Dealing With New Demands // Happiness Project // Part II

At the opening reception for Dealing with New Demands, Jennifer Mills and her art consultant trio engaged in a one-night only performance that encouraged the audience to participate by purchasing art on the spot. The exhibition is part of a larger project called The Happiness Project which is taking place in a variety of art spaces throughout the month of November. Below is a brief interview* with curator, Tricia Van Eck where she goes into great detail about her project and the corresponding exhibition curated by Jennifer Mills.

Nicolette Caldwell: I am curious to know what the motivation/inspiration behind this project was for you initially. Could take me through some of the steps of this project? How did you select the artists?

Tricia Van Eck: I started thinking about my own happiness and the power of an individual pursuing their dreams and the power of that, if magnified, could be transformative if everywhere people were pursuing happiness. By happiness, I mean a kind of Aristotelian idea that happiness is a virtue and a kind of excellence - that you are striving for your potential or meaning in life as a way of life. It is not necessarily a hedonic notion of happiness but a more Buddhist notion of happiness that requires a concern for others' happiness as well. Following on the Declaration of Independence, your right to pursue happiness stops when it impinges on another's right for happiness.

NC: How do you think the response will manifest as the range of places and audiences will vary greatly? Any other locations that you would like to have your project that you have not nailed down yet?

TVE: All of the locations are nailed down and it's a cross-section of the city's neighborhoods where artists live: Logan Square, Pilsen, and Hyde Park. It also includes Edgewater, which hosts the most diverse populations in the city—it’s like a mini UN.

Each venue is open for the month and there are 8 sites total including 2 venues downtown, 1 window installation, 1 group exhibition and 5 projects in neighborhoods, which are curated/run by artists.

I think the response in each venue will be different in that the shows are addressing and connecting to the population of that area. They are commanding foot traffic to stop to engage with the art. While the artists are obviously interested in having the art crowd see the work, the reason all of the spaces are on the streets or in storefronts is so the public who pass by, and not necessarily just the art crowd, can interact with the works and ideas. It's bringing art to the people.

It was important for the spaces to be storefronts for the public but also to address artists as potential drivers for creative and economic change. If policy leaders still think in terms of economics, it is important to show that artists can help turn around the bad economy. Jennifer Mills's piece with its red dots showing sold works directly addresses this.

Dealing With New Demands // The Happiness Project

Also it was important that the spaces be both downtown and in the neighborhoods addressing work and play issues and the city/neighborhood dichotomy. A big factor in happiness, or lack of it, is people losing their job. I think this is not necessarily because they loved their job but because of the uncertainty of money, identity, etc. So we normally think of play and fun outside of work, in the neighborhoods, but play and fun can also happen at work such as with the 50 pair of tap shoes in the 23 E. Madison St. space for people to tap dance in downtown.

NC: What is the ultimate goal of the project? What kind of behavior are you hoping to influence?

TVE: I think people know what happiness is so it is more about thinking about its power. It's thinking about what ultimately creates lasting happiness - quality of life - and reminding the public to demand from their elected officials policies that promote quality of life. I think Occupy Wall Street has reminded the people that they can and should have a voice in a democracy. Kirsten Leenaars's project Under Construction asks, “What is happiness” and “What is a perfect society” by including the people of the 48th Ward to discuss their role in participatory democracy. Aldermen and Alderwomen are often the voice of the people in the city and she is creating the piece as the 48th ward Alderman Osterman is working with the people in the ward to create a master plan as he tries to develop the ward, which includes Uptown, Edgewater, and Andersonville, into a new Arts District. She invites people to walk in, watch the making of and development of the project, and participate in the filming.

It also reminds people about the power of community. SHoP's dinner aims to discuss the role people working together as a community can play in developing flourishing neighborhoods. It’s also about experimentation with community and even questioning how we can best live together as individuals contributing to a larger whole. In Pilsen the Cosmic Workshop invites the public on 18th street to engage in a collaborative experiment using indigenous symbols – Mezoamerican and North American - centered around harmony, cycles of change and transference of energy, to explore happiness and discuss and develop ways of acting, living, and playing that respects the Cosmic Whole. Finding a balance between work and play, the space is meant to be a zone for exploring ideas, sounds, and words that encourage open-ended explorations.

Furthermore, I would love for some of the projects and ideas to be incorporated into the Mayor's Cultural Policy Plan 2012. At The ICE Project (ICE), The Listening Room teaches students how to translate sound into notes, notes into scores, and then their score is played. After listening to it, they readjust it through rewriting, and then the final score is played. This is a project that is shovel ready, particularly when so much of arts education in the schools has been cut.

NC: Have you received any interesting feedback?

TVE: Aaron Delehanty had a precursor Psychiatric Help booth at The MDW Fair. He gave a free beer to participants and confetti flowers that when planted, grow into flowers so that their ideas of happiness could bloom. People loved that. In speaking with Jason Foumberg he mentioned that it is like a think tank around Chicago. The window on 27 W. Randolph is open and it displays Natasha Wheat's neon sign; Autonomy Handed to You is an Illusion, which sets the tone for participatory democracy. But no one is by the space tracking comments. When it switches to Gwyneth Anderson's Laughing Video, she will enlist the public walking by to recreate the piece. We’ll get a better sense of that response then.

Guests purchase art, while others enjoy the exhibit.
NC: Could you explain more about the Jennifer Mills show at the Comfort Station?

TVE: The Logan Square show is Dealing With New Demands. Jennifer Mills curated the show and is "acting" as the gallery dealer. The artists that she invited to be in the show are all responding to the ideas in The Happiness Project and have created artworks that are to be sold at the opening event. Julie Laffin has also invited a hand masseuse during the opening to give out massages. That will make me happy! The exhibition is organized as an art gallery and sales event, and the original artwork is sold for prices between $10-20. Once sold, the work is deinstalled and taken home, where it serves as at catalyst for continued conversation in people’s homes. As the works sell, the exhibition evolves into an installation of red “sold” dots documenting the exchanges as well as suggesting a booming art economy created by artists. The proceeds of the sales are split between the artists, curator, and “Street-Level Youth Media,” a local organization that offers free after-school media arts workshops to neighborhood youth.

As “gallery dealer” Jennifer discusses with the public the ideas of the show and how these ideas are manifested within each work. In a way, she "sells" the public the need for quality of life issues to be discussed and the power of art in initiating and framing that discussion, as well as arts ability to spur on the economy. If we go back to measurement and measure the effect of art, according to the Sarkozy commission, we will encourage the creation of more art. If we measure the quality of life through art, then we'll have both more art and a better quality of life. The show is a very concentrated version of The Happiness Project and raises issues about the value of work and art and the central role of art in the economy, people's lives, and in the city.

Participating artists include Jesse Butcher, Dayton Castleman, Ricardo Harris-Fuentes, Neil Jacobsen, Robin Kang, Katie Klein, Julie Laffin, Joseph Mohan, Anthony Romero, Jillian Soto, and Ashley Thomas.

The exhibition will be on display at The Comfort Station with open gallery hours for the rest of November on Saturday and Sundays from 12:00 – 4:00pm.

For more information about the exhibition, curators, gallery and participating artists involved with this project explore the websites listed below.

To see more images from the show check out last week's Part I feature of Dealing With New Demands  and  The Happiness Project.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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