Collaboration and Happenings: Kaprow’s Control

The reason that the performance worked in one sense was that it was very controlled. A reason that it did not work, in aother sense, was that it was too controlled, and people do not like to be controlled in that way. 

–Allan Kaprow on collaboration in Happenings in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz

Studying modes of shared work in Creative Collaboration, Vera Johns-Steiner makes the point that group work “liberate[s the members], for a time, from the prison of the self … [and] taking risks, buoyed by collaborative support, contributes to a developing, changing self” (188). The double function, indicated by Johns-Steiner, of collective creative practice to, on one hand, interfere with the limitations of the self-identified subject, and on the other hand to contribute to reformative growth that fulfills the progress of the dialectic, is a strangely complicated one. This double function encourages flexibility in exchange that challenges fixed ideas of the self at the same time that it promotes the ongoing concern with developing that contained self within a dialectics of collective or social progress. This is in some ways a strange paradox that informs much of what is problematic about collaboration. At once we seek to destroy the individual subject and at the same time insist that he produce a better version of himself. But perhaps destruction and improvement can be rethought in terms of permeation and distribution. If collaboration has any serious value it lies not in its instrumental worth, how it helps us work harder, faster, or more creatively, Rather its worth lies in its capacity to serve as a process that unfolds self-awareness in the individual as an actor whose roles and functions, both constructive and disruptive, are deeply implicated in many and varied commingled, distributed networks of association and action.

To consider these complex, associations, I begin with a discussion of work that has historically been called collaborative, whether intentionally or otherwise; that is I offer an analysis of early “Happenings” by Allan Kaprow. The next post will discuss the practice of producing multi-media works and experimental musical compositions by Meredith Monk. I will round out the discussion in a third post that turns to early dance experiments by Anna Halprin and her collaborators to comparatively develop a geneology of collaborative process that considers its value beyond the instrumentalizing purposes to which it has been deployed in business, academic institutions, and art-making practices on the whole.

Allan Kaprow, Happenings, and the Non-Object

As part of a larger concern in the 1950s and 60s with resisting the way capitalism generates subjectivity through its spectacle exemplified in work by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, and others, Allan Kaprow began in the late 1950s to stage what he and his colleagues called “Happenings.”[1] These were highly orchestrated but spontaneous-appearing installations and performances that appropriated the objects and actions of everyday life to make excessive gestures toward disrupting the political and formal austerity of the New York gallery system of the time.

1.2 Kaprow

Figure 1.2. Performance still from Allan Kaprow, Yard (1967), Martha Jackson Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Julian Wasser/Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Often situating these projects in non-traditional exhibition spaces, like a chicken ranch, a department store, or the unused storage yard of an Upper East Side gallery (Figure 1.2), Kaprow sought to open unlikely spaces in which his audience could participate as part of the artwork, rather than as a passive receiver of objects, as a way to activate everyday life through aesthetic practice. Much has been written about the ways in which Happenings disrupted expectations for art viewing and thus affected the viewer in unexpected ways. Rather than contribute to this particular critical direction, this study focuses on the development of the formal structures Kaprow employed to initiate and present the works in order to understand what might be thought as collaboration in this work.

Formally, Kaprow did not consider Happenings best executed through spontaneity. Rather, as they progressed, Happenings became minutely staged affairs, determined to the last chime of a bell. Kaprow’s statement in Michael Kirby’s Happenings specifically criticized assumptions by the media and an uninformed public that the term “Happening” reflected the growing cultural informality of his time; he was not encouraging “dropping out” but increasing attention, even though the focus of that attention was directed toward what might be determined the banal or quotidian. He states that “people … suspect every authored Happening of being no more than a casual and indifferent event, or … at best … a ‘performance’ to release inhibitions…I try to impress everyone with the fact that I really direct a Happening inside out” (Kirby 47). Rather than proliferate an air of cultural negligence as a way to resist bourgeois manners and concerns, Kaprow crafted conversations by employing elaborate scores to orchestrate irony, chance, and dissonance as resistance to the way capitalism controls the creation of subjectivity and to invite moments when this control might be skirted.

