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Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977)


Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 181-194.

Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010

Belgium is Happening

Participation Performance (1977)

Live radio and TV audiences participate by clapping and laughing on cues from the host, until they do so spontaneously. Some members of the audience are invited onstage to carry props around, sing, answer questions, act in skits, and play competitive games. They thus pass (for a time) from watching to doing; they are inside the action, generating it. Yet they know they have a relatively minor role. The show is being directed by someone else. They will return, sooner or later, to their seats in the audience. In fact, in their thoughts they never leave their seats.

Such participants are a sort of mobile audience, acting for everyone's entertainment as if they were real actors. They are "good sports." They form a bridge between the spectators and the showpersons. The MC and his or her staff do not come from a place in the audience. Where you come from tells you what you are.

Audience-participation shows have evolved as popular art genres along with political rallies, demonstrations, holiday celebrations, and social dancing. Parts of the common culture, they are known and accepted; the moves individuals must make are familiar, and their goals or uses are assumed to be clear.

Use to the user, however, can differ markedly from use to the observer (the nonparticipant). Observers who analyze culture in depth might be looking for large abstract purposes in popular art forms: ceremonial, sexual, propitiational, recreational, and the like. For example, in the labor disputes of the 1930s they might see a ritualistic similarity between a picket line and what happened inside a factory. Workers, carrying signs aloft, would pace a measured circle, accompanying their march with simple repetitive chants; the picket line could look remarkably like the mechanical assembly lines the workers were


the seventies

Fig. 15 Delivering ice for Allan Kaprow's Fluids, 1967, Pasadena. Photograph by Bruce Ih eland.

shutting down. Although they had stopped working, they continued working symbolically.

Charlie Chaplin observed this similarity wonderfully in his Modern Times, but the striking workers in the film were mainly interested in getting more money. That was sufficient reason for them to participate in the milling crowd and take their places on the picket line when they were scheduled. The anonymous developers of the picket-line art form probably did not consider it an art form but must have sensed that ceremony was a way to achieve specific results, even if it was not the only way. I consider the picket line an art form because my profession has taught me to do so.

Participation in anything is often a question of motive and use. Those who seek symbols in action normally don't participate in strikes but engage in the operations of analysis and interpretation. Because the union organizers of pickets need bargaining clout, they participate in making protest arrangements and pounding on the management's tables. Because the workers need buying power, they start marching and chanting. At least some of them do.



Communal art forms, including those the public would readily call artistic, typically contain a mix of professional director/performers who have high visibility, semiprofessionals who are visible but carry out relatively simple jobs, and unskilled enthusiasts who swell the ranks and provide excitement or commitment. This hierarchy is clear in the traditional July 4th parades of small American towns: there are the band leaders, musicians, and baton twirlers; there are the flag and float bearers; the civic leaders in shiny automobiles; and the children who break away from parents to run along with marchers whom they know.

In this kind of parade everybody knows everybody else. Thus the audience packed on the sidewalks has more than a passive role. Besides overseeing and appraising its relatives and friends in the procession, and releasing its children and dogs to run beside the drummers, it arrives early with food and drink, maps out preferred vantage places, dresses appropriately with patriotic paraphernalia, carries identifying insignia of local business affiliations, cheers, waves, and calls out familiarly to individual paraders, who acknowledge them in turn by nods, smiles, and winks.

As a group, the crowd, like the marchers, is made up of plain aficionados and real experts who occasionally arrange subacts such as skits and the unfurling and raising of banners and placards at appropriate moments for the enjoyment of the paraders, as well as for their immediate neighbors and the local press. Some of them wear costumes to stand out.

Communal performances like July 4th parades are planned and given on special occasions, requiring preparations and individuals or groups with skills to carry them out. They are also intended to convey expressive effects such as patriotism. But when the community's traditions are abandoned for idiosyncratic artistic experiments, the crowd of knowing supporters and participants shrinks to a handful. And even so, what the handful actually knows or is supposed to derive from the works is uncertain and mute, seeming to have to do with a shared openness to novelty, to being sensitized, to flexibility of stance rather than to possessing a body of hard information and well-rehearsed moves. What passes between the members of this tiny circle are subtle signals about the values of the group they belong to.

What, then, is participation in these productions? The early Happenings and Fluxus events that were in fact participatory—most were not (see my "Nontheatrical Performance" and Michael Kirby, Hap-



penings [New York, 1965])—were a species of audience-involvement theater akin to the radio and TV variety; they were also traceable to the guided tour, parade, carnival test of skill, secret society initiation, and popular texts on Zen. The artist was the creator and director, initiating audiences into the unique rites of the pieces.

