From Performance Art to Participatory Facilitated Conversations: A Visual Musing

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Here in New York City, we are in the midst of the final throes of a very hot few months. With its cooling sweet and salty tang, watermelon-feta-mint salad has been my go-to dish for weeks.

Traditionally, summer invites us to take a break from routines, inviting in spaciousness and reflection. In the spirit of rest and reflection, I am reposting a lightly edited and very visual post I originally wrote in 2013 about the relationship between Performance Art and Participatory Conversational Structures.


As a facilitator with a background in theater directing and performance art, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of Participatory Conversational Structures with Assemblages, Environments, and Happenings, three artistic genres from the mid 20th century that inform the development of contemporary Performance Art.[i]

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

Untitled (Medici Boy) 1942-52, Joseph Cornell

Untitled (Medici Boy)
1942-52, Joseph Cornell

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

Yard, 1961 Allan Kaprow

Yard, 1961
Allan Kaprow

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:

Household, 1964 Allan Kaprow

Household, 1964
Allan Kaprow

I like to think of the facilitation work I do as part of an Interactive Event continuum, from Environments to Happenings to Participatory Conversational Structures. Interactive Events use a few rules regarding human interaction to guide the behavior of a group. By providing guidelines, they invite participants to interact with each other in a “directed” rather than “spontaneous” 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 speak when you are holding the talking piece. (Circle Practice)

Interactive 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 necessarily expected to continue to interact with each other following the event.

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


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

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