Ever since the artist and art-professor Allan Kaprow staged the first “happening” in 1957, performance art has become ever more ubiquitous. The basic idea behind a happening, and indeed all of performance art, is that what matters in art is not the final product but the process that creates it. Originally, artists would stage wild events, inviting viewers to watch as they took hundreds of photos of themselves, say, or an artist painted and a musician fiddled nearby. While it wouldn’t be accurate to call the work of contemporary performance artists like Marina Abramovic or Tino Seghal — each the subject of a recent major exhibition here, at MoMA and the Guggenheim, respectively — “happenings,” it would be impossible to understand their work without the precedent of the “happening.”
But if you go to the New Museum’s second Triennial, titled “The Ungovernables,” you will see something much closer to Kaprow’s original vision. The museum has selected 34 artists from around the world, all of them with a deliberately political edge, and most of them performance-based. From Israel comes not a single artist but a collective, founded in 2006 and called Public Movement; it is perhaps the most happening-esque of the 34 participants.
For half a decade, Public Movement has been staging elaborate events that highlight social ills. In Israel, they’ve mocked prime ministers by staging choreographed protests. In Mount Herzl, they’ve reenacted terrorist attacks and, in Germany, invited their own arrest. When they come to New York for the Triennial, they’ll be staging what they call “salons” — basically, fake public debates — throughout much of the spring. In locations around the city, they’ll raise issues about the merit of trips like Birthright Israel; how these Israel trips influence American Jewish lobbying groups; and why American Palestinians don’t create their own Birthright-type trips. If it sounds provocative, that’s the point. Whether you join their protest, or protest against them, is entirely up to you.
“The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial” runs from Feb. 15 to April 22 at the New Museum.