Happenings – traces and echoes
by Iva Nerina Sibila
It is not my intention to proclaim that Lighterature Readings: Chapter 10, Behind the Sun, A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful disaster and The Connector are the heirs of Happenings, but rather to sift their authoring preoccupations and performative strategies through the genre of Happening and thereby try to establish a continuity of thought within the experimental performing arts scene from the mid 20th century to current tendencies.
To begin researching available literature (1) and sources about the genre of Happening means to enter a wide and divergent field which touches upon almost all key fields of contemporary art. Multimediality, a shift in perception, anticonsumerism, collectivism, processuality, the singularity of a performance, social engagement or anti-representation are only some of the ideas that are present in all texts, whether biographical, analytical or archive texts that are connected to the period in which the genre Happening came to be.
Michael Kirby, one of the key authors of the theory and documentation of this genre, describes happenings as a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure, (2) and explains them as panartistic phenomena, in which energies originally developing within the separate fields of painting, dance, music, poetry, etc. began to cross each other’s paths at various and unexpected places. (3)
In the transition from visual to performative and then further on into social activity, Happenings are a sort of condensation of the avant-garde tendencies of both the American and European art scene in the mid 20th century. Looking at the further development of contemporary performative practices, we see their influence as direct, alive and active.
In this text I have decided to make this direct link, a lineage of sorts, as traces or echoes, intentional or completely intuitive connections with some works of art presented in the recent Croatian independent performing arts scene. The term Happening is somewhat scary, precisely due to the difficulties regarding its definition, its modular nature and theoretical and historical mystification. This is why I have narrowed it down to certain elements I find crucial for this form, ones I see as the initiators of the art pieces I list or which are at the very core of these performances. It is not my intention to proclaim that Lighterature Readings: Chapter 10, Behind the Sun, A wonderful,wonderful, wonderful disaster and The Connector are the heirs of happenings, but rather to sift their authoring preoccupations and performative strategies through the genre of happening and thereby try to establish a continuity of thought within the experimental performing arts scene from the mid 20th century to current tendencies.
I am well aware of the fact that this equation is arbitrary and subjective, seeing as how the field of Happenings is filled with reference possibilities and the listed performances were chosen based on a number of circumstances. The common denominator is the fact that they are a product of the independent performing arts scene in Zagreb and that they are recent. This is why I propose this as an experimental dialogue between some ideas that originate from literature about Happenings and some pieces that I find are in correlation with them.
I have narrowed the field of happenings down into themes. These themes make up one side of the equation of this essay and are as follows: the process of creating as an artefact, nonmatrix performance, the shift in the role of the audience and life = art.
Kirby places the central influence that shifts the idea of an artwork from a well-rounded symbolic whole to a process as a work of art on the visual arts scene, in the moment when the physical process of creating a piece of visual art becomes more interesting that the work itself. Or as the Russian abstract painter Woks was quoted in the magazine Art News in 1959: Henceforth, the essential aim of painting must be the process of creation; the viewer must no longer be made to look at the painting alone, but the very process of making it. (4)
Experimental, modern or postmodern American dance is tightly linked to the genre of Happening. (5) The most dominant figures who, each in their own respect, influence the shift in dance from a metaphorical image towards a process are Merce Cunningham and Anna Halprin. With Cunningham the dance technique alone ceases tu be a tool for transmitting emotions or a story and becomes a pure analysis of anatomic possibilities and spatial relations, within which there is no privileged movement, space on the stage or dynamic development. Every movement is equally important and Cunnigham, alongside his close collaborator Cage, removes the act of connecting the movements into choreography, as well as the relationship with music and the scene, from his own authorial vision and leaves it to chance.
