Floorplan of the untitled event at Black Mountain College (1952), drawn for the author in 1989 by M.C. Richards, showing the audience square and relative positions of the performers. Identifications have been added. Reproduced courtesy of M.C. Richards.

Floorplan of the untitled event at Black Mountain College (1952), drawn for the author in 1989 by M.C. Richards, showing the audience square and relative positions of the performers. Identifications have been added. Reproduced courtesy of M.C. Richards.


The ‚Untitled Event‘ that took place in 1952 at Black Mountain College is recalled the pioneer performance of 20th century art history: An event held at the dining hall of the art school with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg participating and „maybe 35 or 50 people“ (1) watching. There has not been any photographic or video documentation, only some fragments of interview opinions and there is only one piece of paper with a score by Cage rudimentarily giving instructions on timing. But there are hundreds of articles and maybe thousands of opinions on how special this day must have been for everyone involved. In our discussion during the seminar we asked how we could challenge this phantasmagoric perspective in edited research material that has been done on the occasion of the “Untitled Event”. A myth has been created: through all the written account it has been turned into being its own metafigure. The stories have made it present in our mind, when it has long been a moment of the past. The ongoing re-narration easily falsifies facts; it is a constructed rearrangement that makes these facts seem historically significant. This touches on the myth surrounding the idea that any performance is ephemeral and can therefore not be documented or talked about, it should only be experienced. When performance became a subject to be studied in the late 70s and 80s the auratic factor was stressed heavily. Since Benjamin’s Aura is regarded as one of the most well known terms used to describe modern life and art, much ink has been spilled discussing this concept as fostering a nostalgic and negative sense of modernity as a loss. It builds on the idea of the change of perception of artworks in the age of ‚mechanical reproducibility‘: The ‘destruction’ of the aura by transience and reproducibility is judged “a salutary estrangement.” (2)


Some documents offer an interesting view at the audience and the kind of seating arrangement in the dining hall. The seating plan for the “Untitled Event” shows its geometrical figure, a square “composed of four triangles with the apexes of the triangles merging towards the center, but not meeting” (3), as Cage described. This breaks up with the common principle of frontal seating arrangement, further wipes out the 4th wall. During the “Untitled Event” the audience could see itself and was finally itself part of the theatrical nature of the event. The performer moved around the audience, also in the aisles between the four triangles. The viewers experienced the performance thus as a 360° impression. But is that impression only caused by a square-seating arrangement? Why a broken square and not a broken circle? The effect would be the same, wouldn’t it? Did they need the straight lines? What was the idea behind it? It is this lack of knowledge, which forms the mystification. We don’t know the reasons, we just have these sources like a seating plan or some quotes, but the causes are missing.

The seating plan for the untitled event at Black Mountain College (1952), reconstructed in 1965 (Kirby and Schechner 1965, 52). Reproduced courtesy of TDR/MIT Press.

The seating plan for the untitled event at Black Mountain College (1952), reconstructed in 1965 (Kirby and Schechner 1965, 52). Reproduced courtesy of TDR/MIT Press.

1 Richards 1989
2 Walter Benjamin: SW 2, 518–9.
3 Cage ( Kirby and Schechner 1965, 52)


As pointed out there is very little documentation on “The Untitled Event”. There a “no two sources contain the same recollections, and many sources omit details.” (1) The huge influence of the “Untitled Event” that is reproduced by many authors and artists stands in direct contrast to the nonexistence of a solid documentation. Furthermore the nonexistence of documentation is responsible for the mystification of the “Untitled Event”.
At first the different recollections are discussing the date, the durations and the time of the day of the performance. The informants are quite unsure in their memories. The duration differs from 45 minutes to almost 2 hours. (2) Just the seating arrangement is explicitly named by John Cage himself. The performance description by Cages works in a relativizing way and ends with the significant sentence: “I don’t recall anything else except the ritual with the coffee cup”. (3) This comment underlines the fact that the evaluation and mystification are put upon this event as a strategy of recollection. As there is no score just a missing plan, the whole event is overloaded by expectations and rumors. As there is just the nonexistence of documentation everything that remains is the narration of a myth of the “Untitled Event” that remains unsearchable and promising. The importance of the performance “has become a part of a legend”. Cage and his friends have not appreciated the significance of the performance at that time. The significance was made by historiography.

1 p.1
2 p.2
3 Kirby and Schechner 1965, 52-53


Das „Untitled Event“ gilt als Geburtsstunde der Performance Art. Wie alle Mythen stellt auch dieses Ereignis eine Form des kollektiven Erinnerns dar, von dem wenig handfestes Material erhalten ist. So stützt sich das Wissen über diese Performance, die wahrscheinlich am 12. August 1952 im Black Mountain College stattgefunden hat, nahezu ausschließlich auf die Erinnerung einiger, weniger Zeitzeugen.
Und diese Berichte sind widersprüchlich, unpräzise und geprägt von subjektiven Eindrücken, die den Kult um das „Untitled Event“ immer weiter ausbauen. Walter Benjamin schreibt:

Der Kultwert als solcher scheint heute geradezu darauf hinzudrängen, das Kunstwerk im Verborgenen zu halten: gewisse Götterstatuen sind nur dem Priester in der cella zugänglich, gewisse Madonnenbilder bleiben fast das ganze Jahr über verhangen, gewisse Skulpturen an mittelalterlichen Domen sind für den Betrachter zu  ebener Erde nicht sichtbar.

Wie die Madonnenbilder bei Benjamin, scheint es unmöglich das „Untitled Event“ einer näheren Betrachtung zu unterziehen, da es durch die Geschichte wie verhüllt erscheint. Auf bizarre Weise entsteht der Eindruck, dass das Kunstwerk erst durch die Tradition, durch den mündlichen Bericht der Zeitzeugen auratisch aufgeladen wurde. Denn das eigentliche Ereignis schien nicht sonderlich aus dem Black Mountain Alltag herauszustechen. So erinnert sich M.C. Richards:

Oh, I certainly didn’t get the impression that it was a historic event, perhaps because all the elements were     familiar, and at Black Mountain we had been doing light, sound, and movement workshops, and putting all     together seemed natural and not something really cultural-changing.

Der Komponist Lou Harrison empfand die Performance als „quite boring“ und Nicolas Cernovitch komplettiert das ganze mit der Aussage: „Nobody knew we were creating history.“

Es scheint als läge die historische Bedeutung des „Untitled Event“ nicht wirklich in der Aufführung an sich, sondern in der Schöpfung eines Mythos, eines sich bis heute entwickelnden Narrativs über die Geburtsstunde der Performance Art. Es gibt keine wirklich aussagekräftigen Dokumente, es gibt keine präzisen Chronisten, es gibt keine erhaltene Materialität, abgesehen von vereinzelten Skizzen und Raumplänen. Gerade durch die Beschwörung des Ereignisses, durch das Betonen der Einzigartigkeit, der Flüchtigkeit und Unwiederholbarkeit jedoch, wird es möglicherweise zu eben diesem einen bedeutenden Ereignis, das so maßgeblich für die Performance Art werden sollte.

For references and visual material we used:  http://fau4943.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/75675506/Cage_Multimedia.pdf

Ein Artikel von Anna-Maria Fiala, Lena Fiedler, Christopher Ramm und Henrike Simm

Teilnehmende StudentInnen der Lehrveranstaltung “Black Mountain-Tracing Basics. Modelle performativer Künste und Wissenschaften” (Sommersemester 2015) geleitet von Prof. Dr. Annette Jael Lehmann an der Freien Universität Berlin