In his graduate thesis work on Mondrian and then in his later article on Jackson Pollack, Kaprow theorizes the way that “a non-aesthetical point of view [or almost ritual loss of self in the creation of the artwork], … is essentially self-transforming, rather than [a] pictorial” or representational presentation of ideas (Kostelanetz 104). This self-transformation was important to social movements, like the Situationist International in France, that following Marx saw industrialized society as capable of changing the very basis of human nature and therefore of human endeavor. In his painting and collage practice, Kaprow sought to “…fill in the area around the spectator – [to] … surround you — … very much like Pollock in the middle of his painting…” (108), and then to extend that experience beyond the limits of the painted canvas, beyond the limits of the metaphor, to “keep that relationship [between viewer and art object/practice] real and constant.” In this way, the aesthetic and the quotidian become intermingled such that they are constantly affecting one another and actively developing experiences that inform subjectivity beyond the instrumentalizing needs of capital labor. In visionary style, Kaprow extended this transformative experience evoked by the artwork and by the art making practice beyond himself as artist in order to include anyone who might experience the work.

Even though his intention was to liberate the production of subjectivity from the controls of capital by activating the passive position of the viewer as an active participant in the meaning-making processes of aesthetic practice, Kaprow’s detailed control over the aspects of the artwork points to a practice that engages the viewer as material medium more than agential contributor. The viewer is an active object, the irony of which serves to strengthen the critique of capitalism but does not provide indicate a careful consideration of the activity of collaboration, which implies a certain kind of muddling of hierarchic relations via exchange. To better illustrate this, I offer an extended description of viewer involvement in 18 Happenings in Six Parts, installed and performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York in 1959.


Figure 1.3. Installation view from Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), Ruben Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Fred W. McDarrah.

Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts was Kaprow’s most developed attempt to involve all aspects of human creative activity without merely recreating one form of practice in an unlikely place. That is to say, many previous experiments with installation that included sound and people moving through a space had been unsatisfactory to Kaprow because they seemed too close to some other form of practice, like theatre and he wanted to disrupt all categories more intensely. 18 Happenings included collaged dimensional “paintings” and pseudo-sculptures that, along with plastic sheeting and folding chairs (Figure 1.3), created a strange environment that was part art gallery, part theatre, part construction zone. The performance involved banal activities, structured movement, and noise making at designated periods. Significantly, the work was designed to include the audience through the invitation to attend, seating arrangements, and prescribed moments for moving and verbal expression. Curator Paul Schimmel said of the piece that it “manipulated the audience to a degree virtually unprecedented in 20th century art” (Schimmel 22). The choice of the term “manipulated” is key to understanding how the audience became another material element in the complex composition Kaprow contrived in this work.

A detailed written script was composed that included noise, gesture, and configuration of elements in the space of the gallery. This including diagrams of movement that appear like schematics for assembling an air conditioning unit (Figure 1.4). Kaprow issued invitations to specific viewers, gallerists, other artists, and collectors, all important actors in the New York City art world of the day. He also ordered strict seating arrangements, which included dictating when viewers could speak or move during the course of the event. At times his instructions specifically separated friends and forced known rivals together. While the works appeared at the time deconstructed and casual, especially in comparison to the stultifying formality of traditional painting and sculpture exhibitions, they were, according to Kelley, “as planned as any New York social event” (Kelley 34).


Figure 1.4. Script for 18 Happenings in Six Parts.

