event

The coining of the word ‘event’ as a critical term in the discussion of different kinds of media is relatively new.  Its introduction under this critical guise could be traced to Harold Rosenberg’s writings, to at least his 1952 essay “The American Action Painters”.  The term’s emergence in theoretical discussion surely does not originate with its use in relation to media or the arts.  Prior to this, it has had a marked history in both Western philosophy (perhaps attaining greater prominence since the beginning of the 20 th century) and modern physics (event horizon, event-particle).  In both cases, its treatment as an issue and as a phenomenon has been rigorous.  As a point of comparison and contrast to its use in art and media criticism, these contexts establish a rather solid semantic precedent that informs and helps clarify its subsequent, murkier usage in the arts.  In modern physics, and increasingly in Western philosophy, the term raises issues of 4-dimensional ‘objects’ and foregrounds the intimate relationship between time and space.  One of the problematic consequences of the term for philosophy has been its ontological destabilization of the ‘object’ in favor of flux, indeterminacy and immanence.  As a final preliminary note, firstly we should bear in mind that this word has been primarily used as a critical/analytical term.  Below I will discuss an exemption to this trend by the prescriptive, rather than descriptive, usage of the ‘event’ by Fluxus artists.  Secondly, the word ‘event’ has been frequently applied retrospectively to discussions of arts and artistic performances that preceded the advent of the term.  Nonetheless, these historical reevaluations will shed valuable light on the evolution of the term and the set of practices it often designates.  Therefore, in the present entry we will begin with a discussion of the term as it has been applied to Dadaist Cabaret.  Then we will observe its formal introduction by Rosenberg in his discussion of late modernist art and its relation to his contemporary Michael Fried and his essay “Art and Objecthood”.  We will conclude with a recent application of the term by film theorist Steven Shaviro in his book The Cinematic Body, which will provide us with a recapitulation of term’s evolution and its future course.

In the essay “Event Structures and Art Situations” (1988), Stephen C. Foster traces the concept of the ‘event’, as a “live structure, perceived in relationship to larger aspects of culture”, to the art avant-garde’s self-perception as a catalyst of (social) progress at the close of the 19 th century.  (The ‘revolution’ as event presenting its paradigmatic form).  Some currents of the avant-garde approached the event as a means of escaping “the limitations imposed by the conventions of the arts” on the potential of artistic/aesthetic activity for effecting social change.  One is not to confuse, however, the event with traditional political militancy.  Its special value lies in its transcendence of both the “re presentation of the world’s events through traditional art genres” and the astigmatic vision of ideological propagandism.  It attempted to succeed in its critical re-evaluation of culture by opening spaces that might produce a psychic distanciation from cultural norms and ideological paradigms.

According to Harriet Watts’ The Dada Event (1988), the cabarets of Russian/Soviet avant-garde as well as the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire offered such dynamic spaces.   Her analysis of the performances of Dadaists sound poets Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters in terms of ‘events’ allow her to define these as a set of aesthetic and performative practices and processes, focusing on their relation reception and intent rather than a mere description of a physical occurrence.  Even when dada artists rejected proper ‘rational’ ideological stances, there is a rather clear intentionality in their performances, wanting not only to present something to the public, but also to engage them in a particular fashion.  To this extent, the dada event is centered on the figure of the ‘event-maker’ who assumes a kind of priestly function over the audience.  The event courts a particular affective response from his listeners (read below for further distinction between performance and events).  Nonetheless, we must distinguish here between the event and the ceremony, which could describe religious or deliberately political practices.  Even when the Dadaist performer acts as to create a particular effect, his actions are, for the most part, suggestive rather than directive.  They provoke and shock the audience away from doctrinal somnambulism.

The event is that fluid interaction between performer and audience by means of which the former intends to effect the latter’s re-discovery and re-appropriation of his/her own humanity.  (Kurt Schwitters observes of a performance: “It was as if the dadaistic spirit went over to hundreds of people who remarked suddenly that they were human beings.”)  For the dada, the event is an anthropocentric practice.  The following quote will put into relief the event as a bastion of resistance against the ‘de-humanization’ produced by modern urban/industrial life.  At his second (and last) performance at the Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball discloses his intention to restore, by means of the oral performance and ‘de-signification’ of the poem, an aura which the mass media effectively eradicates (Watts, p. 123):

In these phonetic poems we must totally renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted.  We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word… (Ball, quoted in Watts, p. 123)

His use of the event as a means of transforming and purging the poem reveals the event as a kind of medium in itself, one which foregrounds aspects of another medium through an umbilical communion of the author-audience.  It is the medium, which as it were, purges other mediums or objects.  I suggest this notion of purging, echoing George Maciunas’ Manifesto (1963), because at the heart of the event lies a concern with rescuing the art object from its conventional, alienating (possibly ideological) context.

Some forty years later Harold Rosenberg begins to use the term ‘event’ in relation to his concern with the living trace left by the artist on the work of art.  The aesthetic practices/ processes indicated by the term are not necessarily those of the performing artistper se , but of the artwork or art object as such.  In “The Art Object and the Esthetics of Impermanence” (1964), Rosenberg argues that various trends in modern art (such as the use of perishable materials and the foregrounding of the creative act in the work of Action Painters) evince an overt thematization of temporality, of both the art object and the spectatorial reception.  He writes: “The short-lived work of art [...] displays art as an event.” (Rosenberg, p.121)  This characterization of the art object as event accounts for an evanescence met by both the artist and the spectator.  It not only possesses a spatial, material existence, but insofar as it is “alive”, the art object is a “temporary center of energy which gives rise to psychic events.” (p.120) [See painting.]

