Fernando Quesada
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Referencia bibliográfica
QUESADA LÓPEZ, Fernando: "Space and Spectatorship in Happenings: support, value, architecture". En TOWNSEND, Christopher; TROTT, Alexandra; DAVIES, Rhys (eds.): Across the Great Divide: Modernism's Intermedialities, from Futurism to Fluxus. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, (ISBN: 978-1-443854788) 2014, pp. 102-121.
8 de diciembre 2021
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Space and Spectatorship in Happenings: support, value, architecture

For the first uptown show staged at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1959, Allan Kaprow wrote a text called Paintings, Environments and Happenings.[1]  This assessed a series of ideas that Kaprow had been developing for some time and were subsequently explained in his book Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, published in 1966. There Kaprow openly acknowledged the sculptural value of Le Corbusier’s late work and the organic world of Frank Lloyd Wright, identifying in them the spirit of the times. Furthermore, Kaprow advocated the fusion of architecture and nature, which according to him should become the major working vector of future architecture. Architecture should address its future, abandoning self-reference to find new referents in other disciplines, fully entering into the formal universe of nature as, according to Kaprow, Le Corbusier and Wright had done with masterly effect in their late work. ‘Hence, when architecture becomes organic to the degree that the other plastic arts have, then probably the blurring of boundaries in those will extend to include it.’[2]

However, it is not Kaprow’s concrete assessment of architecture’s fading into nature that is the greatest interest for architects today, especially since it has little to do with what subsequently happened to architecture. The real architectural prophecy was implied in his analysis of art history, more specifically of painting. Discussing ‘the blurring of the boundaries’ Kaprow particularly addresses the removal of the material frame in the construction of space in the visual arts, mostly in his own work, and the substitution of the architectural space by the event-space of art-as-action. So much so that the visual arts of his time ignored the architectural support for building instead -with its own material presence-, the architectural space that supported them and provided spatial self-expression to the artworks (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063) © Scott Hyde / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; © Allan Kaprow Estate

The dominant architectural style of museums and galleries after World War II –the white cube– did not seem to meet the needs of the base-space for the visual arts. Artists thus began to camouflage the space provided by institutional architecture, and generated alternative spaces that eliminated the obvious spatial mismatch between architecture and art. This mismatch was caused by an overlapping of skills, one might say, since art created architectural space in open competition with architecture itself. (Albeit not always clearly.) The “overflow” space of American painting inaugurated by Jackson Pollock served as a starting point for Kaprow’s argument as well as providing historical validation of his own work. The second line of historical validation in this evolutionary vision of space in the visual arts relates to the history of modern theatre, and emerges from the work of Michael Kirby. [3] However, neither interpretation is free of cracks, since Kaprow’s work is hardly pictorial or theatrical per se, but incorporates parameters of both disciplines equally in what today we would call performative space in so much: “rather than only beget performance art, his (Kaprow’s) early work opened up the conjunction of viewing subject, art object and gallery space, turning space into a field of artistic production’. [4]

The split between architectural space and representational space as described by Kaprow was due, in his terms, to the epistemological break that occurred between the painted bison on the primitive cave and the first pictorial representation, i.e. the first painting of a bison. In the cave painting, Kaprow argues, the figure floated in its own space, that of the cave itself, which coincides in form and matter with the pictorial surface. The cave is space-canvas, but it is, moreover, architecture. Following this hypothesis, representational space would have made its appearance with the horizon line, which depicts a horizon rather than being the horizon itself. The fact of the unexpected incorporation of horizontality next to the figure of the animal implied the insertion of a representational space into another, real space. This was the first symptom of the autonomy of painting, and its complete split from architecture as an art form:

Painting is not necessarily picture making, for the first man to decorate his body and personal implements was ipso facto a painter. Painting came to mean making pictures, and this special form of painting may be viewed as a pictorial balance established between man and the world which surrounds him. In terms of the familiar object-ground problem, all objects may be interpreted to symbolize the human being and his experience, while all grounds of negative space around objects may stand for his conception of the universe. In some periods, such as the ancient Greek, the image dominates the field and man sees himself controlling the world. In others, like the medieval, the field dominates the image; hence the world constricts the human. And yet in others; such as the late pagan and early Christian, there is a potent ambiguity. This seems to hold true today. [5]

