Happiness Is… Research Note #3

For being where you are, and knowing when you are:

Attitudes toward the past are key to the development of gratitude … which allow you to appreciate the present.

Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, The Time Paradox

When we link ourselves to the future, we behave better today.

Shane Lopez, IPPA World Congress, 2010

The Joy of Work

I’m feeling very lucky to work with awesome art organizations.

Yesterday I helped out with Public Art Fund’s art auction. It was the biggest, fanciest nonprofit art auction I’ve eve been to, with lots of great work by big time artists, including performances and live art. I also enjoyed the people watching—lots of amazing style on display, and being slightly starstruck by the number of artists and curators whose work I’ve admired from afar for so long. Everyone at PAF and the rest of the freelance crew was a pleasure to work with, and I’m feeling just really lucky to have been a part of it. Looking forward to their future programs especially Oscár Tuazon in Brooklyn (his architectural installation at the Whitney Biennial is so interesting).

Tonight I attended the Welcome party for new NYC artists, organized by Sally Szwed and Deric Carner. It is always a sweet, joyful party, with people just being friendly, down-to-earth and earnest. Really lovely all around. Nice to see representation from lots of great art orgs: Creative Time, EFA, and Flux Factory (the latter two have current calls for artists BTW!) To boot, it was held at Art in General, where Rob Carter’s stellar exhibition is on display. I was thrilled to help out with that install too, and see the event’s attendees enjoy the show. I hope they spread the word; it’s a great show.

Just wanted to share a little gratitude for such amazing organizations, and the staff, funders, donors, and artists who make it all possible.

Meta-Practice, Research

words on social practice and creativity

Christoph Büchel’s Piccadilly Community Centre: an exciting example of social practice.

J.J. Charlesworth’s “Hidden Intentions,” (Art Review, December 2011) introduced me to this brilliant intervention transforming the tony Central London Hauser & Wirth location (formerly a bank) into a working social centre, and not just for in-the-know art students, but for the public—senior citizens, yoga practitioners and so on. Piccadilly Circus is a popular tourist’s nexus like Times Square, where simply winding through crowds, dodging street salesmen, and finding a restroom can be exhausting. So Büchel’s gesture of turning an exclusive, expensive, private space into a rambunctious, free, public one is quite satisfying. I was also intrigued to read that

much was made of whether Büchel’s project was a comment on David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

I find Büchel’s responsiveness commendable.

On irony, and bridging the divide between art and life

“Hidden Intentions” is not an exhibition review, but a speculative essay. Charlesworth also examines Matthew Darbyshire’s faux loft ads at Herald Street, writing that it

is interesting because, like Büchel’s community centre, it points backwards to interrogate the capacity of the viewer to recognise the gesture as ironic. Because irony always implies a ‘double’ audience—those who accept the gesture at face value and those who realise the gesture is simulated intentionally—it also implies a form of superiority, which is often couched in terms of criticism of another….

This is art that writes itself into the fabric of everyday life with only the fading trace of the artist as proof of its reality as a sort of ironic gesture, and in which the work’s audience is made complicity with the artist’s manipulation of the world of others…. Of course, it still needs the institutional frame of the artworld to allow it to happen, but in doing so, it takes to an extreme the postmedium scope of current artistic possibility, where in the end, the only thing that is distinguishable is the discursive setup of the artworld itself.

Conflict aids creativity?

So argues Jonah Lehrer in “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth” (The New Yorker, January 20, 2o12). He presents evidence contrary to the widely-accepted prohibition against criticism in brainstorming:

According to [psychology professor Charlan] Nemeth, … “…debate… will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

To Lehrer and Nemeth, I’d respond with a constructively critical, “Yes, but…”

Positive Sign #1, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen with holographic foil print on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm

Consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s five stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. I would think that debate is productive in some stages (such as evaluation and elaboration) and not others (such as preparation, incubation, and insight).

Perhaps more even-handed: sociologist Brian Uzzi analyzed musicals to find correspondences between social intimacy among creators and box office and critical success.

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable, but not too comfortable.”

For artists considering creative and professional collaborators, choose carefully.

Lehrer also makes an exemplar of the MIT “rad lab”—where a disused building became home to divergent departments, creating spillover, and presumably, lending interdisciplinary gusto to the work of Chompsky, Bose, and other paradigm shifters. Lehrer concludes

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition is right—enough people with different perspectives running into on another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself…. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together.

