allan kaprow

Robert C. Morgan: Let’s talk about your work over the last five or ten years. Let me preface that by saying that there are two kinds of areas that I’ve followed in your work going back thirty years or so: the more public art events, which you designated as “happenings,” and then the more intimate art events, to which Michael Kirby attributed the term “activities.” And in the last decade or so some of the work you’ve done seems to have been more publicly oriented and some of it has been more privately oriented.

Allan Kaprow: It’s fairly simply. Some of the work is publicly oriented because it derived from earlier publicly oriented work in the form of remakes. That is, environmental pieces or some early happenings that indeed involved, in some transitional way, a public that was asked to be participatory and that after 1962 or 1963 was no longer a public at all but just invited participatory groups. Some of those, in fact, were very few in number compared to the larger public invited to the earlier stuff. So what you’re talking about is the historicists’ view of contemporary art, which is to organize lots of shows around the world based upon earlier models, which they are attempting to bring together and review in the spirit of historical research. Those are the kinds of works in a remade, highly charged present form that you have been talking about. But the private work, which is the primary concern, continues.

Morgan: How do you mean, it continues? From where does it begin? What is the origin of the more private work?

Kaprow: I would say around late 1961 to 1962, right around there, somewhat unevenly and sort of spottily, I began to do pieces that were based upon a short text of actions that only involved a handful of friends or students at some specific site — a site that was not marked as an art site, a ravine somewhere, or a roadway, or somebody’s apartment, or the telephone, that is, the places of everyday life, not designated as sites of art. And the work itself, the action, the kind of participation, was as remote from anything artistic as the site was.

Morgan: When did you began to make this distinction between lifelike art and artlike art?

Kaprow: From about then. I didn’t use those words then. I chose the word Happening from its normal language usage somewhat earlier for that philosophical reason, but I didn’t categorize that as lifelike until much later. But in fact, looking back, that’s exactly what Happening meant.

Morgan: You’ve been very critical of work that only stays within an aesthetic purview. What is your reasoning for this?

Kaprow: Well, it’s a love-hate criticism, of course.
I shouldn’t say of course because not everybody would know that I really am quite concerned about the art that I seem to repudiate. But it is more about the present situation than it is about past art. And to try to answer as specifically as I can, the problem with artlike art, or even doses of artlike art that still linger in lifelike art, is that it overemphasizes the discourse within art, that is, art’s own present discourse as well as its historical one. Peripherentiality is loaded so much in art that the application to, the analogy to, the involvement in everyday life is very difficult. So what I am primarily interested in is the kind of activity, like the brushing of my teeth — whether associated with happenings or not — whose reference to other art events is very, very remote, if indeed possible to make at all. In a talk that I gave a couple of nights ago at the School of Visual Arts, I described what a friend and I did in Germany one time to do something nice for each other. And that nice event was to clean each other’s kitchen floors. And so we arranged to trade keys, only it was decided that the way to do this event was going to be a little unusual. Instead of the usual mops and cleanser, we were going to use Q-tips and spit. Without going into it too deeply, what happened there was an apparently obsessive act, but one that was decided upon, not compelled. Both of us had the freedom to stop.

Morgan: It was an agreement, a contract, so to speak.

Kaprow: Let’s do something very, very unusual, while seeming to accomplish something rather kindly toward each other that was needed to be done anyway.

Morgan: There are certain recurring themes in your work. I remember a 1973 piece that involved fluids.

Kaprow: Precious bodily fluids are a humorous reference to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, where, as the world is about to break apart, the general of the high command of the armed forces is bemoaning the possible loss of his precious bodily fluids in a great soliloquy of fear. And so this thought remained that was very, very funny, that bleeding, spitting, urinating, and so on are all leakages of sorts, and you can attribute meaning to that as you wish, be it negative, positive, or humorous as in my case. I thought it could be very interesting to use as a cleaning fluid that which is normally thought of as unclean.

Morgan: A lot of your work has dealt with assumed prohibitions in relation to society. This whole idea of fluids seems to be about prohibition and perhaps relates to Andres Serrano’s photographs in the kind of ranker that has been stirred in relation to the Piss Christ image, for example.