Kaprow and other artists or actors executed most of the piece, with the audience participating in specific ways as directed by the artist. In one room, a group of actors would play instruments, while in another a woman would squeeze orange juice (Figure 1.5). As Kelley reports, “… On note cards given to audience members [all specifically invited to the event], Kaprow wrote: ‘The performance is divided into six parts. Each part contains three happenings which occur at once. The beginning and the end of each will be signaled by a bell. At the end of the performance two strokes of the bell will be heard…You have been given three cards. Be seated as they instruct you” (30). Following Kaprow’s instructions was key to the successful completion of the work; the viewer had been transformed from a passive receiver or consumer to a passive actor or material. He assigned groups that would then be moved around and reapportioned as the work continued; “…that is to say, group A would not just move to another spot, but it would get mixed up with segments of group B and C and so on” (110). The cards they received at the beginning instructed them to move seats or speak or exercise a gesture at a predetermined time but they were to do these things “without their comprehension of the reasons.”

1.5a kaprow 18


1.5b kaprow

Figure 1.5. Performance stills. 18 Happenings in Six Parts. (1959), Ruben Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Fred W. McDarrah.

The audience involvement, important to the overall function of the work as an “active field whose outlines are very, very uncertain so that they blend in and out of daily life” (Kostelanetz 109) was clearly extraordinarily controlled, or at least Kaprow intended it to be. He recognized that the viewers were part of the work, “whether they considered it or not” and although “some of them didn’t like it,” he insisted that they be understood, in the overall meaning of the work, as intentional components like the actors, instruments, and assemblages constructed by Kaprow in the studio. Regardless of his engagement with theories of chance, he did not make room in his composition for the arbitrary elements the audience might introduce as collaborators. He worried “how can I keep these people still?” and “if one of them has a red coat and that doesn’t work in the composition, can I get rid of it?” While noise was carefully explored as a way to extend the painted surface in time and space, he asked “if during the sound performance someone [from the audience] says something that I don’t like, should I shut him up?” These are clearly concerns that seem in opposition to the engagement with the randomness and complexity of everyday life important to Kaprow, where indiscriminate colors, sounds, and movement are never subject to the control of a single mover, unless everyday life occurs under totalitarian edict.

The strict formal composition of the work carried with it a judgment that had to do with Kaprow’s reception of the audience member’s input. One participant in 18 Happenings made noise that was perceived by Kaprow as antagonistic. It was “not so much the sounds but the attitude of the person that I didn’t like. It was aggressive.” Due to the strict control of the score, “freedoms were carefully limited … [and] random sound of any kind, even well-intentioned, wasn’t really appropriate” (108-109) in Kaprow’s conception of the work. If they agreed to attend the piece, the audience members needed to follow Kaprow’s rules and not to question the reasons or to express an affective reaction to either the acts themselves or to the control imposed by the artist.

While Happenings have been called collaborative since the beginning due to the way they include the viewer as part of the work, the nature of the involvement is clearly problematic. In a 1993 article in Art Journal, Johanna Drucker, indicates that “…Happenings were a form of collaboration without object, that is, without either a preconceived goal or a resulting product” (51). She goes on to say that “as collaborations…[the Happenings] were activities, artworks, in themselves, which were most distinctly defined as relations among individuals” (51 emphasis in original). She foregrounds the shift from emphasis on objects made by a single artist that represent relations among people, to events that feature interactions among players which “displace the singular authority of the artist” (53), emphasize sociability, and engender a situation of cooperative interaction. But the nature of relations that occur in the strict confines of preordained, inflexible rules is not one of exchange, but one of either use-value or tyranny. Further, if the intention included no desire to achieve a preconceived goal, then unanticipated contributions from human actors (or non-human ones for that matter, if say a machine broke or a lightbulb burned out) seemingly could occur without destroying the work and without requiring the moral qualification of that contribution as disruptive in a way the artist “didn’t like?”

