Some Thoughts on Normalization of Emancipatory Life-like Art Practices


Tania Bruguera Tatlin’s Whisper #5 2008 Performed as part of UBS Openings: Live – The Living Currency, Tate Modern, 26–7 January 2008 Photo © Tate © Tania Bruguera

Imagine being trapped in the Turbine Hall in the middle of London with two police officers surveying every move you make. In 2016, the artist Tania Bruguera blocked the main exits of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as part of her piece Tatlin’s Whisper #5. Two mounted policemen were hired to secure the obedience of the public for several hours, without giving any evidence of the event being a performance. The direct control of the police choreographed the public’s movement through the space, creating an atmosphere of surveillance. Witnessing the confrontation of mounted police and crowds in a public space recalled a mix of memories and media images from past conflicts...1935, 1968, 1982, even 2010. For the artist, this was an expression of traumatic fragmentation and the collapse of the past into the present, referring to a larger collective history of events. What did the artist want to achieve by bringing up such traumatic associations? In her interview with the Tate, Bruguera suggested that the audience, as it encountered the piece, was tricked into believing that what was happening in Tate Modern was a real event and not an artwork. Everything was real – the police officers, blocked exits, the surveillance, and the experience. Only it was happening in an art space, in the centre of London, and it was taking place in the year 2016.

For more than half a century the art world has embraced the normalization of such challenging works, with roots in the emancipatory practices introduced by such figures as Allan Kaprow, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Beuys, and Oscar Massota, among others. Allan Kaprow in particular has reflected that, “Western art actually has two avant-garde histories: one of artlike art and the other of lifelike art.”Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 201.The idea of “lifelike art” attempted to close the gap between art and life to create real experiences through experimental performance. Although we might say that Bruguera’s performance was operating within this tradition of lifelike art, I would like to argue that art today has become less about creating lifelike experiences in the present as it is about re-creating lifelike experience in a kind of recursive, traumatic re-enactment of cultural memory. Even in regard to Kaprow’s own work, a renewed contemporary interest in reenactments of original “Happenings” has shown an appetite amongst curators and viewers, not for new experiences, but for a revisitation of the experiences that took place in Kaprow’s ideas from the 1960s. In what follows, we will adhere to this impulse to revisit the past, to look at Kaprow’s Happenings and their re-creation in the present, and to ask whether these contemporary performances and other works in this “tradition” represent an equivalent emancipatory experience or whether they instead address a new biopolitical condition of the lifelike.

Around the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the United States experienced widespread political and social unrest. A growing critique of institutional practices also affected the art world, as artists developed new formal languages along with new forms of art. In this very context, Allan Kaprow had invented a form of art that he called the Happening. Kaprow defined a Happenings as: assemblage of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place. Its material environments may be constructed, taken over directly from what is available, or altered slightly; just as its activities may be invented or commonplace. A Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. If sequentially, time may extend to more than a year. The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life.Allan Kaprow, “Some Recent Happenings,” ed. Michael Tencer (Ubuclassics. 2004), 5. Originally published in 1966 as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Something Else Press.

This was a radically new approach to art, in contrast to the primary focus on objects, phenomenology, and the spatial container as in the contemporary works of Minimalist artists and abstract painters. In a Happening, the body and the crowd were placed at the core of the work.

Allan Kaprow “Fluids”

Allan Kaprow “Fluids” Happening 1967 Los Angeles © Allan Kaprow

In one of Kaprow’s Happenings, Fluids (1967), Kaprow invited participants to build a series of ice structures in several public sites across Los Angeles, enacted over a three-day period.Richard Schechner and Allan Kaprow, “Extensions in Time and Space. An Interview with Allan Kaprow”, The Drama Review12, No. 3 (Spring, 1968),153.In addition to the invited collaborators and assistants, anyone who came across the site could participate in Fluids.Ibid., 153.Collaborative labor-intensive activity resulted in the construction of a series of anonymous quasi-architectural structures that were left alone to melt in public. A few years earlier, in Soap (1965), participants were to engage in the act of dirtying their own clothes and bodies with urine and jam.Allan Kaprow, “Some Recent Happenings,” ed. Michael Tencer (Ubuclassics. 2004), 12. Originally published in 1966 as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Something Else Press.This procedure was later followed by the act of washing their bodies in prescribed settings. The Happening lasted for two days and involved a set of specific objects and sites for interaction.

In “Excerpts from Assemblages, environments and happenings,” Kaprow wrote: “Happenings are lifelike or, if they are unusual, are so rudimentary that professionalism is actually uncalled for. […] The best participants have been persons not normally engaged in art or performance, but who are moved to take part in an activity that is at once meaningful to them in its ideas yet natural in its methods.”Ibid., 241.In order to achieve this level of collaborative participation, first and foremost, Kaprow eliminated the center of the conventional art work: the author. Roland Barthes referred to this in his seminal essay, “The Death of the Author,” suggesting that once the role of the author has been shifted, the work opens up to reach the point where the only performance is language itself.Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978),143.In the same manner, by including the audience as the focal point of the performance and allowing for change in every momentary reaction in the chain of events, the artist subverts the notion of authority in an emancipatory act. In “Madness and Method: Before Theatricality,” Judith Rodenbeck depicted the Happening as a “living theater,”Judith Rodenbeck, “Madness and Method: Before Theatricality”, Grey Room 13 (Fall 2003), 65.where the actors “didn’t act, therefore the participant didn’t pretend.”Ibid., 58.As a result of these shifting roles, the genre radically blurred the line between public and private space within the event, resulting in a collaborative and often anonymous activity.

