On Sunday April 21st, we went to Forbes brunch to engage in a happening. At approximately 1:15 PM, we entered the Forbes dining room, full of students enjoying their weekly ritual of eggs, bacon, bagels, spreads, and a bowl of melted, viscous chocolate surrounded by an array of edibles awaiting submersion. We arrived relatively inconspicuously, settling at a table in the corner with a small entourage of viewers. After five minutes, we put on aprons and donned hand-crafted, glitter-adorned pope hats. We took two pairs of tongs and two bibles out of a tote bag, which we placed on top of plates. The two of us stood up, took the bibles between the tongs, proceeding to the bowl of chocolate. In turn, we each ladeled chocolate onto the covers of the bibles. From the crowd, which by now was fully observing, we heard a faint chorus of “ewwww.” One of the student employees came to us and informed us that books were not good for the chocolate. By then, the act had largely happened. We returned to our seats, and laid down the bibles. We acquired eggs, bacon, bagels, and spreads and finished brunch. Only one person inquired about our happening. After we finished brunch, we placed the bibles in the freezer in anticipation of future photo-documentation.
There were numerous motivations for this happening. The most pressing motivation, however, was our desire to undertake a project that was unusual and outside of a traditional frame of reference and would thereby challenge traditional methods of interpretation. Princeton is by no means hostile to performance art; indeed is carried out at a smattering of university events and as part of some classes as well. Yet, in these contexts, the art has a prescribed utility. No matter how outrageous or challenging the piece is, viewed in the context of an event or class, it is easily rationalized by the audience. Indeed, upon executing our happening, the response we were confronted with above all was “why?” And, to put it briefly, our response is because we can. Admittedly, dipping a bible in chocolate is by no small measure a reflection of our relationship to religion. But as a happening, our work is to be interpreted above all as an expression of our ideas by unconventional means, a rebellion against the compartmentalization of expression rampant on this campus.
There is a vibrant culture of written expression on this campus, as seen in this very newspaper and other campus publications. The written medium has succeeded in creating a platform for controversial, challenging, and polemic ideas. The most well-known polemics of our last four years have occurred mostly through print, such as Iulia Neagu’s article from 2010 regarding sexual consent, and more famously Susan Patton’s article earlier this year. We, however, see no reason why this culture of expressing non-traditional ideas should not extend to the realm of action. Happenings and actions provide the opportunity for direct confrontation and elevates response from the trolling of online comment sections to face-to-face interaction. In contrast to an editorial, which prizes a clear argument above all else, a happening can embrace obfuscation, and thus actively engage its viewership in the process of interpretation. Though whether obfuscated or not, Princeton suffers generally from a lack of happenings and actions in the public sphere, and especially from a lack of those that are more polemic and controversial in nature.
In this vein, we have always been intrigued by other instances of interrupted meals. When theater companies storm the dining halls to stage a trailer of their work, I am initially quite captivated. While for the most part their costumes give them away, sometimes, in the first moments of the theater trailer, we believe ourselves to be witnessing a completely independent, random happening. Soon though, it is clear that this not a true performance in its own right, but nothing more than a plug for me to witness the performance in a traditional venue at a preordained time for a certain amount of money. Naturally, the dining hall would not be an optimal location for a full performance of Macbeth. Yet insofar as they are able to capture the the attention of most of the dining hall for at least a minute, there are a multitude of possible happenings. For example, we witness interpretative dance at festivals, shows, and even the dance floors of the street. But why not in the dining hall, or for that matter the Frist lawn or outside Nassau Hall?
A true happening came to pass in the winter of 2011, when Occupy Princeton interrupted recruiting sessions for J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs. This action was especially notable given the general lack of political demonstration on this campus. It stimulated above all a more localized discussion of the Occupy movement centered around Princeton’s relationship to Wall Street. Additionally however, there was a discussion regarding the means of the action itself. Many argued that the participants in this action should have expressed their opinions by other means, such as through editorials in campus publications, decrying their tactics as nothing but childish. Others defended the protestors, arguing that it was their right to interrupt the meeting and that it was the most effective method to make themselves heard. In any case, Occupy Princeton not only presented and started a discussion of their political beliefs, but also instantiated a happening that prompted an examination, however shallow, of the culture of expression on campus.
The chocolate bible happening aims to also prompt such an examination, but with an added dimension. Compared to polemic Prince columns and Occupy protests, our happening does not have a message this is as clearly delineated. All the details of the happening are a reflection of our own aesthetic and material visions and understandings, and are accompanied by our own interpretations and opinions. Yet we withhold all of these specific interpretations from this piece, because here we wish to emphasize that the happening is above all a commentary on interpretation itself. Dipping a bible in chocolate during Sunday brunch is outside of the constructed framework of Princeton, and therefore is questioned. Inevitably, those who witnessed this happening at Forbes brunch, interpreted the happening in the context of Christianity and Catholicism, and we welcome these interpretations. However, what we forcefully encourage are more fundamental interpretations that treat our happening as an impetus to examine more broadly the way in which ideas are presented on campus and the wider world.
Happenings present the opportunity for organic collective expression. When some diners formed a chorus of ewwws in response to the bibles being dipped in chocolate, this was not merely a response, but part of the art itself. If someone had come and attempted to disrupt the bible-dipping by taking off our hats, this too would have been part of the happening. A happening presents the opportunity of confrontation, be it hostile or peaceful, constructive or destructive. A happening is an opportunity for people to present their opinions, aesthetic visions, and feelings through actions rather than solely through articles, photo portraits with cephalic messages, and essays, junior papers, and theses that only one or two professors might ever read.
Our happening is also a reaction to the structure of the arts on campus. In most cases, in order to participate in art formally, one must apply or audition and “prove” oneself. We are not arguing that such a system should be entirely dismantled. Some campus arts groups do have an interest in attracting certain talent to their ensembles. What we oppose is the monolithic compartmentalization of art-making and its exhibition into formal structures. For example, the main opportunity for students to exhibit their art is by participating in the Visual Arts certificate program. Most of the musical groups on campus are long-standing ones with at least a loosely formed organizational structure. Other groups, theater and dance groups for example, with few exceptions create a structure in which must rise through a hierarchy in order to have any significant contribution to the creative vision of the group’s work. Besides a few short-lived bands, we are hard-pressed to think of publicly displayed art on campus that is not undertaken by a class or campus group.
Dipping bibles in chocolate is not everyone’s cup of tea, and you might consider it indulgent, esoteric bullshit. We welcome this interpretation as well. Our hope is that you might engage in your happening that expresses your own ideas and sentiments, in whatever form you prefer. Such a happening needn’t necessarily be polemical or blasphemous; it could be an impromptu concert during late meal or a pillow fight in the McCosh courtyard. On the campus of a university with a socially fragmented student body, expression and action in the public sphere is all the more essential. We are of the belief that people should, in addition to seeking out ideas and expression, also be confronted with them. And accordingly, they should also respond. The responses to our happening that we received ranged from confusion to disgust to praise. Whether those we confronted with our happening were close friends or complete strangers, from even the most superficial of their responses, we learned a little bit more about them. That is a small step towards what we think this campus should be: a place where people are known and identified not by their appearance, backgrounds, and affiliations, but rather by the ideas, actions, and expression they present, be it via publications or bibles and a bowl of chocolate.
For documentation of our happening, visit chocolatebible.tumblr.com