Translating Kaprow

Reading ART in THEORY (1900-2000) by Harrison & Wood – see also the reading list – I came across a text by Allan Kaprow about Assemblages, Environments and Happenings. He was a prominent fluxus artist developing happenings during the late 1950s and early 1960s and developed an interesting set of rules for these phenomena.

When reading the full text, I realised that many of these considerations where alike to (my) interactive media arts. Thus, I would like to give some thoughts and translations about appropriating ideas and parts of happenings towards my own art making, beliefs and intentions.

Kaprow saw in his time a new architecture for art emerging, away from the painters’ canvas, which he also expanded from Pollock’s drip paintings which were made in an almost performance like style. Looking at those drippings one can reimagine Pollock’s actions from it without seeing his process of the making.

Kaprow took art to a public environment and changed thereby the notion of what art could be. Out of the gallery space, out of the museum, into the world. He found it important to leave the studio and choose an environment that is principally free with respect to media and appeal to the senses. Then he realised the way the audience was positioned became essential for the happening as the event created in the environment.

Kaprow described his rules of thumb as follows:

A. The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps as indistinct, as possible.

B. Therefore, the source of themes, materials, actions, and the relationships between them are to be derived from any place or period except from the arts, their derivatives, and their milieu.

C. The performance of a Happening should take place over several widely spaced, sometimes moving and changing locales.

D. Time, which follows closely on space considerations, could be variable and discontinuous.

E. Happenings should be performed once only.

F. It follows that audiences should be eliminated entirely.


Some personal translations to my practice in reaction to his A-F rules:

A. I consider art as well an integral part of life and the public field is a very interesting place to project art in, as there are many more people to be reached out there. People who are not specifically searching for art but who may get interested when confronted with ‘good’ art. Furthermore I believe that creating awareness of art in daily life, in this context I mean ‘art that makes one question, do and think’, is also to strive for.

B. Considering the ‘general’ public as an valuable target group too, one might assume that too much expected knowledge of art (history) does close off their road to a new discovery as well. Hence, drawing inspiration for works from for example daily life seems a good approach to me. It opens up to every sort of materials and medium, it integrates this notion of the art world and contemporary living at the same time and place.

C & D. As happenings were to pop up on different places and in different – mostly public and outdoor – spaces, their character was also about disturbing routines and questioning the ongoing order. Although having a different goal, my work is more about social behaviours than about socio-political actions, taking the art work to different places, spaces and moments and making it travel brings up more opportunities and manyfold responses than staying at one place and during a certain period only. New media art can by making use of the internet also get a unexpected way to travel in its virtual space and suddenly be picked up in different areas and over a longer period of time.

E. Reflecting about the experience I try to create, I do find that my works, as happenings do, might underline the idea of a ‘once in a lifetime experience’. This comes from the notion that one can only experience one (interactive) work for the first time without any expectations from a prior-experience. Arguably the first experiences are the most preferable and often intensive ones, as humans quickly adapt and perceive differently afterwards, that is within their own references.

(continued on E). Kaprow brought also this interesting idea of re-inventions as reworked pieces of former art pieces to the table. See here about reinvention. This is quite a legitimate reasoning in media arts today. One never remakes the work exactly, although possible, but works onwards from the new given settings, earlier learnings and new available technology. A good example in this sense is the inspiring work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer where numerous ‘editions’ in different environments create an impressive oeuvre. Personally I feel these “slight adjustment” tactics, which many artist do use, should be more within my body of work too.

F.  This point might seem a bit harsh, audiences should be eliminated, but it isn’t. Kaprow meant that all the “elements” as people, space, time, materials and environment could be integrated by following his rules of thumb. I read this also as the audience becomes the actual co-maker of the work of art. And I believe the meaning here drives even further than what Marcel Duchamp meant with his famous saying “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” In interactive arts, which is even more about actual behaviours, actions, doings and processes, the audience has the essential role of maker of the art experience itself. In fact, without their engagement the interactivity is eliminated all together.

An interesting link about Happenings is to be found here.

Featured image of tyres via