The 2020 January Happening in the South West of England

Billed as an experiment in random collaboration among artists inspired by the collaboration of painter / performance artist Allan Kaprow and musician John Cage, our Happening threw up tensions, surprises, laughter and frustrations.  

Built into the day’s activities was a strong element of randomness and the possibility, if the participants so wanted, to burn any artifacts on the bonfire at the end of the day.  The ashes from that bonfire would be carried over to the next Happening if the participants wanted it.  The rationale behind this was that the objective for the day was to collaborate with other artists and not necessarily to produce something at the end of it.

The fixed elements of the event were the timetable, the location and the names of the participants; there were no prizes and no defined concept of ‘success’. Randomly decided were: the theme for the day, the group compositions and the decisions they made.  

Edward De Bono’s six tables of words and a die gave us ‘poverty’ as the theme for the day. 

The participants were divided equally and randomly into 3 groups of 4, and each group had a different room in which to develop their interpretation of poverty.  There was a separate ‘resources’ room where they could go to find materials they could use.  People had been asked to bring some of their own materials that they could use on the day.

The participants were OCA students in any discipline, plus 3 local artists in the fields of painting and photography.

Allan Kaprow describes ‘How to make a Happening’ in this 1968 presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvDUNefAmAQ

His first statement tells us that there are 11 principles to his method, the first of which states: “Forget all the standard art forms: don’t make movies, don’t paint, don’t make architecture …  The point is to make something new, something that does not remotely remind you of culture; wipe out all your memories of stories or music or …”

I found it hard to listen to the 25 mins of a monotonous list of do’s and don’ts, but I picked out point 11: –“ give up the whole idea of putting on a show – it’s a game for those who want to be involved physically; a Happening is not complicated – it has a strong give and take between the participant and the environment, with the main elements of their unpredictability and constantly evolving form.”

None of the participants on Saturday, to my knowledge, had looked this up.   I had sent out an email initially and an info sheet (see below).  I gave out a printout of the lyrics to the 1967 Supreme’s song ‘The Happening”.  

At 4 o’clock, I was astounded that all 3 groups were ready and we could witness their collaborative pieces:

The group Paula, Dorothy, Derek and Sue, presented a dinner in which all the artefacts were grey:

Sue Coulson also sent edited recordings of their collaboration which is a super alternative to images of their experiences.

Listen to their recordings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5JyO50Xp88

Some images from their collaboration:  

Photo: Derek Youd

Photo: Derek Youd

Photo Derek Youd
Photo Derek Youd
Photo Derek Youd

Photos: Sue Coulson

All the above photos are by Derek Youd 

Second event by David, Krystyna, Sarah and Anne:

This looked at poverty as a safari: All images by David Ayres:

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David proposed this for our consideration:

The ‘Happening’ that I consider may have been more appropriate for one concept of poverty, although well outside our time scale and resources, would be as follows:

On a volcanic island, uninhabited by humans but containing pigs, the following items would be placed in the jungle: 

A model of Michaelangelo’s ‘Statue of David’ made of sugar.

A copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ painted in watercolours on paper.

A vinyl disc of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, without any cover.

A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, left open in the middle.

A 16mm film copy of Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, unwound off the spool.

A Leica M3 film camera with the back open.

A year later the ‘Happening’ participants would return to the island and see what remained of the

items.

If the island is a microcosm of the world, then all those artworks would be destroyed forever, but

there were no humans there to even have knowledge of what had been lost.

Now that is poverty.

The third Happening developed by Paddy, Edelgard, Catherine and Anna, was a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=al6gsZrRMHM) with a talking heads idea of a discussion by all the members of the group on what poverty meant to them.    At its artistic, conceptual basis was a plant dug up from the garden on which feathers and leaves from a different plant were dropped randomly.

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After the event, I sent out an email to each person thanking them for their participation and asked them to send me what, in their experience of the artistic collaboration, were 2 good things that had happened and one that could have gone better.

