it’s happening (again)

theron schmidt on allan kaprow revisited at performa 07

Noémie Solomon,  Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (Re-doing)

Noémie Solomon, Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (Re-doing)

Noémie Solomon, Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (Re-doing)

ALLAN KAPROW’S 18 HAPPENINGS IN 6 PARTS, WHICH INTRODUCED THE WORD ‘HAPPENING’ INTO POPULAR CIRCULATION, WAS ORIGINALLY PRESENTED IN 1959 AT THE REUBEN GALLERY IN NEW YORK CITY. FOR THOSE OF US REMOVED BY TIME OR DISTANCE FROM THESE ORIGINAL EVENTS, THE ‘HAPPENING’ HAS A LOT TO ANSWER FOR, HAVING BECOME A CATCH-ALL TERM FOR UNCONVENTIONAL PERFORMANCE EVENTS WHICH EMPHASISE THE ABSURD, THE PROVOCATIVE, AND THE UNSTRUCTURED. ATTENDING ITS RE-CREATION FOR THE 2007 PERFORMA BIENNIAL IN NEW YORK REMINDED ME THAT THIS EVERYDAY USAGE IS A LONG WAY FROM KAPROW’S ORIGINAL INTENTION. ALTHOUGH 18 HAPPENINGS HAS PLENTY OF NON-NARRATIVE EVENTS, THEY OCCUR WITHIN A CAREFULLY STRUCTURED FORMAL COMPOSITION WHICH PLACES THE AUDIENCE, RATHER THAN THE ACTIONS OF THE PERFORMERS, AT THE HEART OF THE WORK.

This 2007 version was directed by André Lepecki, who holds an academic position at New York University and writes about the relationship between choreographic writing and representations of the body—how bodies and actions are re-created from written records. Lepecki emphasises that his version of 18 Happenings is neither re-enactment nor re-construction, instead favouring the term “re-doing.” He argues that the objective of this project is not “time travel” or the resurrection of the historical event. Instead, Lepecki’s version exists in the present, looking from here and now at what remains of the past event—its form, the writing about it, the significance it has accumulated. One of the ways in which the past is framed within present experience is reflected in the material construction of the event: rather than taking place within the entire floor of a loft gallery, as in the original, this version uses timber panels to construct a space with the dimensions of the former Reuben Gallery within the much larger Deitch Studios warehouse.

Stepping into this space is like a kind of inter-dimensional travel (though it might have felt like that in 1959 as well). Notwithstanding Lepecki’s desire to distance this project from historical re-enactment, I am struck by the ways in which the insights the experience gives are those which are only possible through inserting my own body into it, as opposed to reading texts about it or looking at photographs. This is exactly the value commonly given to re-enactment—as in police re-enactment, for example, which uncovers details that would otherwise have escaped notice. In the case of 18 Happenings, what is revealed is the pivotal role of the audience.

The ‘loft’ space is divided into three rooms. Simultaneous mini-performances occur in each, and the audience changes rooms every two performances. This much I knew from historical accounts, and I was prepared for a cacophonous experience in which I would be overwhelmed by multiple, disparate actions happening simultaneously. However, the actual experience felt less concerned with simultaneity than it was with distance and alterity. That is to say, while relatively mundane actions happened in my room—someone bouncing a ball, or squeezing oranges into juice—I never found myself struggling to pay attention. In fact, I hardly paid attention to them at all, instead finding myself peering curiously through the semi-transparent plastic dividers into other rooms. Even though I knew full well that what was happening there was of the same banal quality as what was happening in my room, it had a mystery and allure because of the fact of being in another room. Contrary to my expectation of chaos, there wasn’t too much information for me to take in. Instead, there seemed to be deliberately too little, with my desire to have full knowledge of the event frustrated and deferred by the arrangement of space.

Attending the re-doing produced a similar insight about the 15 minutes of “mingling” prescribed between each audience rotation. From a theoretical vantage, this might be dismissed as inconsequential filler, but actually ‘being there’ gave added significance to these in-between periods. One of the ways this happened was through its repetition as an activity, so that in the second period of mingling I had an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing and even revise how I mingle—do I want to head straight for a seat which looks like a promising vantage point? Do I want to explore the other rooms more fully? Do I want to meet a stranger? Additionally, these periods seem to last longer than the actual performance periods. The timing of Lepecki’s re-doing follows Kaprow’s instructions fastidiously, so this, too, is part of its intended effect.

I was made additionally aware of my own role in the performance by the program notes’ explicit reference to my involvement: “the visitors—who sit in various chairs” are listed in the cast of participants along with those “who speak” or “who move” or “who move objects.” A critical account of the original happening might miss this detail, but it’s hard to avoid while clutching a program the whole time. Of course, this interest in audiences is evident in Kaprow’s writings from the time, but he’s more often remembered for having expanded the range of what was permissible as performance. Lepecki’s re-doing rightly shifts the focus back on the audience, curious about what is happening in other rooms and curious, too, about each other. What’s ‘happening’ isn’t just a series of conceptual performances, which can be understood through their documentation. Instead this work is acutely aware of the ways in which an audience is produced and crafted—and the only way to really know what this experience is like is to be part of it.

Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (Re-doing), director André Lepecki, presented by Performa, Dietch Studios, Performa 07, New York, Nov 11,2007

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 17

© Theron Schmidt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2008