Anna Halprin, one of the most significant figures of early experimental American dance, does not pay attention to the kinetic of the body, but instead turns to improvisation, so as to detach from the predictability of the modernistic approach: Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to teach, I set up a workshop situation in which I gave myself permission to explore…Everything was done, for quite a few years, with improvisation. The purpose of the improvisation was not self-expression. I was trying to get at subconscious areas, so things would happen in an unpredictable way. (6)
Dance improvisation and its variations, such as contact improvisation, is a form which is in and of itself a transformation and a process that does not strive towards finalisation or reduction, does not transmit any other information other than the current reactions of the dancers-performers to the real situation they themselves produce. In doing this it mirrors the idea of the process as a work of art and in the case of improvisation as a performing arts form becomes an autonomous scene practice and rounds up this idea completely. In the development of Happenings improvisation i.e. the free momentary reactions and accidental actions were preventive methods which disabled the performance form becoming an ”execution” of the agreed upon script. And so it is today as well, as I will show with these examples.
John Cage, a composer and one of the most significant artist in these circles, states the following about the idea of a process, as opposed to a fixed structure:
But in my recent work I am concerned rather with what I call process – setting a process going which has no necessary beginning, no middle, no end, no sections. Beginning and endings can be given things but I try to obscure that fact, rather than to do anything like what I used to do, which was to measure it. The notion of measurement and the notion of structure and not notions with which I am presently concerned. I try to discover what one needs to do in art by observations from my daily life. I think daily life is excellent and that art introduces us to it and to its excellence the more it begins to be like it. (7)
Connected and intertwined with the idea of a process is the so called ”nonmatrix performance” in which the performer executes an agreed upon act without going into symbolism, imagination or interpretation. The physical process of the task is sufficient in and of itself, and it is up to the spectator to continue developing the array of associations.
According to Kirby:
If a nonmatrix performer in a Happening does not have to function in an imaginary time and place created primarily in his own mind, if he does not have to respond to often imaginary stimuli in terms of an alien and artificial personality, if he is not expected to either project the subrational and unconscious elements in the character he is playing or to inflect and color the ideas implicit in his words and actions, what is required of him? Only the execution of a generally simple and undemanding act. (8)
And as Anna Halprin explains from her perspective:
In our situation there’s absolutely nothing pretended. We don’t play any roles. We just are who we are. I don’t know where it’s going to lead to. We use our skills as artists to respond to the material. (9)
The shift in the audience’s perception whereby they began to be included in the performance not just as spectators, but also as participants, is in alignment with all of these shifts. The spectator goes from being a recipient of an artwork to being its coproducer.
Bazon Brock, a German Happening artist states the following:
In the last fifty years, the history of art revolved around changing the process of production. Only recently did reception begin to play a certain role in the arts: Happenings discovered the spectator as coproducer. Without him the event could not take place. (10)
All of this resulted in a paradigm shift in which life itself began to be viewed as art, on a daily basis, with all of its inconsistencies, isochronisms and ”adhocisms”. The artist becomes a central actor of his work, his process of understanding and confrontation with the world a center of interest, and the virtuous symbolic whole as the author’s vision shielded from the influence of the real, moves to the context of spectacle.
In the text Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, the cult Happening artist Allan Kaprow states the following: The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible. (11) The German artist Wolf Vostell, who is considered the ”father” of European Happenings, extends the genre and sums up the matter in a precise manner:
”Action”, ”Event” or ”Happening” emphasized the process character of the artwork. The score established a framework, but the final form of the work could only unfold in the time-space continuum of the performance. Production and reception of the work of art became one. Spectators were drawn into the artwork and became coproducers. (12)
These shifts that happened in the mid 20th century become a firm ground for a further consideration of the development of contemporary performing arts practices. It is interesting for me to see how they determine the development of authorial aesthetics today, but also how they change the essence of the performing arts, from interpreter to the communicator of ideas, from the distributor of a ”work” of art to its demystificator.
An experimental sound art tandem is hidden under the name Lightune.G. Its members are multimedia artist Bojan Gagić and Miodrag Gladović, electroacoustics engineer, producer and musician.
The performance-installation Lighterature Readings: Chapter 10 is their 10th luminoacoustic performance and is based on the conversion of light into sound through the photovoltaic effect of solar panels. Luminoacoustics is the technique of performing and composing which results in tone images. Every series of tone images i.e. every performance by Lightune.G is unique and specific for the space where it is being presented, which is why it has its own chapter in the luminoacoustic series.
In this 30 minute performance that took place on October 30th 2013 in Pogon Jedinstvo we follow the process of transformation of one medium into another – light into sound – and the physical action of the artist and his participation in the installation is necessary for the transformation to occur.
