From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"On July 6, 1968 Belgian artists Panamarenko and Hugo Heyrman undertook a happening to make the Antwerp Hendrik Conscienceplein carfree by blocking its access with stacks of ice blocks." --Sholem Stein
A happening is a performance, event or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. Happenings take place 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. Henceforth, the interactions between the audience and the artwork makes the audience, in a sense, part of the art.
In the late 1960s, perhaps due to the depiction in films of hippie culture, the term was used much less specifically to mean any gathering of interest, from a pool hall meetup or a jamming of a few young people to a beer blast or fancy formal party.
From Middle English happenen, hapnen, augmented from Middle English happen (“to come to pass, happen”), perhaps from Old English hæppan (“to move accidentally, slip”) and/or from Old Norse *happa, *heppa, from Proto-Germanic *hampijaną (“to fit in, be fitting”). Equivalent to hap (“a chance, occurrence, byfall”) + -en (verbal suffix).
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. Happening first appeared in print in the Winter 1958 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."
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. Accounts of exactly what this performance involved differ, but most agree that Cage recited poetry and read lectures, M. C. Richards read some of her poetry, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played phonograph records, 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. Happenings flourished in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Key contributors to the form included Carolee Schneemann, Red Grooms, Robert Whitman, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg. Some of their work is documented in Michael Kirby's book Happenings (1966).
Around the world
In Britain, the first happenings were organised in Liverpool by the poet and painter Adrian Henri. The most important event was the Albert Hall “International Poetry Incarnation” on June 11, 1965, where an audience of 7,000 people witnessed and participated in performances by some of the leading avant-garde young British and American poets of the day (see British Poetry Revival and Poetry of the United States). One of the participants, Jeff Nuttall, went on to organise a number of further happenings, often working with his friend Bob Cobbing, sound poet and performance poet.
Behind the Iron Curtain, in Poland, in the second half of 1980s, a student-based happening movement Orange Alternative founded by Major Waldemar Fydrych became known for its much attended happenings (over 10 thousand participants at one time) aimed against the military regime led by General Jaruzelski and the fear blocking the Polish society ever since the Martial Law had been imposed in December 1981.
- Performance art
- Flash mob
- Fluxus at Rutgers University
- Bread and Puppet Theater
- Gutai group