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How to Turn Life Into Art

An Intro to Happenings — the Events that Changed Art Forever

This is a post about the history and future of Art: what it is, how we experience it, and how we can begin to see and create it everywhere we go.

We stood in a circle, watching the dancers in the middle. One of them produced a red scarf, long and bright, and began to wave and twirl it before our eyes. The other dancers were transfixed and started following the scarf’s every flicker and movement through the space. They reached for it, they flowed with it, they moved around it like beasts on their hands and feet. One by one, people from the circle — the “audience” — were drawn in, trailing the scarf and acting out all kinds of theatrical scenarios (tugs of war, chases, mummifications) in their quest to capture the scarf, and some of them did and raised their fists in victorious ecstasy. People from the circle kept joining in until it became obvious that everyone was invited to play — and everyone did. And suddenly there was no audience — everyone was a dancer, a mime artist, a character in a mad unplanned play and there were red scarves everywhere, flying over heads and wrapping bodies and twisting round multiple limbs in huge red cobwebs and countless real-and-imaginary dramas and situations unfolding throughout the space which was hot and packed with weaving bodies and scarves. It was joyous. It was crazy and physically intense and nobody knew what was going on until they got involved and were instantly swept up in the beautiful chaos which continued until the scarves began to disappear into the ether and everyone lay worn out sweating in a pile and wondering: what was THAT?

— Account of an event I stumbled into last year.

Happenings — the Events that Changed Art Forever

Happenings are events that simply happen, without aim or purpose.

Now of course these kinds of events happen all the time everywhere.

But when they look like totally immersive multisensory multimedia explosions of people, objects, movements and relationships, they are sometimes referred to as “Happenings”… spontaneous arisings of pure novelty through pre-prepared and emergent sensory experiences… resulting in the co-creation of environments that blur and ultimately dissolve the boundaries between life and art, artist and audience, creator and consumers.

Everyone is improvising and witnessing the the unscripted evolution of the Happening. Participation of both artists and audience heightens the aesthetics of perception to maximal intensity triggering transformative shifts in worldview, self-view, and even fundamental metaphysics.

Reality bends, paradigms dissolve and new ones emerge, unplanned and unscripted —chance and chaos are given free reign — there is no plan — nobody knows what is going to happentotal art is approached, in which conventional artistic disciplines, genres and media blur, dissolve and disappear.

“Art” as a concept is bypassed and nature itself, raw sensory perception, is taken to be the substance and medium of the art piece (the Happening).

Body, thought, image, symbol, language, character, soil, dream, space, time, emotion, world, objects — all are seen to be infinitely flexible and included in the inexhaustibly malleable art piece that is reality itself.

The Happening is an art form is that is as open and fluid as experience itself, because it is experience itself, only the “artists” have endeavoured to not simply imitate and replicate the familiar forms of everyday life but to juxtapose them in novel ways in order to trigger totally new perceptions of the apparently familiar.

And crucially, Happenings are impermanent — once finished, gone forever, leaving visitors “unsure what has happened, if it has ended, and even if anything has gone wrong!”.

Some pictures will tell you more than words ever could:

Happenings flourished in the art scene of 1960’s New York, which is where the pictures above come from.

Pioneered by the artist and author Allen Kaprow, Happenings spread through the city and beyond, subsequently influencing generations of artists around the world.

Kaprow describes Happenings as “a moral act, a human stand of great urgency… an ultimate existential commitment”. Not bad for a bunch of naked people writhing on the floor in paint.

He further wrote in a 1966 essay that “the line between the Happening and daily life should be kept as fluid and perhaps indistinct as possible” .

This key idea revolutionises our concepts of art and artmaking, because it leads to the “blurring of life and art”, inviting us to reconsider the role of the artist and audience, and to entertain the idea that any part of life, including our inner lives, can be seen and experienced in an aesthetic/artistic way.

Happenings can also be understood as radically participatory art (in which social interactions prompted by the artpiece become part of the piece itself) and as a co-created form of theatre — “the art of meetings”.

I want to see Happenings make a comeback, because it’s clear that they offer a powerful vehicle for helping people to reconnect with their creative journeys through the world, and the feeling that life and art don’t have to be so separate, after all.

This realisation is something we are all desperately craving in the Imagination Desert that is our postmodern dystopia — where we consume, consume, consume and find it harder than ever to get stuck into the creative process, and to find joy and meaning in it.

