John Wilcock: What's Happening with Happenings

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

January 21, 1965, Vol. X, No. 14

What's Happening with Happenings

By John Wilcock

The worst thing that ever happened to "happenings" was that somebody started to call them happenings. Now we have the interesting situation of people who decide that they must see a happening -- and categorize them by whichever one they happen to attend. So let's get something straight: a creative artist sometimes has a message that he can't convey with a painting, sculpture, composition, or inside any of the traditional "frames." So he may decide to present something that, for the sake of convenience, he tags a happening or environment or event. Some of the happenings are sexy (like the Fluxus group) or funny (Bob Watts), but all are meant to stimulate the mind (or merely the eyes) and it doesn't matter whether you "understand" or not. Sometimes the only thing to understand is that somebody is doing something -- and you're watching him do it.

In Japan the Gutai group started off the current wave of happenings in the early 1950s with an art show in the sky (balloons, kites, etc., from the roof of a department store); in Paris Jean-Jacques Lebel and Ferro have been trying to get a Happenings Workshop started where artists from all over the world can experiment with different techniques and presentations. Last March they staged a Programme de la Libre Expression (in which Carolee Schneemann presented "Meat Joy," the naked body-painting event); next March they'll stage another (for three weeks at the American Artists Centre). In New York at the Cafe Au Go Go, a series of Monday night events has presented many of the current local happenings artists and is still continuing. Happenings, or whatever label is used next, are not a temporary fad; they're going to be around for a long time. They also, incidentally, present non-theatre-goers like me with activity and entertainment that is less formal and less boring than Establishment theatre.

In the New York galleries the accent is still upon action -- flashing neon lights, nude movies, optical effects, moving objects. The most fascinating (and least noticed) opening of the season so far was that of Arni Hendin at the Siegelaub Gallery during the Christmas week.

The only way I can think of defining it is to suggest that it evoked the atmosphere of a country farmhouse attic from everybody's childhood: candles burning in old glass tankards, glass eyes in a thick porcelain cup, a weighing scale filled with dried corn, dressmakers' dummies draped with old raccoon coats, bowls of seaside pebbles and stones, two-thirds of a brightly painted red motorcycle, a dried fish somnolent in a wicked birdcage, old trombones and guitars lying around, wigs hanging on strings from the ceiling, an old phonograph playing old scratchy records, silvered wooden legs lying randomly around.

The most definitive documentation of what happenings are all about has been written by Villager Mike Kirby, whose book on the subject, containing photographs, evaluations, scripts, and statements by the artists, will be published by E.P. Dutton early this spring. Kirby, a sculptor, painter, and sometime drama teacher, is an excellent person to bridge the gap between "art" and "theatre" in that nether area to which happenings belong.

"Happenings should and must receive serious study, because they represent nothing less than a revolution in the theatre," Kirby says. "In form and approach they offer an alternative to and an absolute break with the traditional theatre of Western man."

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. John Wilcock is still going strong at his website, Ojaiorange.com. And at Amazon, you can order his recently released autobiography, Manhattan Memories. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]

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