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Allan Kaprow, Performing Life (1979)


Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 195-198.

Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010

Belgium is Happening

Performing Life (1979)

Coming into the Happenings of the late fifties, I was certain the goal was to "do" an art that was distinct from any known genre (or any combination of genres). It seemed important to develop something that was not another type of painting, literature, music, dance, theater, opera.

Since the substance of the Happenings was events in real time, as in theater and opera, the job, logically, was to bypass all theatrical conventions. So over a couple of years, I eliminated art contexts, audiences, single time/place envelopes, staging areas, roles, plots, acting skills, rehearsals, repeated performances, and even the usual readable scripts.

Now if the models for these early Happenings were not the arts, then there were abundant alternatives in everyday life routines: brushing your teeth, getting on a bus, washing dinner dishes, asking for the time, dressing in front of a mirror, telephoning a friend, squeezing oranges. Instead of making an objective image or occurrence to be seen by someone else, it was a matter of doing something to experience it yourself. It was the difference between watching an actor eating strawberries on a stage and actually eating them yourself at home. Doing life, consciously, was a compelling notion to me.

When you do life consciously, however, life becomes pretty strange—paying attention changes the thing attended to—so the Happenings were not nearly as lifelike as I had supposed they might be. But I learned something about life and "life."

A new art/life genre therefore came about, reflecting equally the artificial aspects of everyday life and the lifelike qualities of created art. For example, it was clear to me how formal and culturally learned the act of shaking hands is; just try to pump a hand five or six times instead of two and you'll cause instant anxiety. I also became aware



that artworks of any kind could be autobiographical and prophetic. You could read paintings like handwriting, and over a period of time chart the painter's abiding fantasies, just as you might chart writers' thoughts from collections of personal letters or diaries. Happenings, and later Activities, being less specialized than paintings, poems, and the other traditional arts, readily lent themselves to such psychological insights.

Today, in 1979, I'm paying attention to breathing. I've held my breath for years—held it for dear life. And I might have suffocated if (in spite of myself) I hadn't had to let go of it periodically. Was it mine, after all? Letting it go, did I lose it? Was (is) exhaling simply a stream of speeded up molecules squirting out of my nose?

I was with friends one evening. Talking away, our mouths were gently spilling air and hints of what we'd eaten. Our breaths, passing among us, were let go and reabsorbed. Group breath.

Sometimes, I've awakened beside someone I loved and heard our breathing out of sync (and supposed that was why I awoke). I practiced breathing in and out, copying her who slept and wondered if that dance of sorts was echoing in her dreaming.

There's also the breathing of big pines in the wind you could mistake for waves breaking on a beach. Or city gusts slamming into alleyways. Or the sucking hiss of empty water pipes, the taps opened after winter. What is it that breathes? Lungs? The metaphysical me? A crowd at a ball game? The ground giving out smells in spring? Coal gas in the mines?

These are thoughts about consciousness of breathing. Such consciousness of what we do and feel each day, its relation to others' experience and to nature around us, becomes in a real way the performance of living. And the very process of paying attention to this continuum is poised on the threshold of art performance.

I've spoken of breathing. Yet I could have mentioned the human circulatory system, or the effects of bodies touching, or the feeling of time passing. Universals (shareables) are plentiful. From this point on, as far as the artist is concerned, it is a question of allowing those features of breathing (or whatever) to join into a performable plan that may reach acutely into a participant's own sense of it and resonate its implications.

Here is a sketch for a possible breathing piece. It juxtaposes the auditory and visual manifestations of breath, moves the air of the



environment (by fan) to render it tactile, and ties the rhythmic movement of breathing to that of the ocean. In the three parts of the piece the participant is first alone, then with a friend (but they are kept apart by a glass membrane), and again alone. The first part makes use of self-consciousness; the second changes that to awareness of self in another person; and the third extends self to natural forces but folds back on artifice in the form of tape-recorded memory.

1 alone, studying your face in a chilled* mirror smiling, scowling perhaps

a microphone nearby

amplifying the sound of your breathing

a swiveling electric fan directing the air around the room

gradually leaning closer to your reflection until the glass fogs over

moving back until the image clears

repeating for some time


2 sitting opposite a friend (who has done the above)

a chilled pane of glass between you

your microphones amplifying your breathing your fans turning at opposite sides of the room

copying each other's expressions

matching your breathing

moving gradually to the glass until your images fog over

moving back until the images clear

repeating for some time listening

*Literally, a mirror propped against, or standing in, ice.



3 sitting alone at the beach

drawing in your breath and releasing it with the rise and fall of the waves

continuing for some time

walking along the waves' edge

listening through earphones

to the record of your earlier breathing

Since this piece has not been performed, I can only speculate what would happen in carrying it out. Breathing as an abstract idea is unexceptionable; like integrity it is desirable. And formally manipulating verbal exercises on it might even provoke mild curiosity. But breathing as a real and particular event can be an awkward and painful business. Anyone who has jogged seriously or done breathing meditation knows that in the beginning, as you confront your body, you face your psyche as well.

I suspect that the innocent playfulness and poetic naturism of the prescriptions in this piece could gradually become perverse and disturbing for participants, who might gain release from its deadpan literalness only by accepting a temporary alienation of the breath from self.

Consider what the piece proposes to do. It exaggerates the normally unattended aspects of everyday life (fleeting mist on glass, the sound of breathing, the circulation of air, the unconscious mimicry of gestures between friends) and frustrates the obvious ones (looking at ourselves in a mirror, breathing naturally, making contact with a friend, listening to the ocean waves). The loudspeaker, the mirror, the waves, the tape recording are all feedback devices to ensure these shifts.

Such displacements of ordinary emphasis increase attentiveness but only attentiveness to the peripheral parts of ourselves and our surroundings. Revealed this way they are strange. Participants could feel momentarily separated from themselves. The coming together of the parts, then, might be the event's residue, latent and felt, rather than its clear promise.