This leads me to the question: What role can happenings play in today’s world?

And how will they be perceived, experienced and understood?

Of course, there’s no way of knowing until you do the experiment, and that’s part of the beauty. However, we’re in a lockdown, so it’s time for a bit dream design while we wait to reconvene later this year. I‘m going explore what might be done with Happenings, especially in relation to current artistic trends like metamodernism (don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with this term, I will unpack it through the rest of this article).

To arrive at this point in history let’s run through some stereotyped views on Happenings:

  • The Modernist attitude says: this is chaos, this is pointless!

Modernism resists nihilism and disorder very strongly and clings to Enlightenment-era values like meaning, science, and “natural” beauty.

The randomness and spontaneity of the Happening appears to have “no point”; there is no clear means to an end and it is therefore a waste of time — and time equals money!

  • The Postmodernist attitude says: look how we can demonstrate the meaninglessness of all social norms, narratives and all conventional art!

So while a Happening might now play a role in improving society, this role is only to make people aware of an underlying nihilistic worldview (everything is meaningless). As a result I doubt any postmodernists would ever be bothered to actually organise a Happening.

  • The Metamodernist attiude says: hello, beautiful… let’s dance…

Metamodernism is head-over-heels in love with Happenings because it tries, above all, to honour and protect the lived / felt / embodied / inner experiences of every single member of society. It seeks to evolve these inner experiences towards the greatest possible beauty, depth, complexity, richness and freedom possible.

And since experience itself is the artistic medium of a Happening, this opens the possibility of using them to shift and deepen our inner experiences in totally new and unplanned ways. How we might do that is what I explore in the rest of this article. It’s about to get juicy!

A spontaneous cocreation

Cookbook for a Metamodern Happening

The Metamodern Happening revolves around the metamodern art method of the double frame — a way of structuring an artpiece that is now cropping up in popular culture across many different mediums:

  • The double frame conceives of an outer frame and an inner frame locked together. The outer frame is ART, the inner frame is LIFE.
  • The outer frame is a world-story imbued with enough magical or fantasy elements that the audience member is forced to make a choice to buy into all of it (e.g. pretend they are visiting a temple on Mars), if they are going to commit to engaging with the piece.
  • Now, temporarily trapped inside the outer frame, they are free to engage sincerely with the emotional content of the inner frame [LIFE]. The inner frame might contain a particular set of characters and events — and the attendee is now able to connect to their internal experience within the context of the outer frame. This is possible because the magical outer frame has removed the “reality” — and seriousness — of the outside world. The “everyday personality” of an attendee can even be invited into the inner frame — allowing her to connect with her lived experience from in a new and insightful way. We gain an outsider’s perspective on life, from the viewpoint of whatever fantastical-magical art-worlds we choose to co-create…

(Adapted from this article 11 Metamodern Methods in the Arts ).

If that didn’t quite make sense — perhaps read the quote again, but also don’t worry, because we will now dig deeper into what’s trying to be achieved here.

Perhaps you’ve watched the (crazy popular) show Midnight Gospel. It’s a perfect example of the double frame method: the premise of the show is utterly nuts, cosmic, and fantastical (the main character is spacecaster Clancy Gilroy who uses his multiverse simulator to explore an infinity of alternate realities) and yet the conversations of the characters within these bonkers realities derive from podcast episodes discussing matters as serious and profound as death, meditation, and psychedelic awakening. The fact that these conversations are taking place in rainbow worlds of pure cartoon magic and madness (the outer frame) makes them even more fascinating and stimulating than if you simply listened to them on their own. I think the success of the show speaks to the utterly enthralling power of the double frame device.

I’m suggesting here that we explore translating the double frame into spaces and events — i.e. Happenings — in order to make them radically transformative.

Let’s look at how we might do this.

Midnight Gospel (watch it!)

People take the following journey through a metamodern Happening:

1) Outer frame — ART

2) Inner frame — LIFE

3) A Transformational Experience of the BLURRING of LIFE and ART

Time to dive in.

In the context of the Happening, the OUTER FRAME is an experience of

ART: FANTASY, THEATRE, CO-CREATION, CHAOS, BEAUTY, NOVELTY, MAGIC, DAZZLEMENT, PLAY AND FUN. People are drawn into a new world / parallel universe that they must accept and embody in order to navigate the space and remain coherent. Practically speaking: light, actors, stories, music, movement, objects, speech, text, shapes, sounds, spaces.