Kaprow argued that there was a complete continuity in the history of painting from the first painting of a bison to Cubism with respect, at least, to the role played by the flat canvas in the base-space of painting. In Cubism, he argued, fragments of reality are incorporated such as pieces of paper glued and collaged as art, which is, as Hal Foster argued,[6] a “return of the real” anticipated in Kaprow’s words:

Which was the real- the paper that, as a substance, was different from the canvas; the cut-out image which began on the paper and merged with the painted image on the canvas; or the print on the paper which told you it was wallpaper or an advertisement (from the outsider, realer world) and thus could not be part of painting? [7]

This final statement showed that the painting was simply a painted object, not a representation or a reference to other objects in space, which presupposes a significant step in the autonomy of painting and the conferring of pictorial value strictly to pictorial materiality. In referring to the elements introduced to the canvas by Cubism, Kaprow also employed the term ‘irrational components’. ‘Once foreign matter was introduced into the picture in the form of paper, it was only a matter of time before everything else foreign to paint and canvas would be allowed to get into the creative act, including real space.’ [8]

However Kaprow’s argument did not encompass the entire process of the spatialization of modern painting during the 1950s. In his assessment of Lucio Fontana’s project, referring to the canvases being torn or punctured, Kaprow does not seem to approve of the idea that behind the canvas lies – somehow hidden but revealed by Fontana’s punctures – the sublime of the depth of black space as the ontological background of the painting. For Kaprow, the front and back of a canvas are extraordinarily similar, even equal as a substance: that is, they are merely space. By saying so, Kaprow openly destroys representation as a pictorial category. He denies the existence of two spaces, the real architectural and the sublime-pictorial representational, and establishes a single, architectural space, inhabited by the canvas in terms exactly equal to those in which it is inhabited by the viewer. The full acceptance of this principle of a single space is the solution of the dilemma of representation and reality, and the only possible way in which Kaprow may inform art with everyday life.

The concept of a pictorial field is no longer an a priori. It is generated in the event of picture making. There is a close parallel between Kaprow’s thought and the new ideas of space, including the substitution of the idea of abstract space for the idea of lived place that Ignasi Solá Morales sees as characterising a great part of the philosophical culture of the 1950s. [9] The field is materially generated with pictorial production. The pictorial work somehow becomes a spatial field in its entirety, architecture becoming a prepared canvas. We might understand Kaprow here as developing Harold Rosenberg’s observation: ‘At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act- rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.’ [10] Kaprow’s statement ‘There’s really no inside’,[11] thus means that his pictorial procedure is inside-out. There are available only material items and a spatial relationship with the body or with the space of the room where the painter works, which transfers the idea of ​​three-dimensional pictorial field into architectural space. This is not a bounded space, however, since the painter can work outdoors, or in spaces not so clearly delimited. It is then a painting in/of space.

This establishes a clear difference between a picture and an environment, not only with respect to the role of painting as object, but also with respect to the spectator’s role in this new spatial situation. As Brian O’Doherty has claimed, space became the new canvas:

Through the 50s and 60s, we notice the codification of a new theme as it evolves into consciousness: How much space should a work of art have (as the phrase went) to “breathe?”(…) We enter the era where works of art conceive the wall as a no-man’s land on which to project their concept of the territorial imperative… All this traffic across the wall made a far from neutral zone. Now a participant in, rather than a passive support for the art, the wall became the locus of contending ideologies. [12]

What is the difference then between an environment and a happening? ‘Fundamentally, Environments and Happenings are similar. They are the passive and active sides of a single coin, whose principle is extension’. [13] Kaprow emphasises this point with a concrete spatial reference which assumes that the main difference is merely quantitative in spatial terms. However ‘environments’ are not decorated stage sets waiting for actors, in order to become space, nor empty boxes or blank canvases waiting to be filled with content. Kaprow would thus reverse Peter Brook’s famous dictum, since his argument would suggest there is no such a thing as an ‘empty space as a bare stage’. [14] Rather, any spatial form is always already replete with meaning and activity, so much so that empty space must be rethought as an essentially inhabited space. [15] This new spectatorship was mostly based on how space was considered as possessing value, as part of the artwork and its ideology, not merely as a neutral support.

