind of play, dance, or concert presented to an audience—even in the avant-garde. But actually there are two types of performance currently being made by artists: a predominant theatrical one, and a less recognized nontheatrical one. They correspond, interestingly, to the two meanings the word performance has in English: one refers to artistry, as in performing on the violin; the other has to do with carrying out a job or function, as in carrying out a task, service, or duty—viz. a "high-performance engine."
Theatrical performance, in the broadest sense, takes not only the form of plays but also marriage ceremonies, stock-car races, football games, aerial stunts, parades, TV shows, classroom teaching, and political rallies. Something occurs in a certain place, someone comes to attend it in an adjacent place, and it begins and ends after a usually conventional time has elapsed. These characteristics have been as unchanging as the seasons.
Thus it would still be theater if spectators gathered to watch an artist on a television monitor watching herself on a different monitor in another room. From time to time she would come into the spectators' space to do the same thing. In this way the piece would build its layers of real and reproduced realities. Such a piece typifies a kind of sophisticated performance seen in galleries and art lofts but is structurally similar to others that might appear more conservative in content. Take away the video, take away what the artist is doing, and she could replace these with Shakespeare or gymnastics.
Nontheatrical performance does not begin with an envelope containing an act (the fantasy) and an audience (those affected by the fantasy). By the early sixties the more experimental Happenings and Fluxus events had eliminated not only actors, roles, plots, rehearsals, and repeats but also audiences, the single staging area, and the customary time block of an hour or so. These are the stock-in-trade of any theater, past or present. (Plays such as Robert Wilson's, along with certain Chinese performances and the operas of Richard Wagner, extend duration but in all other respects hold to theatrical conditions.)
THE Si Vi Nil 1 N
Since those first efforts, Activities, Landworks, Concept pieces, Information pieces, and Bodyworks have added to the idea of a performance that isn't theater. Besides my own work and the examples of Vostell and Brecht, already described, it is not difficult to see the performance aspects of a telephone conversation, digging a trench in the desert, distributing religious tracts on a street corner, gathering and arranging population statistics, and treating one's body to alternating hot and cold immersions. But it is difficult not to conventionalize them. What tends to happen is that the performances are referred to by photos and texts presented as art shows in galleries; or whole situations are brought intact into galleries, like Duchamp's urinal; or art audiences are taken to the performances as theater. The transformed "arti-fication" is the focus; the "cooked" version of nonart, set into a cultural framework, is preferred to its "raw" primary state.
For the majority of artists, art agents, and their publics, it probably could not be otherwise. Most could not sustain enough interest and personal motivation to dispense with the historical forms of legitimation. The framework tells you what it is: a cow in a concert hall is a musician; a cow in a barn is a cow. A man watching the musician-cow is an audience; a man in a cow barn is a farmer. Right?
But the experimental minority apparently does not need these settings, though the reason they do not has nothing to do with daring or heroic indifference. Instead (as I've written in "The Happenings Are Dead: Long Live the Happenings!"), it has to do with artists themselves, who today are so trained to accept anything as annexable to art that they have a ready-made "art frame" in their heads that can be set down anywhere, at any time. They do not require the traditional signs, rooms, arrangements, and rites of performance because performance is an attitude about involvement on some plane in something going on. It does not have to be onstage, and it really does not have to be announced.
To understand nontheatrical performance as an idea, it might be worthwhile to consider the current state of the art profession in the West. All artists have at their fingertips a body of information about what has been done and what is being done. There are certain options. Making performances of some sort is one of them. Making nonart into art is another. Nonart art, when applied to performing, means making a performance that doesn't resemble what's been called art performance. Art performance is that range of doing things called
theater. An artist choosing to make nonart performances simply has to know what theatrical performances are and avoid doing them, quite consciously, at least in the beginning. The value in listing one's options is to make things as conscious as possible; experimenters can experiment more when they know what's what. Accordingly, here is the ball game I perceive: an artist can
(1) work within recognizable art modes and present the work in recognizable art contexts
e.g., paintings in galleries poetry in poetry books music in concert halls, etc.