Lighterature Readings: Chapter 10 welcomes its audience as a neatly set up installation of ten solar panels placed on music-stands. There is a spotlight near every panel. This image brings to mind a traditional orchestra in a discreetly funny way, but here both the instrument and the musician are replaced with an object. The audience is placed in a semi-circle and the authors/performers close the circle. The atmosphere in which the public is greeted is informal, it is almost a working atmosphere. The performance begins with one of the authors entering the space and shedding light on the panels with a handheld lamp. Depending on the movement of the lamp i.e. whether it is approaching or moving away from the panel, the sound becomes rhythmic, changes its color and force. The performer moves slowly and carefully, almost in slow motion, conditioned by the frail music-stands and cables on the floor that form a sort of labyrinth. (13) The only source of light is the handheld lamp in his hand and by casting light on the panel he unintentionally casts light on parts of his hands and face. This is where the unintentional ”choreography” of bodies and light takes place, one which is exceptionally strong visually and which is, in fact, the ignition that gives way to sound.
There is a dramatic change that occurs when the spotlights are turned on, taking over the transformation from sound into light and exiling the authors from the labyrinth of the performing space onto the counter. Then there are projections of videoanimations that initiate the sound i.e. produce music. The performance becomes a ”game of light”, (14) remaining merely a tool, despite the sophistication of the visual material i.e. animation, the production of sound.
In the moment when the performance becomes laden with sound and dramatic visual stimuli, the authors boil the source of light down to what’s primary – fire. The author/performer yet again enters the space as an activator, lighting a firecracker which he leaves on the solar panel, which produces a special, hollow sound. This is also a call to the audience to enter the space of performance. The end of the performance becomes a multiplied and more ”primitive” beginning, while after all the light and sound transformations the labyrinth of solar panels and spotlights remains a sort of magic or mystical space, echoing with the idea of the Sun which was boiled down to a small firecracker.
Although the dramaturgy is sound, almost classic, with an introduction, culmination and a cathartic ending, in its multilayered transformation of gauzy levels of matter this performance is elusive, and also dependent on the space and technical conditions. The core of his interest for the performance as a one-time processual act of a clear structure, but an instable product Bojan Gagić places in the metaphysics of media interchanges and its influence on everyday life. (15)
One variation of this artpiece, in a much more radical format and under the title Route 666 luminoakustički field recording projekt, took place during the Showroom of Contemporary Sound in the Zagreb Student Centre on April 24th and 25th 2013. Six solar panels were placed on the roof of a van and connected to the vehicle’s sound system via computer. Six people get to choose six routes during a night ride. The city street lights, the lights in shop-windows create a one-hour sound series, depending on the current traffic and direction. The composer is the driver and every performance is unique. (16) As oppossed to the variation we got to witness in Pogon Jedinstvo, the authors leave the light material completely out of control, they introduce the juxtaposition of urban elements to the audience’s perception and have somewhat control only over the sound that comes out. (17)
And while Bojan Gagić and Miodrag Gladović deal with the sound of the Sun, Behind the Sun is the name of a series of artpieces done by Pavle Heidler, a young dance artist from Zagreb with an international career. Behind the Sun is a series of performances in which Heidler takes one idea and performs it with various partners, either as a solo performance or as a duet. It originated as a duet with the dancer Eleanor Campbell. It has been performed about forty times so far. As far as Croatia is concerned, it has been performed in 2013 as part of the Dance Week Festival, the Perforacije festival, the Days of Contemporary Dance in Varaždin and the Gender Crossroads Festival in Split. Heidler calls his practice the Process of materialisation of fiction. Behind the Sun is structured as a 40 minute improvisation with a firm beginning where the dancers consistently and rhythmically repeat syllables and transform them slowly, organically and intuitively. (18) At the beginning of the performance the spotlights can be found at the bottom of the stage and are aimed at the audience, while the performers begin to slowly and rhythmically repeat in contra light. Through this image of vocal silhouettes we slowly begin to enter the imaginary world behind the sun, as a symbolic place of twisted and surreal semantic relations.