The utter newness of the work of art confronts the spectator directly, without recourse to an external system of referentiality or acquaintance that might mitigate the experience.  This temporal-spatial object bracketed by a pre-reflective, pre-ideological immediacy constitutes the event quality of the work of art.  Although here we do not find the explicitness of intent at producing an ideological distanciation or the defamialiarization of cultural norms, as in the event of the dada cabaret, the same distancing effect and the same encasement, both temporal and spatial, is here produced by the object.  Unlike the dada, the event-maker is not the performer or creator but the object itself; correspondingly, we will see that the ‘event-production’ is not an anthropocentric reaffirmation of the spectator’s ‘humanity’ but something radically different.  For Rosenberg, the centrality of the object as “esthetic excitement” seems to threaten and even displace the artist him/herself, particularly in the case of Action Painters.  These, he says, are “the first spectators” of the work who invite the audience “to repeat with him the experience of seeing the work take shape.”  Performance corresponds less and less with the presentation of an object by a producer to a consumer but a mutual witnessing, not even of sheer creative energy emanating from the artist, but the almost autonomous becoming of the object.  This becoming both in the mind of the author as formal relations, which reveal composition, and in actual material space, as the object becomes part of a material economy of surrounding objects, constitutes the art object as event.

However, Rosenberg is concerned, considering “happening and performance art, that this preeminence of the event in art will culminate in abandoning the art object’s “physical existence” and turning composition” literally into an event”. (p. 122)  He identifies this impending threat, this “logical” “final step”, the carrying over of art into theatre.  Although both Rosenberg and Michael Fried relate the ‘event’ with the theater, the former refers to theater in a more “literal”, conventional sense (happenings as plays without scripts), whereas Fried refers to minimalist art as a “new genre of theater” because of the inextricability of its physical circumstance and the active concerting presence of the spectator from its distinctiveness as art.  However, what it is common to their position is their witnessing of a fact whose consequence Rosenberg does not want to bear and Fried is unwilling to admit in the first place. The evolution of the autonomy of the ‘event’ as a quasi-object results not in an affirmation “humanness”, as Schwitters perceives, but in its “objectification“.  Fried crucially misses this point when he quotes Robert Morris: “I wish to emphasize that things are in a space with oneself rather than… [that] one is in a space surrounded by things.” (Fried, p.15)  In safely overlooking the object-centricity of Morris’ art, Fried mistakenly charges minimalist art as an anthropocentric practice. In The Cinematic Body (1993) Steven Shaviro furthers this dissolution of the object and materialization of the ‘event’ by following the principle that “cinematic images are not representations, but events.”  The term ‘event” here corresponds to the experiential temporalities of “single images” which taken as a whole constitute the spectator’s experience of a film.  A cinematic image as event results from a new form of perception structurally effected by the mechanically reproduced film image within the confines of the theater.  This “new kind of perception” dislodges the “natural”, or phenomenological, perception of everyday objects which “equates sensations with the reflective consciousness of sensation” and reads “perceptions as non-immediate signs.” (Shaviro, p. 27)  For Shaviro, the event brackets the AFFECTIVE immediacy of the image.  The spectator’s visceral response by-passes the circuitry of symbolic association and identification, as the simulacral quality of mechanically reproduced images resists its identification with the object reproduced (p., 29). [See film.]

The movie theater as a receptive matrix and material enclosure of the cinematic event recalls the issue of space, in addition to the discussed temporality.  The cabaret, the gallery, and the movie theater all delimit and rely on a space within which object and spectator interact exclusively.  This space also sanctions a specific, conventional relation and expectation between subject and object.  However, Fluxus event radically challenges this commonsensical designation of a culturally mediated interaction and exposes a non-specificity of site in the event as a distinctive form of experience/perception.  The minimally scripted “event scores” of Fluxus offers a prescriptiveness that acknowledges creative function in spectatorship and non-authoritative performance.  “The event may be a publicly performed instruction, and entirely internal experience, and observed sign on the wall, or all of these.”  (Higgins, p. 23)

The event calls attention to the discursivity of modern space.  This is not the passive homogeneous space objectified by science but rather the compartmentalized space of capitalist production.  The event unbars the uncanny contention between these two kinds of spaces.  Contextualized neither socially nor symbolically, but by a dialectic of expectation and conviction, the event foregrounds the productive/creative function of spectatorship by identifying the intermediate substance that both separates and interrelates the object and the subject/ spectator/ receptor.

Roberto Kutcher
Department of Comparative Literature
Winter 2003

WORKS CITED

Foster, Stephen C. Event Structures and Art Situations “Event” arts and art events Ed. Stephen C. Foster. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, c1988.

Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” In Art and Objecthood. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Higgins, Hannah B. Enversioning Fluxus: A Venture into Whose Fluxus Where and When. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1994.

Maciunas, George. Manifesto (1963) Reproduced in Higgins’ Enversioning Fluxus: A Venture into Whose Fluxus Where and When. (1994)

Rosenberg, Harold “The Art Object and the Esthetics of Impermanence” (1964) Art theory and criticism : an anthology of formalist, avant-garde, contextualist, and post-modernist thought. Ed. Sally Everett. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, c1991

Shaviro, Steven. The cinematic body Theory out of bounds. v. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1993.

Watts, Harriet. The Dada Event  “Event” arts and art events. Ed. Stephen C. Foster. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI Research Press, c1988.