Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition

Susan Sontag

There has appeared in New York recently a new, and still esoteric, genre of spectacle. At first sight apparently a cross between art exhibit and theatrical performance, these events have been given the modest and somewhat teasing name of »Happenings«. They have taken place in lofts, small art galleries, backyards and small theatres, before audiences averaging between thirty and one hundred persons. To describe a Happening for those who have not seen one means dwelling on what Happenings are not. They don't take place on a stage conventionally understood, but in a dense object-clogged setting which may be made, assembled or found, or all three. In this setting a number of participants, not actors, perform movements and handle objects antiphonally and in concert to the accompaniment (sometimes) of words, wordless sounds, music, flashing lights and odors. The Happening has no plot, though it is an action, or rather a series of actions and events. It also shuns continious rational discourse, though it may contain words like »Help!«, »Voglio un bicchiere di acqua«, »Love me«, »Car«, »One, two, three...« Speech is purified and condensed by disparateness (there is only the speech of need) and then expanded by ineffectuality, by the lack of relation between the persons enacting the Happening.
Those who do Happenings in New York - but they are not just a New York phenomenon; similar activities have been reported in Osaka, Stockholm, Cologne, Milan and Paris, by groups unrelated to each other - are young, in their late twenties or early thirties. They are mostly painters (Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Robert Withman, Claes Olednburg, Al Hansen, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann) and a few musicians (Dick Higgins, Philip Corner, LaMonte Young). Allan Karpow, the man who more than anyone else is responsible for stating and working out the genre, is the only academic among them; he formerly taught art and art history at Rutgers and now teaches at the State University of New York on Long Island. For Kaprow, a painter and (for a year) a student of John Cage, doing Happenings since 1957 has replaced painting; Happenings are, as he puts it, what his painting has become. But for most of the others, this is not the case; they have continued to paint or compose music in addition to occasionally producing a Happening or performing in the Happening devised by a friend.
The first Happening in public was Allan Kaprow's Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts, presented in October 1959, at the opening of the Reuben Gallery, which Kaprow, among others, helped to form. For a couple of years the Reuben Gallery, the Judson Gallery, and later the Green Gallery were the principal showcases of Happenings in New York, by Kaprow and the others; in recent years the only series of Happenings were those of Claes Oldenburg, presented every weekend in the three tiny back rooms of his »store« on East Second Street. In the five years since the Happenings have been presented in public, the group has enlarged from an original circle of close friends, and the members have diverged in their conceptions; no statement about what Happenings are as a genre will be acceptable to all the people now doing them. Some Happenings are more sparse, others more crowded with incident; some are violent, others are witty; some are like haiku, others are epic; some are vignettes, others more theatrical. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern an essential unity in the form and to draw certain conclusions about the relevance of Happenings to the arts of painting and theatre. Karpow, by the way, has written the best article yet to appear on Happenings, their meaning in general in the context of the contemporary art scene and their evolution for him in particular, in the Art News, May 1961 - to which the reader is referred for a fuller description of what literally »happens«, than I shall attempt in this article.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Happening is its treatment (this is the only word for it) of the audience. The event seems designed to tease and abuse the audience. The performers may sprinkle water on the audience, or fling pennies or sneeze-producing detergent powder at it. Someone may be making near-deafening noises on an oil drum, or waving an acetylene torch in the direction of the spectators. Several radios may be playing simultaneously; the audience may be made to stand uncomfortably in a crowded room, or fight for space to stand on boards laid in a few inches of water. There is no attempt to cater to the audience's desire to see everything. In fact, this is often deliberately frustrated, by performing some of the events in semi-darkness or by having events going on in different rooms simultaneously. In Allan Kaprow's A Spring Happening, presented in March 1961 at the Reuben Gallery, the spectators were confined inside a long box-like structure resembling a cattle car; peep-holes hab been bored in the wooden walls of this enclosure through which the spectators could strain to see the events taking place outside; when the Happening was over, the walls collapsed and the spectators were driven out by someone operating a power lawnmower.
