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‘Are You Happy?’: Notes On Öyvind Fahlström’s Mao-Hope March

A group of seven men and women carrying placards, six emblazoned with the face of the entertainer Bob Hope and one with Mao Tse-Tung’s, march through the streets of New York City on a late summer’s day in 1966. This conspicuous assembly proceeds from Fifth Avenue by Central Park down Sixth Avenue to the amusement, confusion or antipathy of passers-by. People on the street are invited by a well-known local radio presenter to respond to the march, and then asked the question ‘Are you happy?’, to which they give varying, often astonishing replies. Staged and shot on 1 September 1966, Mao-Hope March is a 4.5-minute, black-and-white, 16mm film with sound, made by the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström (1928-1976). It was originally produced as a filmic element for the multi-media performance Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (1966), part of 9 Evenings, a groundbreaking series of theatre events that took place in October 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The event was organised by fellow Swede Billy Klüver, an engineer from American telecommunications company Bell Labs, who founded E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), an agency that initiated collaborations between artists, performers and engineers, and featured John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and David Tudor, as well as Robert Rauschenberg, who took part in Fahlström’s piece along with artist-filmmaker Robert Breer and poet John Giorno. Kisses was itself a nine-part non-narrative spectacle whose premise was an interrogation of technology through the prism of global politics (a lifelong preoccupation of the artist), the economy and the environment.