A Spring Happening - In Homage to Allen Kaprow - July 1969

Submitted by root on Mon, 07/22/2013 - 16:05

A Spring Happening by Alan Kaprow was first performed at the Reuben Gallery, New York in March1961.  It was recreated at The Blackie by Wendy Harpe in July 1969.  

The recreation was based on the description of A Spring Happening by Michael Kirby in his book 'Happenings'.  In as far as the space allowed we followed Michael Kirby's  description.  His text is below with annotations (in italics) as to the differences and photos (of not very good quality - they are old and were taken in the dark) from the performances at the Blackie.   

There were 4 performances - one being specifically for young people which raised interesting issues as they were not at all used to any form of nudity. 

We have no written information for this event and the only performers we recognise are Dave Bassi and Les Roberts. If anyone knows who the other performers are do let us know.

A Spring Happening - description by Michael Kirby. 

When the black curtain was pulled to one side, and they were asked to enter, many of the people who had made reservations for A Spring Happening did not want to go into the narrow, gloomy tunnel : some refused. Perhaps 21/2 ft wide and 7' high, the dark passageway might have suggested a mine- shaft with its regular ribs of wooden supports.

Audience entering tunnelAs most of the audience entered in single file, a few made a point of waiting until they could be the last ones - and therefore close to the exit curtain - in the event that the enclosed space became intolerable. When the curtain was dropped again, about 20 people stood one behind the other in the tunnel, crowded together like rush hour riders in the New York subway. At about eye level in each of the black plywood walls to the right and left of them were two rows of small rectangular slits through which faint reflected light entered to alleviate slightly the absolute darkness of the long closet.

Nobody at the Blackie seemed at all worried about entering the narrow tunnel, rather there was an air of expectation.

When the audience arrived they entered a lobby made by a 7 ft wall of muslin sheeting. One narrow section in the left side of the cloth wall was black. Above the black curtain a man could be seen apparently walking on some sort of high platform, making arrangements for the performance. It was apparent that the space behind the curtains was wider and much deeper than the lobby section. The lobby itself was bare except for 2 small tables filled with recording and sound equipment. When the limited number who had made reservations were present , the black curtain was opened, and they were asked to step inside  the passage way which was revealed.

At the Blackie the performance took place in what was then the upper office (now the ECP room) which was at the top of a flight of stairs. We painted the stairs and walls white to create a white 'lobby'  (sadly the paint was not dry for the first performance so we laid down white cloths) and hung a black cloth of the doorway to the room BUT no-one could see into the room on their arrival. We ran the controls from inside the  room.

The audience arrivingAudience waiting on the staircase



Audience and performers chatting and waiting on the staircase    

Now the spectators were standing in the dark inside the long narrow tunnel. Crowded and in doubt about what would take place, they giggled and joked to break the uncomfortable silence. A light inside the enclosure went on, briefly illuminating the black walls, ceiling, floor, the black curtain at either end, and the row of figures within. Then it went out. On again the spectators looked at each other in the dim light. Off; the spectators were left in darkness. The light went on and off 13 times in short regular beats.

After a moment of darkness, a hanging light went on outside the closet. By turning to the right - most were still facing away from the lobby in the same direction they had entered - and looking through the rectangular slits , the spectators could see the large empty space beyond the wall that confined them.  At either side, hanging white curtains enclosed the space. The opposite wall, which was parallel to the side of the wooden tunnel and about 7' from it, had been painted red. Close to the floor on the left, high  in the centre, and bunched on the lower right, chicken wire, newspapers and cardboard connected by cords were attached to the red wall. In 3 seconds, the bare bulb which hung above the centre of the space went out.

Chicken wire and paper construction


Photo showing the chicken wire and paper construction



A light on the opposite side went on, and the spectators  turned to their left. Looking through the slits in that wall, they saw another space approx. the same size and shape as the one on the right. Before the light finally went out - it pulsed slowly on and off 5 tines - most of them noticed that the facing wall on this side had been painted green.

There was a moment of darkness and silence : the audience standing with a certain decorum, waiting.

Man on roof throwing down metal barrelsThrowing the metal drums off the roofOutside the tunnel there was a loud jolting crash and rumble - a pause - and then more booming noises on either side. A man on top of the tunnel was violently throwing large metal barrels down onto the tiled floor. As each barrel landed one of the 3 performers who were participating in the Happening would dart quickly in from the lobby and with as much noise as possible, roll and push the heavy barrel out through the curtains, the audience could make out little, if anything, of what was going on. The only light was that which filtered in from the street outside. Perhaps 10 or 15 barrels banged down in an irregular sequence, and were rattled away to be lined up in the lobby.