Kaprow: I had never thought of the Andres Serrano thing as a connection, but indeed it is, just as there is a connection to Kubrick’s film, and there’s also a connection to much psychoanalytic literature, which I may or may not have read. The use of an image of something that is deemed private and sometimes, because it’s part of human waste, even offensive in Serrano’s work is definitely the same as much of the sort of things over the years that I’ve done myself. But one big difference is that I don’t take that activity, that reference, and make it public as he did. Nor do I join it with sacrosanct imagery or belief systems in such a way as to set up a conflict the way he does. My guess is that he could have put as much piss in a show as he wanted had it not been associated with Jesus Christ and he wouldn’t have aroused the concern that it has. So his must have been a very conscious disruptive decision calculating on its shock value, and that hasn’t been my concern. While our interest may seem superficially the same, I think that his concern is probably used up right there, that he will probably not be concerned with bodily fluids very much, if at all, after this.

Morgan: Shifting back to this thing about lifelike art, I remember an interview you did several years ago with Kate Horsefield for the Video Data Bank in which she asked you what you were thinking about in your work. Your very interesting response was that you were thinking about “subjective things.” I know that you’ve written articles in Artforum recently that describe various kinds of intimate behavior that for the most part are totally without any kind of object orientation. It’s an event, but even the event is elusive. It's difficult to define the event. It has that kind of sensibility or linguistic twist maybe that Duchamp's ready-made would have where once you take the bottle-drying rack out of its normal usage, it ceases to have that definition because objects in our culture are defined according to their use value. And once we take the use value away, then the object is suspended in a kind of alien relationship to culture. A lot of the subjective things you are dealing with are very much about suspending normal human operations in such a way that they appear or seem very alien.

Kaprow: Well, I think the analogy is a good one.I must have learned that sort of function of displacement from Duchamp. You reveal something and its oddness by removing it from its normal usage. But about the harder described activity of something going on in these events that I engage in or lay out . . . I don’t think they’re so hard to describe, it’s just that they seem odd because of the way they’re framed.

Morgan: Well, perhaps that’s what I was getting at, the whole contextual problem. But even the piece you described with the Q-tips cleaning the kitchen, you can communicate that to an audience or whoever, and people get the idea, but it seems that there is a whole experiential frame that the piece is really about.

Kaprow: Of course. I use those very simple kinds of points of departure simply to get going into something else. Here’s an example: a colleague of mine from the music department and I decided that we had too much administrative work at the university and we would do pieces for each other. For a period of weeks we did just that, for a couple of hours each time. And they were simply exchanges of certain kinds with each other. One week I offered the following: that we would go out to a ravine at the outer edges of the campus, chaparral all over The sun was out at that time, and the objective of our interaction was taking off on the idea of “follow a leader.” We would decide by chance which one of us would follow the other one in walking through a chaparral up and down the ravine for as much time as we had. And the way we would do it was, instead of literally following one another, the one who was following would follow the shadow of the one in front, endeavoring to step on that shadow no matter how fast and in what direction the person was walking. That meant sometimes, because the sun was high in the sky, that you would virtually step on the heels of the person in front of you. But what was interesting about it was that depending upon in which direction you went up and down and through the chaparral, your shadow would swing around, so 360 degrees of activity took place And if you were going up the ravine and the sun was on the other side of you, it would be a much shorter shadow than if you would go down the ravine on the other side when the shadow would lengthen because of the angle on the ground. So the shadow was swinging around, shortening and lengthening, and an effort to constantly step on that as mode of following the leader resulted in some very, very humorous near-accidents that in many cases meant breaking the contact. All this time we were free to exchange conversation about anything we wanted, so we were talking about the department while trying to do that. There was a displacement of focus going on right there; at the same time, an absurdity, which provokes the question to me right at the moment, as much as to anyone else to whom I describe this, why was I doing this sort of thing?

Morgan: The relationship between language, that is, the conversation that you were having with this man about the administrative affairs in the department, and the activity sets up a kind of dissemblance. I remember, in a conversation with you a number of years ago, we got into a discussion on the theater of the absurd. You mentioned Eugene Ionesco as somebody who you really admired . . .

Kaprow: The early work.

Morgan: . . . where, in fact, there was this kind of dissemblance of language. And many of these events would deliberately set up parameters, where there is bound to be some kind of breaking apart of expectations in terms of how we predict behavior, or how we predict the course of events. This issue of chance is very strong in your work, even though there are still fixed parameters that you’re dealing with.