Their formats, therefore, were essentially familiar ones in disguise, recalling "low" rather than "high" theater and, in the case of Zen, well-known meditational techniques. Even their subject matter was not particularly esoteric; it was a blend of American Pop elements, Expressionist/Surrealist film imagery, and anthologized koans. And these were collaged together, without transitions, in a manner that had become standard art fare everywhere.

What was unusual for art was that people were to take part, were to be, literally, the ingredients of the performances. Hence instruction in participation had to be more explicit than in communal performances and, given the special interests of the audiences, had to be at the same moment mysterious.

These audiences were mainly art-conscious ones, accustomed to accepting states of mystification as a positive value. The context of the performances was "art": most of the artists were already known, the mailing list was selective, a gallery was listed as sponsor, the performances themselves were held in storefront or loft galleries, there were reviews in the art pages of the news media; all bespoke avant-garde experimentation. The audiences were thus co-religionists before they ever arrived at a performance. They were ready to be mystified and further confirmed in their group membership.

But they were not used to the real-time close physicality of the experience. They were accustomed to paintings and sculptures viewed from a distance. Therefore an artist who wanted to engage them in sweeping debris from one place to another would have confederates begin to sweep and then pass the brooms around. The use of debris, on another level, reassured an art world then occupied with exploring the junk of our throwaway culture—-junf( was a password—and not only was the act of sweeping easy, but it was also a nonart act, disposable like its material.

Similarly, if the audience was to recite certain words, instruction sheets were given out in advance or cards were handed out during a piece. But the words would be either simple utterances, such as "get em!" or lists or random groupings that could be read on the spot. The



cues, vernacular like debris, also resembled contemporary poetry and echoed an art world's taste at the time for nonlinear clusters of elements.

The point is that the signals sent out by the artist and returned in acknowledgment by the participating audience were as appropriate to this segment of the society as the signals and cues sent to general TV audiences are appropriate to them. This may seem truistic, but participation presupposes shared assumptions, interests, language, meanings, contexts, and uses. It cannot take place otherwise.

The complex question of familiarity never arises in vernacular communal performances, in which the unfolding of events seems so innocent and folksy—even when those events are as aggressive as strikes. Everyone knows what's going on and what to do. It is the outsider-scholar who reads the complexity and writes the script out in full.

But it's the business of artists to be curious about their doings; and the question of how participation takes place did come up in the late fifties and early sixties. It was apparent to some of us that the level and kind of involvement was pretty trivial. Tasks on the order of sweeping or reading words remain relatively mindless as long as their context is a loose theatrical event prepared in advance for an uninformed audience. Familiarization, which could generate commitment, is quite impossible when a work is performed only once or a few times (as it usually was then). And the principal directorial role of artist and colleagues is locked in from the start, leaving only minor satisfactions to the spectator-participants (whose sole recourse would be protest or revolt if they cared that much—and some did). The theatrical model was plainly inadequate; a different genre was necessary.

Two steps were taken. One of them was to ritualize a mix of lifelike elements and fantasy, reject the staging area, and invite a number of people to take part, explaining the plan in a spirit of ceremony. Naturally, ritualism is not ritual, and it was evident to all that what we were doing was an invention, an interlude, coming not out of belief and custom but out of the artist. Its effect was vaguely archaic (thus tapping ample reserves of nostalgia), yet because of its real environments, which included traffic, food from the supermarket, and working TV sets, it was instantly modern. It worked. As a move, it eliminated the audience and gave the piece autonomy.



For some years this was the main route followed (not always strictly) by Kenneth Dewey, Milan Knizak, Marta Minujin, Wolf Vos-tell, and me. Knizak and Vostell continue to work well as ritualists. After 1966 1 discarded the mode, mainly because in the United States there is no history of high ceremony (for Westerners) as there is in older cultures, and it began to seem pompous to go on. So I turned my attention to the mundane, which Americans understand perfectly.

The other step, actually overlapping the first, was suggested by certain small pieces by George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Knizak, and Sonja Svecova. These were to be, or could easily be, executed by one person, some in private, some in public. They referred in a general way to intellectual games, treasure hunts, spiritual exercises, and the behavior of street eccentrics, beggars, and petitioners. They prompted the idea that a group work could be composed, additively, of such individual activities with no attempt to coordinate them in any way. A performance could be simply a cluster of events of varying length in any number of places. (John Cage's interest in chance and the unique, rather than the organized, sound event, was a helpful model.) All that was needed was a half-dozen friends and a list of simple things to do or think alone. Examples: changing one's shirt in a park recreation area; walking through a city, crossing streets only with persons wearing red coats; listening for hours to a dripping faucet.