As the reverberating metallic rumble died away, the sound of an amplified tape recording grew gradually louder. Kaprow had used various electronic devices to achieve low, growling, machine like sounds. The lights went on again  inside the tunnel; on either side, the spaces were illuminated faintly from somewhere above (a small work light, unseen by the audience). The loudspeaker was attached to the wooden roof just above the entrance and since even the floor on which the spectators stood was part of the enclosure the whole structure vibrated as  the volume increased. When the electronic sounds stopped, the dim light outside the slits went out, and the audience was left with nothing to look at but the confining wooden surfaces - and the other occupants of tunnel. ( A few times during the 4/5 performances, a spectator unable to stand the oppressive restrictions any longer, would force his way out again into the lobby and disappear into the night.)

At the Blackie no-one felt the need to leave or rather no-one left -  maybe by this time in the 60s people expected happenings to be an unusual but safe experience.

In the darkness outside the walls of the tunnel, the sharp clear but suddenly stifled note of a bell was heard, first at the left  rear, then, moment later, at a different spot. One of the performers, moving  back and forth silently and unseen in the dark, was striking a small hand bell and then damping the reverberations so the sound  would not carry. Gradually, in an erratic pattern the sound moved completely round the audience in a clockwise direction until it came from the right rear.

The light inside the enclosure went off, and new sounds were heard on both sides: there were hissing noises, and matches flared up here and there  only to be suddenly blown out. Perhaps a flame would flash up directly in front of the slit through which a spectator was looking; the face of one of the performers might be seen briefly as he ignited a match and then immediately blew it out. At various heights and various distances from the plywood walls, the 3 performers  - 2 men and a girl -struck matches and put them out as quickly as they could making hissing, sucking and blowing noises as they  moved about in the dark.

The performers exited , the hanging bulb on the right of the tunnel began to flash rapidly on and off. The masses of chicken wire etc. in front of the red wall began to shake and jump violently in the flickering light, making soft rustling and rattling noises (The cords connecting the 'masses' ran through pulleys and out to the lobby where they could be manipulated by the people who from the 2 small tables were also controlling the sound and lights) After perhaps a minute of the flashing light and the twitching of the of the flashing light and the twitching of the 'masses; there was the loud sharp screech of a power saw (operated) by the man on the roof) as it bit into heavy wood and jammed. In the sudden silence, the light went out. Again there was total darkness.

man on top of tunnel with power saw





Man on top of the tunnel with power saw.


The light in the tunnel went on briefly, and the spectators - again somewhat self-conscious in the confined space - gradually became aware of low crackling noises. Another tape recording was being played over the loudspeaker on the roof of the enclosure. It sounded somewhat like wood breaking, popcorn popping, tinfoil crinkling, or perhaps a fire burning somewhere out of sight. Much softer than the earlier, noisy tape, it was still clearly audible. The inside light went out, and the outer areas on both sides were illuminated - the right by the bright hanging bulb, the left more dimly by the small light on top of the tunnel.

Turning to their left the spectators could see performers clearly for the Man with stafffirst time. 2 men wearing ordinary working clothes and sneakers stepped from the curtains at either end of the space. Both carried thick, slightly bent, and gnarled 8'ft long clubs cut from tree branches. Very slowly they began walking toward each other.

The moving boxOn the right, a rubbing, bumping sound could be heard, and spectators turning to look out of the slits could see that a large cardboard box- approx 5ft high and 21 inches wide; large lettering on the side indicating that it had once held furniture - was slowly moving across the floor from the curtains outside the front of the tunnel.

As can be seen we used a box that once had wine glasses in it.

On the left, the 2 men, moving in extremely slow motion, were jousting with each other - striking and parrying blows with the heavy wooden staffs. Perhaps one would gradually raise his club over his head and swing it down in a retarded arc at his opponent ; the other; moving equally slowly, would shift his feet and raise his branch in both hands to catch the blow. When the staffs met there would be no sound. Silently, the struggle continued. Perhaps one of the weapons fell and was retrieved. Perhaps the men struck their branches silently but with apparent force against the floor.

Man wit staff moving in slow motionmen with staffs fighting

On the opposite side, the moving cardboard box bumped against the plywood wall of the tunnel, causing some of the spectators to turn. Then it backed away again, swaying and bouncing slightly.

Suddenly the 2 men surged into full motion ; loudly they crashed their staffs against the green wall then slammed them down onto the floor. After a moment of noisy action, they returned as suddenly to slow motion, silently repeating the activities they had just gone through.

The box, having bumped into the wall of the tunnel several times, crept gradually out 'through the curtains into the lobby, and all of the lights went out.

In the darkness, a roaring noise started on top of the tunnel, and the whole structure began to tremble and shake. The man who had thrown the barrel down was pushing a floor polisher over the wooden slats of the narrow roof. Inside, since the ceiling was approx 1' above their heads, the spectators could hear and feel the passage of the whirring and thumping polisher as it moved up to the front of the tunnel and then back again to the rear, When the machine was switched off, the quietly crackling tape sounds could be heard for a few moments in the dark until they, too, stopped.

