Allan Kaprow: A
waste of time
by Johannes Stahl
is a safe route if chaotic structures are wanted.« Allan Kaprow
uses this sentence, which is self-contradictory on the first reading only,
as brief elucidation for the philosophical background to »A Waste
of Time«, the event he planned for the Hochschule für Grafik
und Buchkunst during the Medienbiennale Leipzig 1994. In a meticulous
- and somewhat long-winded - paper distributed in advance to the participants,
he describes the hows and wherefores of his event: in the course of a
day 14 people are to be involved in activities on two floors of the closed-down
textile factory. Elements relating to the factory and college context
create a very special version of the antique myth of Ariadne, Theseus
and the labyrinth in which the dreaded Minotaurus waits for his victims.
9 AM - A, moving backward, laying string number 1 (from large roll) on
floor of old factory (around posts, office spaces, toilets, closets, storage
areas, etc.). S, videotaping A from As front, moving forward.
11 AM - C, following string back from its end point, holding up large
mirror facing forward, and moving forward. 0, videotaping C from the front,
moving backward (seeing self and string in mirror).
2 PM - E, with walkie-talkie, moving forward, following string from its
beginning point, describing to F on another floor of factory, its various
turns and lengths.
G, videotaping E from behind, also moving forward.
F speaking to E on walkie-talkie, moving backward, laying string number
2 according to E's descriptions:
left, right, six steps, nine steps to left....trying to reproduce exact
route of string number 1. H, videotaping F from the front, moving forward.
4 PM - I, rewinding string number 1 from its ending point, moving forward.
J, holding large mirror in front of I, moving backward. K, videotaping
land J from behind, moving forward, until string is rewound.
6 PM - L, following string number 2 from its beginning point to its end,
moving forward, rewinding string. M, following behind L, also moving forward,
videotaping L. N, holding large mirror, facing Land M, moving backwards,
until string is rewound.
8 PM - At small public review. All 6 videotapes to be played simultaneously
on 6 monitors arranged in circle around audience. 5 large (1,5m x 25cm,
more or less) closet mirrors suspended around space for multiple reflection.
Discussion to follow.
Allan Kaprow 94
Allan Kaprow's events seldom conform to the imaginary picture formed by
the reader of his concepts; they leave too much leeway for the course
of events, a factor which is one of Kaprow's essential artistic materials.
The Leipzig event was no exception.
Starting later than planned, developments took an unexpected turn with
the very first participants, one of whom laid out the thread of Ariadne
so quickly and intricately that neither his camera man nor other teams
could keep up with the movement between the floors, follow the ramifications
or avoid the catchwires. Similarly, the unusually dark day revealed the
limitations of the video and photo-cameras integrated in the action by
the college's media department - in some of the darker passages of the
massive factory, the thread was indiscernible to the human eye and lens.
Another surprise was that the labyrinthine layouts of the two factory
floors were so dissimilar that descriptions transmitted by walkie-talkie
were insufficient to mark two identical paths through the building. In
consequence, the threads followed completely different routes; the very
different views of the factory and event documented on video differ in
a measure that far exceeds the subjectivity of the individual filmers.
What was then wrong?
It would be easy to start looking for alleged or real mistakes. Starting
perhaps with the architects who planned such different layouts for the
two floors of the industrial monument, which is currently the largest
disused building of its kind in Germany? The factory workshops were last
used for production in 1992 and no longer provide any evidence of their
former functionalistic character? Was this deficit the reason for the
false trails, did the eloquent details of decay add to the confusion?
No: the architects and shutdown teams did their job like thousands before
them - who could be expected to know that in 1994 the factory would be
the site of a labyrinth whose comprehensibility would be crucial to Allan
Kaprow's »A Waste of Time«. Were the participants too spontaneous?
(This problem is frequently discussed with regard to art events that are
supposed to remain simple.) Without theorizing about these questions,
Allan Kaprow offers two practical answers. Each event he plans takes place
once only; the course taken by the action is valid, and remains that way.