Granted, Drucker’s emphasis is on the “non-object, non-product orientation of these events,” but still it is curious that she insists on collaboration as the process involved in this dissolution of the traditional object. The grounds she provides for calling Kaprow’s work collaborative is that it features “simultaneity of actions, a certain mildly destructive impulse, a random quality to the relatedness of events, and collective activity” (53). Clearly Kaprow did not accommodate random relations in 18 Happenings, and the mildly destructive impulse may have been unidirectional, with Kaprow being the only one permitted to act upon this impulse. By collective activity, Drucker indicates the immediacy of the interaction among invited participants and Kaprow’s scripted performances, which a close reading of the script and Kaprow’s intention reveals to be anything but immediate. While he most certainly activated the audience within the artwork, this is not the same as creating an environment of exchange where the process of interaction is as important as the object or event itself. I do not take issue with Kaprow turning his viewers into a material element in his artwork, but I insist that collaboration involves a certain level of two-way exchange, where the unpredictable input of all participants must be accommodated; otherwise, the input becomes inert and the materiality of each element, from toy rattle to shouting human, is ignored.

Drucker strongly argues that Kaprow’s Happenings, and those of other artists’ from the same period, manifest a truly dematerialized non-object that was entirely about the collaborative interaction in the moment. Her description of collaboration, however, accepts the common assumption that any kind of interaction is an experience of shared work, regardless of the nature of the exchange and without accounting for the retention of authorial importance on the part of the initiating artist. Kaprow’s insistence on the following of a precise course of events, developed entirely by him, severely restricts the kind of interaction he allowed in the work.

Failure and Collaboration: Noise in the Barn and Other Ways to Play

Kaprow’s ongoing dissatisfaction with the way the audience resisted his control, a problem that resulted in his abandonment of this style of working, points to the problems inherent to this particular approach to collaboration. Exchange implies that both parties can both give and receive input; immediacy in interaction involves a certain level of acceptance that scores can only provide guidelines and then “everyday life” intervenes. Perhaps the ways in which this work fails for Kaprow is the starting point for a more productive consideration of how collaboration begins to shift subjectivity in spite of and beyond authorial control.

In the 1950s, Kaprow was teaching at Rutgers and living in the New Jersey countryside, not far from his friend and fellow artist, George Segal, who owned a chicken farm. In the spring of 1958, they invited a group of their art colleagues to Segal’s farm for a picnic. Without informing anyone, Kaprow had planned a participatory event, Pastorale, which turned out to be less pastoral than he anticipated.

To create an environment that would combine Kaprow’s earlier three-dimensional collage pieces with a sort of country idyll/casual picnic setting, he and Segal constructed an improvised set from “eight-foot-high poles decorated with satin banners intended to catch the afternoon light, with plastic sheeting stretched between them. Kaprow’s plan was to ask the picnickers to jump through the plastic sheeting, sit in the chicken coops rattling noisemakers, paint a canvas together, and engage in a series of slow, ritualistic movements” (Kelley 25). The artists, drunk and hot from sitting in the spring sun, were uninterested in leaving their spots on the grass when invited to participate in Pastorale; so they refused. They also “felt they were being pressed into service for the benefit of another artist’s work,” and found Kaprow’s directions and expectations “fascistic” (27). Kelley states that finally “the event fell apart, its formal structure disintegrating into a comedy of catcalls and antics.”

We might venture that the other artists’ failure to engage in Kaprow’s prescribed spontaneity was the real success of the work, in terms of collaboration. There is little material difference between spontaneous catcalls and scripted noisemakers in the chicken coop: both are jarring and absurd; both disrupt the potential for a “pastorale” environment. If breaking plastic is intended as a way to challenge or invigorate the figurative “surface” of the canvas, then perhaps failing to break it or only drunkenly mocking the suggestion is a deviation that involves a more intense engagement with the concept by the invited artists than even Kaprow’s proposal could provide.

In the end, Kaprow thought this work, and all the Happenings in a way, a failure because people didn’t respond the way he desired. But it is possible to say that this piece succeeded on a much more elemental level because of its perceived failures. The artists participated in Kaprow’s initial invitation to join in the picnic, but they played in a complex way that layered the affects of heat and alcohol consumption, the desire for rest and the kind of boring but seductive conversations that often occur under such circumstances, the environmental differences between urban and rural milieux, and the ways in which the invited artists perceived, defined, and executed spontaneity in expression. Kaprow’s reflection afterward led him to decide upon more “adequately informing” his participants and securely setting the stage to evoke the kind of participation he scripted. While this decision did not help him achieve his goals ultimately, his choice to focus on pedagogy as a way to obtain outcomes moved the work away from making room for complex subjectivities to emerge through the unexpected. It retained instead a clearly defined boundary between artist and viewer, participant as art medium, like paint, plastic, or found object, rather than as intentional contributor.

