Posted by: Stenros | December 11, 2009

Pervasive Happenings

I’m again reading up on participation and happened on a piece written by Allan Kaprow. The brilliantly titled piece, Notes on the Elimination of the Audience, was originally published in my favourite book of all time, Kaprow’s 1966 book-as-a-piece-of-art tome Assemblages, Environments and Happenings. This is a book I want to hug, caress and hide under my pillow. And no, I’m not even going to check what it costs on eBay, I get my fix by visiting it annually at the library of the aesthetics department in the University of Helsinki. But I digress…

I actually run into this text again while reading Participation edited by Claire Bishop. I had forgotten how clearly Kaprow not only outlines Happenings as something that have no audience and where everyone involved is a participant, but that he makes a few explicit exceptions for what we’d call pervasive Happenings:

I think that it is a mark of mutual respect that all persons involved in a Happening be willing and committed participants who have a clear idea what they are to do. […]

There is an exception, however, to restricting the Happenings to participants only. When a work is performed on a busy avenue, passers-by will ordinarily stop and watch, just as they might watch demolition of a building. These are not theatre-goers and their attention is only temporarily caught in the course of their normal affairs. They might stay, perhaps become involved in some unexpected way, or they will more likely move on after a few minutes. Such persons are authentic parts of the environment.

A variant of this is the person who is engaged unwittingly with a performer in some planned action: a butcher will sell certain meats to a customer-performer without realizing that he is a part of a piece having to do with purchasing, cooking and eating meat.

Finally, there is this additional exception to the rule. A Happening may be scored for just watching. Performers will do nothing else. They will watch things, each other, possibly actions not performed by themselves, just as bus stopping to pick up commuters. This would not take place in a theatre or arena, but anywhere else.

Now, the last part moves a little father from the core of pervasive games, and seems more related to what Todellisuuden tutkimuskeskus does. But the two former exceptions are pretty much what happens in pervasive games. I have to say that I especially like the sentence: “Such persons are authentic parts of the environment.” I wish I had written that, like, in connection to Killer or Masquerade or something. But then again, I never would have had the courage to use a bold word like “authentic”.

Top image from Household, 1964, photo Sol Goldberg/Ithaca Journal. Quoted from Assemblages, Environments and Happenings. Bottom image from Funeral Ceremony of the Anti-Process, 1960, photo credited to Cameraphoto.


  1. While I am a huge fan of Kaprow, and have & will praise him for his immense foresight, I cannot but feel ignored by his general vision. Had he been just a slight bit more observant (read: “less tied to fighting prevaling concepts on what is ‘art’ and what is not”), he could have taken into account the new things created by larpers and pervasive game designers in the years to come. He was ever so, so very close – touching the next stage but never quite reaching it.

    Many modern game designs implement his vision (knowing it or not), as well as that if brilliant theorists like Kirby, yet are not considered art (just not yet, anyway). And these designers do not often enough realize the threads they follow. A two-sided shame, that.

    I think we are very much making his dream of sporadic Chance a reality – no matter what analysts or pop-culture references (e.g. Bilal) say, larp – especially pervasive larp – is indeed the new, more complete Happening.

  2. […] andere Bilder: Pakistan in America Madame Pickwick Pervasive Games Megan […]

  3. […] Household, 1964, photo Sol Goldberg/Ithaca […]

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