Allan Kaprow: A waste of time
by Johannes Stahl

»Strict formalism 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 art.
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.

Minima 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.

Johannes Stahl

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.
German version

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