And if the event is threatened by timetable pressures, absentee participants
or a lack of rods to uncoil the threads, he finds practical solutions:
actions can be cut short, for example, and rod-like objects can be found
even in empty factories.
Is the entire event designed with built-in errors? Planned with the knowledge
that participants will fail to find the thread, overrun the time schedule,
take their children along, find the factory more attractive than the agenda
and start hunting down photos instead of the thread? Using threads that
will get tangled, art students who will be unwilling to take events as
they come (development of own forms, after all, is part of their training),
participants who come too late, equipment that does not work? The course
of the precisely planned, uncomplicated event reminds us of the dynamism
underlying any event, and especially of the peculiarities of the »human
factor« if playing an active role in the development of a work of
In this light, Kaprow's action could well be seen as a playful look at
the question of the human status in the age of rationalization - especially
when the site is a disused factory in former East Germany.
Media: the employment of means
»A Waste of Time« was not just another event by the inventor
of the »happening«, a categorizing term with which Kaprow
has been unhappy with for a long time.
It was an event that was very appropriate to an exhibition concept juxtaposing
the motto of »Minima Media« with very different designs. First,
the simplicity of information was a statement in itself: Kaprow sent a
simple hand-written sheet of paper by snail mail.
This paper formed the core of the event, which was about obeying its instructions,
and as such exposed the work to the autonomy which is ultimately its dominant
theme. In a time and context where interactivity has become an artistic
tool whose usage is necessarily a subject of reflection, the conspicuous
absence of dialogue is a statement of its own.
The concept of »A Waste of Time« also uses elements that are
important to expressive means based on reproductive structures - video
works, for example by interrelating two lines of action and physical locations
which cannot become identical because they are separate in time (not to
mention the disparity between individual behaviour). Similarly, the procedure
of unwinding and winding a thread which could be seen as a controlled
circuit indicates the gulf that lies between the social/artistic material
»action« and constantly reproducible scientific experiments.
The video documentation allows the development of the trail to be reconstructed
and analysed retrospectively - just as the thread makes the path »reproducible«.
But, perhaps surprisingly for a documenting video, the tapes reveal almost
more about the individual approach of the person who holds the camera
to the event than about the event itself. Kaprow's event supports this
reading on more than one level: the mythologically elevated and media-based
mirrors show also the camera person, and so lay bare the structure of
the experiment. This conscious distance to the current media discussion
encourages us to think about the uncertainty relation between artistic
design and practical realization as well as the mutual interdependency
of implementing, recording and showing events.
Peculiarly, the role of the audience plays no part in these considerations:
the event is produced in a closed circuit of participants and is made
public by the documentation and presentation. However, the »setup«
product with the character of a completed work is important to the overall
course of the event. It is more than a record, because the complete work
is disclosed to the participants and viewers only in the documentation.
On the one hand, the work is given a presentation form, on the other hand,
the act of joint viewing makes the work a new, potentially enduring process:
that of viewing the events in the textile factory along with the elements
and documents of action that correspond to what is viewed.
»A Waste of Time«!
Kaprow' title was as appropriate as it was self-deprecating. Ultimately"
it is a waste of time to describe his event with words. The best idea
might be to stick to the more instructive form Kaprow chose for the finale:
a circle of mirrors in which participants and visitors could see themselves
and the documenting videos.
And a short talk about the events, with people describing their experiences
in their own words and with something of the easy warmth of people returning
from a summer holiday. Like a holiday it was, absolutely, time-out, and
this wasted time nourishes Kaprow's art which - as effective socially
as it is personally - neither begins with the happening nor ends with
the Minima Media.
This text was published
on occasion of the MedienBiennale Leipzig 1994:
Allan Kaprow: "A Waste of Time".
In: minima media. Ausst.Kat. der Medien-Biennale Leipzig 1994, Hg. von
Dieter Daniels. Oberhausen 1995, S. 22-28.