PRINT January 2015


the Halprin workshops

Group portrait after Experiments in Environment workshop, Kentfield, CA, 1968. Photo: Paul Ryan. Lawrence Halprin Collection, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

IN 1966, David Antin declared that environment was “a pretty dead word.” The critic was being more than a little ironic, yet his pronouncement diagnosed a real anxiety. For artists and critics across the ideological spectrum, environment had become a difficult—and destabilizing—term. For some, it invited a departure from ideals of flatness, threatening the art object’s increasingly precarious autonomy. For others, including those sympathetic to art’s expanded field, environment had a worrying association with movement, a disruption of the one-to-one encounter between viewer and static image. For still others, however, the allure of the word held firm. A case in point is the series of two- to four-week workshops that were organized by dancer Anna Halprin, and her husband, architect Lawrence Halprin, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Occurring across three California landscapes—San Francisco, the nearby coastal community of Sea Ranch, and the wooded areas around the couple’s Kentfield home—and open to students of dance and architecture, the workshops aimed to foster a “collective creativity,” emphasizing both movement and interdisciplinarity in ways that represented a counternarrative of sorts to East Coast critics’ focus on the status and legacy of painting. Thanks to “Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971,” an important exhibition by the Graham Foundation in Chicago, the Halprin collaborations are finally receiving their due.

Organized by Graham director Sarah Herda, the exhibition focused on three exemplary iterations of the workshop—the 1966, 1968, and 1971 editions—presenting a rich selection of drawings, notebooks, photographs, slides, films, video, and printed material from the Lawrence Halprin archives at the University of Pennsylvania. What emerged was a sense of the broad importance of Anna’s practice to postwar art (and to Lawrence’s approach to architecture), especially with regard to her expansive conceptualization of dance movement and her effots to use media to engage the politics of the era. Prior to the period examined in this show, Anna, via her legendary dance workshops, had pioneered the task-based movement of postmodern dance and incorporated materials such as lights, slide projections, and transparencies; students included Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Robert Morris, and that multifaceted legacy was clearly reflected in the group workshops examined here.

At the time of the 1966 workshop, Anna aligned her practice with Allan Kaprow’s Happenings but stated that she sought to correct that mode’s failure to investigate the “real intersection of the component media” and its tendency to treat movement as a mere supplement to painting. Likewise, she rejected the sensorial overload—the imprecise fusion—of the many psychedelic environments of the time. Anna’s sessions did explore the real intersection of multiple media and sensory effects, yet with an eye to their very differences: They facilitated “contact experience” with the environment by isolating and developing awareness of distinct senses, for example, in blindfolded walks, or in a “departure ritual” that instructed participants to “isolate, then reassemble different parts of your body.” Lawrence, meanwhile, prompted architects to evaluate the landscape through movement in space: Architecture, in his view, was a form of “design[ing] for movement.”

The Halprins began each workshop by staging a “kinetic environment” in San Francisco. The score for the 1968 version, on view in this show, directed participants to engage in solitary activities and then gather in Union Square to collectively release balloons. The instructions aimed at an individual heightening of perceptual experience: “Be as aware of the environment as you can. . . . This will include all sounds, smells, textures, tactility, spaces. . . . Also your own sense of movement around you, your encounters with people the environment and your feelings!”

By 1968, the Halprins were increasingly focused on the ways in which individual awareness could be developed into “community” and group interactions. The announcement for the workshop that year featured an image of dancers and architects using one another’s bodies as cantilevers. Such intersubjective tendencies are also evident in Driftwood City, staged in 1966 and 1968. (A photo from the latter iteration was one of the most eye-catching slides projected in the exhibition’s selection of rarely seen archival materials.) On the beach at Sea Ranch, the participants had been asked to “contact the environment” and created aspects of a provisional “city” out of driftwood and flotsam. Within this warren of structures, they experimented with task-based actions and spontaneous rituals. In a photograph of the project, one figure rests on the shoulder of another, while others are absorbed in more solitary gestures. With these ephemeral actions, the participants collectively built a new environment—an ideal city generated from the movement of participants instead of the fixed, top-down vantage point of previous models of architecture.

Central to the Halprins’ idea of social form was the role of the score as a procedure of visualizing process—a concern reflected in the exhibition’s display of slides. Instead of simply selecting single installation views from each workshop activity, Herda selected sequences of images that had been shot in rapid succession (many by Paul Ryan) and together intimated movement, an almost animated effect. Notably, these series bring to mind Lawrence’s 1965 conception of “motation,” an experimental system for graphically notating three-dimensional movement that is modeled on the sequential action in individual frames of film—a departure from dance notation’s focus on discrete gestures. Although the exhibition left open the question of whether the images were themselves considered motation, it successfully foregrounded the attempts by the Halprins to position media as a procedure integral to the creative process rather than a mere aftereffect. Similarly located at the threshold of art and documentation, a large-scale sepia-toned scroll laid out the program for the workshop in a calendar-cum-score.

The Halprins drew on therapeutic models, including Gestalt psychology, for their translation of group dynamics into material for art. Anna especially stressed the production of new forms of intimacy. Describing an activity involving nudity meant to foster bodily contact among the participants, she wrote, “Look at partner [sic] body. Place palm of hand (no air between hand & skin of part of body you touch) on some part of your partner’s body that draws your attention. What do you feel?” If Anna’s work has often been read as apolitical, her emphasis on contact might be put into dialogue with the idea of interracial “direct contact,” a key aspect of ’60s-era nonviolent direct action, itself a visual and performative act.

Indeed, by the late ’60s, she had become frustrated with the group’s homogeneity and created a “multi-racial theater” (a collaboration between a group of white amateur dancers Halprin was working with in San Francisco and her newly formed all-black dance group, Studio Watts); several participants joined the 1971 workshop. At that moment, the documentation of the workshops also shifted from still to moving images. At the Graham Foundation, the curators premiered three works by film- and video maker Connie Beeson, who had previously worked with Anna. Digital transfers of Beeson’s silent 16-mm projections of the 1971 workshops set in Sea Ranch (Sea Ranch) and in urban San Francisco (Workshop) were projected side by side, both delighting in double exposures and juxtapositions of bodies and landscape, a layering that serves as a formal demonstration of Anna’s understanding of contact. Beeson’s Porta-Pak-produced My Neighborhood, 1971, meanwhile, is more direct. Recorded during a workshop, the video shows individuals of different races in a classroom using scrolls, maps, and performance to describe their respective neighborhoods; what comes to the fore are emotional accounts of lived personal experiences of racism. Beeson also folded one work into the other: In Workshop, we see the participants of My Neighborhood watching video playback of themselves on monitors. In this way, video becomes a fraught analogue to civic participation.

The Halprin workshops posed questions that would become central to video and performance art. At the same time, they pointed beyond the concerns of any one medium to signal a broader transformation in the role of the artist, from creator of objects to facilitator of aesthetic experience: a “synthesizer,” as the Halprins put it, of multiple inputs. Yet for all the emphasis on durational processes that unfolded over time, the workshops created an indelible record, an archive of images: shots of a line of young people ascending a hillside blindfolded, paint-covered bodies during a Happening staged by the Halprins in the midst of a Grateful Dead concert, a light show. The collectivity captured in these images still resonates, as do the Halprins’ efforts to challenge social hierarchies and exclusions. Environment emerged in this exhibition as a perpetually unstable thing, a malleable envelope to be contested, moved through, felt—then and now.

Solveig Nelson is an art historian and critic based in Chicago.