Kaprow presented 18 Happenings in 6 Parts at Reuben Gallery in New York in the fall of 1959. “Reuben-Kaprow Associates” produced and mailed invitation cards to a number of people. The invitations read: ‘You will become a part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them.’ [16] On the one hand there is an essential idea, which is to increase the responsibility of the viewer in conferring status to the artwork; on the other the idea of ​​simultaneity, which defines a Happening more radically as an artistic form in opposition to other formats. What is essential in a happening is that it evolves in real time, in the presence of spectators, and is composed of many parts seamlessly developed, taking place simultaneously in the same space or different spaces, through which the viewer can move. 18 Happenings in 6 parts was a spatial project as it was scheduled to follow a careful ‘event score’, with no trace of improvisation. [17]

Fig. 2- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, notes, 1959. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). © J. Paul Getty Trust

Some guests received a basic plastic envelope, each one different, with collaged pieces of paper, photographs, wood, painted and cut-out paper figures. Other guests received a more formal invitation with a large folded sheet so they could read: ‘There are three rooms for this work, each different in size and feeling…some guests also act.’ [18] The gallery space was subdivided with translucent plastic walls on wooden posts, creating three rooms (Fig. 2). In each room, chairs were arranged according to a pre-determined plan, so that the orientation of the viewer’s body and his/her eyes were completely under spatial control. Coloured lights generated different atmospheres, reminiscent of a small format theatrical event. There were floor to ceiling mirrors in two of the rooms in order to reflect the totality of space and its events. [19]

Fig. 3- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Cast and instructions, 1959. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). © J. Paul Getty Trust

The playbill (Fig. 3) that was given to each viewer contained instructions regarding the spatial order of the event. ‘The performance is divided into six parts. Each part contains three happenings which occur at once. The beginning and end of each will be signalled by a bell. At the end of the performance two strokes of the bell will be heard.’ [20] Intervals between some parts lasted two minutes exactly, while two longer intervals of 15 minutes separated parts 2-3 and 4-5. Moreover, ‘the program admonished the spectator to be sure to follow the individual directions he had been given and to change his seat at the specified times.’ [21]

Fig. 4- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, sketch for the Sandwich Man, 1959. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). © J. Paul Getty Trust

At the entrance, and once the spectators were seated, a very messy and boisterous sound announced the beginning. People moved through narrow hallways between rooms in a line, but informally. As a woman held up one arm and pointed to the floor with the other in room one, a set of slides was projected in room three. Upon reaching the fifth part a pictorial event occurred that broke any potential theatrical order whatsoever. A device called the Sandwich Man entered the space (Fig. 4). This artefact –modelled on Soviet propaganda kiosks – was a vaguely humanoid creature. The Sandwich Man was moved through the three rooms, reflecting the figures of the spectators upon its mechanical mirror body, thus becoming part of a multiple bodily figure. While this creature moved from the second to the third room, two people rose from their seats with brushes and paint tins in hand and moved to a section of the plastic walls, stopping at a canvas sector in the centre. One, on one side of the canvas, painted lines and the other, on the opposite side of the canvas, painted circles. However, since the canvas sector was not primed, the figures applied on either side of the canvas became visible from both sides. Through this action, the painted canvas stopped making sense as an object, and became a delimiter of space. The painting’s limit or spatial frame was no longer the canvas, but the whole gallery as an architectural frame-canvas (Fig. 5). Painting, and subsequently spectatorship, was absorbed or subsumed in the architectural space of the gallery. The gallery as frame thus produced the subject and space simultaneously. [22]

Fig. 5- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, the Sandwich Man, 1959. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063) © Scott Hyde / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; © Allan Kaprow Estate

What happened during those ninety minutes was a performative event, in so much that the fact of its happening in real time was inseparable from its own format as a work of art, in the presence of a number of spectators who also moved themselves in the action space. ‘The emergence of meaning only appears in the materiality of the piece, in its making before the spectator’s eyes, in a temporal interval determined by the duration of the action.’ [23] Any attempt at a semiotic interpretation necessarily fails (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6- Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, notes, 1959. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). © J. Paul Getty Trust

Kaprow’s piece collapsed a series of limits that typified painting, theatre and architecture. The limit set by the format of a work failed: painting, sculpture, music, poetry and architecture coexisted in a single, spatial medium prepared for that purpose. Relations between each format and the viewer – the conditions of spectatorship – changed. Painting requires stillness, a contemplative, static view and visual concentration, while in 18 Happenings the viewer could not experience painting with contemplation, but instead attended a pictorial event in a state of vague distraction, since other events might be taking place at the same time in other spaces around them.

