- "There's Something Happenin' Here …
…what it is ain't exactly clear." Thus sang Buffalo Springfield in 1969. A world ago, a different epoch, no connection to now. If so, then why all the reenactments of "classic" works from the late 1950s and 1960s? Why did performance studies scholar André Lepecki agree in 2008 to restage for a Munich exhibit of Allan Kaprow's work the world's very first Happening, the 1959 18 Happenings in 6 Parts? Also in 2008, why did French choreographer Anne Collod "replay" Anna Halprin's 1965 Parades and Changes in Paris for the Festival d'Automne in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou? And in 2009, why did the Rude Mechanicals of Austin, Texas, replicate exactly The Performance Group's 1968 Dionysus in 69 using Brian de Palma's 1969 film as their text? For several years, the Living Theatre has remounted some of their classic works, including in 2007 Kenneth H. Brown's The Brig and the group-devised Mysteries and Smaller Pieces.1 Or take the Brooklyn-based Darmstadt: Classics of the Avant Garde music series where music/performance (often not scores, but actual physical stagings) from the 1950s to 1970s are enacted including, for the 2009 second annual Essential Repertoire Festival, works by Meredith Monk, Peter Zummo, Phil Niblock … and others. I realize that a number of works in the Essential Repertoire festival are not strictly reconstructions or reenactments. But I believe the impulse driving the festival is to validate the paradoxical idea of a repertory of avantgarde pieces reaching back decades. After Paris, Parades and Changes, Replays (Collod's "retitling") graced the 2009 Performa festival in New York and went on tour to other venues. Dionysus in 69 will also probably tour. These are not reinterpretations or new versions. They are as close to the originals as can be.2
A contradiction in terms, "avantgarde" and "classics"?
Of course, reinterpreting the dramatic texts of the "great writers" is a mainstay of orthodox theatre. How many Chekhovs, Ibsens, Brechts, Williamses, Mamets, Kanes, Churchills, Sophocleses, and Shakespeares have you seen? Even deconstructing the dramas of the masters is old-hat, a mainstay of the Wooster Group and its acolytes. But what's going on now is different. Artists stage "performance texts" not "dramatic texts." They do not reinterpret, they replicate. The claim is double: That there are "classics of the avantgarde" and that these in their original form speak to people of today. Analogies are at hand, but are they accurate? Was going to Dionysus in 69 in Austin "like" going to a museum and regarding a painting from another century? Are live actors the equivalent of inanimate paints or other materials? And what about the audience? Audiences for live performances interact with each other and with the show. Museum-goers look at art objects. Or they used to—today's art museums are much more interactive than formerly; but none that I know of allows the viewers to touch, change, or directly intervene with the works on display.
Writing with great intelligence and sensitivity about why he agreed to restage 18 Happenings, Lepecki said he didn't know much about the original production except Michael Kirby's "very meticulous description of it," which, up until Kaprow's archives became available, was "the [End Page 12] discursive proxy for the event" (2009). Lepecki also noted that Kaprow defined Happenings as events that "exist for a single performance, or only a few, and are gone forever as new ones take their place" (Kaprow 2003:17). On these grounds, Lepecki almost declined the invitation to restage.
Lepecki finally accepted because "first and foremost: Kaprow's extraordinarily generous personal consent." But there were other reasons. Lepecki found in Kaprow's notes
a massive textual and visual work, almost autonomous in itself in its prolific poetic ramifications and performative potentialities. […] On paper, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is a dynamic, truly rhizomatic collection of virtual ideas, beautiful poems, impossible actions, architectural dreams, sharp short manifestos on art, music, and theatre, hilariously self-aggrandizing narratives, hilariously self-deprecating narratives, brilliantly compact theoretical texts, insightful quasi-ethnographic snapshots of quotidian expressions, acute diagnostics on urban life, heartbreaking...