Collaboration must be something more than merely including viewers as material elements, switch flippers or noise makers, in a predetermined course of events. It must extend beyond the making of participants into flexible media with which an author can mould something that claims to be radical but which is really just another version of the status quo. In Hypertext 2.0, media theorist George Landow names two types of collaboration: one type involves two or more people constructing a document or object together by working on parts and exchanging those for review and “versioning” which is conducted “out of the presence of the other collaborator and at a later time” (105); and the other is a networked type of collaboration that is follows an “assembly-line or segmentation model of working together,” which he finds to blur the boundaries of authorship. While these descriptions encompass the scope of what often comprises collaborative work in the minds of many, they are indeed still limited by both the adherence to the territory of “my text” or “my experiment” and to the linear concept of time that envisions everything, even creativity, as occurring sequentially.

I do not wish to deny the validity a range of collaborative work styles like the ones Landow describes, or the possibility that they are useful, productive, or even interesting ways to share creative labor. It is simply that I wonder whether they do full justice to the potentials of the practice of collaboration and its capacity for giving rise to ethical questions about subjectivity formation, conflict, community formation in terms of instability and failure. While complicating authorship is an interesting effect of shared labor, it is certainly not the most important intervention collaboration makes in either labor practices or the processes of forming subjectivity. If this is a method for working that is to retain its validity, and not to be discarded as an imposition on the private sphere of each participant, it becomes important to examine where the intensities of collaborative work gives access to territories and affects occurring outside the customary boundaries of waged labor, personal identity, and stable subject positions. The trends from the last thirty years or more to evoke multiplicity, fragmentation, and chaos in art, film, and literature and online knowledge practices, (with gentle or perhaps superficial nods to quantum physics), which are so apparent in the processes of creative collaboration, serious attention must be paid to unpacking a complex description of collaborative methods, to the affects they generate, the aesthetic theories they engender, and the significant effects they have upon subjectivity.

The strident engagement with difference and the multiplicity occurring in the complex time presented in the introduction to this volume is the perhaps the most radical contribution of collaborative practice, not the erasure of authorship or a simple “strength in numbers” kind of problem solving. When awareness of how contending with difference, without erasing or conflating it, is brought to the problem of sharing labor, participants become hotly porous to the needs, desires, and situations of each other, rendering the movements of trans-subjectivity, described previously as a transient commingling of identities and bodies in networked flows, active, acute, and significant. A project involving a group of international feminist scholars provides some examples of the kinds of tensions arising in difference that can productively nurture insight into the importance of foregrounding difficulty. Allowing that disagreement and dissension are part of the process of working out an theoretical problem with material consequences, namely global feminism, that has a history of alienation in spite of its liberatory intentions. The following situations begin to show that, at its best collaboration encourages discord because in the fraught moment, the unexpected turn, invisible tensions are made visible and collisions engender unexpected paths that could be interesting to follow.

[1] While a number of artists were involved in staging Happenings from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, including Red Grooms, Claes Oldenberg, Jim Dine, and Robert Whitman, I am focusing here on Kaprow because he has been discussed in terms of “collaboratively” incorporating viewers as part of the work. My argument attempts to complicate the question of collaboration in his work pointing to the way that Kaprow’s project makes the viewer into a kind of art material, a medium for making art, more than a creative participant in the making of work. This differs for example from work by Milan Knížák, a Czech artist active in the 1960s and discussed at length by Claire Bishop (2012, 131-139) who also staged “Happenings” but which Bishop claims are “more poetic and prevocational than Kaprow’s” (132) thanks largely to the oppressive, dangerous social conditions under which he worked.