Kaprow: Well, the absurd is a way of stopping to rethink what’s going on. If something seems absurd, the first question that comes up is, why is this occurring? Why have I been responsible, if I have been, for this absurdity? What am I learning from it? Now, unless I’m a professor while I’m doing this sort of thing, which I am not, I generally don’t know the answers so that it becomes an experiential rather than intellectual matter.

Morgan: The one thing that you seem to have successfully overcome in your brand of performance art — I don’t mean to sound disparaging at all — is a kind of overdetermination, which I think is highly problematic in much performance art. In other words, it seems as though the way you set these events up you don’t end up doing what you deny, but you really take the performance to another level. You seem to avoid the academic rut of overdetermination, of overstructuring, or as Miles Davis once told me in a conversation, overarranging.

Kaprow: Well, you know, a lot of work nowadays tends to be illustrative of theory already written, and some of it tends to be quite consciously didactic, as if the determination is to teach somebody something. And letting that go for the moment, as far as its value is concerned, it’s exactly the opposite of what I seem to find most useful, and that is to leave things open and not determine anything except the very clear form. The form is always very simple and clear. What is experienced is uncertain and unforeseeable, which is why I do it, and its point is never clear to me, even after I’ve done it. So that’s a very, very different way of looking at the nature of our responsibility in the world.

Morgan: I think that’s a very significant issue in your work, and something that really needs to be dealt with more often in terms of critical responses to work. There doesn’t have to be a point. There is no proof on the basis of some hypothesis. It is really the experiential dimension that reveals the form of construction. Now, that wasn’t a slip of the tongue, I meant to say, form of construction because — being familiar with your work — there is a certain lexicon or vocabulary . . .

Kaprow: You’re talking about a repertory of certain themes that recur and uses of those themes that recur and yet that doesn’t really result in a closure. It’s the use of those kinds of things that keeps them open, or at least I try to keep them open.

Morgan: Well, I think, being trained as an artist and art historian, you’re very sensitive, unquestionably, to that kind of manipulation or strategy.

Kaprow: If you just discount the military meaning of strategy, it is a clear and conscious planning device to provide as much open uncertainty in an experience as possible, though I’m quite aware that I don’t set up situations for me or anybody else where they’ll be endangered. I know enough to avoid those kinds of things without compromising the openness that, in general, I like to enhance. So you’re absolutely right in seeing the lexica, so to speak, as gradually spelling itself out as a kind of kit bag of themes that recur in one way or another, certain devices that are used for bringing those in some curious displaced focus. And I was going to say at one point, when you were talking about this being in a tradition that was helped by Duchamp’s displacing a found object, such as a bottle rack, from its usual context to an art context, that I don’t need that kind of device because that’s no longer particularly revealing, unless we jump out of the art world itself and displace certain kinds of routine and generally unnoticed human events from that condition to being unnoticed into something where I focus on them, but not, you might say, in the way that psychoanalysis or social analysis does, that is, I’m not earnest about it. I try to screw it up as much as possible. I don’t point to it in the light of reason but of unreason.

Morgan: This gets back to chance related to the absurd and, ultimately, to Duchamp. One thing that I credit you with is expanding contemporary aesthetics away from the purely aesthetic domain. I think this has been true right from your article “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (Artnews, 1958) down to the present. More than any other American artist, with the possible exception of Hans Haake, you have been expanding the aesthetic frame through the integration of the social sciences, primarily, and, to some extent, even the physical sciences. Now we have to deal with aesthetics more interactively, not simply as a pure phenomenon but as a kind of poststructural phenomenon, and you were doing this very consciously, as far as I know, twenty years ago.

Kaprow: Well, it wasn’t because I was interested in structuralism or, for that matter, poststructuralism, which didn’t exist then . . .

Morgan: No, poststructuralism didn’t exist then, but in many ways the way you combined these interests with art now, retrospectively, at least from a critical point of view, seems as though you predated many of the concerns of poststructuralism as it has become artistic jargon.

