A couple of years ago, I was involved in the communication around the TED talent search in Amsterdam. Part of TED’s search to have the best speakers, several candidates auditioned for a place at the stage of TED.
By far my favourite candidate was Max Zorn, a German-Dutch street artist. As an artist, he likes to be mysterious. He does few interviews. There are no pictures of him online. He typically wears sun glasses; during his talk he also wore a hat to be sure he remained incognito. Despite or maybe because of the mystery, he is one of my favourite artists – and the only one of which I personally own a work.
Max Zorn works with an uncommon material: brown packing tape.
He puts layers and layers of tape on each other, and the image becomes visible through the contrast between the different number of layers and the light that passes through to them. Light has to behind for it to be effective – see here the painting that hangs proudly in my room.
This is the image by day, without light (and with a bit of a mirror effect of the glass…). Nothing too exciting, right?
But this is the image by night, with the light on:
In my interpretation, the couple exchanges a look that can mean many different things. Every time I see the picture, I see another element, and come up with another possible story about what it means. Most of the times, I see connection and intimacy. But from time to time, it can also mean love, or lust, or disappointment, or submission, or a battle for power…
And all these emotions are expressed just with three materials – brown packing time, glass, and light.
One final image, also taken from the retro style that is very much present in his work (for more, check his website and his shop)
In 2015, the European migration crisis brought out the worst of many people. Hungary and several other countries on the Western Balkans route built fences. Population in destinations countries like Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere protested out of anger and fear of asylum seekers, too often leading to violent confrontations. The Danish government undertook plans to seize asylum seeker’s personal goods. Sweden reduced mobility on the Oresund bridge, straining the connection between Copenhagen and Malmo and prompting Denmark to reintroduce border controls. The Schengen passport-free travel zone is under collapse. Populist parties reign in the polls in France, The Netherlands and elsewhere. The list goes on.
It is true that the large numbers of migrants put a strain on systems. It is impossible to orderly register and assist the amounts of people now. But it’s also useful to put the numbers in perspective: outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres pointed out that in absolute numbers, the 1 million people reaching Europe is high. But in relative numbers, compared to a population of over 500 million, the number is rather small, especially in comparison to the refugees received by Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Ultimately, the refugees are not numbers, but people. A documentary shot on Lesbos by Dutch filmmakers Philip Brink and Marieke van der Velden shows this very clearly. In their documentary “The Island of All Together”, they pair refugees, most from Syria, with vacationers from the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. The people-to-people conversations between refugee and tourist show that ultimately, the human connection factor is stronger than prejudice and fear. A wonderful film showing the human face between the two sides of the crisis.
What would happen if our emotions would just disappear? Are we able to regulate our behaviour if we wouldn’t be able to feel joy or sadness anymore?
Those questions form the main idea behind the recent Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie finds a simple solution to represent the complexity of human emotions. The emotions of the main character, the 11-year-old Riley, are steered in her head by five personas: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are represented by coloured characters, jointly managing her actions. Mostly they act in concordance, but sometimes there are conflicts between emotions wanting Riley to feel differently.
Riley’s emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.
For Riley, a happy and positive girl, the energetic personality of Joy is the dominant emotion. Joy doesn’t refrain from bossing around the other four emotions as she deems fit to make Riley feel joyful. Beyond determining how Riley feels, the emotions also serve as administrators of her memory. Every day, they collect her memories (in the form of the colourful balls at the back of the image, and associated with one of the emotions), before they are shipped off to her long-term memory.
Inside Out shows the complexity of interacting emotions, but also demonstrates how our emotions make us who we are. When Riley and her family move from her beloved Minnesota to a small and dirty house in San Francisco, she becomes unhappy. And when Joy and Sadness get lost, Riley is unable to feel these emotions.
Riley’s personality flattens as the remaining emotions Fear, Disgust and Anger are made responsible to administer her behaviour. With a less rich variation in emotions – and no positive emotions – Riley becomes a more grey personality, and the entire tone of the movie changes.
Emotions makes us who we are. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley is not herself anymore. Riley’s inability to communicate with her parents and her schoolmates also demonstrates how important emotions are to make individuals function in a social group. In a way, Riley becomes like a psychopath unable to have feelings. It’s true that psychopaths can commit the most heinous crimes, precisely because of their inability to feel remorse (small parenthesis: it appears that CEOs are more likely than a typical person to have characteristics of psychopaths – it increases the chance of success in business).
Beyond demonstrating the importance of positive emotions that positive psychologists are so interested in, the movie also very visually shows how people and their emotions interact. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is a family dinner, where it shows Riley’s three remaining emotions, but also how all five emotions in her father’s and mother’s head steer the interaction.
As a human being it happens so often that we interact with someone – our partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague – whose reaction we don’t understand. Rather than wondering why they behave as erratically as they do, we could try to image five contrary emotions in their heads, attempting to find an emotional ‘correct’ response. Inside Out’s visual representation of the complexity of emotions does not only make a nice film for children and adults, but also helps us imagine how other people could feel.
The best thing about blogging about happiness, I’ve already written before, is receiving articles and links related to the topic. All of these articles and videos are little gifts. Most of the time, they bring some interesting facts or news – or they bring a smile to my face. There are many serious things to write about happiness. A nice feel good video often can transmit what happiness is in a better way.
Like the Smile Man short film below, which I received from Julia.
Imagine you are always smiling. That is what happens to the main character in the film, due to paralysis of your face muscles. Smiling always, it turns out,is not easy. I tried for a couple of minutes, but gave up. It feels funny in a way, but it simply hurts my face.
In the film, similarly, artificial and constant smiling results in a series of practical problems. But it also brings about a personal connection and the realisation that the power of a genuine smile is enormous.