In our e-mail correspondence, this is what Pavle Heidler says about the process itself and the relationship with the audience:
…the performance is, theoretically speaking, no different than the rehearsal. The difference is there of course, because Behind the Sun is a project that develops in cooperation with the audience. I often invite one or more ”test viewers” to watch the rehearsal. They are sometimes people who have already seen the performance/practice (sometimes it’s a mentor, at times a good friend) and sometimes these test viewers are people who have not seen the performance.
Creating unpredictable physical forms and unexpected relationships with his partner results in a mechanism of action and reaction on the basis of movement production – sound production, while the re-configuration of physicality affects the course of sound and vice versa. This game is funny and Heidler insists on naivete and the literality of every movement/gesture in the sense of witnessing the uniqueness of the gesture (either sound gesture or physical gesture), as well as the fact that it is instantaneous and transient. The performers follow and develop every movement, no matter how embarrassing, awkward or funny.
By repeating the syllables the performers occasionally reach the potential for meaning (in words such as sun or sin, ja or aj), but lingering on the meaning is short-lived, because the mechanics of the performance goes on. To put it simply, this practice brings to mind mantric mumbling, as well as the inability or unwillingness to articulate, but the performer’s play with emotional charge, prolonging or shortening the syllables, changing the color of his voice, opens an enormous array of possibilities for interpretation and associations and is completely controlled by the process and perception of the audience.
From our e-mail correspondence:
The method came to be quite accidentally. One day I was playing with words and I started to repeat the word table: table table table table…I remembered that when I was little, I used to repeat my own name until it became strange and I liked the feeling of alienation from my own name…I also like the author’s relationship with the material where the author is not the ruler, but the material is the ruler and the author is the one who takes care of the material.
With the tandem Lightune.G the performer is constantly someone or something else: at one point it’s the authors, then the objects, the energy of the lights and at the end the audience. With Heidler the performer is the dancer, but his process is a far cry from the famous notion of what a dance performance is and which skill sets (s)he must have:
The Process of Materialisation of Fiction, as I call the practice that sets Behind the Sun in motion, demands from the practitioner/performer to know his or her inner monologue and the relationship of that monologue with performative results. It requires very high levels of concentration during the performance, so the practitioner/performer could be capable of following the development of his inner monologue and the reactions of the audience simultaneously. Seeing as how this practice is demanding, I usually do not ask performers to join me. Colleagues have joined in voluntarily, for various reasons. This is why the practice, the moment it gets a new member, comes into being during the development of sharing among all practitioners. Learning about the experience of another becomes part of learning about one’s own understanding and the general development of the practice.
Pavle Heidler chooses a clear starting point for his practice – it is accidental, playful, banal, naive, perhaps even dadaistic – and develops it by means of a complex improvisational method. The choreography or performance becomes a practice which attracts certain practitioners, not its interpreters; it spreads through interest and not audition or selection. The spectator is a collaborator, a friend, an experimental receiver.
I will write about the following two projects from a different standpoint – that of a performer and co-author, preoccupied with these topics within my own choreography and performance practice.
A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful disaster is a performance based on the topic of a politics story that had its premiere in 2011. Its authors are the female collective Institute for Catastrophy and Chaos the members of which are artist and activist Selma Banich, ballerina Deana Gobac, theatrologist Nataša Govedić, dance artists Roberta Milevoj and Iva Nerina Sibila. The story topic in the performance is present as a personal confession, an artistic expression, as a myth and as a political narrative. We have developed different aspects of the same topic collectively, but have stayed consistent in individual approaches.The stories in WWWD range from anecdotes to deeply personal ones on the one hand and very political ones on the other. As a co-authorial performance with elements of improvisation, outbursts of real time and social engagement, WWWD also has, alongside fixed parts, ”open” parts in which it includes the audience. This collective is also specific because it exits the field of performing arts and enters the field of activism, which can be seen not only in the chosen topic itself, but also in the fact that they organized a series of workshops with marginalized groups.