The absence of the final product liberated participants in the process of creation and denied commodification of artistic labour. For the same reason, Kaprow was against video documentation of Happenings. In his essay, “The Allan Kaprow Papers: Video before then,” Jonathan Furmanski suggests that Kaprow rejected taped performances as he viewed it as an easy way to commodify the event.Jonathan Furmanski, “Allan Kaprow Papers: Video before Then”, Getty Research Journal 1(2009), 206.For the artist, Happenings were an immediate and collaborative project that promised liberation from the market and hence a radically new stage for expression and production.

Poster for Fluids

Allan Kaprow Poster for Fluids 1967 “Happenings: Allan Kaprow” in “Fluids Images Total Art: Environments, Happenings and Performances” by Adrian Henri, Published in New York: Praeger Publishers (1974), P.97.

The mode of production was one of the key concepts that defined Happenings as opposed to any other art form. In Fluids, Kaprow brought the question of labor to the foreground. This work introduced the act of collective labor for the creation of the ice structure that was literally about to disappear. In the temporality and elusiveness of the piece, Kaprow expressed the critique of institutional practices in the art world, which then extended it to an institutional critique at the scale of the city.Schechner and Kaprow, “Extensions in Time and Space,” 154.The choice of components for the artwork was an effective simulation of construction material – Fluids literally employed cubes of ice as building blocks.

“The spirit of aesthetic anarchy is our only accurate expression of this great tradition,”Allan Kaprow, “Untitled Essay and Other Works,” Ubu Classics (2004), 6. The text of this essay first appeared in The Anthologist, Volume XXX, Number 4 (1959),©, 1959 by Rutgers, the State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and is reprinted here by the kind permission of Rutgers, the State University.the artist proclaimed. However, largely known as a proponent of anarchic performances, Kaprow was also an acclaimed pedagogue and taught extensively at CalArts. Although he was against the commodification of performance documentation, Kaprow nevertheless produced a number of scholarly publications that institutionalised his theory of lifelike art and its place in modern art history.

Here we might agree with J. Tuomas Harviainen in observing that a latent materiality can be found in the scripts that Kaprow produced for the Happenings, which documented the specific rules and parameters of each performance.Harviainen J. Tuomas, “Kaprow’s Scions,” Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games (Helsinki: Ropecon ry, 2008), 216.In “The Discourse on Language,” Foucault argued that the concept of discipline is embedded in institutions and tools that those institutions employ.Michael Foucault, “The Discourse on Language,” The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 219.Kaprow, a practitioner, art critic, and teacher, not only introduced Happenings into the scholarly world, he also developed an instructional pedagogy based on his lifelike art form and therefore inscribed the lifelike into art history, and by doing so institutionalized the practice. Thus, Happenings were not just ephemeral performances, they were also photographs and text documents to be studied by art historians.

non-calendar calendar

non-calendar calendar release form (No118A, Revised) for all Museum of Modern Art Book Stores, 1969. © MOMA

In her essay, “Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition,” Susan Sontag raised another aspect the Happenings. She addressed the role of participants and audiences in Kaprow’s works as a “material object”Susan Sontag, “Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition”, in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (New York: Picador, 2001), 265.rather than an emancipated subject. The element of chance and improvisation that Happenings offered to the audience, according to Sontag, involved “an asymmetrical network of surprises.”Ibid., 273.It was precisely the audience that was positioned at risk and undertook the radical interaction during the Happening. Sontag argues that there was “a great deal of violence involved in the performers act.”Ibid, 274.She continues: “Violent using of the physical persons of the performers by the person himself (jumping, falling) and by each other (lifting, chasing, throwing, pushing, hitting, wrestling); and sometimes a slower, more sensuous use of the person (caressing, menacing, gazing) by others or by the person himself.”Ibid, 274 Sontag suggests that Happenings positioned participants as “assembled” sets of objects in order to create the art work altogether. Bodies, situations, and lifelike moments during the Happening became components of abstraction, anonymous and collective forms, resembling the notion of “docile bodies,” as Foucault would say.Felix Driver, “Power, space, and the body: a critical assessment of Foucault's Discipline and Punish”, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, published in Volume 3:4 (1985), 425-446.