I cringed when I read that last sentence, after my experiences in open-plan studios in graduate school. Unwanted intrusions can make focusing attention seem like a Herculean task. Being hurled together say, when you’re reading or trying to resolve an artwork, with someone taking a phone call or playing music, is not creative, but torturous. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that humans can adapt to many things, but we never adapt to intermittent noise:

Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise … never fully adapt, and even studies find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York: Basic Books (2006) 92.

Thanks to Katie Rutherford, director of Untitled Gallery in Manchester, UK, I’ve got some photos of the participatory component of Give Thanks to share with you. The public was invited to make drawings on paper pennant flags in response to the question, “What are you grateful for?” I love the mix of children’s scribbles and grown-ups’ renderings.

Participatory component of the Give Thanks installation at Untitled Gallery at Project Space Leeds, Leeds, UK last month.

Participatory component of the Give Thanks installation at Untitled Gallery at Project Space Leeds, Leeds, UK last month.

Participants' gratitude pennants on display.

Detail with a subtle rendition of a cup (bottom row, center) and a drawing of the word, "ribbons."

Art & Development

Participants Give Thanks

Participatory component of the Give Thanks installation at Untitled Gallery at Project Space Leeds, Leeds, UK last month.

Participatory component of the Give Thanks installation at Untitled Gallery at Project Space Leeds, Leeds, UK last month.


through 12/10: give thanks @ untitled gallery @ project space leeds

Give Thanks (studio view detail), 2011, installation of 39 flags: satin ribbon, linen, gratitude statements; dimensions site-variable; each flag 12 x 18 in / 30 x 45 cm.

Give Thanks (studio view detail), 2011, installation of 39 flags: satin ribbon, linen, gratitude statements; dimensions site-variable; each flag 12 x 18 in / 30 x 45 cm.

I’m very excited to present a new text-based installation made of ribbon and fabric, and relating to gratitude, at this exhibition-within-an-exhibition.

Enter a Small Room Arranged for this Purpose is a series of three exhibitions in Project Space Leeds’ version of Untitled Gallery, created for Peering Sideways, a new exhibition and programme of events at PSL. This ambitious project brings together artists’ groups from around the UK (London, Manchester, Wakefield).

The project also aims to expand the networks of the participating artists and groups, sparking new relationships and collaborations. The project comprises three separate group shows running concurrently, with some of the work developing in the space over the course of the project.

November 16–December 10, 2011
Enter a Small Room Arranged for this Purpose: Part Three
[part of Peering Sideways, September 10 – December 10, 2011]
Untitled Gallery (Manchester) @ PSL [Project Space Leeds] 
Whitehall Waterfront, 2 Riverside Way, Leeds, LS1 4EH, UK

Art & Development

The Greatest of All Time

Few things impress me as much as discovering that champions are also genuinely nice people.

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall wrote about Scott Jurek’s constant encouragement of fellow runners. After setting records at 100-mile ultramarathons, Jurek would plop down in a sleeping bag and cheer on every last runner, sometimes for 12 hours or more. During a 50-mile race in sizzling Mexican canyons, as he pursued the lead runners, Jurek stopped to brief a fellow runner on the trail conditions and aid stations ahead of her. He increased the distance he’d have to reel in his competitors so he could help a friend.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning from one of the nicest and toughest people I know. Bunkerd Faphimi is a muay thai figher and trainer at Fight and Fitness in San Francisco. He has an astounding 350+ fights under his belt. He’s known in Thailand as the People’s Champion, and as soon as you meet him, you’ll know why. He’s incredibly kind, generous, and playful. Have a look at his fight videos. He likes to take a lot of punishment, and yet, he’s often smiling in the ring. Not a showboating smile, but one of enjoyment. Better yet, watch him spar with students. He offers a near-constant onomatopoeic commentary, delighting in an activity in which he’s mostly letting himself get kicked, punched, and put in the clinch. He’s the living antithesis of both the evil Karate Kid Freudian-father archetype sensei, and, with his sheer unpretentiousness and demystified approach to muay thai, of the ‘magical Asian’ Mr. Miyagi. His love of muay thai, and of life, is like exuberance embodied.

I often find myself defending fight sports from people view it as sanctioned brutality. What they don’t understand is that these are highly evolved sports that people spend years of their lives dedicating their lives to. You don’t get to that level without knowing, in your heart of hearts, that this is what you really want, and proving it over and over again. As Chris Cariaso, the other head trainer at Fight and Fitness (and a super nice guy who rescues dogs when he’s not training, teaching, and fighting in the UFC) said, he’s “living the dream.”