Theatre historians have persistently maintained that there is an unbridgeable gap between theatre and Happenings. Some theatre critics of the time asserted on the one hand that ‘early happenings had an anti-theatrical bias, while (on the other) maintaining Michael Fried’s 1967 understanding of happenings as, like minimalism, essentially ‘theatrical’’, [24] considering them neither painterly nor sculptural because of time was an essential component of such artworks. Any reflection on this paradox – maintained for decades – will conclude that it arose from the assumption by critics that architecture functioned as a merely physical frame, a sort of spatial canvas or neutral support when instead, the architectural space of these works was everything but neutral since, by absorbing painting in space, art’s ideology was similarly absorbed.

Here, ‘architectural space’ was the built codification of a series of behavioural protocols charged with value and located midway between a series of public spaces: the museum, the art gallery, the theatre, and the street. Likewise, the spectator experienced painting in an intermediate role that combined the practices of viewing a sculpture, surrounding the object and moving around it where possible; theatrical spectatorship, which observes actions that are visual, acoustic and dynamic; and party-going, that is, the activity of the normal person without a specific artistic role, but still with a series of assigned tasks fixing her spatial position. With this operation the viewer loses its role of the modern canonical spectator (without age, without sex, without body), to return to her personae at times.

Indeed, happenings were “anti-theatrical”, as participants did not act but simply performed actions because they were assigned a task. In addition, the audience was not an audience, as conventionally imagined, nor was it the typical architecture-user, because this audience was assigned one or more tasks too, thus being treated as a performer. As O’Doherty makes clear, ‘Happenings mediated a careful stand-off between avant-garde theatre and collage. They conceived the spectator as a kind of collage in that he was spread out over the interior –his attention split by simultaneous events, his senses disorganized and redistributed by firmly transgressed logic.’ [25] This work went beyond being an obvious criticism of authorship and the production-consumption cycle by avoiding the fetishization of painting. The audience was also objectified (or de-subjectified) as a component of the artwork. This was achieved not through the appearance of the audience operating mechanisms of participation, but rather through plain execution. Kaprow disapproved of public participation, considering it as ultimately an instrument of theatrical and institutional illusion. However, a Happening, which was presented as non-art, was also presented as non-daily life, to be staged in the art institution. The word happening, a gerund, while allowing the emergence of what Fried called «presentness», or condition of presence, at once implies certain passivity: ‘it is happening to me’. [26] The performativity of the artwork thus occurs through a process of spatialization of the frame in which architecture plays an essential role. Architecture is no longer a frame of frames – the white cube for paintings or sculptures as frames for representations – and becomes instead just the frame, the only support of the artwork. However, if architecture is merely available space and matter and does not frame a social representation, likewise painting does not represent objects but is an object; the space-user needs to be redefined as objectified subject, and not as merely another object in space.

The spatialization of art is by no means a new phenomenon that Kaprow introduced. It goes back, in its relationship to modern art, to the relief sculptures by Picasso in 1914, to Tatlin’s corner reliefs in 1915, and was fully integrated in 1924 with Lissitzky’s ‘Proun’ space in Dresden. In these works, there was a sharp turn in painting, within which, as Benjamin Buchloh observes, pictorial self-reflexivity had suddenly reached – via the mediation of the relief – an architectural dimension. In these instances the architectural dimension had pointed toward the dialectical sublation of the intimacy of visual reflexivity into a tactile culture of simultaneous collective reception. [27]

The monochrome painting became an architectural installation prompting the introduction of critical reflection in public institutions such as galleries or museums. Its goal became the production of a new kind of subject, the neo-Kantian modern reflexive-critical spectator. This is the subjectivity that 18 Happenings was challenging, for in its semiotic explosion of multiple layers of separately decipherable signs and the complete spatialization of the artwork, meaning could not be located in any particular spot to look at, to concentrate on, or to reflect upon.

Fig. 7- Yves Klein in the exhibition Propositions Monochromes, 1957. © Yves Klein Archives.

