It happens

7 April 2020

The Noff team investigate the phenomenon of happenings, and offer you some to perform in your own home

A performance of Allan Kaprow's Fluids in Los Angeles, 1961

Happening, n.    A thing that happens, like an event or performance.

The boundary between art and life has always been fuzzy at best. Art is meant to imitate life – or maybe vice versa. But no movement has ever come closer to infringing on the messy intersection between life and art than Happenings in the fifties and sixties.

Happenings were installations or pieces of performance art meant to blur the boundaries between art and life so resolutely that the two would become indistinguishable. They were unpredictable, unrepeatable and above all, zany: Alison Knowles’ piece Make a Salad invited the audience to toss together a gigantic amount of lettuce in tarpaulin, accompanied by live music. Simone Forti’s Rollers featured three performers sitting on boxes with wheels on – they could be pushed and pulled around by the audience, while Allan Kaprow’s Fluids featured groups of participants building structures out of large blocks of ice around Los Angeles (the fact that they melted under the hot California sun as they were being built was part of the spectacle).

Anything was possible. Happenings could be huge community works of art open to all, or very private: a parallel movement, called ‘Fluxus’, posted out cards with instructions for acts of performance on them. One especially avant-garde one written by George Brecht in 1961 simply reads “Exit”.

It’s hard to know how these might have gone down with audiences in the fifties and sixties, and any records are patchy. Writing about his ‘furniture comedy’, Push and Pull, critic Allan Kaprow claimed that some “older women” were so disturbed by the mess and clutter made by other audience members that they “began to straighten things up, as if they were cleaning [a] house”.

We wanted to make some of our own happenings, minus a housework gender gap, so we’ve done just that. These are for you to perform at home with your household or whoever you’re isolating with. Most of them can be performed by one person. The more the merrier, but they don’t strictly need an audience. Peter Brook wasn’t right about everything.

Try out the ones we’ve written. Adapt them. Even better: make up some of your own. Recreate Alison Knowles’ Make a Salad if you have an abundance of lettuce and a large group of people. Or try doing it with coffee.

Wrap yourself in something as tightly as you can: a duvet, a towel, a sleeping bag. Curl up tightly, making sure you can still breathe. Ask a friend to ‘untie’ you. Resist them.

An adaptation of Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy. For as many or as few people as you like. To be played across one or two rooms.
Using the furniture and objects around you, create a new room to live in. Furnish it.

Marry your iPhone.

We want you to write your own happenings, or send us adaptations of ones you’ve read about here. Make them better. Come up with your own. Then pop them in the mail ([email protected]) or send us videos (@noffmag) and we’ll include them in our zine, out later this week, which anyone will be able to print off and make by themselves (just like a happening). 

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Dennis Hopper