This approach worked for a while, except that participants felt arbitrarily isolated and tended to drift off into unmotivated indifference. The absurdity of doing something odd without an audience's approval, or of paying attention to tedium, was of course part of the problem, even for those professing interest. But what may have been missing was a grounding in ordinary experience that could replace the absent stimulation of an audience or cohesive crowd in a ceremony.

In the late 1950s Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a sociological study of conventional human relations. Its premise was that the routines of domesticity, work, education, and management of daily affairs, which because of their very ordinariness and lack of conscious expressive purpose do not seem to be art forms, nevertheless possess a distinctly performancelike character. Only the performers are not usually aware of it.

They are not aware of it because there is no frame around everyday transactions the way there is, literally, around a television program and, more figuratively, around a strike or parade. Repetitive daily oc-



currences are not usually set off from themselves. People do not think each morning when they brush their teeth, "Now I am doing a performance."

But Goffman gives ordinary routines quotation marks by setting them off as subjects of analysis. In this book and subsequent ones, he describes greetings, relations between office workers and bosses, front-of-store and back-of-store behavior, civilities and discourtesies in private and public, the maintenance of small social units on streets and in crowded gatherings, and so forth as if each situation had a prescribed scenario. Human beings participate in these scenarios, spontaneously or after elaborate preparations, like actors without stage or audience, watching and cuing one another.

Some scenarios are learned and practiced over a lifetime. Table manners, for instance, acquired from childhood at home, are regimented and simplified in boarding school or the army and are refined later on, let's say, for entertaining guests upon whom one wants to make an impression. The passage is from informal to formal to nu-anced manners; most middle-class urbanites take part in the continuum and can move back and forth without giving much thought to the rich body language, positionings, timings, and adjustments of conversation and voice that accompany each mode.

The performance of everyday routines, of course, is not really the same as acting a written script, since conscious intent is absent. There is a phenomenal and experiential difference. Being a performer (like being a lawyer) involves responsibility for what the word performer may mean and what being a performer may entail. Nor are everyday routines managed by a stage director, although within the theatrical metaphor parents, officials, teachers, guides, and bosses may be construed as equivalents. But again, these mentors would have to see themselves as directors of performances rather than instructors in social mores and professions outside the arts. What is interesting to art, though, is that everyday routines could be used as real offstage performances. An artist would then be engaged in performing a "performance."

Intentionally performing everyday life is bound to create some curious kinds of awareness. Life's subject matter is almost too familiar to grasp, and life's formats (if they can be called that) are not familiar enough. Focusing on what is habitual and trying to put a line around what is continuous can be a bit like rubbing your stomach and tapping



your head, then reversing. Without either an audience or a formally designated stage or clearing, the performer becomes simultaneously agent and watcher. She or he takes on the task of "framing" the transaction internally, by paying attention in motion.

For instance, imagine that you and a partner are performing a prescribed set of moves drawn from the ways people use the telephone. You carry out this plan in your respective homes without intentional spectators. (Your families and friends, of course, may pass in and out of the scene.) You take into account that each of you is thinking of the other, just as telephone callers normally do. But both of you also know that you are especially tuned to nuances of voice, length of pauses, and possible meanings of the planned parts of the conversations, which would not be normal. And you focus, additionally, on such unconscious but typical behavior as reaching for the receiver (quickly or slowly, after two rings or three?), changing it from ear to ear, pacing back and forth, scratching an itch, doodling, replacing the receiver (slamming it?), nonessentials of the communication but constant accompaniments. The feelings produced under these conditions are not simply emotions; and the knowledge acquired is not simply casual information. The situation is too personal and off kilter for that. What is at stake is not so much conforming to expectations about people's telephone activity as closely experiencing its obvious and hidden features.

Up to this point I have contrasted audience participation theater in popular and art culture with participation performance relating to everyday routines. I'd like now to look more closely at this lifelike performance, beginning with how a normal routine becomes the performance of a routine.

Consider certain common transactions—shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye—as Readymades. Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them. They aren't someone else's routines that are to be observed but one's own, just as they happen.

Example: A friend introduces you to someone at a party, escorting him across the room. You stand about three feet from your new acquaintance, with your mutual friend between you, holding the new acquaintance's arm lightly at the elbow. You look at this man's face, avoiding his eyes; then to your friend's mouth, which forms the name; then back again to the mouth of the man. He says hello a bit over-



zealously and pushes out his hand with some force (which you interpret as nervousness); you feel yourself move back a fraction of an inch, automatically stiffening your hand for the impact as you raise it.