Spatialization and performativity were also used in Yves Klein’s work. However, Klein replaced the emphasis on space as support, a typical feature in Kaprow’s projects, with an insistence on space as value, or sign. He thus denied the tradition of critical, collective and reflexive spectatorship by proposing spatialized painting as the representation of something beyond itself, which includes strict economic value and the relationship between art and the institution where a set of power relations are spatially incarnated. In one of his first major exhibitions, ‘Propositions Monochromes’, at Apollinaire gallery in Milan in 1957, Klein placed blue monochromes with the same dimensions (78 x 56 cm), on trestles spaced 20 cm off the wall (Fig. 7). The paintings were executed by roller, using a special pigment that overflowed the unframed canvas. This, together with the separation from the wall, gave the pictorial surfaces an undeniably objective quality. The artist’s trademark paint, ‘International Klein Blue’ (IKB) helped to achieve the spill over effect of colour on the entire space. All the paintings were identical and produced in an almost industrial method, but their prices were considerably different. With this show, Klein staged an architecture where perceptive intensity was quantified as pure merchandise. Economically measurable value was assigned to aesthetic perception as a technical resource through the spatialization of his painting. Colour was here a semiotic sign as much as, or more than, pure pictorial matter, depending on individual reception (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8- Invitation by Pierre Restany to Yves Klein exhibition Propositions monochromes, 1957. © Yves Klein Archives.

On April 28, 1958 Klein presented his exhibition ‘Specialization of Sensibility in Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility’ at Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. It is also more often known as Le Vide (The Void). The show was divided into two parts. Upon arrival, visitors saw the windows of the small gallery painted in IKB, which prevented anybody seeing anything inside from the street. The entrance to the gallery was closed: guests entered through an alley passing a threshold with some IKB blue curtains behind two guards wearing the uniform of French police officers, who were supervising the entrance and lobby space. Upon entering, guests received a drink made of Cointreau, gin and blue methylene. They passed a second curtain and, at the end of a corridor, two further guards were supervising the entrance to the exhibition space. This space was absolutely empty and completely painted white: the white interior space of Klein’s pictorial sensibility, which was to be perceived as the dematerialization of the blue outside.

Fig. 9-Invitation by Iris Clert to Yves Klein exhibition Le Vide, 1958. © Yves Klein Archives.

3,500 invitations were sent for two people each, printed in relief with blue cursive script on Bristol paper, mimicking the official invitations of the French state (Fig. 9). They read: ‘Iris Clert invites you to honour, with all your affective presence, the lucid and positive advent of a certain reign of the sensible. This event of perceptive synthesis sanctions Yves Klein’s pictorial quest for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion.’ [28] Anybody wanting to enter uninvited had to pay 1,500 francs at the door to compensate for the «theft» of pictorial space intensity. According to Klein, the space was not empty, because tout se passe dans l’espace (everything happens in space). In a text written a year after the exhibition, Le dépassement de la problématique de l’art Klein relates (whether true or false) a fundamental event that took place during the Le Vide opening:

9:50 p.m. In the gallery I suddenly notice a young man about to draw on one of the walls. I rush to stop him and I ask him, politely but very firmly, to leave. While accompanying him to the small door to the exterior where the two guards are posted (the crowd in the gallery is silent and waits to see what will happen), I shout to the guards who are outside: Seize this man and throw him out with violence. He is literally expelled and disappears caught by my guards. [29]

Benjamin Buchloh has argued that Klein’s gesture in Le Vide anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s semiotic formulation of sign exchange value. [30] It is a subtle and paradoxical operation, because Klein took certain modern art strategies much more literally than Kaprow. He literally spatialized monochrome painting, and proposed a purely spatial-colour architecture to produce through the same architectural mechanisms to Kaprow a diametrically opposite mode of spectatorship, the viewer-consumer of art without any reflexivity whatsoever located within the ethics of the theatrical, bourgeois spectacle. In Klein’s case, spectatorship is produced before entering the gallery space, which performs in a theatrical way, staging and framing the condition of spectatorship rather than building it.

According to Michael Kirby ‘happenings employ a structure that could be called insular or compartmented’. [31] In spatial terms, Le Vide seems to accomplish this. However, Happenings were also non-matrixed performances in so much as, unlike traditional theatre, they did not make use of what Kirby called an information structure, or in other words, theatrical signs such as ‘the set, the lights, the expressions and movements of the actors’. [32] Happenings ignored the semiotic or value system that constituted the structural matrix for a play and addressed themselves to a spectator who decrypts the code of meaning. In bourgeois theatrical culture, the drama was interiorized by the spectator, who individually projected himself or herself into the action on stage as part of a collective process of reception undertaken in complete darkness. This was a clear manifestation of a particular social form, the cultivated bourgeois subject who had abandoned the public space in order to retire to domestic territory for the restoration of their identity. In this theatrical format, drama was completely encoded within semiotic structures and the spectator went to the theatre to read all kinds of signs: corporeal (the expressions of the actors), textual (the dialogue), sonic (the music), and spatial (the objects, costumes or light). [33] Modern drama was essentially a contrasting process whereby semiotics were drained out of the bourgeois spectacle. This created a new spectatorship, in which the materiality of signs gained presence and meaning against their correspondence with any exterior significance, previously written in a text or laying somewhere in the textual cloud of culture. The architectural installation of monochrome paintings aimed at a similar goal, demanding an attentive spectatorship not addressed to decoding signs in paintings, but to the perception of surface, colour and form: pure pictorial material qualities.