(This abusive involvement of the audience seems to provide, in default of anything else, the dramatic spine of the Happening. When the Happening is more purely spectacle and the audience simply spectators, as in Kaprow's The Courtyard, presented in November 1962 at the Renaissance House, the event is considerably less dense and compelling.)
Another striking feature of Happenings is their treatment of time. The duration of a Happening is unpredictable; it may be anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes; the average one is about a half-hour in length. I have noticed, in attending a fair number of them over the last two years, that the audience - loyal, appreciative, and for the most part experienced - frequently does not know when they are over, and has to be signalled to leave; the fact that in the audiences one sees mostly the same faces again and again, indicates that this is not due to a lack of familiarity with the form. The unpredictable duration, and content, of each individual Happening is essential to its effect. This is because the Happening has no plot, so story, and therefore no element of suspense (which would then entail the satisfaction of suspense).
The Happening operates by creating an asymmetrical network of surprises, without climax or
Consummation; this is the alogic of dreams rather than the logic of most art. Dreams have no sense of time; neither do the Happenings. Lacking a plot and continuous rational discourse, they have no past. As the name itself suggests, Happenings are always in the present tense. The same words, if there ara any, are said over and over; speech is reduced to a stutter. The same actions, too, are frequently repeated throughout a single Happening - a kind of gestural stutter - or done in slow motion, to convey a sense of the arrest of time. Occasionally the entire Happening takes a circular form, opening and concluding with the same act or gesture.
One way in which the Happening state their freedom from time is in their deliberate impermanence. A painter or sculptor who makes Happenings does not make anything that can be purchased. One cannot buy a Happening; one can only support it. It is consumed on the premises. This would seem to make Happenings a form of theatre, for one can only attend a theatrical performance, but can't take it home. But in the theatre, there is a text, a complete »score« for the performance which is printed, can be bought, read, and has an existence independent of any performance of it. Happenings are not theatre either, if by theatre we mean plays. However, it is not true (as some Happening-goers suppose) that Happenings are improvised on the spot. They are carefully rehearsed for any time from a week to several months - though the script or score is minimal, usually no more tha a page of general directions for movements and descriptions of materials. Much of what goes on in the performance has been worked out or choreographed in rehearsal by the performers themselves; and if the Happening is done for several evenings consecutively it is likely to vary a good deal from performance to performance, far more than in the theatre. But while the same Happening might be given several nights in a row, it is not meant to enter into a repertory which can be repeated. Once dismantled after a given performance or series of performances, it is never rivived, never performed again. In part, this has to do with the deliberately occasional materials which go into Happenings - paper, wooden crates, tin cans, burlap sacks, foods, walls painted for the occasion - materials which are often literally consumed, or destroyed, in the course of the performance.
What is primary in a Happening is materials - and their modulations as hard and soft, dirty and clean. This proccupation with materials, which might seem to make the Happenings more like painting than theatre, is also expressed in the use or treatment of persons as material objects rather than »characters«. The people in the Happenings are often made to look like objects, by enclosing them in burlap sacks, elaborate paper wrappings, shrouds and masks. (Or the person may be used as a still-life, as in Allan Kaprow's Untitled Happening, given in the basement boiler room of the Maidman Theater in March 1962, in which a naked woman lay on a ladder strung above the space in which the Happenings took place.) Much of the action, violent and otherwise, of Happenings involves this use of the person as a material object. There is a great deal of violent using of the physical persons of the performers by the person himself (jumping, falling) and by each other (lifting, chasing throwing, pushing, hitting, wrestling); and sometimes a slower, more sensuous use of the person (caressing, menacing, gazing) by others or by the person himself. Another way in which people are employed is in the discovery or the impassioned, repetitive use of materials for their sensuous properties rather than their conventional uses: dropping pieces of bread into a bucket of water, setting a table for a meal, rolling a huge paper-screen hoop along the floor, hanging up laundry. Jim Dine's Car Crash, done at the Reuben Gallery in November 1960, ended with a man smashing and grinding pieces of colored chalk into a black-board. Simple acts like coughing and carrying, a man shaving himself, or a group of people eating, will be prolonged, repetitively, to a point of demoniacal frenzy.
