[more photos here]
On Sunday night Lizzie and I went down to Long Island City to see the “re-do” of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. I’m a big fan of Kaprow’s work and his writings, and I’m also really interested in re-enactment or re-creation as a method of experiencing ephemeral artwork from the past. (Karinne Keithly has written another account of 18 Happenings over here).
A few notes on the event:
They had re-built the original loft inside a waterside ex-factory. The space was huge, but the “loft” was more intimate in scale. I found this architectural re-construction to be interesting in itself. Lofts were the cheap art spaces of the 60s, but of course these are no longer within reach of anyone without big bucks. Refurbished warehouses are often the art spaces of our current times, but, as in the case of this one, they are no longer cheap. You get the post-industrial look without the bargain price tag.
The “loft” was made entirely of pine 2 by 4 beams, with transparent plastic stretched over the surfaces to make “walls”. Inside, there were three rooms, and a small quantity of chairs (for the “visitors”) were lined up in each room. If you were sitting in one room, you could see into the adjacent room (but the vision became a bit milky).
Each member of the audience was given a set of 3 cards which directed where we should go (eg, my sequence was room 2, then room 3, then room 1). The six acts of the piece were announced by a bell ringing (although it was an amplified pre-recorded bell). We stayed in one room for two acts, then changed, then two more acts in another room, then changed for the final two acts.
The ringing of the bell between the 6 “parts” sometimes seemed like the end of a round in boxing – the action was suspended by the bell, rather than seeming to have come to its own ending.
There was a fifteen minute break between acts 2 and 3, and between acts 4 and 5, when we were allowed to “freely move about” before finding our place for the next act.
The performers were all quite young, in their 20s I would say.
The happenings themselves: a few things I noticed… A kind of stiffened movement style, almost robotic, certainly not casual, but not balletic either. Businesslike, perhaps.
Sometimes the performers stood on the spot and did deep knee bends, or scraped a shoe slowly and repeatedly across the floor, or held arms out straight in front and then rotated one around to the side. That kind of thing.
In other parts, they read from scripts stuck to red painted script holders which they held. I remember one part being a kind of lecture about art, and a lecture about time. These two lectures were delivered simultaneously, by two different performers, in two different rooms. The scripts for the lectures were interwoven with each other – sometimes one would pause mid-sentence, and the other lecturer would continue speaking. These juxtapositions seemed sometimes to have meaning, at other times they were absurd. It was difficult to follow two lectures at once.
Slides were occasionally projected in room three. I was in that room when a slide of a bearded man’s lower face was projected. I wondered if that was Kaprow, as he had had a beard.
The wheeled “mirror man” which I remember seeing a picture of in some long-lost research on Kaprow had been reconstructed for this event. I liked it a lot. It rolls on two bicycle wheels (sans tyres) and it has a paint tin for a head and a record player in its “stomach” and kind of awkward wooden arm which holds cards(?) – maybe these cards are the chance operators in the John Cage tradition. Anyway, this device is wheeled about a bit (although, disappointingly for me, it was wheeled away from the room I was in at the time (room 3) and into room 1. From the distance of two rooms, we heard a record being played (cheesy polka music?).
There was “live painting” – a stretched blank canvas was worked on both sides simultaneously by two performers – the paint came from red and green house paint tins. One did vertical stripes and the other did rounded shapes. The floor around the canvas was streaked (Pollock-like) with the remnants of previous nights’ painting.
In room 2 (the middle room) a long horizontal pole hung above head height was wrapped with four scrolls which, towards the end of the piece, were pulled down to hang freely in the space. Performers stood on both sides of these scrolls and read from them – they were inscribed with words hastily painted on – seemingly randomly – and the simultaneous reading of the scrolls made for a beautiful cacophonous music.
During the 15 minute breaks, only a few of us continued to “move about freely” – most of the visitors found a place to sit in their new room, plunked themselves down and waited. Which was fine, since that, too was “moving about freely”. I tried to take a few photos of the moment of “musical chairs” which I found to be one of the most fun moments, and which I’m sure Kaprow would have relished.