We can place Kaprow’s work in this tradition, because in his oeuvre the production of subjectivity through architecture – contaminated by artistic processes – is paralleled to the emergence of meaning out of materiality. What have changed radically with respect to the monochrome are the artistic process itself, along with the techniques, the materials, and the architecture which is produced. Instead of the pure ideal space created by the monochrome, here there is the semiotic explosion of materiality accumulated in layers in a huge collage, making of semiotics a nonmatrixed feature, an unreadable, undecipherable text.

Fig. 10-Allan Kaprow. Penny Arcade, photo by W. F. Ganfort, 1956. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). © Unknown.

In 1956 Kaprow produced a work called Penny Arcade (Fig. 10). That piece, a collage, is framed so that it works as a wall, even as a possible window for junk culture, the culture of detritus that dazzled a generation of artists from Kaprow to Warhol. It is densely populated by many layers of overlapping and drawn materials, hindering the readability of the texts. The work even incorporated lights and sounds to operate as a real carnival of effects. In Penny Arcade Kaprow ‘turned the gallery space into the street’, back to reality, ‘filtered through the compositional strategies of collage and abstract expressionism’. [34] The gallery space is invaded by the street, or vice versa, depending on the perspective, making of this wall a shop window. This makes it impossible for the subject’s critical reflexivity to remain within those parameters of strict self-referentiality which were characteristic of the contemporary monochrome, since Kaprow introduces junk culture as a value, against the predominant value of consumer objects of his own time. Kaprow’s position with respect to value in relation to space is critical, because he turns the gallery space outside-in by spilling the junk space of consumer culture out of the gallery, as if it were a shop window. Conversely, Klein’s Le Vide made the interior space of the gallery invisible from the street; it was hidden behind a huge canvas, the window of the gallery space completely painted with opaque IKB pigment.

Beyond Klein’s intentions to present empty space as an abstract architecture of pure spatialized non-colour, what actually “performs” architecture in his project is the restriction of any kind of relationship between the spectator and architecture itself. Thus while spectatorship is obviously required, the spectator does not create space through performance, but rather is performed by space through the dramatic matrix of signs: the invitation, the four guards, two of them actors and two of them real, the control over body movements of the guests through the queue, the rituals of their behaviour, the spontaneous expulsion, and finally the intake of the Klein blue cocktail, the literal invasion of their bodies with the pigment in the drink. (Those who attended the show were said to have had blue urine for a week.) [35] Likewise an actor is performed by the dramatic text, becoming a character; the spectator of Le Vide is performed by Klein’s matrixed empty space (Fig. 11). Therefore, architecture becomes the physical incarnation of value, and this means that architecture here, like easel painting, is a theatrical representation. In an artwork dependent upon semiotics, where the author is always present because they have disposed a text onto the work, – a text that the spectator must decode in order to appreciate it and make meaning emerge – the state is paradoxically less stable, since the materiality of the work is not the container of meaning, but a mediation element. [36]

Fig. 11-Yves Klein in the exhibition Propositions Monochromes, 1957. © Yves Klein Archives.

In 18 happenings any interpretative attempt undertaken in a semiotic stance, that is to say any reading of the piece or some of its features as texts disposed before the audience for de-codification, will be shadowed by the immediate emergence of material meaning, while in Le Vide, there is no meaningful materiality whatsoever. When space is performed by the spectator, the materiality of space dominates the semiotic attributes of space. When space performs the spectator the opposite occurs. This means that while Kaprow was desperately trying to destroy the white cube through matter (life into art), Klein made evident the impossibility of such enterprise by vacuuming all traces of matter (art into life).