Of the materials used, it might be noted that one cannot distinguish among set, props and costumes in a Happening, as one can in the theatre. The underwear or thrift-shop oddments which a performer may wear are as much a part of the whole composition as the pain-spattered papier-mâché shapes which protude from the wall or the trash which is strewn on the floor. Unlike the theatre and like some modern painting, in the Happening objects are not placed, but rather scattered about and heaped together. The Happening takes place in what can best be called an »environment«, anf this environment typically is messy or disorderly and crowded in the extreme, constructed of some materials which are chosen for their abused, dirty and dangerous condition. The Happenings thereby register (in a real, not simply an ideological way) a protest against the museum conception of art - the idea that the job of the artist is to make things to be preserved and cherished. One cannot hold on to a Happening, and one can only cherish it as one cherishes a firecracker going off dangerously close to one's face.
Happenings have been called by some »painter's theatre«, which means - aside from the fact that most of the people who do them are painters - that they can be described as animated paintings, more accurately as »animated collages« or «trompe l'┼ôil brought to life«. Further, the appearance of Happenings can be described as one logical development of the New York school of painting of the fifties. The gigantic size of many of the canvases painted in New York in the last decade, designed to overwhelm and envelop the spectator, plus the increasing use of materials other than paint to adhere to, and later extend from, the canvas, indicate the latent intention of this type of painting to project itself into a three-dimensional form. This is exactly what some people started to do. The crucial next step was taken with the work done in the middle and late fifties by Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow and others in a new form called »assemblages«, a hybrid of painting, collage and sculpture, using a sardonic variety of materials, mainly in the state of debris, including license plates, newspaper clippings, pieces of glass, machine parts and the artist's socks. From the assemblage to the whole room or »environment« is only one further step. The final step, the Happening, simply puts people into the environment and sets it in motion. There is no doubt that much of the style of the Happening - ist general look of messiness, ist fondness for incorporating ready-made materials of no artistic prestige, particulary the junk of urban civilization - owes to the experience and pressures of New York painting. (It should be mentioned, however, that Kaprow for one thinks the use of urban junk is not a necessary element of the Happening form, and contends that Happenings can as well be composed and put on in pastoral surroundings, using the »clean« materials of nature.)
Thus recent painting supplies one way of explaining the look and something of the style of Happenings. For this we must look beyond painting and particulary to Surrealism. By Surrealism, I do not mean a specific movement in Painting inaugurated by André Breton's manifesto in 1924 and to which we associate the names of Max Ernst, Dali, Chirico, Magritte and others. I mean a mode of sensibility which cuts across all the arts in the 20th century. There is a Surrealist tradition in the theatre, in painting, in poetry, in the cinema, in music and in the novel; even in architecture there is, if not a tradition, at least one candidate, the Spanish architect Gaudi. The Surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtaposition (the »collage principle«). Beauty, in the words of Lautréamont, is »the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table«. Art, so understood, is obviously animated by aggression, aggression toward the presumed conventionality of ist audience and, above all, aggression toward the medium itself. The Surrealist sensibility, through its techniques of juxtaposition, aims to shock. Even one of the methods of psychoanalysis, free association, can be interpreted as another working-out of the Surrealistic principle. By its accepting as relevant every unpremediated statement made by the patient, the Freudian technique of interpretation shows itself to be based on the same logic of coherence behind contradiction to which we are accustomed in modern art. Using the same logic, the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters made his brilliant Merz constructions of the early twenties out of deliberately unartistic materials; one of his collages, for example, is assembled from the gutter-pickings of a single citiy block. This recalls Freud's description of his method as divining meaning from »the rubbish-heap... of our observations«, from the collation of the most insigificant details; as a time limit the analyst's daily hour with the patient is no less arbitrary than the space limit of one block from whose gutter the rubbish was selected; everything depends on the creative accidents of arrangement and insight. One may also see a kind of involuntary collage-principle in many of the artifacts of the modern city: the brutal disharmony of buildings in size and style, the wild juxtaposition of store signs, the clamorous layout of the modern newspaper etc.
