Tricia Van Eck asks me to picture a nationwide traffic jam. “The country’s GNP is going up because everyone is buying more gasoline,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean their quality of life is increasing. In fact, it’s gone down.”
The former Museum of Contemporary Art curator is explaining the Gross National Happiness index, which the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan developed when it realized that GNP measures economic advancement but not its citizens’ true well-being. Van Eck hopes her Happiness Project contributes to a similar paradigm shift in Chicago. She recruited an impressive group of local artists—many of whom she met during her 13 years at the MCA, which she left June 3—to stage installations and performances throughout November. The artists ask viewers to think about what brings us joy, and what would make our neighborhoods better places to live and work.
One neighborhood Van Eck has in mind is Edgewater, where she founded 6018 NORTH (6018 N Kenmore Ave), a three-story house that will be a live/work venue for sound art, performance art and installations once she finishes repairing the flood-damaged structure. In January, IIT professor Eva Kultermann and her architecture students will renovate the house, testing various green-building methods.
A few blocks away, in a temporary gallery at 1130 West Thorndale Avenue, artist Kirsten Leenaars’s video project Under Construction invites passersby to weigh in on Ald. Harry Osterman’s forthcoming master plan for the 48th Ward. Visitors can act out scripts derived from Leenaars’s interviews with Osterman and longtime residents, or offer their own opinions on how the ward should evolve.
Leenaars discovered that much of what the alderman does “is very hands-on,” she recalls. “Sometimes the happiness of people in communities comes down to filling potholes or making sure a street is safe.”
Most Happiness Project initiatives don’t tackle politics directly. Participants in Amber Ginsburg and Lia Rousset’s Tapping into Happiness don tap shoes and dance in a Pop-Up Art Loop storefront (23 E Madison St) that houses a group exhibition. At Logan Square’s Comfort Station (2579 N Milwaukee Ave), Jennifer Mills curated “Dealing with New Demands,” an exhibition of almost 200 artworks that cost less than $20 apiece—in some cases, much less. “It’s championing a different attitude in the art world,” Mills tells me. The recent SAIC M.F.A. has organized two similar shows, and finds that viewers engage with art more deeply when they know they could actually take it home. “Bringing joy and humor and play back to the scene is really important to me,” she adds.
Says Van Eck, “So many of the works in the show are about bringing people together to have fun, to play together, but some of them are pointed, to really discuss things.” She hopes the dialogue generated by the Happiness Project influences the Chicago Cultural Plan, which the city plans to publish in May 2012. (Mayor Harold Washington issued the last Chicago Cultural Plan—in 1986.)
“I don’t know if [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] is going to pay any attention to it,” Van Eck admits. But her determination tends to pay off: 6018 NORTH realizes a dream she’s had for 15 years. As a home for avant-garde art, this venture could make a lot of Chicagoans very happy.
For more information about the Happiness Project, visit 6018north.net.