Going back to the idea of the lineage of Happenings, this project is getting closer to the structure of compartments, (19) which is a result of the specific decision that the final peformance should contain almost all material produced during rehearsals, and not merely a condensed, dramaturgically closed, selected whole. The lack of giving privilege to one segment of the process for the purpose of the ”quality” of the final product is one of the reasons for that decision, the other being the wish to consistently present the process to the audience.
Personally speaking, the most interesting ”compartment” of WWWD, which I therefore add to the further consideration of nonmatrix performance, has the working title The field of desire and exists within the performance as a continuous discussion initiated by the question What is it you want? The situation is a product of the fact that as a collective we did not manage to find a satisfying performative answer to the chosen question so we decided to include it in the final performance as it was and thereby stay consistent with the process itself. It is about a real discussion between the performers and the audience, but with very firm limitations in terms of time, rhythm and inner rules which are fuses of sorts that always lead the discussion into a new situation. The act of exiting the sheltered situation of the agreed upon and prepared performance and entering into an open and unpredictable dialogue with the audience is strengthened with the array of tasks that keeps the improvisation within the agreed upon register. As performers, we simultaneously work with several tasks: with the limitations of not repeating lines, with quick reactions, with imagination, personal history and with the audience. Re-arrangement and the multitasking method have been developed so that when it comes to recurring performances (WWWD has been playing for two years), the real nonmatrix game can be maintained. The game is being led, as is the case with the authors of Happenings, by avoiding to follow a script which is a result of the repetition of ”successful”, funny or easily memorable improvisation situations.
The Macedonian-Croatian-Belgian dance artist Aleksandra Janeva Imfeld deals with the same problems in her recent project The Connector. As far as these four projects are concerned, she is the closest to the form of Happening and she sometimes even refers to it directly. Janeva Imfeld describes her own project in the following manner:
The Connector is a working situation which is imagined as an open archive that is there to inform the participants and visitors about the past and is open to them to contribute with their own thoughts or actions. It is an interdependent space in which everyone should find a way to co-exist. This research wants to transmove (in movement, sound, visual installations, different actions..) the topic that is present in the working space. It is focused on giving value to the involvement of people in a discussion or a physical action as a valuable performance on its own.
The project takes place in five international residencies (Antwerpen, Bruxelles, Zagreb – Student Center, November 2013, Leuwen and again Bruxelles) where the invited artists from various media go through games, discussions and unpredictable real situations, enabling the author to develop an ad-hoc collective. Lighting designer Laurence Halloy, graphic designer Mirjana Grabovac and performers Željko Drmić and Iva Nerina Sibila, as well as the author herself, were participants of the Zagreb residency.
One of the central topics that Janeve Imfeld deals with are the mechanisms of a collective decision making, which are neither consensus nor outvoting, but rather the protocols of re-arrangement and ”mutation” of ideas, through the filter of the participant’s memories, their associations or current interest. The topic of every residency is found spontaneously, via the mechanic process of play and not the author’s real interest.
The second important topic is the relationship between the performative and the everyday, which the author solves by constantly tracking the current situation; from objects that occupy the space to people who accidentally enter the space or the current needs of every single performer/participant. Every detail becomes part of the team or the material of the performance.
With every day of the residency there is an accumulation of archive material or ad-hoc collective history, which makes the situation all the more complex. Everything in the space is being marked, either on cardboard boxes, the white school chalkboard or is being filmed with a camera and then edited. The space of the performance, which can be described as a structured improvisation, is constantly getting more full, physically speaking – filled with notes, projections and objects, and also improvisation material – the reference field is filled with a constantly mutating archive of an artificially induced history.
Danae Theodoridou, a performer and explorer of performance states the following: What is at stake in the artist’s creative process is what she calls ‘(e)quality’. This refers to a form of equality that does not depend on the total homogenization of people who can be easily manipulated by any totalitarian regime, but instead on a deep exploration of the subtle qualities of our meetings, discussions, decisions and activities. Janeva Imfeld is particularly interested in our most basic mundane actions. How do we talk to each other and how do we discuss? How do we gather around a table? How do we make decisions when we share a process? How do we build structures, contexts, spaces in which to co-exist?
