Before Tweet-ups, before flash mobs, before raves, before disco, there were Happenings. A cultural trend of note, highly innovative at the time, and worth revisiting. I’m creating a new version of a Happening in Boston next week, but more on that later. Why am I posting about this? Because there is something to learn from the old trend, and that is, we learn best through interaction with cultural stimuli.
Back to history — the first Happenings were hosted by high level artists in the New York City area (such as George Segal and Allan Kaprow) in the early 60′s. Characterised as “the blurring of art and life” they were going on about the same time as the Beat Generation of writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc) were doing their thing. Of course, they evolved, and every sort of happening from the formal and overly arty (read pretentious) to the completely wacked out acid trip tests, were the left and right of the spectrum. Even the weaker attempts were a breath of fresh air in my view. The ambiance of these smaller events set the stage for Woodstock, perhaps the ultimate Happening — but it’s a gray area to call Woodstock a Happening. In some respects they are still going on — for instance The Burning Man festival, but I think it’s fair to say that Happenings, if they happen, are called something else now and have entirely different motives.
What was the motive behind Happenings? Hard to say, but self-expression would be one, and an intentional reinvention of a community gathering would be another, and perhaps lurking in the background, a quest for notoriety and even acceptance. You might call it a creative party; there was certainly creativity involved.
The key element to a Happening was surprise. Something unexpected was going to go down at a Happening. Happenings were stimulating in a multi-dimensional way, maybe in an attempt to generate a legal high. Another key was some kind of performance including conceptual performance art. And finally it was participative — you couldn’t just watch — you had to be part of it.
Thinking for a second about organizational innovation — how might a “Happening” be a better kick off for idea generation than, say, a deck of PowerPoint slides?
Being a Johnny-come-lately to all things hip, I only made it to a few real Happenings (as opposed to say, just good parties, I went to lots of those!) and those were more or less at the tail end of the trend. I do recall attending, and participating in, The Alternate Pieta in Cincinnati, circa 1978. It was organized by Michael Enright, a charismatic, artist/film-maker/musician — and a brave soul to be creating something avante garde in stuffy old Cincinnati (actually, looking back, that time was a spike in Cincinnati’s creativity). Mike had organized an artists collective of a sort called “We’re Just Like You.” I was on the fringe of that group — and I credit the influence of Michael and WJLY folks with helping me break out of a very conservative background. Anyway, WJLY would not have called it a Happening — that time had already gone by — but I think they might have agreed their performance art pieces linked back to the original trend.
I reminisce here forgive me.
All this by way of saying I’m creating (with partners Indy Neogy, Kate Hammer, and good friend Anne Manning of Drum Circle, a brand consultant) a kind of post-Happening Happening. It’s all Happening next Monday in Boston (May 16, 2011). Calling it Happening 5.16 — a latter day reinvention of the old trend. I’m creating, with my partners, a series of kinaesthetic/sensory experiences for selected attendees of the Front End of Innovation show. I’m hoping a few participants at the conference will appreciate an alternative evening activity to cocktails in the hotel lounge (and at least one experience Not centered around the dreaded PowerPoint.) It will demo, in very short form, a new approach to innovation process. Unlike Happenings of old, this one introduces a commercial motive, specifically a product, IdeaKeg, which is the innovation subscription service offering my new company Kiln has created. Having said that, it will be the softest sell of the day. It will be a lot of unexpected, participative, hopefully interesting, experiences designed to freshen your perspective about how one can approach innovation from a very different starting point.
No LSD in the punch — unless some of our guests are way more creative in that direction than I give them credit for! No bongo drums (but maybe you can bring some?) Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight may attend if their in town.
If you have interest in coming to Happening 5.16, get in touch with me and we’ll see what we can arrange.