You move forward now. The hand is still coming. It seems to take too long. You shift your weight to your right foot because someone standing to your left with her back to you is talking on the telephone, and you cant move on that side, as would be natural to you. You're ofT balance now and feel the man's hand jam into yours, the fingers closing. It is a small hand and his fingers have to travel to make their grip felt. The hand is warm and dry. You wonder how you would have met his advance on your other foot.

You sense the man's fingers finally closing around yours, and you hesitate before responding, then do so perfunctorily. You lean back, echoing the forward motion of his handshake. Your forearm becomes rigid, but you force it to go limp. You realize that your friend is waiting for you to return the hello, but you've forgotten the courtesy in your examination of the encounter.

Trying to sound cheerful, you say the name. The man looks fleet-ingly to your friend for clarification. You forget to say "glad to meet you," and when you remember, it's too late. You're glancing now at the wrinkles of his hand, at his ring from some college, at the gray stain on his cuff. You pump his hand too many times. This upsets him.

He begins to withdraw, trying to disentangle himself without betraying his initial expression of heartiness. Your friend steps into the silence with details of who each of you is. The woman on the telephone is listening to the person on the other end, and your friend's voice sounds too loud. She lights a cigarette and accidentally backs into you as she reaches for an ashtray, pushing you toward the man. He pulls away further. The woman doesn't notice and resumes talking. You're aware of her voice and dislike the cigarette smoke. You jerk your head in her direction, then bring it back to face the man. He has freed his hand and is lowering it to his side.

Now you shift your weight to a more comfortable position, rocking slightly on your heels. Your right hand is still in the air. You look at it as if it contained a message. You put it carefully in your pocket and raise your eyes to meet the man's. He stares, not comprehending, and blinks. Your glance swings aside to take in the room and others. He definitely sees this move as a sign-off. Your friend continues talking, searching your face and body for clues to your behavior. He isn't aware



himself that he feels something odd about you. You follow his eyes with yours and move a step to the right. Your feet are now planted firmly on the floor. This effectively puts your friend in a line between you and the man, cutting him off from view. He makes a polite excuse and leaves, but your friend remains and asks how your mother and father are feeling.

It is apparent to you that you have been using the situation as a study and have caused some minor confusion. You are normally sociable and wanted your scrutiny to pass unnoticed. But you decide not to explain anything since your friend has just been called away.

Suppose, next, that all three of you in the preceding exchange were involved intentionally as participants; suppose that there had been an agreed-upon plan to wait for some occasion when two of you who did not know each other would be introduced by your mutual friend. Normal behavior would then become exaggerated, would lapse and peak strangely. The everyday routine would be a routine that talks about itself.

Performances like this generate a curious self-consciousness that permeates every gesture. You each watch each other watch each other. You watch the surroundings in detail. Your moves are compartmented in thought and thus slowed down in perception. You speed up your actual pace to compensate; you will your mind to integrate all the pieces that have separated out while you take part in very real human affairs. You wonder who is being introduced, two people, you to yourself, or both? You are not projecting an image of a routine to spectators "out there" but are doing it, shaking hands, nodding, saying the amenities, for yourself and for one another.

In other words, you experience directly what you already know in theory: that consciousness alters the world, that natural things seem unnatural once you attend to them, and vice versa. Hence if everyday routines conceived as ready-made performances change because of their double use as art/not art, it might seem perfectly natural to build the observed changes into subsequent performances before they happen, because they, or something like them, would happen anyway.

Preparing an Activity, therefore, can be considered a naturally artificial act. It would include in its plan, or program, small retardations and accelerations of, say, handshaking motions; elaborations of pacing and juxtapositions of other routines that are ordinarily present, like saying goodbye; repetitions (echoing all routines' repetitiveness); re-



versals; displacements; shifts in setting, such as shaking hands on different street corners; and normal conversations and reviewings of what is going on. Traditional distinctions between life, art, and analysis, in whatever order, are put aside.

The Activity Maneuvers was assembled using just this approach. Its basic routine is the courtesy shown another person when passing through a doorway. The following program was given in advance to seven couples, who carried it out in the environs of Naples in March 1976:

1 A and B passing backwards through a doorway one before the other

the other, saying you're first

passing through again moving in reverse the first, saying thank me being thanked

locating four more doors repeating routine

2 A and B

locating still another door

both reaching to open it saying excuse me

passing through together saying excuse me

both reaching to close it saying excuse me

backing in reverse to door both reaching to open it saying after you passing through together



both reaching to close it saying after you

locating four more doors_

repeating routine

3 A and B

locating still another door

passing through

one before the other

the first, saying I'll pay you

the second, accepting or not

locating four more doors repeating routine

In briefing the participants beforehand I made some general remarks about daily social behavior and what Maneuvers had to do with it. An orientation has proved not only useful but necessary, since invariably no one knows how to deal with such a project. Orientation thus becomes part of the piece, as does any discussion during and after.

