If you saw a girl in a flowing gown running on a SPAC treadmill or a suave, suited fellow pumping the leg presses, don’t panic: Workout fashion hasn’t changed that much. You just witnessed a “happening,” one of the stunts pulled off by Paint Happenings, a new performance-art group on campus.
The ragtag team started in winter of 2008 and has created more than 12 happenings since then, from making snow angels to simultaneously singing along to the same song on the headphones at Barnes and Noble. While about 20 students are involved with the group, most happenings are put together by 10 people or less.
A “happening” is basically any situation or event the group deems its own art. “We wanted to bring joy and confusion into the public space,” says Britt, the founding member who just graduated from Northwestern with a double major in theater and art theory and practice. In one happening, Lower painted the faces of four participants to look like old portraits by unknown artists. These paintings were being stored in the basement of the Art Institute, so the decorated students walked around the exhibits to “bring these pieces to life and into the museum as living people,” Communication sophomore Emily Hussein Anderson says. “We could walk around like we were normal people or we could do wacky stuff like pretend we were actually pieces of art.”
The public displays don’t get any one type of response. “People will either outright look at you or do a little side glance,” Lower says. Some people try to pretend that nothing’s happening, while others will ask what’s going on. And the unpredictability of people’s reactions is part of what makes Lower and the others giddy about doing it. “I’m wondering, did we make them smile or think?” Communication sophomore Johanna Middleton says. “Did we make their day more interesting?”
Sometimes, they don’t. A few of the happenings went unnoticed or didn’t come together as planned. “Failure is a huge part of this work. In a great way, the mistakes add to the experience,” Lower says. Even if they don’t make a scene, they still like to know what they’re doing is out of the ordinary.
But enjoyable though it is, deviant behavior can also be intimidating. Anderson says that during the SPAC event, “it took a little bit of courage to walk up the stairs and get on the elliptical in a dress.” It helped to know that “there is a sprinkling of other people that are your comrades floating around,” she says. And that’s when you just stop caring: “Honestly, it kind of feels like being a little kid and playing a game.”
In this game, though, players don’t follow the rules. Lending his group sociological import, Lower says the goal is always to challenge people to “question the infrastructure that is the rules and regulations of social interactions.” One time members approached the makeup counters at Nordstrom wearing blue, yellow and brown face-paint. “I asked the lady if she could think of a foundation that would be good for my skin tone. She was very confused,” Communication sophomore Aaron Ricciardi says.
Every once in a while, the onlookers join in, something they wish would happen more. Originally the group intended to take art “out of its natural habitat,” but as time has gone on, they’ve tried to pull some interaction from the people around them and see what they can get with it. During a synchronized swimming spectacle in some Evanston fountains, a couple kids even jumped in.
“Someone drove by,” Lower says. “And they told us, ‘I want to play too.’”