Things that went well:

  • Multi-disciplinary interaction and different ‘ways of seeing’.
  • Finding out that you may create the bulky scaffold, but the ‘soul’ of the collaboration comes from others and that their contributions clinch the concept and add meaning, direction and integrity to the initially unformed ideas.
  • Learning to share.
  • The environment/ambiance, allowed for a safe place to discuss and challenge.
  • The opportunity to work with other artists across disciplines was something not to be missed. The combined knowledge and different energies are not to be underestimated when collaborating. I gained so much from this experience, from taking part, to observing how the more dominant in our group cope with each other and come to a compromise.
  • Our group had tension but it never felt unpleasant. It was interesting to experience it. Everyone in the group had the confidence to remove themselves or to quietly contemplate any issues we had. We would then regroup and discuss where we were with our thinking. 
  • I liked the opportunity to get to know the others, who were quite eccentric!
  • Participants were not afraid to speak their minds.
  • People grew as participants over the space of the day.
  • A variety of thoughts and ideas were put forward.
  • The creation of a space in which we could bounce ideas off one another.
  • Formalising and rationalising from brainstorm with an easy informality of approach.
  • Willingness to listen to each other.  We agreed on consequences but not always on causes of such a complex situation I think, but ideas/views were listened to with interest, explored and the ideas flowed from there.  I think our commentary for the video touched on all of them whilst leaving space for viewers to explore their own views.
  • Performance.  There were so many resources available to choose from although nature provided our base and became the star in the ‘performance’ of our concept. I enjoyed the performative nature of our collaboration.
  • For me, I’m so used to thinking things through on my own that it was quite a jump to work with others, especially someone who takes a very different approach to getting started on things. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as it definitely prevents procrastination.
  • It was really challenging working so quickly and spontaneously as I usually need thinking time but by the afternoon I had got into what we were doing. I thought the way both the subject and groups were chosen randomly worked well. Very different to the familiar tutor/peer review sessions – much more fast paced, active rather than passive.
  • I think the word ‘poverty’ took most of the people involved outside their comfort zone, myself included.
  • Before the start of the event I was given a mug created by Anna with an illustration of ‘The road not taken’ on it. Nothing could be more appropriate.
  • My own personal triumph I think is that I feel I have improved in working as part of a group have less of a need to dominate and am more able to let go of my ideas yet still able to resist too much dominating from others.
  • I felt the final outcome was successful.
  • It was inclusive not phallocentric.
  • Each of our group had a share in the final performance.
  • For myself it was about being in the moment.
  • It was good to write down our thoughts about the subject we were trying to demonstrate and picking some of the most important points out.
  • It was good to start the dialogue for the video with a question and therefore making it into a conversation  – it fitted the film perfectly.
  • It is definitely worth doing again and I really liked the randomness of choosing the topic. 
  • I enjoyed the chance to spend quality time with three students and to get to know them better.
  • I must say, D was very careful to make sure I was completely willing to let my drawings be destroyed, which was kind.
  •  

Things that could have gone better:

  • Can’t think of having done anything differently regarding the very difficult and complex subject. Once we had found our metaphor the whole project seemed to develop all on it’s own.
  • Getting over the hurdle of ‘Art by Committee.’
  • Tendency for some to lead and some to follow – imbalance of contribution 
  • Leveling the field of ideas resulting in homogeneity or compromise (not that this happened!)
  • Circumscribed time – (which can also be a good thing as it focuses the mind and stops verbal ramblings)
  • Something that I think would help would be to take a moment to find out what each member of the group is hoping to get out of the experience and if there are any issues that need to be considered.
  • We did really lose the plot, and I did feel a bit taken over.
  • There is a danger such processes tend to repeat themselves.
  • I don’t think we had the same sense of inclusiveness in our group as in the others.
  • Perhaps room for more creative photography, (eg scales at the end),as well as documenting the process. I accept that this may make it too obscure though. Apart from that– no improvement I would want. 
  • I’d had in mind to do some drawing or painting but that didn’t happen as part of the flow of ideas.  Another time perhaps.
  • Thinking back now about the day, I would have liked to have been more assertive at the start, when we were in our small groups, to have suggested writing up a bit of a plan, however small, so we all had an idea in our group of what we were trying to depict. Communication could have been better within the group. For me, I’m so used to thinking things through on my own that it was quite a jump to work with others, especially someone who takes a very different approach to getting started on things.
  • Maybe it might have been helpful to have made time at the very end for our group to reflect together as a group rather than just with everyone else.
  • Perhaps the INITIAL brief that outlined all the facilities etc available to everyone, might have been misleading – I interpreted the idea of ‘workshops’ as being learning new processes!!!!!! Not my idea of a ‘happening’. Happily I was wrong!
  • I felt we went too far off the subject, but somehow it developed a momentum of its own and progressed very fast to an unexpected ending.
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                   The bonfire and the end of the collaboration: David Ayres

                The embers and ashes: the start of the next Happening? 