At the end of the event, we went into room 1 (we had been in 3) and discovered a table had been set up, and oranges had been squeezed. We had had no idea that that had been going on. In general, the feeling of “missing out” on action that was going on in other rooms was a common thread throughout the whole event. There was no way that a single visitor could have a “whole picture” of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. In one of the breaks we spoke to a performance artist from Calgary who said he had heard that some people had come back a second time to the event, and had tried to trade their room-directions cards with someone else, so they could be in a different room from the previous time. This guy figured that Kaprow would have been into that, too. We also mused that the long breaks between relatively short acts may have been designed so that visitors could go and enquire as to what had happened in the other rooms – thus pushing us to interact with each other, and to recount, immediately, what our experiences had been like, and to compare them with each other.
I was also aware of a tendency within myself to think that immediate visual presence was the superior way to experience one of the happenings – rather than, say, hearing something going on from 2 rooms away. It took a bit of effort to consider “distanced sensing” (and imagining) as a legitimate experience (one, in fact, unavailable to those close to the action).
Having read Kaprow’s essays, I felt this “re-do” of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts gave me new insight into what he was doing and thinking. Especially his concept of framing, with which he was obsessed. The movement of action from the frame of the abstract expressionist, into action in the “real world”. The wooden framework with stretched transparent plastic created a framing device for the action of the performers (which included painting-as-action) AND for the visitors. We were all framed by the loft, the plastic membrane somehow homogenising everything – or at least bringing it to an aesthetic equivalence – although I’m not really sure how much other visitors were aware of this.
The director of this event, Andre Lepecki, in a statement handed out on the night, stressed that “This re-doing […] is not attached to notions of bringing to life ‘the past as it really was’. […] We are aware that Kaprow’s work can only be re-done once we embrace it as an always moving, always provisional, always renewed set of dynamic propositions.” I liked this idea, and I’m sure Kaprow would have too. A paradox – to re-do the work faithfully, it has to be done dynamically (rather than slavishly following the “original”. But I wasn’t really convinced that this particular version of the piece achieved that. After the show, I asked one of the performers how much agency they had – how much they could inject themselves into the work, invent new actions and so on. Oh no, she said, it is all scripted very finely in advance.
It’s possible, I guess, that Kaprow’s legacy (tons of notes and scores left behind in archives) may have made “improvisation” a bit tricky. The performer I spoke to said they had all auditioned for the parts – they were dancers or movement performers mainly, and they were not especially encouraged to become familiar with Kaprow’s work in preparation for the event. I wondered about this. I wondered how Kaprow might have done it. In recent years (before he died in 2006) he ran lots of workshops for young artists. I imagined that this re-doing of 18 Happenings could have been an opportunity for such a workshop – where all participants are given access to all the historical documents, and allowed a role in workshopping how the re-doing might best occur. This might have resulted in a messier and less cleanly respectful rendition of the work, but it might also have brought it into the present in a more exciting way.
Having said that, I appreciated the precision of the re-do, from the point of view of an embodied pedagogical experience. It was a terrific opportunity to see/feel “for onself” what it might have been like, what the space might have been like, how the actions pan out in real time – rather than rummaging through archives for information and scores and trying to imagine it.
Lizzie (and a few other visitors we spoke to) said they found the event a bit boring. I was fascinated by the whole thing, but I must admit my interest is in no small part academic, and I suppose collegial, since I’m also in the “business” of re-enactment as part of my art practice.
I suppose, then, rather than “rediscovering the absolute contemporaneity of Kaprow’s work” (as Lepecki writes), this re-do of 18 Happenings is of educational interest. It might not have been the most amazing piece of performance art I’ve ever been to, but I think, partly, with Kaprow, that is for a reason. His work, perhaps, has been so influential on contemporary performance that when we look back to the originating events they seem a bit hokey and unsophisticated in comparison.
It occurred to me that this piece, in fact, was a transitional work. Conceived in the late 1950s, Kaprow himself was just moving out of the two dimensional frame of abstract expressionism and collage etc and into the frame of the room-space and time (see his great essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”). Soon, he would abandon the gallery/theatre convention of framing and attempt to frame action in the broader world through the “paying of attention”. And “visitors” would become fully-blown participants. Much later, it seemed as if Kaprow disappears from the art scene altogether, as his blurring of art and life results in “just doing” life. In this sense, it’s a privelege to see 18 Happenings as a small step on that long path.