(I’ve highlight some stuff that might pertain to the recently completed Bigfoot Happening.)
A happening is a performance, event or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. Happenings occur anywhere and are often multi-disciplinary, with a nonlinear narrative and the active participation of the audience. Key elements of happenings are planned but artists sometimes retain room for improvisation. This new media art aspect to happenings eliminates the boundary between the artwork and its viewer.
Allan Kaprow first coined the term “happening” in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at George Segal’s farm to describe the art pieces that were going on. The first appearance in print was in Kaprow’s famous “Legacy of Jackson Pollock” essay that was published in 1958 but primarily written in 1956. “Happening” also appeared in print in one issue of the Rutgers University undergraduate literary magazine, Anthologist. The form was imitated and the term was adopted by artists across the U.S., Germany, and Japan. Jack Kerouac referred to Kaprow as “The Happenings man”, and an ad showing a woman floating in outer space declared, “I dreamt I was in a happening in my Maidenform brassiere”.
Happenings are difficult to describe, in part because each one is unique and completely different from one another. One definition comes from Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort in The New Media Reader, “The term ‘Happening’ has been used to describe many performances and events, organized by Allan Kaprow and others during the 1950s and 1960s, including a number of theatrical productions that were traditionally scripted and invited only limited audience interaction.“ Another definition is, “a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure”. However, Canadian theatre critic and playwright Gary Botting, who himself had “constructed” several happenings, wrote in 1972: “Happenings abandoned the matrix of story and plot for the equally complex matrix of incident and event.“
Kaprow was a student of John Cage, who had experimented with “musical happenings” at Black Mountain College as early as 1952. Kaprow combined the theatrical and visual arts with discordant music. “His happenings incorporated the use of huge constructions or sculptures similar to those suggested by Artaud,” wrote Botting, who also compared them to the “impermanent art” of Dada. “A happening explores negative space in the same way Cage explored silence. It is a form of symbolism: actions concerned with ‘now’ or fantasies derived from life, or organized structures of events appealing to archetypal symbolic associations.” A “Happening” of the same performance will have different outcomes because each performance depends on the action of the audience. In New York City especially, “Happenings” became quite popular even though many had neither seen nor experienced them.
Kaprow’s piece 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) is commonly cited as the first happening, although that distinction is sometimes given to a 1952 performance of Theater Piece No. 1 at Black Mountain College by John Cage, one of Kaprow’s teachers in the mid-1950s. Cage stood reading from a ladder, Charles Olson read from another ladder, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played wax cylinders of Édith Piaf on an Edison horn recorder, David Tudor performed on a prepared piano and Merce Cunningham danced. All these things took place at the same time, among the audience rather than on a stage.
Digital media examples of Happenings could be as simple as artists creating a webpage about their issues or going on to blogs, forums and other networks that they could send mass art and information through.