                Image: Anna Goodchild

After the bonfire we went inside to discuss what people felt about the whole experience.  There was so much frank and positive feedback that we were almost ready to start the next one there and then ( this may be an exaggeration!)

The discussions have continued on the OCA SW FaceBook page where another Happening was suggested for the Summer – on a beach.  We were very lucky that the rain held off just for our event – would we be so lucky in the Summer?

From an organiser’s point of view, the 2 main positives were that people got stuck in and participated – they became Happeners!   That everyone learned something from the event either about themselves or about how to collaborate with other artists, is beyond doubt.

I realized, being an organizer and participant that the group size is important: I do not think it would have worked so well had there been more than 4 people in each group.  As the organizer, I was interrupted several times for different issues so my group felt they were not getting as much done as they could have.  As it turned out, we made our Happening with time to spare – randomly!

For Allan Kaprow to ask artists to create a Happening by forgetting all art forms and all their cultural experiences is a problematical requirement in my opinion – Is it possible to disentangle ourselves from all our cultural expressions?   

If we see culture as an expression of human ideas, then surely, regardless of what we did, we would be contributing to those ideas using means of expression that others could recognise?  Or, is a Happening solely for the benefit of its participants?

Our randomly-selected theme of poverty could not have been closer to Kaprow’s plea to ‘mix up your Happenings with life situations’.  How the three groups achieved that using vastly different approaches was great.

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The 2020 South West England Happening: 11th January 2020.

These are the joining instructions for the day sent out a month beforehand:

Our first South West Happening

What is our Happening about?

It came to mind when I was researching the collaborations in the 1960’s between musician John Cage and film maker Allan Kaprow.  Having lived in the 1960’s and having loved the Supremes’ song “The Happening”, I feel very much part of this period. I also love the idea of a spontaneous coming together of different disciplines.  

The disciplines covered by those 16 people who have signed up are: sound recording; painting; drawing; photography; printmaking; book illustration; textiles; woodworking, and general fun-making!

Date: Saturday 11th January 2020.

Times: 10am to 5 pm

Venue: xxxxxxxxxx

 Please tell me if you are arriving by car so that I can plan the parking.

Food and drink:  I shall supply tea, coffee and milk so could you please either 

              bring your own lunch or something to share with the others.  We will not

              starve, in fact, if our usual OCA South West meetings are anything to go by, 

              we seem to have more when we finish than when we start!!

Structure of the day:  10 – 10.30am Welcome & introductions

10.30: Roll the die to arrive at a theme for the day’s events as determined by De Bono’s 6 word grids.  Once we have a theme for the event, we will break up into multi-disciplinary groups.  There are 7 photographers; 2 textiles specialists; 5 painters; 2 illustrator / drawing specialist; 1 woodworker.

Of the photographers, 2 are also print makers.

Of the painters, 1 is also a sound recorder.

My husband, Steve, is the woodworker so, if a group wishes to do some woodworking, they could get some help from him.   If you would like to use the workshop, please do not go inside it if Steve is not there

            11 am:  Once you have decided on the team composition, you can split up 

            into the rooms available or, if it’s a dry day, you can work in the garden,

on the beach or go into town to discuss and compose your ‘piece’.

Please feel free to create your own musical instruments from whatever 

material is available – if you want a sound performance element in your

‘piece’.

There is no prize for anything – this is not a competition and there are no

assessment criteria – your own collaborative ‘piece’ is important as it is.  We do not have a definition of what success means in our context –

except for the fact that you have participated, learned  something, met new people, heard their motivations to be there, and collaborated with them, regardless of who they are.  Perhaps things did not turn out as you had anticipated, you can tell us or not.

In the groups, please be aware of the others, particularly if there is someone who has not spoken / contributed much – their voice needs to be heard too.

