Sunday, October 21, 2007

Musings On "The Happening"

In a few weeks I'll be taking part in a lecture-performance organised by dramaturge Steve Valk. This is part of his RICE initiative, which sometimes stands for Radical Institute of Cybernetic Epistemology and sometimes maybe Reality-Informed Catalytic Events. One of the starting points for this particular event is the idea of "the happening". Here I'd like to explore that concept in a personal way that also touches on important historical facts and winds through various areas of passionate interest.

For many years in Canada I contributed to a loose collective known as the Bum Band. The reference was to a hobo and not a part of the anatomy, though the confusion was deliberate. And "band" meant not just a musical grouping but also a "band of brothers" -- sisters too! The Bum Band engaged in music, comedy, theatre, performance art, radio... whatever. I think only once were we hassled by the police, but that too came with the territory.

(I am in part reminded of this because one of the "leading lights" of the bum band, Jeff Culbert, is visiting in Ireland. He is a director, actor, and musician, besides being a sometime politician, teacher, writer, radio producer and playwrite. He hopes to perform at least some of these roles while in this country. I hope he won't mind me mentioning this in public.)

At the time I was "inspired" by the Fluxus movement, a word we must remember means "to flow". The most famous proponent of this in the popular imagination would be Yoko Ono. An antecedent would be Marcel Duchamp (a touchstone for me). I participated in a major exhibition honouring Duchamp, the only time in London, Ontario that the university gallery, city art gallery and parallel (eg: independent) gallery worked together. Integration!

Fluxus (born 1962, named by architect and designer George Maciunas) was all about making art with whatever was at hand, that is, Do It Yourself. It incorporated humour, simplicity and new combinations of media ("intermedia"). Joseph Beuys was one member of this loose group, but it was notable for having a high number of female participants. However, the origins of Fluxus lie with John Cage's experimentations with simple recipes as scores, which began in the 1950s. This is particularly relevant to my own practice as a sound artist.

The DIY attitude was taken up by the punk and post-punk musicians of England, Germany and elsewhere following on 1976. Though punk was a standard reversioning of rock, what it allowed to break free created the most fertile period popular music has yet seen. Post-punk music eschewed musicianship, broke genre conventions, challenged patriarchal assumptions, and so on. But most importantly, post-punk shattered the commercial structures which bound pop to society. Independent production and distribution of records began, a praxis that has culminated in the free distribution of music via the internet. Capitalism shudders.

The Sex Pistols and those that followed were extremely disruptive to English society, in a way that is perhaps difficult to comprehend today (30 years on). Major outcries in the media and public called for their death, figuratively and literally. On television a London councilor said "The Sex Pistols would be vastly improved by sudden death. I would like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of them in it".

Greil Marcus has written on this movement with poetry and astute vision. His book Lipstick Traces locates punk on a direct historic line from the situationists, who explicitly influenced Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and record sleeve designer Jamie Reid, an anarchist who ran a radical political magazine.

The Situationist International (SI), started in 1957, was a grouping of several different, small, extreme arts groups throughout Europe, but has been most closely associated with the writings of Guy Debord. It was the spiritual successor to Dada and some of the surrealist ideals.

The original definitions that underpinned the movement are important for their emphasis on action and disregard for schools of thought. Thankfully the active web presence of the SI makes referencing these easy. The following are from "Internationale Situationniste" #1 (June 1958).

"Situationist: Relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations."

"Situationism: A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions."

"Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events."

"Psychogeography: The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

It should be emphasised that the SI was revolutionary, and in that respect perhaps too encumbered with the trappings of politics.

The pivotal moment at which the SI broke out into the "real world" was the series of events now grouped under the rubric "May '68". Starting as a student protest some time before that famous month, it is dated from the time the university of Nanterre was shut down by authorities, triggering further reaction and the occupation of the Sorbonne. This remarkable social catalyst ended with the general strike of 10 million workers (the majority of the French workforce at the time).

Some of the famous May '68 graffiti:

"Live without dead time."

"Be young and shut up!"

"Be realistic - demand the impossible!"

"Beneath the paving stones - the beach!"

"Read less, live more."

"Poetry is in the street."

The term "happening" was coined by Allan Kaprow, a painter by trade, in 1957. He created over 200 of these events before moving towards "Activities", more intimate pieces nearly indistinguishable from ordinary life. These illustrated his philosophy: "The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."

But once again we find Kaprow's teacher, John Cage, at the genesis of this movement. His "Theater Piece No. 1" (1952) involved simultaneous activities of the participants throughout the audience: Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards reading poetry, Robert Rauschenberg hanging white paintings and playing old wax cylinders, David Tudor on prepared piano, Merce Cunningham dancing (followed by a dog) and Cage lecturing on Zen.

I'll end this contemplation with a quote from Yoko Ono, whom I wrote about recently in my appreciation of the album Life with the Lions.

"All of my work in fields other than music have an Event bent... event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most Happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also it has no script as Happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving -- the closest word for it may be a wish or hope. After unblocking one's mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perception, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my events are mostly spent in wonderment."


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