Within this Outer Frame the participants / audience / attendees encounter the INNER FRAME:

LIFE: CONFRONTATION WITH THEIR INNER / FELT / LIVED EXPERIENCE — invited and received through radical honesty, sincerity, vulnerability, emotionality, embodiment and memory. This will ideally involve contact with BOTH difficult / uncomfortable feelings AND passions / desires / longings / visions for a better world.

Because people are now in BOTH the inner frame AND the outer frame, the blurring of the two produces the ALCHEMY of the Happening:

The experience of the inner frame is forced to interact with the experience of the outer frame resulting in SOLUTION: TRANSFORMATION OF PRIOR ELEMENTS into NOVEL ELEMENTS, FORMS AND BODIES.

In other words: LIFE MEETS ART, ART MEETS LIFE and the experiences of the two are merged. It’s like a chemical reaction, changing our views of BOTH life AND art through an utterly new experience of each. That new experience is ECSTATIC, SPONTANEOUS, IMMEDIATE, UNSCRIPTED, ALWAYS EVOLVING, CREATIVE, CATHARTIC.

It gives people a glimpse of how life could be experienced, outside of the repetition, disconnection and habitual uncreativity of everyday life and reality.

Basically, it is a return to the effortless creativity of childhood. Every playgroup art-session is a Happening par excellence.

All this results in experiences of:

  • HIGH-LEVEL FUN: attendees are playing and being spontaneous but are present with their inner experiences which are thus allowed to develop and evolve through that play.
  • LIFE AS ART: the artistic experience of outer frame blurs and merges totally with the inner frame of emotional, embodied life. And the attendees can then carry this point of view outside of the Happening into the rest of their lives.
  • MAGICAL REALISM: the magical outer frame blurs with the “reality” of the inner frame. This helps people see that magic is also a part of reality, and that reality can become magical, again leading to a blurring of the two.
  • EDGE OF CHAOS: the hard / fixed / ordered SOLIDS of the inner frame (beliefs, feelings, views) are dissolved in the spontaneity and CHAOS of the outer frame resulting in a LIQUID — i.e. FLOW — experience. We call that the EDGE OF CHAOS — the point where maximum beauty, intelligence and evolution occurs. When shared, this can give rise to the utterly life-changing experience of GROUP FLOW.
  • INTIMACY AND BELONGING between attendees who have undergone this experience together, because they have interacted and tasted deep connectivity and co-evolution — through their playfulness and imagination in the outer frame and their honesty and vulnerability in the inner frame.

I guess the idea here is to help people not only see and imagine but actually experience the world we could create together, and the characters and artists we could become, if we started to navigate our spaces and gatherings — our entire reality — in a different way.

To take a large scale example, Burning Man can be understood as a massive outdoor Happening — as well as the thousands of related events worldwide.

I have little doubt that the most common way people describe Burning Man is “life-changing”, and I can say the same having been utterly mind-blown by Nowhere festival in Spain. The entire event is co-created equally by all who attend — the Ten Principles of Burning Man will help you understand how this is achieved; I dig deeper into the utopian potential of these events in Notes on Counterculture.

Lastly, there is no reason why a Happening cannot be geared towards evolution within a specific dimension of life. For example: by inviting someone to unpack their relationship to the global climate crisis in the inner frame, within a highly creative and magical outer frame, we may arrive at an evolution or awakening of how we want to relate and respond to this situation, both individually and collectively.

It is time for us to experiment, friends — boldly and wildly and passionately, without a care in the world for the results — just sheer love and awe at the eternal tango of creation and destruction, of the beauty that is constantly emerging through us and within us, that is no other than us.

Enter the mystical inexhaustibility of aesthetic perception… but don’t wait for a Happening. Look around you! Look inside you! Everything that’s happening is a Happening! You are in an infinite artpiece called Reality, and you are fundamental participant and co-creator of it! The medium is experience itself. And you are ALWAYS experiencing, right? So get busy — and play! Create, discover — and find your freedom!

  • Have you been to Happening? Got ideas for one? Send me a message, I’d love to hear from you!
  • Want more stuff like this ? You can now sign up to my newsletter for more words, poems, philosophy and art.

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