I pointed out that within the forms of politeness there is enough room to transmit any number of complex messages. For instance, holding a door open for someone to pass through first is a simple social grace, learned almost universally. But between persons of the same sex or rank, there may be subtle jockeying for first or second position. Either position may signify the superior one, depending on the particular circumstance.

In cultures that are facing changes in women's and men's roles, the traditional male gesture of reaching for and holding open a door for a woman can meet with either rebuke or knowing smiles. In another vein, one can be shown the door (be ordered to leave) with almost the same gross body movements as when being invited to go first. But there is never any doubt about what is meant.

Maneuvers, I continued, was an exaggerated arrangement of such competitive, often funny, exchanges between two individuals as they go through doorways. With repeats and variations resembling those of slapstick movies that are played backward and forward, it might become unclear which side of a door was "in" and which "out." After



finding ten or more different doors to carry out these moves, the participants might find the initial question of being first or second problematical.

Each pair (A and B) went about the city and selected their own doorways. They had no necessary connection with the other participants carrying out the identical program. During the nearly two days allotted, they maintained their everyday routines as usual and fitted in the special routine of the Activity around shopping, eating, going to class, and socializing. As it happened, most of the fourteen participants shared classes at an art college and intermittently exchanged stories about what was going on.

Choices of doorways reflected the personalities and needs of the partners. Some preferred seclusion from the stares of passersby. They sought out alleyways, toilets, and suburban garages. Part of their admitted reason was embarrassment, but another part was the wish to internalize the process. Others enjoyed provoking curiosity in public and went to department stores, beauty salons, movies, and train stations. They later realized they wanted an audience regardless of its irrelevancy to the piece.

Despite these differences, all were struck by certain strange features of the work (which had been suggested to me when I was studying "doorway courtesies" as Readymades). There were four psychologically loaded twists on the verbal cliches that are traded when doorway courtesies are normally performed.

In part 1 the first person passing through a doorway backward hears "you're first," instead of the common "after you"; when the pair run the scene frontward, each says "thank me," presumably for acknowledging the other's primacy.

Part 2 starts out as straight vaudeville between A and B but is skewed by their later statement, in the reverse reruns, when both of them say "after you." This sounds proper but can only be sarcasm or irony in view of part l's episode, implying that each secretly controls the maneuver by appearing to defer to the other. "Thank me?"

In part 3, which recaps part 1, A and B have a new chance to decide which one will go first. But when the decision is made, the first says, "I'll pay you." And the second can accept if the price is right or refuse if it isn't. "I'll pay you" can be taken to mean "I'll pay you to remain in second place," that is, "I can buy your subordination and flattery."



Refusal to accept the money may be a way of asking for more or of saying "I am not for sale." This statement caused the most consternation in the discussion after the Activity.

Throughout the three parts, the repetitions of the routine allowed A and B to switch their positions of first and second if they wanted to and to maneuver for whatever psychological advantages they thought they had achieved or lost. Courtesies were the tools.

Routine expressions like "please" and "thanks" are ceremonial "massages." Their equivalents were placed in this work in such a way as to call attention to their strategic capabilities. "You're first" elicits "thank me"; "excuse me" elicits further "excuse me's" (like the famous Alphonse-Gaston rendition); each can be translated into "pay me" and "I'll pay you." Courtesies are bills and payments for favors given and returned.

This account doesn't attempt to go into the hilarious squeeze plays that occurred in part 2 when A and B went forward and backward through doorways at the same time. Ungainly body contacts don't mix well with formalities and when they do accidentally (here on purpose), all you can say is "excuse me."

Neither does it speak of the importance of each environmental setting for the feel of the particular transaction as it happened. Obviously, a bedroom doorway will conjure one meaning for a couple and a bank doorway another. Fifteen such entrances and exits can add up to a rich experience.

Nor has it said anything about the effect of the piece upon couples of the same and the opposite sex. This, too, was critical and can be surmised to have provoked distinctive maneuvers between partners. And that all were Italians (except me) was significant.

Finally, I mentioned that the participants were drawn from a professional art background. Their prior investments of time, energy, and values were called into some (serious) question by what they did. I cannot say anything more than this now, but it would be interesting to compare the experience of a group of merchants, or a group of sociologists, doing the same Activity. The meanings construed, on human, professional, and philosophical levels, might be very different.