This one of my favourite new art works I discovered recently:
The artist is not famous. You can’t see his work in museums. He does not sell pieces at exorbitant prices.
The creator of this piece is called Orlando Kintero (for more of his work, see www.orlandokintero.com). The exposition venue that he has chosen for this particular piece is the street. To be more precise, my street.
Ever since I moved to Brussels and started opening my eyes, I’ve been amazed by street art. To me, the work done by Orlando and his colleagues is a true form of art. Street art makes public spaces more beatiful, and these artists deserve praise for that.
I met Orlando for a beer last week. It was an interesting meeting. Our social circles and political opinions are far apart, and we challenged each other’s beliefs. But during the meeting, we also found out that I as part of his audience and he as an artist think similar about street art.
Orlando believes that art – whether on the street or on inside a museum – should express a message. He said that street artists often start with vandalising as a reaction to misery, poverty and inequality in a society. Spraying tags as such is an expression of anger about social problems: injustice, inequality, police violence, etc. But he sees no point in writing slogans like ‘f*ck the police’ when you do not live badly. Also, often tagging is part of a development towards doing more creative pieces with a particular style and imagination. (NB – taggers tell about their work in the French-spoken documentary ‘Mauvaises Herbes‘
The work in my street that Orlando did was not ‘wild art’. It was done with authorisation and with commission from the owner of the wall. This gave him the time to work on all the intricate details of the piece. The work also has a philosophy, and the quote ‘sous les pavés la lumière’ (‘under the pavements, the light’) also ask the viewer to think about what the meaning is that the work expresses. The quote that can be interpreted in different ways, but is meant to show that the light coming from the back of the wall to the street is there to warm us. “Without the sun, the world is death. The light is the creator of my work”, said Orlando.
Just like Orlando, many known street artists are engaged people. Just recently, the most famous street artist of all, Banksy, released a video of a couple of pieces he has done in Gaza. One of the pieces is a cat, painted on a destroyed wall in Gaza. The picture is explained with dark humour: “people on the internet only look at cat pictures”, said Banksy. “Otherwise they aren’t interested”. But there are more examples: JR used street photography to address the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Brazilian artist Mundano ‘pimped’ trash carts to make streeet waste collectors visible.
A temporary form of art
Street artists are real artists and deserve to be recognised as such. They work deserves to be seen and admired. Therefore, it is up to people like you and me to keep our eyes open. Street art is temporary by default. Contrary to Van Gogh and Magritte, the work of Orlando and his colleagues won’t live forth in museums. Sooner or later, the works will be degraded and the walls will be painted over. This is the normal reality of street art, but still, we’re losing something if we don’t enjoy their pieces as long as they last. Fortunately, there is a website called ‘Street Art Utopia’ which ‘declares the world its canvas’. The website contains a set of pictures all over the world to inspire us. Walls disappear, but their library of interesting, creative, artistic and entertaining pieces of street art will continue to be available to us.
Bonus: I recently did a presentation about street art. See the slides below. Only images, no text!
“I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories” – Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science, London School of Economics
In my posts about happiness I don’t only write about reality, sharing experiences from travels and other activities or knowledge from scientific research on how our happiness works. For me, writing about happiness also means writing about the imagined worlds of literature, arts, and movies.
Happiness in made-up stories
When I have the time, I like to read and let the stories bring me to new places and join the characters on their journey through life. I agree with Paul Dolan, quoted above, when he recommends an active life. It’s true that being active is one of the ways to well-being. But I also have a vivid imagination. Contrary to Dolan, I think that made-up stories can result in real experiences, such as a feel of calm, excitement, or even happiness.
Anybody who has ever enjoyed a novel or a movie would agree. There are a few movies that require us to use all our senses to grasp its meaning. For me, La Grande Bellezza, is one movie that is just like that.
I recently re-watched the story about Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at 65 years the king of the jet-set of Rome. He deserves his fame to a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. Currently, he passes his days at big parties, artistic gatherings, his rooftop terrace with hammock in front of the Colosseum, and altogether living a life of mundanity.
Jep in La Grande Bellezza.
La Grande Bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and Oscar winner in 2014, is a story about Rome, about art, and ultimately about (un)happiness. Since the beginning of philosophy, we have been looking for the answer to the question: ‘what is happiness’?. Traditionally, two answers have been dominant to that question: hedonism and meaning.
Let’s take hedonism, also known as utility or pleasure, first. This form is very much present in La Grande Bellezza. Objectively, Jep’s life is great: he attends the big parties and shows in town, he eats when he wants, sleeps with women when he wants. Jep describes the aim of his life in Rome as follows:
When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, I wanted the power to make them fail.
The second answer to the question ‘what is happiness?’ is meaning. At the same time as being the king of the high life, Jep is an artistic soul, observing the silence, his sentiments, emotions, and his fears… As a journalist and writer, but also as an individual, he is interested in the misery of human beings.
I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to write. I was destined to be Jep.
La Grande Bellezza is a movie from which you can extract different messages or meanings. For me, the story of Jep is one of a failure to find happiness in meaning. His artistic career kicked off with a bang over forty years ago, when the girl he loved inspired him to write a revolutionary piece of literature. But with the girl, also his ability to write these kind of novels is gone. With the meaning lost, he tries – and fails – to find happiness in hedonism.
The wisdom to enjoy our live
In a sense, Jep is the most tragic of characters in a tragic movie. At the same time, La Grande Bellezza is a story that beautifully grasps many concepts about the beauty of life. If beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our life, as I read as a comment to a YouTube video with part of the soundtrack, there is not so much beauty in La Grande Bellezza as it may seem at first.
Beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our live
Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist
If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.
Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.
The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.
It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.
The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.
It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home? Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.
Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.