What Ever Happened To Happenings?


A couple months ago, after reading about Alan Kaprow’s New York show in Art in America, my husband and I got into a discussion about the validity of the happening as an art form and its relevance to current art practice. In sum, my husband cynically asked, “So if I brush my teeth and call it art, is it art?” Instead of taking the bait defensively, I decided to suspend the theoretical discussion and see if an experiential investigation might answer the question. If I understand it correctly, a happening is not concerned with a product but is instead a project. In other words, I was not going to get at what I wanted to know by going and seeing documentation of Kaprow’s work at MOCA. Instead, I needed to participate in a Happening.

My first attempt at so doing was to attend the informational meeting at Outpost on Robby Herbst’s re-creation of Household Revisited. However, I quickly decided that this happening was not for me. Instead of an experience, it seemed like an elaborate cross between improv, modern dance, and performance art. I was overwhelmed by the notes, instructions, and homework required to participate (come up with movements, arrive in costume, contemplate the meaning of ecological and humanistic perfection). Plus, nobody else was from Long Beach, so there was nobody to carpool with up to Lancaster.

I passed.

Somewhat discouraged that I wouldn’t be able to participate in a happening, I started thinking about doing one on my own. There are many to choose from, but the one I considered, as retold by Paul McCarthy in Art in America, March 2008, had to do with going to a thrift store, getting clothes, washing them at a laundry mat, and then returning the clothes to the thrift store. While pondering the ethical considerations involved in re-invention (Could I use my own washing machine? In today’s water and energy crisis landscape, would it be ethical to wash just one or two items? Would it compromise the legitimacy of the Happening if I included some of my own laundry in the cycle?), I heard about the re-creation of Kaprow’s Fluids happenings.

Fluids was first done in Los Angeles in 1967. Organized in conjunction with a show at the Pasadena Art Museum, the directions for Fluids were simple: “During three days, about twenty rectangular enclosures of ice blocks (measuring about 30 feet long, 10 wide and 8 high), are built throughout the city. Their walls are unbroken. They are left to melt.” In the 60’s Kaprow succeeded in producing thirteen of the twenty sites envisioned. In 2008, LACMA coordinated the Fluids events with an unusual and impressive display of inter-institution coordination and cooperation from the Getty, MOCA, LACMA, the folks at JPL, and various cultural and educational institutions and organizations. Union Ice provided the ice in 1967 and 2008. I committed to attending the Westchester Park Fluids, spearheaded by Otis’ Michele Jaquis and Jerri Allyn. I can’t do heavy lifting, so I took my camera and participated by documenting.

At this point in my narrative some of the Kaprow-purists among you might be fiercely objecting to a) me thinking that I was participating by taking pictures and b) the fact that I was taking pictures at all. Indeed, the two central arguments that I heard from critics of the reinventions of Kaprow’s happenings were the institutional involvement, and the rampant documentation. Kaprow was famously anti-institution and anti-documentation. Indeed, one student in Marlena Donohue’s Otis Kaprow course, for whom participation in the Happening was a mandatory class event, said she thought the Happening was “bullshit” because to be a real happening, it shouldn’t be institutionally sponsored or documented. Whether or not you agree with said student’s sentiments, her statements underscore the very un-avant gardeness of the place of the Happening in contemporary art. Seen in this light, one could interpret the LACMA/MOCA Kaprow celebration as a kind of memorial to the Happening rather than a revival thereof.

In my dual role of photographer and reporter, I was able to observe and interview the Fluids participants and the audience that gathered to watch them build the 30’x10’x8’ ice sculpture. On a scorching hot April day, park-goers were drawn to the giant mass of ice. I documented the participants and spectators, occasionally prodding members from either group with my query, ”But is it art?” Thinking my question would arouse controversy, I was surprised when people genially answered in the affirmative. Dog-walkers, little league moms, construction workers, and art-lovers were unanimous: “Yes, of course it was art!”

However, I soon realized the problem. There was confusion around the “it” to which I referred. Respondents all assumed that I was asking whether the structure itself, which looked like a modernist igloo, was art. To an audience used to public minimalist sculpture, the big, shiny white cube was recognizable as such. The problem with evaluating Fluids as a Happening was that in effect, participants became minimalist sculptors. Having been reassured that minimalist sculpture was art, I was still left with my initial conceit: was the happening itself art?

I can only answer by telling you what it felt like to participate. Fluids felt more like a Barn-raising than a play or performance. In part, this was due to the surprising number of people I know who took part in or helped organize Fluids recreations. Participating in Fluids gave me a sense of being part of a larger artistic community. It’s easy to feel dislocated in LA’s urban miasma, so it’s nice to feel like you’re a part of something. That community feeling extended to the Westchester site: participants were collegial, friendly, and focused on the task at hand.

When the structure was complete, the last block in place, there was a sense of collective pride in our accomplishment. I believe this is true for everyone who was present, from the Union Ice employees to the participants, to the documenters and spectators. I certainly felt a kind satisfaction at having participated in my own way. I could say something pithy here like, ”If that’s not art, it should be.” But that wouldn’t be right.

It did leave me thinking, “If the structure of the happening is to turn the fabric and materials of everyday life into art, what is the goal?” Again, my experience was that participating in a happening was like enacting a kind of conscious ritual. Like focusing on breathing, the happening isn’t about a product or an end game; it’s about an experience. Hence the title of Kaprow’s traveling retrospective: Art is Life. But not like brushing your teeth and ex-post-facto calling it art. More like taking the actions and materials of everyday life and slightly tweaking or de-contextualizing them so that the action is deliberate, considered, and purposeful.

Maybe the problem with evaluating the Happening on its own terms is that it has fed and informed so many other kinds of art. For example, after seeing the participants comparing red welts on their arms left by hours of carrying 50lb blocks of ice, I realized the Happening’s influence on endurance art. Robby Herbst’s dance/play in the desert has a similar air of endurance art, (or at least it seemed to me that cavorting for hours in the high-desert sun would end up being endurance art). Co-opted, diluted, expanded, and extended, the Happening is woven into the history and current practice of art and popular culture. From Performa to Flash Mobs, the idea of doing something, not making something as art is accepted artistic practice. Yes, it’s art. Of course it’s art. Because it is conceived of and executed as art. Because now that technique and craft and formalism are no longer the gatekeepers to art making, the art is in the idea, not the product. And that, in part, is Kaprow’s legacy.

I still have doubts about the validity of my happening experience. Partly this is because of all the hype surrounding Fluids, partly because of the institutional involvement. Also, since I didn’t carry the ice-blocks, was I really a part of the happening? So I have decided to go back to my penultimate idea: the thrift store piece. In the spirit of authentic happening, there will be no institutional involvement (LACMA will not sponsor my Happening) and there will be no documentation. I will follow Kaprow’s instructions. I will go to a thrift store. I will buy clothes. I will wash them, and then return them to the thrift store. There will be no audience, only me as participant.

And I will do a full load.

Carrie Yury
Los Angeles, May 21, 2008
Published in Artillery Magazine
volume 2 issue 6 july/august 2008

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