A CO-OPERATION BETWEEN MUNICH’S HAUS DER KUNST AND THE FESTIVAL DANCE2006
By Helmut Ploebst
The reconstruction, re-enactment or here, “re-doing” of Allan Kaprow’s landmark opus “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” by the New York-based dance theoretician André Lepecki in co-operation with the curator Stephanie Rosenthal at Haus der Kunst in Munich presented a genuine highlight of the festival Dance2006.
The work, performed for the first – and last – time in 1959 at New York’s Reuben Gallery co-founded by Kaprow, was not only the terminological birthplace of the “happening” but also an important step towards a new orientation of several old art genres. It is a spatial, pictorial, choreographical and acoustical construct in which the audience, too, is “organised” and has to change places according to plan. This also makes that happening a predecessor of the artistic or curatorial performance course established today in various forms, where the visitors wander from performance place to performance place within an architecture. Among the most impressive courses of the last decade were Meg Stuart’s performances of her project “Highway 101” on the artistic side, and on the curatorial one Hortensia Völckers' “Wahlverwandtschaften” in the framework of Wiener Festwochen 1999.
Extension of Framework
Saying that Kaprow’s actions are “either not yet theatre or theatre no more” exactly indicates the continuously growing blank position of “theatre”, within which choreography and performance define a new form. Due to the dynamic of Kaprow’s placements und its consequences, the genres’ frameworks [Translator’s note: the author here uses the term “Ge-Stelle” which is quite intranslatable in this context. The hyphenated form of the word indicates a stress on “Stelle”, meaning place or stand.] which for nearly a century have become increasingly mobile, expand further. In this gradual expansion, choreography and dance are clearly allocated a pictorial element, and within the graphic arts, choreographic structures are uncovered (we already know the architectural, musical and performative ones). So, the expansion of frameworks – in Heidegger’s sense as deployment of the technological – is useful to the genres because it opens up and differentiates them, and because it enriches them in the sense of Félix Guattari’s metamodeling and makes them more complex. Which again presents a political issue under the government of an economical logic of efficiency which influences democratic kultural policies.
The re-activation of the archived live art piece “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” was part of a more complex arrangement at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, where one can see the exhibition “Allan Kaprow. Kunst ist Leben” until Januar 21, 2007. For a few days, Berlin-based choreographer Thomas Lehmen built a bridge between the exhibition and the historical happening with his action “Lehmen macht – Kommentar zu Allan Kaprow”. Together with his 85 years old mother, his sister and an assistant, Lehmen invited people into a room which also contained the installation for Kaprow’s work.
This room could only be reached after crossing a hall in which the environments of “Activities” (as Kaprow wanted his works which previously were named “Happenings” to be called from 1968 on) can be seen; before his death, Kaprow had “bequeathed” these to Munich artists. The idea of giving over can also be found with Lehmen: Every visitor of his environment of livingroom-kitchen-workroom-school- and storage-complex is allowed to show something which in his or her opinion should be learned by other people, and thus transfer it to others. These contributions are documented and gathered in a collection. Lehmen thus utilises a concept of choreography extended into the social and documentary. There are no performers playing anything, but rather actions of all participants in which the knowledge of the audience is called for.
A Model as Coup
Rothenberg’s beautiful curatorial idea of interleaving three different strategies of enlivening the archive has paid off. The exhibition with its showcases, workbenches, film projections, videos and two rooms pointing out performative realisations, also animates the visitors’ capacity of outlook and imagination. It also provides an important documentary environment for the so-called “re-doing” of Kaprow’s happening and makes it possible to experience archival material in present context. And Lehmen’s comment on Kaprow points beyond its own value towards the expansion of the American’s works, who died in April 2006.
