Assemblages, Environments, Happenings, and…. Participatory Conversational Structures

Friday, March 15th, 2013

As a facilitator with a background in performance art, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of Participatory Conversational Structures with Happenings, live events created by visual artists in the 1950s and 60s, and a major precursor to contemporary avant garde performance.  One of my favorite books on the subject traces the development of Happenings to visual artists’ work on Assemblages in the earlier part of the 20th century.[i]

With Assemblages, visual artists created cultural objects from found items.

Eventually, they grew their work to human-scale Environments that allowed viewers to walk in, around, and through them.

Happenings evolved from this tradition and added an overt performative element. Instead of (or in addition to) having physical objects be the center of  viewers’ attention, people were utilized as artistic material, and viewers were encouraged to interact both with the physical environment, as well as the people/performers inhabiting these environments. In fact, with Happenings, there are often are no spectators. Everyone is a participant.

I like to think of Participatory Conversational Structures as part of an Assemblage-Environments-Happenings-Conversations Interactive Group Event continuum. Interactive Group Events use a few rules regarding human interaction to guide the behavior of a group.  By providing directives, they require that participants interact with each other in an “artificial” rather than “natural” manner. Consider the following instructions:

  • When the bell rings, you may move to a different room. (Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959)
  • Discuss with your table partners a given question for 30 minutes. In the next round, find new table partners to discuss a new question. (World Café)
  • Stay with a discussion group only if you have something to contribute or learn. (Open Space)
  • Sit in a circle. Only talk when you are holding the talking piece. (Circle Practice)

Interactive Group Events have a common, eye-opening, sometimes giddy effect on their participants. People follow directives and interact with each other in novel ways. While they may engage in powerful exchanges during the event, they are not expected to continue to interact with each other in a directed fashion following the event.

Yet, the effects of Participatory Conversational Structures can be transformative and long-lasting.  They can enliven communities and organizations beyond the confines of time and space allotted for an event. In fact, this is a major distinction between Participatory Conversational Structures and their artistic forebears.  While a Participatory Conversational Structure starts in a room, its effect on a community or organization may ripple on, without end.

In this post, I’ve talked about where I situate Participatory Conversational Structures within an Interactive Group Event continuum. A later post will explore how Applied Improvisational techniques, which stem directly from a theatrical tradition and are also used in Interactive Group Events, are similar to and different from Art of Hosting approaches to Participatory Conversational Structures.





[i] Kaprow, A. (1966). Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings. H.N. Abrams, New York.

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