Notes to SOAP

Notes to SOAP Happening , “Some Recent Happening” by Allan Kaprow, 1966 published in “A Great Bear Pamphlet New York”, UBU web P. 13

This is well illustrated in Soap. The script for this Happening offered the following scenario: during the first morning clothing items of participants were prescribed to be dirtied by urination. After dirtying the clothing, participants were instructed to wash their items. During the second morning of the Happening participants were occupied with dirtying the cars with jam, followed by the procedure of cleaning the cars. During the second evening of the Happening, participants were asked to dirty their bodies with jam. This was followed by burying bodies in mounds at the seaside. The final act of the piece expected bodies to be cleaned by the tide. In this Happening, the body appears to be literally objectified. Soap also involved an element of abjection (urine). The piece also subjected the participants to a state of physical restraint by burying the bodies in the sand, somewhat reminding us of the control of docile bodies and objectification by authority, represented by the instructions followed in the script.

Thus, despite an apparently authorless, objectless, and ephemeral quality, critics have shown how Kaprow’s Happenings contained within them both a latent power structure and a certain degree of objectification.

At this point, it becomes clear that we encounter a sort of duality in Kaprow’s original concept of the lifelike form of art. On the one hand, its emergence in the 1960s expanded the frames of participatory art by pushing against the structure laid by previous generations. The concept of Happenings provided the ground for a whole new wave of artists to emerge in later years. On the other hand, the genre of Happenings became the gateway for the institutionalization of lifelike art. This duality, contradictory in nature, seems to be at the core of the complicated relationship between the lifelike art practices and art institutions, where the latter seem to become part of the practice itself. This becomes clear when we look at some of Kaprow’s own work from the 1970s and 1980s and discover that some of the pieces were created specifically for museums.Eva Mayer-Hermann, “Museum as Mediation,” Allan Kaprow–Art as Life (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008), 78.Artists from later generations pushed the institutionalization of intangible experiences even further. This can be seen in the works by Tino Sehgal, Jeremy Deller, Tania Bruguera and other contemporary artists, where conventions of the art market and the museum become written into the works themselves. However, maybe the most striking indication of the normalization of lifelike art is in the practice of reenacting original Happenings. Initially immersive and open-ended, these experiences now have an enforced and choreographed quality. Reenacted Happenings have lost the primary quality of what defined the original lifelike art: its immediacy. In her article on the reenactment of Kaprow's Trading Dirt, Jori Finkel calls the encounter of reenactment as “witnessing the witnessing of an experience.”Jori Finkel, “Happenings Are Happening Again,” The New York Times, April 13, 2008,

LACMA website screenshot

LACMA website screenshot. Taken by the author. Accessed September 11, 2019

Conditions for Showing Tatlin’s Whisper #5

Conditions for Showing Tatlin’s Whisper #5 2008 by Tania Bruguera, p.1 of 2 Tate Archive Acquisition File PC10.1

In the chapter “In Praise of Actuality,” published in Bad New Days, Hal Foster raises the problem of displaced time represented in reenacted performances from the 1960s and 1970s. “Not quite live, not quite dead, these reenactments have introduced a zombie time into these institutions.”Hal Foster, “In Praise of Actuality”, in Bad New Days: Art, Criticism and Emergency (London: Verso, 2015),127.In 1967, in conversation with Robert Smithson, Kaprow refers to the art museum as a mausoleum, saying that for contemporary artists, the very idea of the institution is irrelevant.Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson, “What is the Museum?”(1967), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed.Jack Flam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 48.Ten years later, in 1977, Kaprow works on Museum Portraits, an Activity piece for the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany.

The cycle that the lifelike art form had undergone since the 1960s to the 2000s, from the “revolutionary” art movement to current day “normalized” practice in the museum, suggests a kind of a loop, suggesting the notion of an eternal recurrence. It is not dead, not alive, politically charged and yet commodified. The Institution undertakes the role of an ultimate player in all of these states of recurrence. If we understand the ambitions of Kaprow’s work and the social and political upheavals through which his work was understood [counterculture, sexual revolution, anti-war, etc.], it becomes impossible to experience “lifelike art” in the museum and not feel a sense of loss, trauma, or retreat from the revolutionary moments of the past. We might even think of this experience through Freud’s notion of Mourning and Melancholia. In “Mourning and Melancholia”, Freud described mourning as a conscious process that we employ to deal with the grief of losing something that we can identify. Melancholia, for Freud, involves a similar grieving process, however the pain is caused by the inability to identify what has been lost.Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” in Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud :On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1955), 14: 245.Kaprow's attempt at guarding the artist's independence eventually clashed and somewhat merged with the art market. However the theory of Happenings promised otherwise and keep on inspiring generations of new artists. In search of this promise, lifelike art develops further. And yet, the feeling of loss seems to prevail – this pushes the trauma deeper into our subconscious depth.

In this sense, Doris Salcedo’s Turbine Hall commission, Shibboleth — a long crack in the foundation of Tate Modern that is still visible even though it has been filled in, is a reminder of this mourning and melancholia. Viewers that come across this mark in the concrete experience a more fitting lifelike gesture that manifests itself through time and is embedded in the museum.