(2) work in unrecognizable, i.e., nonart, modes but present the work in recognizable art contexts
e.g., a pizza parlor in a gallery
a telephone book sold as poetry, etc.
(3) work in recognizable art modes but present the work in nonart contexts
e.g., a "Rembrandt as an ironing board" a fugue in an air-conditioning duct a sonnet as a want ad, etc.
(4) work in nonart modes but present the work as art in nonart contexts
e.g., perception tests in a psychology lab anti-erosion terracing in the hills typewriter repairing
garbage collecting, etc. (with the proviso that the art world knows about it)
(5) work in nonart modes and nonart contexts but cease to call the work art, retaining instead the private consciousness that sometimes it may be art, too
e.g., systems analysis
social work in a ghetto hitchhiking thinking, etc.
All artists can locate themselves among these five options. Most belong to the first, very few occupy the fourth, and so far, I know of no one who fits the fifth who hasn't simply dropped out of art entirely. (One runs into such postgraduates from time to time, but their easy testimonials to the good life lack the dense ironies of doublethink that would result from simultaneous daily participation in art and, say, finance.)
Performance in the nontheatrical sense that I am discussing hovers very close to this fifth possibility, yet the intellectual discipline it implies and the indifference to validation by the art world it requires suggest that the person engaged in it would view art less as a profession than as a metaphor. At present such performance is generally nonart activity conducted in nonart contexts but offered as quasi-art to art-minded people. That is, to those not interested in whether it is or isn't art, who may, however, be interested for other reasons, it need not be justified as an artwork. Thus in a performance of 1968 that involved documenting the circumstances of many tire changes at gas stations in New Jersey, curious station attendants were frequently told it was a sociological study (which it was, in a way), while those in the cars knew it was also art.
Suppose, in the spirit of things nonartistic, that having a stance of some sort was important for making experimental performances. A stance includes not just a feeling tone but also a rough idea of the human and professional values you are dealing with. A stance gives a shape and an explanation to an unfamiliar course of action. It may be valuable to bring up this issue here because new art tends to generate new stances, even though while this happens old notions are carried over that are incompatible with the new situation. For instance, an Existentialist stance was helpful to Action painting because it could explain, and therefore justify, personal isolation and crisis better than the Marxism of the thirties. At present, a formalist stance would be
inadequate for a performance genre that intentionally blurs categories and mixes with everyday life.
My own stance has evolved, somewhat pragmatically, in actual working conditions. I describe it here as an example rather than as a prescription for others. With that caveat in mind, suppose that performance artists were to adopt the emphasis of universities and think tanks on basic research. Performance would be conceived as inquiry. It would reflect the word's everyday meaning of performing a job or service and would relieve the artist of inspirational metaphors, such as creativity, that are tacitly associated with making art, and therefore theater art.
The intent of this shift is not to do away with feeling or even inspiration—these belong to scholars and scientists as well as to artists. It is to identify the inquisitive and procedural approach of researchers to their work so that the artist adopting it would be free to feel without being beholden to the look and feeling of prior art. But most of all, the artist as researcher can begin to consider and act upon substantive questions about consciousness, communication, and culture without giving up membership in the profession of art.
When you attempt to interact with animal and plant life, and with wind and stones, you may also be a naturalist or highway engineer, but you and the elements are performers—and this can be basic research.
Basic research is inquiry into whole situations—for example, why humans fight—even if, like art, they are elusive and constantly changing. What is basic research at one moment becomes detail work or something trivial at another; and seeking what is worth researching at a particular moment is where the guesswork comes in. My hunch about art is that a field that has changed in appearance as fast as it has must also have changed in meaning and function, perhaps to the extent that its role is qualitative (offering a way of perceiving things) rather than quantitative (producing physical objects or specific actions).
When you use the postal system to send mail around the globe to persons known or unknown and when you similarly use the telephone, telegraph, or newspaper—these
message carriers are performers and this communication can be basic research.
