Allan Kaprow: Art as Life

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Los Angeles
Carola Dertnig

“Happenings were what you call new dance today.”

Simone Forti1

The moon landing took place on my fourth birthday–July 20, 1969. Utopian Viennese architectural team Haus-Rucker-Co. (Laurids Ortner, Klaus Pinter, Günter Zamp Kelp) created an Environment/Happening Mondessen (Moonfood) in the center of Vienna. I remember being interested in a giant piece of cake as high as a three-story building. There were some see-through helium-filled pillows flying towards the moon. The local TV station broadcast the whole event, which included me holding one of those helium-filled, heart-shaped pillows. My grandmother in Tyrol saw me on TV and nearly fainted. TV was not that common back in those days. I remember a second project, Live, that Haus-Rucker-Co. did in 1970. It was a big room filled with a giant inflatable mattress and several clear balloons. Like the bounce-houses now commonplace at the birthday parties of American children, visitors were invited to climb in and jump. The kids loved it, of course, and none of us ever forgot it.

Haus-Rucker-Co., Mondessen (Moonfood), July 20, 1969. The Author is the Blond Child Standing Above The Crowd.

I neither knew nor cared that I had been part of a copy or a spin-off of a Happening. The term “Happening” had long been separated from its original art context, disconnected from what Allan Kaprow meant by his “intentional Happenings” and “Environments,” which he started making in the 1950s. For Kaprow, these terms carried specific meanings and instructions. By the 1970s, Kaprow abandoned the term “Happening” in the face of its generalized popularity, using instead the more neutral “Activity” or “Timepiece.” In the dictionary the noun “happening” is defined as (a) an event or occurrence (as in: altogether it was an eerie happening) or a noteworthy or exciting event (as in: an all-star, superstar, megastar happening); as well as (b) a partly improvised or spontaneous piece of theatrical or other artistic performance, typically involving audience participation (as in: a multimedia happening). As an adjective, it is described as “fashionable, trendy (informal),” (as in: nightclubs for the young are the happening thing). Happenings have become youth-consumer items, crowd pleasers that underwent a further transformation in the 1990s, becoming cool “free parties,” places of youth culture in Berlin and Vienna, very efficient at linking kids to Coca Cola, Nike and yuppie culture. In the U.S., the legacy of happenings might include raves and Burning Man.

However, I would still consider my Haus-Rucker-Co. experience an extension of a Kaprowesque Happening, because I was part of it. A Happening works with collective memory—its reality exists in the genuine and often physical experience had by the participant. Happenings also have an educational element, because you can show your child the documentation in her or his photo album later and say, “See, this was a Happening, an art piece, and you were in it!” The act of conveying the term “Happening” from one generation to another could also be considered a Happening in itself, not unlike my telling you of my experience at age 4 with Haus-Rucker-Co.’s Happening here in these pages.

Allan Kaprow, <em>Original Flyer for Fluids</em>, 1967.

As I write this, Happenings are being enacted all over Los Angeles in association with Allan Kaprow: Art as Life on view at MOCA through June 2008. These Happenings are like bacteria. They are hard to grasp. I wonder if anyone out there has seen all of them. I imagine the chance encounters people are having with these events, experienced without a framework to buttress them as art. Do they get infected? Does it register as art, or history? Does it matter? And just what is a Happening today? If you know a little, this bacterial type of Happening leaves you with the bitter taste in your mouth—like you missed out on something. Kaprow’s Happenings took place at a certain moment, in a certain context. What do they mean as activities now? Or, as the artist Zach Rockhill said after reeinventing Fluids at Performa 07 in New York, the Happening “deepened an already vexing question about doing a performance/happening/event that has already occurred: where on the spectrum of participation and authorship does a ‘reinvention’ lie?”2


  1. The Judson Dance Project 1980-1982. Simone Forti, interviewed by Meg Cottam. Founding members of the Experimental Modern Dance Group active in New York City’s Judson Church in the 1960s discuss their work. Includes archival footage of performances. Series of 7 videocassettes, VHS (New York, The Kitchen, 1983), v. 5.
Further Reading