This gratitude for life experiences also extends to gratitude to other competitors. Though fighters and promoters hype fights as ways to settle personal beefs, fighters also experience profound gratitude and respect for competitors when the fight is fair, their skills are closely matched, and the fight is so enjoyable that the outcome becomes less significant. When you’ve witnessed your opponent’s skill and heart firsthand—when they’ve gained your respect and you haven’t compromised yourself or your performance in any way—you recognize that there is no shame or sadness in losing to such a worthy competitor.

This is very similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow: the activity becomes autotelic, skills are well-suited to the challenges, and participants lose themselves to the activity.

You can see this elatedness exemplified at the end of bloody battles when the fighters, after the last bell, happy and exhausted, embrace. They also often gently touch each other’s heads or draw their foreheads together—I’ve even seen a boxer wipe another’s face. You don’t have to be a social psychologists to recognize these signs of affection and intimacy. Their wide smiles are pictures of gratitude. (Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar, TUF1, is a classic example. I’m sure I was not the only fan rooting for both of them by the end.) Sometimes, one fighter will raise the competitor’s hand in the air, not necessarily to signal his own loss, but to acknowledge his opponent’s champion spirit. In a world of machismo, humility shines.

Premise #1: True champions express gratitude, humility, and generosity.

McDougall writes that people are born to run, and that we love running because we love being with other runners. We are part of a human pack when we run together. Though endurance running is often accompanied by pain and exhaustion, many top runners compete with smiles on their faces. The joy of the activity is self-evident; the urge to help others enjoy the activity follows.

Speculations: Art is highly competitive and individual artists often compete against each other for grants, residencies, commissions, exhibition opportunities, and teaching jobs. Who are the top practitioners in the arts who express profound generosity and gratitude?

How do artists—even as competitors—help each other? Share our joy? Express our pack-hood?

When do we help each other find the flow?

Is art practice like endurance running? Can artists find the joy even as we slog it out for miles in the rain alone, as well as when we assemble and compete?

When our skills are evenly matched how do we raise another’s fist in the air, recognizing their spirits?

Is there a lesson for artists to be learned about becoming a contender before becoming a champion?

Read the abstract of a fantastic profile of Bunkerd by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker.

Watch a video interview with Bunkerd on, an excellent resource for all things muay thai by a true practitioner.

[Added October 16, 2011] Read a recent blog post by Jurek on running with others.

Art & Development

Happiness and pathology

My art has concerned happiness for the past two years, so I was fascinated to learn about a man who is forced to avoid joy and pleasure.

Neurologist Matt Frerking suffers from narcolepsy with catoplexy, a disease that results in momentarily losing the ability to move one’s muscles. In his case, the attacks are triggered by strong positive emotions. As Chris Higgins, the storyteller, narrated on This American Life (Episode #409, “Held Hostage”, originally aired June 4, 2010):

When Matt gets really happy—when he feels the warm fuzzy stuff—he becomes paralyzed by his emotions. Literally. Paralyzed.

Since I’m also interested in knickknacks and decorations, and how important and valuable they are, it was fascinating to hear this:


It can be a triggering condition just to discuss [looking at a wedding photo.]


At this moment, Matt is having an attack… Think about this: Matt had this attack while he was talking about a photo he has never seen. If just talking about a picture can cause this, imagine the other things Matt has to avoid.

It’s this kind of deep personal meaning invested in personal effects that fascinates me. How can an object can be invested with such strong memory, emotion and meaning, and yet be distinguished from art?

Higgins goes on to describe further negative impacts of the disease on Frerking’s life:

After living with this disease for four years, with being punished every time he experiences happiness, Matt’s adapted, though the way he has adapted is sad: He tries to enjoy things less. He told me he tries to think of himself as a robot, and not engage too emotionally. He’s told me he even has to be careful how he speaks, not to get too enthusiastic or worked up.

I find this tremendously tragic—and ironic, considering how much some of my past work advocated for modest pleasure. Certainly I was not talking about moderation in lieu of irrational exuberance, nor for the hostages of such diseases. If you are in good health, be grateful. It allows you the ability to feel as much happiness and express as much exuberance as you like.

Higgins ends on an optimistic note:

But it’s important to point out, even though Matt is being trained by his brain everyday not to feel these emotions, he still has them…. Although Matt tries to avoid happiness, it’s still part of his life. He’s proof that you can’t avoid happiness, it’ll still find you no matter what.