We could not manage a polisher so used a sander which was probably not as loud as it should have been.

On the left side of the tunnel, a new light came on. It was seen to  be behind a wall of cloth - muslin measuring about 6' high and perhaps 12' wide, attached to battens at the top and bottom - that had been lowered during the blackout. A moving shadow, vaguely human, was cast: on the cloth, but as the spectators turned to watch it, transparent plastic was dropped over the slits through which they were looking.

Two of the performers were behind the curtain : the girl wriggling, crouching, and twisting, always keeping her arms folded in against her body so that the images would not be too specific, and one of the men, holding a light in one hand and moving it freely to produce the constantly changing shadow. At the same time the other man darted in with a pot of soapy water and a sponge and began to wipe the frothy liquid over the plastic that now covered the viewing slits. The audience watched the huge, changing shapes of the shadow dance through the sliding blur of water and suds.

lowering the polytheneSoaping the polythene

Left lowering the polythene and washing it with soapy water. We did not use muslin as the soapy polythene proved sufficient to partially obscure the vision of the spectators.

In the darkness that followed the sequence, the curtain - hanging from a pulley arrangement - was silently pulled up, the light inside the tunnel pulsed on and off 5/6 times, and sound again came briefly from the loudspeaker; high, thin wailing and heavy resonances alternated loudly. (The recording may have suggested breaking wood and clashing metal, but it was not actually composed from these sounds.)

The short tape ended, and again the audience was in darkness. The light on the left side flashed once. The light on the right side flashed once. Everything was quiet. The round white circle of a small spotlight began to wander over the walls. (The man on top of one tunnel was operating a small hand-held slide projector.) Slowly the beam moved around the spaces on both sides of the audience enclosure, Perhaps it seemed to be hunting for something. Suddenly it illuminated the naked, crouching figure of a girl, ragged green broccoli or collard greens hanging from her mouth. There were gasps and titters from the audience. But the circle of light did not stop, and the form was seen only briefly. Perhaps the spectators could hear the girl now as she ran a short way and stopped, looking around. Several times on each side of the audience (the view to the left was still obscured somewhat by the plastic), the light touched her, freezing her into immobility if she were not already motionless, but it never paused in its slow steady movement, (The length of this sequence depended upon the performer, and as she became more experienced and to enjoy it more, the 'scene' grew longer.)

Girl facing the lightGreens spilling out of her mouthFinally the light shone full on the girl as she stood facing the spectators in the centre of the space on the right. She was nude except for almost-invisible, waist-high tights of flesh-coloured nylon. Broccoli or collard greens dangled from her mouth as she looked blankly up into the light without moving. In the silence, the spectators could be heard shifting, turning toward the illuminated figure. The slow boom of a metal drum filled the room, (One of the barrels in the lobby was being struck.)2 men quietly stepped out of the darkness and stood motionless on either side of the girl. One of them held a blanket, and, after a moment, slowly raised it over the girl and let it fall, covering her completely. The men turned and disappeared into the darkness as the girl sank to the floor. The volume and tempo of the drumbeats were increasing, and the circle of light was still on the blanket. It trembled and heaved slightly at intervals. Then it was still. The drum continued to beat loudly. The spotlight went out

A powerful roaring noise started at the front of the tunnel, and the black curtain was suddenly yanked open. In the beam of the flashlight that he carried, the spectators at the end could see one of the performers with a power lawn mower, its motor growling and its blades whirring. A powerful automobile horn in the lobby added its steady, supercharged, raucous shriek to the sounds of the mower and the drum.

Man with lawn mower going down the tunnelExpressionless, the handle braced against his chest, the performer with the lawn mower began to push it into the tunnel - directly at the spectators. Those being threatened backed up, compressing the whole audience toward the lobby end of the tunnel. The curtain at that end opened, and a huge floor-model fan that had been placed directly in front of the exit blasted a powerful current of air into the space. After the hot cramped, stuffy quarters of the tunnel, the cool air might have been very welcome, but the spectators apparently had no place to go as the large fan whirred at them from one end, and the roaring mower from the other. Just at that moment the plywood wall suddenly fell outward, (Three large panels on each side, they were hinged at the bottom and tied shut with cords stretched across the roof.) The spectators sensed that this was their way out and quickly stepped onto the fallen walls. The implacable mowing machine pushed along the tunnel, forcing the last few people out of the enclosure. When the mower reached the lobby, the horn gradually died down, the drumbeat slowed and ceased, and the motor and fan were turned off. All the lights went on, and the audience wandered about, among the skeletal supports and hanging curtains, seeing the space as a whole for the first time.

Lawnmower at the end of the tunnelchatting with the audience at the end of the show

The lawn mower reaches the end of the tunnel and members of the released audience chat with members of the cast