Who is interested in performance by artists? The art world, obviously. It is an art world that is trained in the visual contemplation of objects made by visual artists. It has next to no experience in theater, yet because of this naïveté it is free to innovate. Its boundless enthusiasm has led to astonishing works one wouldn't find in professional theater, yet it applauds the rankest amateurism along with what is genuine. When faced with nontheatrical performance, the art world cannot recognize what is happening because it responds to art as art. It believes in studios, galleries, collectors, museums, and reverential and meditative ways to look at art. A gallery performance or its equivalent is framed like a painting by its shrinelike setting; an Activity out in the real world, if announced, is beyond the pale.
When you experiment with brain waves and related biofeedback processes in order to communicate with yourself, with others, and with the nonhuman world—these performances can be basic research.
Who sponsors performances by artists? Promotion of both the theatrical and nontheatrical kinds rests mainly with dealers and museum officials (universities, which were once supportive, are now economically crippled; they continue their interest indirectly by hiring performance artists to teach in their art departments). This encouragement is praiseworthy and is acknowledged by the press. But because it is so uninformed, it is almost disastrous.
The first American Happenings, Fluxus events, and parallel works in Japan, Europe, and South America were presented as distinct modes of art. Today their progeny have become part of the public relations of influential galleries and arts institutions, which offer them as front-office attractions to the sale or display of other artists' tangibles in the showrooms.
When you view a normal routine in your life as a performance and carefully chart for a month how you greet someone each day, what you say with your body, your
pauses, and your clothing; and when you carefully chart the responses you get—this can be basic research.
Artists who might prefer to devote all or most of their time to performance are pressured to make documentary prints and objects on the theme of the performance—as a guarantee against financial loss by the sponsor. Among such salables are bits and pieces of paraphernalia left over from the event, signed and numbered, and dressed up as tokens of the live experience. They are offered and sometimes collected like pieces of the True Cross, or a sock worn by a deceased matinee idol. I do not want to ignore the quasi-magical import of relics and tokens; but these are now preferred to the performance. And I am not decrying commerce here; but an artist rarely receives a fee for a performance alone, because it is used as a come-on.
With ignorance of what is at stake so widespread, sponsors tend to have a negative influence on the actual performances. Without intending harm, they urge that they be given conveniently in their own galleries or museums when a laboratory, subway, bedroom, or a combination of these might be better. From habit, they and the public expect the duration of the pieces to be a comfortable hour or so, when ten seconds, ten days, or discontinuous time might make more sense.
When you attend to how your performance affects your real life and the real life of your co-performers; and when you attend to how it may have altered the social and natural surroundings—this follow-up is also performance, and it can be basic research.
Because strong visual imagery is always suitable for advertising flyers and pamphlets, and because all artists are supposed to be visually oriented, performances with such imagery are most welcomed. Those that might involve darkness, tactility, or Conceptual matters are discouraged with the eager reminder that the media people will have nothing to see.
Similarly, with recording technology, particularly videotape, artists are regularly solicited to gear their performances to what will look good and fit easily on a standard cassette. The performance, via the document, reverts to an object that can be merchandised in replica,
like a print. In many cases the once-only nature of a performance precludes having anything at all left over.
Ironically, some of these objections could be dropped if everyone were clear about the issues. There is nothing wrong with strong visual images being used to promote a work, if the artist is in charge and wants it. There is nothing wrong with making editions of documents and relics, if the artist is in charge and wants it. (A performance could be conceived around the subject of documentation per se.) There is nothing wrong with a performance that only lasts a convenient hour, if the artist is in charge and wants it. And there is nothing wrong with being a front-office attraction to an art gallery, if the artist makes it very clear that she or he is to be paid for public relations work. PR is performance . . . The artist's role is not merely to make performances. It is to guide agents and the public to their appropriate use.
When you collaborate in scholarly, socio-political, and educational work; and when you direct your performance to some definite utility—this can be basic research. Being purposive, it is neither Ready-made art nor just playing at real life, since its value is measured by its practical yield.