In 1972 anthropologist Milton Singer described the term “cultural performance” as ‘a defined set of performers and audiences interacting in a finite quantity of time’ in situations such as weddings, religious festivals, recitations, plays, balls, concerts, and so on. He linked his definition of cultural performance to the notion of cultural identity. [37] Architecture plays a crucial role in the generation of cultural identity, space affects the shaping of subjectivity and identity. Even if architecture were devoid of any semiotic capacity, and were identified with pure matter, it would in fact interfere in the production of subjectivity, for matter can never fail to produce meaning. German anthropological studies at the beginning of the twentieth century signalled a strong turn toward privileging ritual over myth, even denying the idea that myth is an original construction and ritual its mere representation, mise-en-scène or re-enactment. With this turn, ritual was posited as the original event, while myth became its semiotization or fixed text, which clearly minimized the efficacy of the written word and privileged the body in action as the major cultural motor. [38]

One of the most important studies in this context was Les rites de Passage, published in 1909 by Arnold van Gennep, a work which was tremendously influential to the development of the current notion of performance. For van Gennep the passage is a performative event in which an individual transverses three states in order to acquire a precise social role through a rite. The three states are separation from the group, state or initial environment; the liminal or transitional state, or the state of threshold or passage proper; and the arrival or incorporation, when the individual has already acquired a set of conditions leading to a new social role and group. All these states imply either a physical displacement in space or a virtual spatial projection. This scheme was reinterpreted in 1982 by American anthropologist Victor Turner in From Ritual to Theater, The Human Seriousness of Play, which has more recently become also a seminal text for Performance Studies. For Turner, the liminal state of the novice is the archetypical condition of the artist; [39] it is at the same time a state of complete fragility and complete empowerment, because the novice is released from its daily responsibilities with respect to its social environment through being separated from the group, and at the same time it has not yet acquired the new set of behavioural codes and duties that will guarantee a new state of belonging. Therefore, the novice is powerless in practice, but prospectively powerful in its becoming other. The liminal state is thus an asocial state akin to that of the living dead in the world of codes and social roles. This state, however, is not purely individualistic, but produces a spontaneous community, which is different from the other two kinds of communities Turner mentions: ideological and normative. In the spontaneous community, the type of communication is referred to as ‘intersubjective illumination’. [40] It contrasts with the notion of perceptual enunciation where theoretical concepts typical of the ideological community and the complete fixation of those concepts are made into sets of closed and well-defined precepts in the normative community. Taking for granted that the three forms of community do not imply accumulation or evolution from the simpler to the more complex, it is remarkable that it presupposes an increase of semiotization as a protocol. Seen in Turner’s terms, both 18 Happenings and Le Vide were performance rituals, where spectatorship is hard to locate explicitly in the viewer’s mind. As social ritual performances, both works are deeply affected by spatial organization and the way spectatorship is violently started from the body and dispersed throughout the entire space. The relation between form and use, space and events, is deeply affected by this discussion about performativity as a category suspended between matter and language, in as much architecture necessarily combines both phenomenology and semiotics, being thus suspended between support and value.


[1] William Kaizen, “Framed Space: Allan Kaprow and the Spread of Painting”, Grey Room no. 13, (Fall 2003), p. 100, n. 2. ‘It was originally called Paintings, Environments, Happenings and published in a condensed form in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘New forms-New Media I’, at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, the first uptown show of Kaprow and his contemporaries. It was changed to Assemblage, Environments and Happenings for final publication.’

[2] Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, (New York: Abrams, 1966), p. 153.

[3] Michael Kirby is best known as author of Happenings, an illustrated anthology, (New York: Dutton, 1965); Art of time; essays on the avant-garde, (New York: Dutton, 1969) and Futurist Performance: With manifestos and playscripts translated from the Italian by Victoria Nes Kirby, (New York: Dutton, 1971), among other titles. Kirby painstakingly devoted himself to disengaging American performance activities of the 1950s and ’60s from the contemporary visual arts scene, and tried to theorize a firm genealogy of happenings and performance out of the historical European avant-garde.

[4] ‘Framed Space’, p. 82.

[5] Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, p. 156.

[6] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: the avant-garde at the end of the century, (Cambridge, MA: , MIT Press, 1996).

[7] Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, p. 157.

[8] Ibid, p. 165.

[9] Ignasi Solá Morales, ‘Place: permanence or production’: lecture at “Anywhere” symposium, Yufuin, Japan {Yufuin}, June 1992, published in Anywhere, (New York: Rizzoli, 1992).  An architecture critic, Solá Morales summarizes the architectural implications of the so-called “spatial turn” that characterised philosophical culture during the 1950s, mostly in the field of phenomenology, by comparing the modern notion of space as delineated by German aesthetics of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the works of  {Adolf von}Hildebrand and{August} Schmarsow, among many authors, and the neo-Aristotelian notion of place that dominated architectural theory after World War II, notably in the work of Henri Lefebvre or Christian Norberg-Shultz.

