Well before the term “performance art” took on a quasi-official-sounding appellation, the Walker invited the ONCE Group to perform in its spacious 1929 lobby, well before the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed a new building for the museum. The group was a collective of composers, poets, dancers, and playwrights. Originating in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ONCE was founded by composers Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda.
“We literally called it ‘ONCE’ on the assumption that it would not happen more than once,” recalled Reynolds. “There was such remarkable intensity in those events that there was something more than just a personal interest or need on our parts.”
They were a useful barnstorming cooperative that traveled to museums and college campuses, and the year before their June 1965 Walker appearance, they earned critical acclaim at the Venice Biennale. Their performances were highly physical, verging on perilous, circus-like antics. As part of the Here2 festival, they performed a variety of performances such as changed music, readings from texts, and - in a work called Kittyhawk (An Antigravity Piece) - a blindfolded young woman walking a plank suspended between two high industrial ladders on the Walker’s hard terrazzo floor.
The Space Theater was a loft specially designed and outfitted for performances with projected images and music. It served as the venue for semiweekly multimedia performances from 1957 to 1964; its creators asked Gordon Mumma and Ashley to produce live electronic music for the productions. The performances included music produced by things such as the "rubbing together of stones" and steel rings thrown along wires. During their cooperation in Space Theater, Ashley created the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in 1958 with Mumma, whom he had originally met in his graduate composition seminars. The success of Space Theater led to the creation of the ONCE festival, a contemporary performing arts event that served as a forum for experimental art and music.