Kaprow: Well, partly that would seem perfectly reasonable given the aversion I have to the arts as models. Now I have to qualify that all the time. This is not because I don’t like the arts, or that I’m not interested in the arts of other people. But as far as I was personally concerned, the un-arting process was primary and, therefore, I would not find useful any integration of social and cultural theory into art-making. That, for me, would be absolutely useless, and that’s what’s happened, although the use that some people have made of the social sciences, information theory for example, is interesting in their work. But I would always want it to be farther away from the art world than it customarily is found — I’m thinking of Barbara Kruger and other people whose work is interesting as long as it stays out in the anonymous world of billboards, or the early Jenny Holzer with her little tracts that were stuck up on telephone poles or peeling walls, without any name attached to it. But once that stuff is moved increasingly into the elegant world of the arts, where you might say you’re always teaching the converted, then it seems to have short-circuited its possible concatenated capacity.

Morgan: I understand what you are saying, and it seems as though you’re searching for dialectic relationship to the social. I don’t know if this would be correct from your point of view, but by avoiding successfully this overdetermination in your work, you also avoid overaestheticizing. In doing so, would you say there is a trepidation that you have about your events becoming too fetishized?

Kaprow: No, I don’t worry about that because it doesn’t last. Fetishes tend to be functional as long as you hold them in your hand.

Morgan: But you can hold also an obsession.

Kaprow: My obsessions, to the extent that I have them, are quite unconscious. To the extent that I use obsessiveness, as in that floor-cleaning piece with the Q-tips, it’s italicized and intentional and usually a humoristic situation.

Morgan: So again, getting back to the element of the absurd in relation to strategy, the idea that somehow the system is going to abort itself through the process of enactment.

Kaprow: That’s an interesting word, abort, it has gravity . . . You could somehow use a more humorous word, which could be something like it would collapse, or break down like a badly constructed or repaired motor, or like that wonderful event of Tinguely’s, where he made a huge contraption in the backyard of the Museum of Modern Art called Homage to New York, which was a machine that destroyed itself in various humorous ways. It’s that breakdown system along with slippages that you can’t predict I find most interesting, not because I want to make a point about society as being a broken down system or that all life is entropic — I don’t, but rather that its process is unforeseeable. The insights that one might get from that may be far and in between, and you’re left with huge gaps of uncertainty if you want to pay attention to that — we don’t like to play attention to that. I’m no different than anybody else in that regard, but what I do in part is to set up a game plan that forces me to pay attention to those things that I would ordinarily suppress or repress, such as the inability to plan my life . . .

Morgan: . . . that again gets back to the reference of life in relation to art, as opposed to art in relation to life.

Kaprow: Yeah. So what could we say about that? It is a matter of paradox; therefore, when I say I’m interesting in “un-arting,” that is to divest as much as possible in my own work what I know about art. It’s a paradox because I can’t do it any more than, for example, I could follow John Cage’s seeming belief that I could focus on the autonomy of the sound itself, divorced from context or memory.

Morgan: Well, it’s a pragmatic phenomenology, the way I see it. It’s a very practical, almost instrumental use of language and action that you’re dealing with; at the same time, you’re not imposing models from social science to the extent that it is going to dismiss any possibility, any rupture within the enactment of the piece. In other words, there is always room for slippage in your work.

Kaprow: There’s not only room, but I insist on it.

Morgan: When you talk about the absurd, or when I sense the absurd in your works, I don’t see your meaning of the absurd as an existential dilemma, but as another kind of absurd that is more within the process of daily life, the pragmatics of how we actually see reality or ourselves.

Kaprow: Let me give you an example. You’re waiting at a bus stop along with a few other people. You wait for a half hour. The bus comes along and you get on. The fare is a dollar fifty, and you reach into your pocket and you find a dollar and forty-five cents. You say to the driver, “I only have a dollar forty-five. Will you cash a twenty dollar bill?” He says, “We don’t cash twenty dollar bills,” and points to the sign on the coin box. And you have to get off. Now this is a typical example of what happens every day in our lives. And we often complain about these things: Why is the world this way? But what’s evident to me is that ninety-nine percent of the world is that way and there is no possible way to change that. Maybe there’s no need to change it, even though the more earnest of us and the world’s leaders keep talking about control and making things come out the way they want them or they think they ought to be. So it’s an attitude toward the world that is perhaps more permissive, a little bit more humorous, more gently ironical, more accepting, even though there is the apparent magnitude of suffering. Some will find this position of mine privileged, indifferent, but, in my point of view, this is the only route toward compassion, whereas insisting on fixing the world, as we see so far, is not successful. We haven’t prevented street people from being street people, or stopping the war in the gulf by the moralisms that abound today. So it’s a different way of looking at the kind of life we have.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.