André Lepecki, the United States’ leading dance theoretician, has succeeded in creating a remarkable statement with his reconstruction. He assembled “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” from various text, image, and sound records still extant from the performance series on October 4 and 6–10, 1959, re-created the movement material together with Noémie Solomon, and together with Shawn Greenlee translated the sound material, which only re-appeared during the resarch for this project, into living acoustics. The room installation consisting of three cabinets was built by Christin Vahl, who created a copy of Reuben Gallery to the wooden floor.
The decision to choose a very sober reconstructive strategy is a remarkable coup in times of “re-enactment”: instead of himself demonstrating an appropriation of Kaprow as a remake agent, André Lepecki steps back and thus within the running discourse opens up a possibility to investigate once more the concept of “faithfulness to the original”. For his “re-doing” is not obliged to speculation with an – impossible – historicising “objectivity”. Rather, it creates a model in which experiencing a happening like that of 1959 becomes possible.
Self-Interruption of the Museum
The exhibition among other things shows to announcement letters of Reuben Gallery which make it clear that the title of the “event” was not fixed until shortly before its publication. The “Eighteen Happenings” could also have been called “Small Arcade”. Kaprow is quoted as follows: “In this different art, the artist takes off from life. Think of a buying spree at Macy's; how to grow geraniums in New York. Do not look for paintings, sculpture, the dance, or music. The artist disclaims any intention to provide them. He does believe that he provides some engaging situations …” This ironical invitation to a dislocated reception stance today has a similarly irritating effect in the “re-doing” within a museum as it must have had then in the gallery’s loft.
Especially at times when the business administration expense of many building hulls for the keeping of visual art is increasingly turning against their content, and therefore everything speaks for opening up those structures. So, the museum tries to break through its heavy, static performance and share its excess space. One can experience this clearly with “18 Happenings in 6 Parts”. The Haus der Kunst interrupts itself by sharing this project with an ephemerous institution like a dance festival.
By the way, in the time structure of Kaprow’s happening the importance of interruption must not be underestimated. The breaks altogether take up half of the performance. Visitors have more than enough time to acknowledge each other in three two-minute breaks where they are asked to stay sitting, and in two fifteen-minute ones where they can move freely. They are together in a shared “enclosure” consisting of three rooms: in a community of people unknown to each other, who while expecting presentations exhibit themselves to each other, and have the same significance as the performers. However, the distance between performers and audience is kept up, so that reception ensues from the spectator’s threshold position between actor and consumer.
The Tap-Tap of a Ball
The three rooms’ transparent walls reinforce this threshold situation by means of distraction. Again and again one’s attention is deflected from what’s happening in one’s own cabinet by actions fragmentarily perceived in the neighbouring rooms. The 18 short happenings actually only seem to be there in order to structurise the performance of interruptions, thresholds and distractions. They are wonderfully laconic little performances. The performers are dancers, actors, action painters, stage technicians in small stage changes, musicians (they form a band), pantomimes, players (of a game of dice) and declaimers. Every single action is minutely choreographed.
Blue, red and yellow light bulbs hint at the primary colours, action painting is done on the front- and backsides of a canvas in complementary red and green, one of the staccato-like slideshows displays naked bodies in a baroque-like manner. Kaprow’s proposition not to look for paintings, sculptures, dance or music, points out the object’s quality as stage props. Likewise the fairy lights, the mirrors, the plate with glued-on apples and pears made of wax, the trashy “sandwich man”, two red and two green paper rolls as carriers of sound poetry read out at the end. The “electronic” and “acoustic” music, conserved and played live, the tap-tap of a ball, the voices, the silence create a connection with Cage – Kaprow was a student of his before staging his “18 Happenings”.
André Lepecki’s activation of this performative “classic” of postmodern art lifts it out of the sediments of overwriting by the anecdotic without romanticising it with historical charisma. The format of Munich makes it clear that exactly this reprise is the only repetition in fetching back performative art from historiography. The “18 Happenings” today show that art reception deviating from the norm still is an exception even after 47 years. Therefore, its activation constitutes a part of the present.