The art of radical juxtaposition can serve different uses, however. A great deal of the content of Surrealism has served the purposes of wit - either the delicious joke in itself of what is inane, childish, extravagant, obsessional; or social satire. This particulary the purpose of Dada, and of the Surrealism that is represented in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, in January 1938, and the exhibits in New York in 1942 and 1960. Simone de Beauvoir in the second volume of he rmemoirs describes the 1938 spook-house as follows: »In the entrance hall stood one of Dali's special creations: a taxi cab, rain streaming out of it, with a blonde, swooing female dummy posed inside, surrounded by a sort of lettuce-and-chicory salad all smothered with snails. The »Rue Surréaliste« contained other similar figures, clothed or nude, by Man Ray, Max Ernst, Dominguez and Maurice Henry. Masson's [was] a face imprisoned in a cage and gagged with a pansy. The main salon had been arranged by Marcel Duchamp to look like a grotto; it contained, among other things, a pond and four beds grouped around a brazier, while the ceiling was covered with coal bags. The whole place smelled of Brazilian coffee, and various objects loomed up out of the carefully contrived semi-darkness: a fur-lined dish, an occasional table with the legs of a woman. On all sides ordinary things like walls and doors and flower vases were breaking free from human restraint. I don't think surrealism had any direct influence on us, but it had impregnated the very air we breathed. It was the surrealists, for instance, who made it fashionable to frequent the Flea Market where Sartre and Olga and I often spent our Sunday afternoons.«
The last line of this quote is particulary interesting, for it recalls how the Surrealist principle has given rise to a certain kind of witty appreciation of the derelict, inane, démodé objects of modern civilization - the taste for a certain kind of passionate non-art that os known as »camp«. The fur-lined teacup, the portrait executed out of Pepsi-Cola bottle caps, the perambulating toilet bowl, are attempts to create objects which have built into them a kind of wit which the sophisticated beholder with his eyes opened by camp can bring to the enjoyment of Cecil B. DeMille movies, comic books and art nouveau lampshades. The main requirement for such wit is that the object not be high art or good taste in any normally valued sense; the more despised the material or the more banal the sentiments expressed, the better.
But the Surrealist principle can be made to serve other purposes than wit, whether the disinterested wit of sophistication or the polemical wit of satire. It can be conceived more seriously, therapeutically - for the purpose of reeducating the senses (ina rt) or the character (in psychoanalysis). And finally, it can be made to serve the purposes of terror. If the meaning of modern art is its discovery beneath the logic of everyday life, of the alogic of dreams, then we may expect the art, which has the freedom of dreaming, also to have its emotional range. There are witty dreams, solemn dreams, and there are nightmares.
The examples of terror in the use of the Surrealist principle are more easily illustrated in arts with a dominant figurative tradition, like literature and the film, than in music (Varèse, Scheffer, Stockhausen, Cage) or painting (de Kooning, Bacon). In literature, one thinks of Lautréamont's Maldoror and Kafka's tales and novels and the morgue poems of Gottfried Benn. From the film, examples are two by Buñuel and Dali, Le chien andalou and L'age d'or, Franju's Le sang des bêtes and, more recently, two short films, the Polish Life Is Beautiful and the American Bruce Conner's A Movie, and certain moments in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, H.G. Clouzot and Kon Ichikawa. But the best understanding of the Surrealist principle employed for purposes of terrorization is to be found in the writings of Antonin Artaud, a Frenchman who had four important and model careers: as a poet, a lunatic, a film actor and a theoretician of the theatre. In his collection of essays, TheTheatre and its Double, Artaud envisages nothing less than a complete repudiation of the modern Western theatre, with ist cult of masterpieces, its primary emphasis on the written text (the word), its tame emotional range. Artaud writes: »The theatre must make itself the equal of life - not an individual life, that individual aspect of life in which characters triumph, but the sort of liberated life which sweeps away human individuality.« This transcendence of the burden and limitations of personal individuality - also a hopeful theme in D.H. Lawrence and Jung - is executed through recourse to the peeminently collective contents of dreaming. Only in our dreams do we nightly strike below the shallow level of what Artaud calls, contemptuously, »psychological and social man«. But dreaming does not mean for Artaud simply poetry, fantasy<, it means violence, insanity, nightmare. The connection with the dream will necessarily give rise to what Artaud calls a »theatre of cruelty«, the title of two of his manifestoes. The theatre must furnish »the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, hisUtopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior... The theatre, like dreams, must be bloody and inhuman«.