The skills that are required from the participants are very specific: the primary skills of the performers are limitations in this context because the code of the performance consists of gathering the skills of all participants. Improvisation technologies are protection keys only to a certain extent, because the task within the performance is going back to material that has already been worked through via the matrix of the moment, as opposed to improvisation which presupposes reactions that are always unpredictable. Janeva Imfeld calls the skill that this method develops ”instant authorship”, the ability of a person to react in a multilayered way in the moment, in an unpredictable situation, to not get lost in the collective game as an individual, but to make a clear personal statement and at the same time support every situation that becomes the moment and deepens it, opening up a parallel performing reality.
Today’s audience does not accept being reduced to the position of voyeur. The performers also openly admit being ready for crisis, rather than an illusion of a sure answer. Communication and recognition are at play here: the chapters of Ligtherature readings seem like a simple enumeration of possibilities of solar panels as a ”new instrument” which can last as long as the interest and playfulness of the author lasts and yet, they possess an Icarian utopian note. Behind the Sun defies the line between performance and rehearsal, thereby exiting the market of artistic products and getting closer to the need to create a community outside of the given system. The Institute for Catasthropy and Chaos develops the mechanisms of the collective as the only possible way for women-artists to survive. The Connector looks for complex methods of unity and performance, which is in fact reality multiplied and intensified to its maximum. There are no more performers, authorship is not being developed, it is being lived.
All of these multilayered topics which bind performance and the banal, the market and the explorational, the private and the public, the physical and the metaphysical, have roots, models, even collocutors in the era (from today’s perspective one might even say in the mythic times) of the early Cage, Cunningham, Kaprow or Klein and others. It seems to me that the contemporary performing arts practice of the 21st century is hardly moving away from them in all of its mutated, transformed and multimedial variants.
translated from Croatian by Koraljka Suton
(1) I am referring to the book Happenings and Other Acts. 1995. Ur. Mariellen R. Sanford. Routledge. London and New York.
(2) Ibid., p. 9.
(3) Ibid., p. 186
(4) Ibid., p. 13.
(5) Kirby describes this connection in the following way: ”Just as the words ”play” and ”drama” have a historical usage which should not be replaced with ”Happening” or ”Event” unless the fundamental elements are different, the word ”dance” has an accepted meaning which takes precedence over any terminology. And certain contemporary developments in dance are a very important part of the new theatre. Although these developments are the result of progressive aesthetic changes within the field, the form has been brought to that point where many formal and stylistic similarities exist between contemporary dance works and pieces presented by nondancers that are not referred to as ”dance.”
(6) Ibid., p. 113.
(7) Ibid., p. 47.
(8) Ibid., p. 7.
(9) Ibid., p. 128.
(10) Ibid., p. 282.
(11) Ibid., p. 198.
(12) Ibid., p. 271.
(13) A similar protocol of sound production was used by John Cage in his work Water-Walk where he was moving through a labyrinth of various everyday water sound sources according to a certain template. Available at
(14) There is a similarity with the light performances of Otto Piene, member of the group ZERO from Düsseldorf, who created his first Grid Pictures in 1957, where he dealt with the articulation of light as an energy source. Light from moving torches was projected through grids, thus extending and stimulating the viewer’s perception of space and demonstrating that light is energy. He later on creates works of art he calls Lichtballette (”light ballet”).
(15) From the program booklet.
(16) The link can be found in the first action that Vostell called Happening – Ligne PC Petite Ceinture, performed on July 3rd 1962 in Paris where the audience was asked to get on a bus (PC line), ride around Paris and write down their acoustic and visual impressions.(17)The conversation with Bojan Gagić about this project is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVuGwh2QhF8.
(18) Anna Halprin about the role of sound: ”We began to allow the voice to become an integral part of movement, where breathing became sound or some heightened feeling stimulated certain associative responses and a word came, or a sound, or a shout. Free-association became an important part of the work. This would very often manifest itself in dialog. We began to deal with ourselves as people, not dancers.” Happenings and Other Acts, p. 114.
(19) …Happenings have abandoned the plot or story structure that is the foundation of our traditional theatre. Gone are the clichés of exposition, development, climax and conclusion..Happenings employ a structure that could be called insular or compartmented.
Ibid., p. 4.