[10] Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters’, Art News, vol. 51, no. 8, (December 1952).

[11] Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, p. 157.

[12] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, (Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1976, revised 1988.) p. 27.

[13] Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, p. 184.

[14] Peter Brook, «The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate (London: Penguin Books, 1968)

[15] Alan Read,  Theater & Everyday Life, an Ethics of Performance, (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 13.

[16] Happenings, an illustrated anthology, p. 67.

[17] Ibid. p. 72. ‘The movements of the performers – as they would consistently be throughout the presentation- were clear, simple and unspontaneous. Their faces never expressed feeling or emotion. They walked slowly, carefully, almost stiffly, and always in straight lines parallel to one of the walls: all turns, as if marching, would be at right angles (or an about-face), and they would never cross the space diagonally.’ Detailed event scores were developed for each performance, including a complete repertoire of facial expressions.

[18] Ibid. pp. 67-68.

[19] Ibid. pp. 69-70. ‘The first room had 30 or 35 seats, placed to face toward the other rooms (which were vaguely visible through the plastic dividers), and it was illuminated by a continuous series of 25-watt bulbs –alternately red and white (…) In the second room, two groups of chairs faced each other. There were perhaps twelve chairs in each section. By turning to either side, their occupants would be able to see into the flanking rooms. A single blue light globe hung from a cord in the center of the space, and the plastic wall fronting the corridor (directly behind one group of chairs) was covered with a random arrangement of strings of multicoloured Christmas-tree lights. The third room, at the far end of the outside door, was bordered on the top of its three outer walls, like the first room, with alternate colored lights. Here the colors were white and blue. (…) About fifteen or twenty folding chairs were arranged in the third room so that those seated in them would be looking back toward the other two rooms. The temporary wall behind this seating group was not translucent but a large, bold, ragged collage of roughly torn canvas: the lower portion primarily contained crudely lettered words of various sizes (“was”, “Ha”, “BIRD”, etc.), the upper, a band of diagonal stripes and a slatted construction that jutted out over the chairs.’

[20] Ibid. p. 71.

[21] Ibid.

[22] ‘Framed Space’, p. 99.

[23] Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Powers of Performance, a New Aesthetics (Trans Saskya Iris Jain. London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 17

[24] Judith Rodenbeck, ‘Madness and Method: Before Theatricality’, Grey Room no. 13, (Fall 2003), p.55.

[25] Inside the White Cube, p. 47.

[26] ‘Madness and Method’, p. 59.

[27] Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Plenty of Nothing: From Yves Klein’s Le Vide to Arman’s Le Plein’, first published in Bernard Blistène (ed.) Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts and Design from France, 1958-1998, (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998). Reprinted in Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 267.

[28] My translation

[29] Cited in , Kaira M Cabañas, ‘Yves Klein’s Performative Realism’, Grey Room no. 31, (Spring 2008), pp. 19-21.

[30] ‘Plenty of Nothing’, p. 269: “By making his work manifestly dependent on all of the previously hidden dispositifs (e. g., the spaces of advertisement and the devices of promotion) he would become the first postwar Europen artist to initiate not only an aesthetic of total institutional and discursive contingency, but also one of total spectacularization”.

[31] Happenings, an illustrated anthology, p. 13.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Erika Fischer-Lichte, (Jeremy Gaines & Doris L. Jones, trans.), The Semiotics of Theater, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 93-114.

[34] ‘Framed Space’, p. 92.

[35] Thomas McEvilley, ‘Yves Klein conqueror of the void’¸ in Yves Klein 1928-1962. A Retrospective, (Houston: Institute of the Arts, Price University, 1982), quoted from a Spanish translation ‘Yves Klein conquistador del vacío’, in 3ZU Revista d’Arquitectura, Escola Técncia Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona, n. 2, January 1994, p. 34 (my translation)

[36] The Transformative Power of Performance, p. 140.

[37] Milton Singer, When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Modern Civilization, (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 71

[38] The Transformative Power of Performance, p. 30-31

[39] Victor Turner,  From Ritual to Theater, The Human Seriousness of Play, (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982), p. 27.

[40] Ibid. p. 47.


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