Feel free to have lunch whenever it suits your group.

Materials for your art work: I will provide the following:

  • a roll of wallpaper liner for everyone to share.
  • old A4 &A3 photographs of mine which will go to the recycling centre after the event if they are not used.
  • A tambourine, a bush/thumb piano and a rain imitator.
  • A space for a bonfire after the event.
  • Please bring whatever materials / objects you are familiar with and would like to use – please specify clearly if you do not wish them to be damaged or destroyed on the bonfire.

4pm: Gather on the back patio ready to present your creation.

            5 pm: Those groups which would like to put their work on the bonfire, 

                        please do that.  I will film the process.   If we decide to do so, we 

                        could gather the ashes and use them in the next happening, if we

decide to have one.

I really look forward to seeing you all here and I hope that we will all get a lot of fun out of the exercise on a day that will be the dead of winter!

This is the info-sheet given out on the morning of the event:

Structure of the day: 10 – 10.30am Welcome & introductions

10.30: Roll the die to determine a theme for the day’s collaborative creativity, as determined by De Bono’s 6 word grids. Once we have a theme for the event, we will break up into multi-disciplinary groups. There are 5 photographers; 2 textiles specialists; 5 painters; 2 illustrator / drawing specialist; 1 woodworker.  Of the photographers, 2 are also print makers.  Of the painters, 1 is also a sound recorder.  My husband, Steve, is the woodworker so, if a group wishes to do some woodworking, they could get some help from him. If you would like to use the workshop, but, for your own safety, please do not go inside it if Steve is not there.

11 am: Once you have decided on the team composition, you can split up into the rooms available or, if it’s a dry day, you can work in the garden, on the beach or go into town to discuss and compose your ‘piece’.

Please feel free to create your own musical instruments from whatever material is available – if you want a sound performance element in your ‘piece’.

There is no prize for anything – this is not a competition and there are no assessment criteria – your own collaborative ‘piece’ is important as it is.

We do not have a definition of what success means in our context – except for the fact that you have participated, learned something, met new people, heard their motivations to be there, and collaborated with them, regardless of who they are. Perhaps things did not turn out as you had anticipated, you can tell us or not.

In the groups, please be aware of the others, particularly if there is someone who has not spoken / contributed much – their voice needs to be heard too.

Feel free to have lunch whenever it suits your group.

Materials for your art work: I will provide the following:  a roll of wallpaper liner for everyone to share.  old A4 &A3 photographs of mine which will go to the recycling centre after the event if they are not used.

 A tambourine, a bush piano and a rain imitator.

 A space for a bonfire after the event.

 Please bring whatever materials / objects you are familiar with and

would like to use – please specify clearly if you do not wish them to be

damaged or destroyed on the bonfire.

4pm: Gather on the back patio ready to present your creation.

5 pm: Those groups which would like to put their work on the bonfire, please do that. I will film the process. If we decide to do so, we could gather the ashes and use them in the next happening, if we decide to have one.

Stefan:

  • identify group (we worked in pairs, decided on from the very beginning)
  • identify roles (by discipline, by aspect of work) so that it is also clear from the beginning
  • some idea of working approach (in my case, step approach: brainstorm and free sketching of ideas, bringing together and response to what was done , putting together with clear ideas of outcome would look like)
  • open kind, curious mind-set, ready to switch direction and letting go if a different direction might be more worth)

Saying that, don’t underestimate the learning along the way (including frustration) it may become a big part of the work, potentially even be the work

Helen 

Our first hangout went well and we agreed on some basic principles for moving forward:

  1. We figured the key benefits of collaboration here were:
  2. Creating something potentially greater than the sum of our individual efforts
  3. Being able to spark off each other creatively and open up new ideas, angles and approaches
  4. Providing support, encouragement and momentum
  5. Documenting the process on our blogs – great for reflection and development
  6. We do not want it to add stress to anyone’s schedule or to be disruptive or (unpleasurably) distracting – the aim is for it to add to and enhance our studies and the development of our practices.

The Stefan and Helen bits appeared in a discussion on OCA Discuss a few days before the event and I was very pleased to have had the permission of both students to use their ideas.

4 thoughts on “The 2020 January Happening in the South West of England

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