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On Happenings, Happening: Reflections and Accounts


Originally published as “Sobre Happenings, Happening: Reflexiones y relato,” in Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1967)



When we gathered together in April of 1966 to plan a cycle of Happenings, some of us already questioned the validity and novelty of the genre. We were not sure that it would be possible to improve on manifestations that had taken place in the United States, their country of origin. Even though the genre was universalized and, on the other hand, the boundaries of its concept are fairly imprecise, we were not certain we would not repeat, in a watered-down fashion, something that had already been done.

Later on, toward the beginning of July, when we informed the press about a Happening that had not taken place, we were already thinking of another type of work: of working in the “interior” of the mass communications media. In any case, in a country where everybody was talking about Happenings with scarcely having seen any, it was not a bad idea to try them. We began by informing ourselves about them, and soon we had familiarized ourselves with the work and names of Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneemann, Michael Kirby, Samaras, La Monte Young, Wolf Vostell, Robert Whitman, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Bazon Broch, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Thomas Schmidt, and Joseph Beuys. The more information we gathered, the stronger grew the impression that the possibilities—the ideas—had been exhausted. The idea not to do an original Happening, then, and instead collect various Happenings that had already happened into one Happening suddenly seemed more important to us. What is more, the Happenings could be selected with an intentionality. Soon we decided on one: we would make a Happening that would bring together a group of Happenings of different styles, a grouping that would work as a commentary on the history of Happenings. It would not be a complete history, but certain “marks” would be clearly highlighted. We would be didactic. Further, that history of the Happening would be a Happening made up of Happenings. What made it a true Happening, in the sense that this is what differentiates it from theater, was that various Happenings or fragments of Happenings presented simultaneously or successively constitute a Happening, while several works or fragments of theatrical works do not constitute a theatrical work. Like some animals, Happenings continue to live when divided into segments, and it can be done in such a way that the parts group together, as in the biological world, into colonies.

A colony of Happenings and history of the Happening: however, the title we chose did not have anything to do with either idea. We had found another that managed to motivate us positively. The title selected was About Happenings, with the stress on the first word; in other words, the idea of a commentary, an account. We would make use of a Happening to tell about others. Our Happening would be a mediator, like a language of absent events, already nonexistent, in the past. The events, the facts inside of our Happening, would not just be facts, they would be signs. Put another way, we were excited, once again, by the idea of an artistic activity put onto the “media” and not onto things, information about events and not the events themselves.

That is when we formed a group: Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, Miguel Ángel Telechea, Oscar Bony, and Leopoldo Maler. Masotta would also collaborate. Then we chose the Happenings that we would re-present, and that we believed summed up a historical progression. 1. Meat Joy by Carolee Schneemann 2. A Happening by Claes Oldenburg (we do not know its title) 3. Autobodys, also by Oldenburg 4. A Happening by Michael Kirby (the title of which we do not know) For practical reasons (place, time), the chronological order in which they were performed did not follow this order. The actual order was 3, 2, 4, 1.

The first Happening, Oldenburg’s, was refined and speculative, mildly mortifying for the audience, and took place inside of a show hall, which was also its theme. Autobodys was rougher, spectacular and noisy, with mechanical elements—vehicles were indispensable—and took place in a parking lot. Carolee Schneemann’s piece talked about meat, with human bodies mingling with fish, chickens, strings of sausages; it fit into the sensual current now dominant in France. It was brilliant and showy, and transmitted a certain old beauty that made it appealing to lovers of images. Kirby’s piece was the one we felt was closest to us: there were no plastic images there—or at least they were in the background—but rather mechanical means of information: film, photographs. It was an information media Happening, although the information in it was not mass-oriented.

We had the following information at our disposal to reconstruct the Happenings: In Happenings, Michael Kirby’s book (London: Sedwick and Jackson, 1965), we found the original script of Oldenburg’s Autobodys, from which we reproduce some excerpts below. [Not included in this anthology. Ed.] The original script of Meat Joy can be found in the magazine Some/thing (New York, winter of 1965); also in this publication are to be found the “Notes to Meat Joy,” a collection of images and witticisms jotted down by the author that, together with “French Lessons” (Carolee Schneemann was in France at the time), serves as the basis for the sound recording that accompanies the actions. We also transcribe here what the artist calls the Happening’s “Sequence Diagram,” that is, its script. As for Oldenburg’s other Happening, we had the account that was published in Art News (February 1965) and we reproduce it here in its entirety. Finally, with regard to Kirby’s work we had Masotta’s account, which can be read on pages 163–65 of this volume.1

About Happenings was planned to be part of a cycle of two lectures and three Happenings organized by Masotta and to be performed at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella: it would be the last performance of the cycle. Internal difficulties with scheduling in the performance space of the Institute caused us to postpone and change the date of the event three times. We intuited that these delays would further arouse the curiosity of an audience not accustomed to seeing Happenings, a curiosity piqued at the time in Buenos Aires by the information media’s propagandizing of the term. We ordered posters in which we answered the voiceless and intentional misinformation propagated by the media, changing the title of the Happening. The posters read, “Happenings, Happenings, Happenings.” The result: at nine o’clock p.m. on December 6th, over five hundred people assembled in the foyer and at the doors of the Institute.