The prescriptions which Artaud offers in TheTheatre and its Double describe better than anything else what Happenings are.Artaud shows the connection between three typical features of the Happening: first, its supra-personal or impersonal treatment of persons; second, its emphasis on spectacle and sound, and disregard for the word; and third, its professional aim to assault the audience.
The appetite for violence in art is hardly a new phenomenon. As Ruskin noted in 1880 in the course of an attack on »the modern novel« (his examples are Guy Mannering and Bleak House!), the taste for the fantastic, the outré, the rejected and the willingness to be shocked are perhaps the most remarkable characteristics of modern audiences. Inevitably, this drives the artist to ever greater and more intense attempts to arause a reaction from his audience. The question is only whether a reaction always needs to be provoked by terrorization. It seems to be the implicit consensus of those who do Happenings, that other kinds of arousal (for example, sexual arousal) are in fact less effective and that the last bastion of the emotional life is fear.
Yet it is also interesting to note that this art form which is designed to stir the modern audience from its cozy emotional anesthesia operates with images anestetized persons, acting in a kind of slow-motion disjunction with each other, and gives us an image of action characterized above all by ceremoniousness and ineffectuality. At this point the Surrealist arts of terror link up with the deepest meaning of comedy: the assertion of invulnerability. In the heart of comedy, there is emotional anesthesia. What permits us to laugh at painful and grotesque events is that the people experiencing these events are really underreacting; no matter how much they screem or prance about or inveigh to heaven or lament their misfortune, the audience knows they are really not feeling very much. The protagonists of great comedy all have something of an automaton or robot in them. This is the secret of such different examples of comedy as Aristophanes' The Clouds, Gulliver's Travels, Tex Avery cartoons, Candide, King Hearts and Coronets, the films of Buster Keaton, Ubu Roi, the Goon Show. The secret of comedy is the dead-pan - or the exaggerated reaction or the misplaced reaction that is a parody of a true response. Comedy, as much as tragedy, works by a certain stylization of emotional response. In the case of tragedy, it is by a heightening of the norm of feeling; in the case of comedy, it is by underreacting and misreacting according to the norms of feeling.
Surrealism is perhaps the farthest extension of the idea of comedy, running the full range from wit to terror. It is »comic« rather than »tragic« because Surrealism (in all its examples, which include Happenings) stresses the extremes od disrelation - which is preeminently the subject of comedy, as »relatedness« is the subject and source tragedy. I, and other people in the audience, often laugh during Happenings. I don't think this is simply because we are embarrassed or made nervous by violent and absurd actions. I think we laugh because what goes on in the Happening is, in the deepest sense, funny. This does not make it any less terrifying. There is something that moves one to laughter, if only our social pieties and highly conventional sense of the serious would allow it, in the most terrible of modern catastrophes and atrocities. There is something comic in modern experience as such, a demonic, not a divine comedy, precisely to the extent that modern experience is characterized by meaningless mechanized situations of disrelation.
Comedy is not any less comic because it is punitive. As in tragedy, every comedy needs a scapegoat, someone who will be punished and expelled from the social order represented mimetically in the spectacle. What goes on in the Happenings merely follows Artaud's prescription for a spectacle which will eliminate the stage, that is, the distance between spectators and performers, and »will physically envelop the spectator«. In the Happening this scapegoat is the audience.