Notes on the Elimination of the Audience//1966
This sunny Monday brings to you some great ideas that were birthed by Allan Kaprow's Happenings. Our editor, Ms. Bishop, sets us up by explaining that Kaprow's major goal was for viewers of art to lose their identity as 'audience' and fuse with the art through experience. Essentially, Kaprow would have liked to rid his audience of that distance that exists between viewers and the art at which they are looking. Kaprow begins by discussing his Happenings,
"The Happenings were presented to small, intimate gatherings of people in lofts, classrooms, gymnasiums and some offbeat galleries, where a clearing was made for the activities. The watchers sat very close to what took place, with the artists and their friends acting along with assembled environmental constructions. The audience occasionally changed seats as in a game of musical chairs, turned around to see something behind it, or stood without seats in tight but informal clusters. Sometimes, too, the event moved in and amongst the crowd, which produced some movement on the latter's part. But however flexible these techniques were in practice, there was always an audience in one (usually static) space and a show given in another."
Kaprow makes clear his distaste for standard performance conventions, where the audience was limited to that category, and the history of cultural expectations attached to theatrical productions crippled them. Stating this, Kaprow immediately identifies how difficult it is to successfully provoke an audience to participate in a way that separates them from their own previous ideas and knowledge of acting like an audience member. He continues by stating that while these Happenings succeeded to become unique in imagery, traditional staging, and full of vitality that most audiences did not view them as art which was detrimental to experimentation and change. It became clear that Happenings were difficult to simulate successfully, but to those persistent few, patterns began to make themselves clear through trial and error, and often there was a gap between theory and production. Of these Happenings Kaprow listed a number of rules-of-thumb.
Kaprow believes, the audience should be eliminated entirely. Participation should go farther than herding an audience around and throwing apples at them, or provoking a reluctant audience into half hearted destruction of the artwork. Kaprow gets very passionate about this, and says something I love,
"After a few years, in any case, 'audience response' proves to be so predictably pure cliche that anyone serious about the problem should not tolerate it, any more than the painter should continue the use of dripped paint as a stamp of modernity when it has been adopted by every lampshade and Formica manufacturer in the country."
So, cliche audience responses should be avoided like the plague, or worse, like Pollock's drip. Funny how those drips are still the kiss of death, forgive me if I'm wrong, I've yet to see an intentional drip that I didn't loathe. Kaprow continues that the audience should know what they are supposed to do. This involves one of my favorite notions, preparation! He then says that the best participants are the ones that are 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." This last part is what confuses me, and where I think one of the biggest problems in participatory art lies. Kaprow would like for participants who feel compelled to participate, who are not normally involved in art, but feel their participation to be natural. So then you open the door to what really makes someone compelled to participate in art. One of my favorite theory teachers always said her biggest issue with relational aesthetics was simply that she did not want to participate. She did not want to go and have and experience, because she did not understand how that experience was art. I think this is a great point and one of the biggest hurdles for artists making work that requires a voluntary participant in order for their work to be successful. The biggest hurdle for these artists, it the audiences ability to say, 'why should I participate?' I think it's a very important question.
I must say that this subject of the MIT press series has provoked many conversations between Fisk and I about the relevancy of this work in relationship to other "experiences" that yield similar positive results. It's not that I'm skeptical, I do believe there is much to be learned in allowing yourself to participate.
What is most exciting about the next few essays I'll write about, is how artists go about answering that question of why, and how this question is directly related to politics&culture.