Only two hundred of the five hundred were able to enter. Meat Joy was performed on the premises, in a warehouse inside the Institute, the floor of which was only designed to bear the weight of that many people. At first the public had no problem with this. Two hundred people entered the theater and we gave instructions for them to go to a parking lot located less than a block from the Institute on Paraguay Street, between Florida and Maipú. The members of the audience who were in the theater, following the instructions, headed for the parking lot, although followed by the part of the audience that had not been able to enter. Then five hundred people invaded the parking lot on Paraguay Street: Autobodys then became something else. The audience took up the length and width of the parking lot, and the cars had to enter slowly, making their way through the people. The lights and cameras of [the television shows] “Sucesos Argentinos” and “Telenoche” created a small stir around each action. All attention was concentrated wherever there was a spotlight. The actions—that tried to follow the script as faithfully as possible although there was no cement mixer—were only visible to those who were close up. Autobodys required a wide open space so that the vehicles could glide over the floor, but it was performed in a space that was completely packed, on a floor supporting over a thousand human feet. When the actions were over, the spotlights were turned off and the people went back to the Institute.

Immediately there were difficulties at the entrance. Everybody wanted to get in, and those who had tickets had to struggle to filter through the crowd pressing against the doors of the theater. Upstairs everything was ready to start Oldenburg’s second Happening, for which we followed all the instructions we had read (we lacked only the doctor with his little mirror and his actions). The audience, arriving slowly and in clusters due to the situation created at the door, seemed nervous and upset. Pretty soon after they had all entered, the prohibition against sitting down was broken and the audience occupied the seats.

Meanwhile, from the theater’s booth we explained the idea of the Happening over a microphone. We gave information about the authors and the actions of each of the original Happenings and we said—which was the truth—that it was not our intention to repeat Happenings but to produce for the audience a situation similar to that experienced by archeologists and psychoanalysts. Starting from some remains that had been conserved to the present, they had to reconstruct a past, the original situation.

Once the prohibition of sitting was broken, the Happening ended. With the people sitting in the seats we soon started our enactment of Kirby’s piece. Of this work we only conserved the essential. We filmed the team of creators at the Moderno Bar, which is within walking distance of the Institute, and then the same group inside the Institute. We combined the film with slides of the same people—ourselves—and with the repetition of a scene live at one of the bar’s tables on the stage of the theater. A sound recording superimposed on the film and the slides reproduced a conversation that accompanied the visual exhibition. Since the audience realized immediately that the authors of the Happening were the people they were watching on the screen and since a feeling of discomfort and disagreeableness was prevailing, they tried at first to behave negatively. But the attempt at mockery was quickly quelled by the taped dialogue, in which at least one of the audience’s reactions was anticipated: that people would attend the Happening. The film went on to say it didn’t believe much in Happenings, that the genre was dead or out of date, and that in spite of this, the public would attend. From that point on, the people were hooked and gave their full attention to the rest of the projections. The last was a filmed rehearsal of Meat Joy. The audience was told they were viewing a 16mm projection of a rehearsal of the same Happening they were about to see. In the rehearsal the performers did not use fishes and chickens, but any old object, balls, pieces of wood. In a daring shot one of the performers slowly and suggestively bit and licked a piece of wood. The audience was then invited to climb the stairs toward the warehouse where Meat Joy was to be performed.

From the beginning, the audience followed the actions with fascination: The undressing, the entwining of bodies, the paint, the confetti, the real presence of the chickens and the fish, the smell. Perhaps the photographers went a little crazy. They mingled with the performers and there is no doubt they became part of the spectacle. It would not be a mistake to think they believed themselves to be witnessing something sensational. Although perhaps they realized, in some way, that it wasn’t all that sensational. In any case, they did what they could to make it so. We are referring to the cameramen of “Sucesos Argentinos”: within a week a number of pretty good shots of _Meat Joy _were aired on the news, accompanied by the mellifluous, policelike voice of the commentator who called for the “authorities” to intervene before representations of this ilk began to spread.

Miguel Ángel Telechea (second from right) and others in Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, Pablo Suárez, Oscar Bony, and Telechea. Sobre Happenings (On Happenings). 1966. Re-presentation of Carolee Schneeman's Meat Joy, Instituto Torcuato Di Tella. Courtesy Susana Lijtmaer

See pages 193–94 of the present anthology for Masotta’s description. [Ed.]

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