Beyond the Happening uncovers the heterogeneous, uniquely interdisciplinary performance-based works that emerged in the aftermath of the early Happenings. Although by the mid-1960s Happenings were widely declared outmoded or even ‘dead’, this book shows how multiple practitioners continued to work with the form during the late 1960s and 1970s, pushing it into complex studies of interpersonal communication that drew on, but also contested, contemporary sociology and psychology. Focusing on Allan Kaprow, Marta Minujín, Carolee Schneemann and Lea Lublin, it charts how they revised and retooled the premises of the Happening. The resulting performances directly contributed to the wider discourse of communication studies, as it intersected with the politics of countercultural dropout, alternative pedagogies, soft diplomacy, cybernetics, antipsychiatry, sociological art and feminist consciousness raising. The network of activity generated through these interactions was inherently international, as artists sought to analyse the power dynamics involved in creating collaborative works in an increasingly globalised world. Beyond the Happening will be of interest to art historians engaged with performance practice after 1960, particularly in the USA, Europe and Latin America, and with the cross-fertilisation uniting Happenings, media art, body art, feminist art, conceptualism, photography film and video.
By the mid-1960s, many practitioners desired to leave behind the notions of ephemerality, transience and improvisation associated with the Happenings of the late 1950s. This is vividly demonstrated by a 1966 attempt to create a simultaneous Three Country Happening by Allan Kaprow, Marta Minujín and Wolf Vostell that establishes the book’s central concerns, revealing how artistic fascination with the politics of communication was spurred by the transnationalism fostered through mass media technologies, together with the ways in which artists drew on sociology and psychology to develop alternative studies of interpersonal relations. Interpersonal communication emerged as a key focal point of sociology and psychology in the postwar period, fuelled by the advent of cybernetics and reactions against psychoanalysis. The introduction situates the Happening’s transnational development in relation to this preoccupation with communication, while proposing that artists working in performance were influenced by the counterculture to create works that resisted determinist, predictive models of interaction.
Chapter 4 extends the focus on feminist analyses of communication in relation to Lea Lublin’s work in France and Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s. During May 1968, in the midst of the protests, strikes and sit-ins that brought Paris to a halt, Lublin exhibited herself with her baby during the Salon de Mai. This sparked multiple actions that sought to denaturalise received social processes, images and ideologies, particularly the sedimentation of communicative habits. Lublin’s interests parallel those of the Collectif d’art sociologique in France, and were contextualised within the transnational cybernetic and sociological frameworks for performance and conceptual art devised by the Buenos Aires-based Centro de Arte y Comunicación. However, Lublin’s denaturalisation exercises diverged from these organisations because of their strongly feminist commitments and engagement with the gendered politics of socialisation.
Carolee Schneemann played a vital role in the development of performance art beyond the early Happenings, formulating what she termed ‘Kinetic Theatre’, which concentrated on the dynamics of group collaboration and sensitisation. Schneemann conducted a sustained investigation of psychosocial interrelation, attempting to transform her Happenings into living, fluid image structures that could facilitate physical and mental communion between participants. Chapter 3 demonstrates how this was elaborated in dialectical relation to contemporaneous sociological, anthropological and psychological studies of communication. This was particularly evident in Schneemann’s 1967 Happening at the Roundhouse in London during the Dialectics of Liberation Congress. While focusing on this event, the chapter roots Schneemann’s vision in her earliest collective actions such as Labyrinth (1960), and concludes by proposing that, although Schneemann stopped making group work in 1970, her critical engagement with sociology and psychology would become an important element of US and UK art practice allied with women’s liberation.
Chapter 2 analyses Marta Minujín’s increasingly countercultural attitude to communication after Three Country Happening, turning to the artist’s subsequent sociological media performances: Circuit (Super Heterodyne) (1967) and Minucode (1968). It reads these works as extended sociability studies, which used feedback to address the power imbalances of cultural capital, the pressures of Cold War soft diplomacy, and the experiences of exile and alienation. The chapter grounds Minujín’s deployment and critique of social science methodologies in the analytical reception of the Happening in Argentina and the dramatic rise of sociology, psychology and psychoanalysis in the country. It shows how the artist’s fascination with sociability, socialisation and cultural capital, and the media’s role in their consolidation, influenced her immersion in the counterculture, and her desire to undermine the disciplinary effects of sociology and psychology by inciting improvisatory relations – notably in her deeply idiosyncratic, provocative New York and Washington, DC Happenings of the early 1970s.
In the late 1960s, Kaprow embarked on a fresh conceptualisation of the Happening as a fusion of radical pedagogy and sociology, which could act an innovative educational tool. Despite Kaprow’s oft-cited ambivalence toward photography, this went hand in hand with a new receptiveness to the medium, with performances incorporating the act of taking photographs as a way of generating knowledge and facilitating interaction. These experiments, which were shaped by sociological writings on education and nonverbal communication, together with conceptual photography, received their fullest treatment in Project Other Ways, a pedagogic collaboration with the educator Herbert Kohl in Berkeley between 1968 and 1969. While Project Other Ways has been treated as an outlier in Kaprow’s practice, Chapter 1 establishes its connections with the artist’s longstanding investment in art education, sociology and communications theory, and with the broader transformation of the Happening during the late 1960s and the 1970s.
The conclusion assesses the impact of performance art’s imbrication with communications theory on contemporary practice, focusing on how artists have used the tactic of the breaching experiment to question received patterns of socialisation. It considers artists including Pilvi Takala, Pope.L, Adrian Piper and Otobong Nkanga, who have mobilised their bodies to challenge patterns of social behaviour and their intense policing according to highly normative models, shaped by constructs of gender, race, sexuality and ability. The conclusion also investigates how artists have used reperformance to continue the experiments explored in Beyond the Happening, but also to highlight their blind spots and take their ideas in new directions.