Allan Kaprow first coined the term “happening” in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at George Segal‘s farm to describe the art pieces that were going on. The first appearance in print was in Kaprow’s famous “Legacy of Jackson Pollock” essay that was published in 1958 but primarily written in 1956. “Happening” also appeared in print in one issue of the Rutgers Universityundergraduate literary magazine, Anthologist.
Happenings are difficult to describe, in part because each one is unique and completely different from one another. One definition comes from Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort in The New Media Reader, “The term ‘Happening’ has been used to describe many performances and events, organized by Allan Kaprow and others during the 1950s and 1960s, including a number of theatrical productions that were traditionally scripted and invited only limited audience interaction.” Another definition is, “a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure”. However, Canadian theatre critic and playwright Gary Botting, who himself had “constructed” several happenings, wrote in 1972:
“Happenings abandoned the matrix of story and plot for the equally complex matrix of incident and event.“
Happenings can be a form of participatory new media art, emphasizing an interaction between the performer and the audience.
…Later happenings had no set rules, only vague guidelines that the performers follow based on surrounding props. Unlike other forms of art, Happenings that allow chance to enter are ever-changing. When chance determines the path the performance will follow, there is no room for failure. As Kaprow wrote in his essay, “‘Happenings’ in the New York Scene”, “Visitors to a Happening are now and then not sure what has taken place, when it has ended, even when things have gone ‘wrong’. For when something goes ‘wrong’, something far more ‘right,’ more revelatory, has many times emerged”.
The art thrives on an artist’s whim, with the comfort of giving their mistakes the benefit of the doubt. The art defines itself by the fact that it is a unique, one-time experience that depends on audience response. It cannot be bought or brought home.
Kaprow’s piece 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) is commonly cited as the first happening, although that distinction is sometimes given to a 1952 performance of Theater Piece No. 1 at Black Mountain College by John Cage, one of Kaprow’s teachers in the mid-1950s. Cage stood reading from a ladder, Charles Olson read from another ladder, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played wax cylinders of Édith Piaf on an Edison horn recorder, David Tudor performed on a prepared piano and Merce Cunningham danced.
Contribution toward digital media
Allan Kaprow‘s and other artists of the 1950s and 1960s that performed these Happenings helped put “new media technology developments into context”. The Happenings allowed other artists to create performances that would attract attention to the issue they wanted to portray. Currently happenings today can be found with Jazz in a whole new way through the artistic collaboration of renowned musicians American saxophonist David Liebman, French jazz pianist Jean-Marie Machado, and multimedia visual artist Barbara Januszkiewicz. their group Jazz Vision Trio is using new media techniques and real-time improvising with jazz and art.
Considering the composition of an ‘event’ or ‘happening’, the main ‘actors’:
- Environment &/or Architecture
- How does it feel? smell? Is it day or night? Is it outside or inside? What time of the day is it?
- Lighting (& shadows/colour)
- Is there natural light or artificial light? If Artificial, how do you approach the treatment? Consider shadows.
- Artworks / Tensile Structures
- Is the work animated? What does this movement imply? Can people physically engage with it? What affect does the colour have on perception of the work?
- Active/primary participants within the composition of the event. A common understanding of the overall composition should be present.
- Observers who negotiate the event/space with their own independent perspective & agency.
The environment, the artworks, the performers and the audience are threads that form the tapestry of a unique experience.