In March 2016, I was involved as a dramaturge in The Happy Research by Jurjen Klant at Peer Platform in Amsterdam. In this two-week project, Jurjen wanted to create a series of short interventions in the Red Light District, Amsterdam. The second part of the project consisted of the display of documentation at Peer venue. Jurjen seemed to be interested in human behaviour as it is provoked around the Oude Kerk, which became the starting point for the creation of engagement games.
Together, we also understood the project as a form of live action research. Jurjen wanted to assess and improve happiness and he designed playful interactions to do so. The proposition was that happiness resides in human interaction and every day the performers went out to create and design human interaction. These moments took the form of experiments, on which we reflected later on in order to develop new methods and approaches the following day.
During the process, I wrote a small text that reflected on two days of the experiment. The text took the form of 5 thoughts that I send to all people involved in order to provoke further collective reflection.
The Happy Research: Some Thoughts
We move through the space around the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. We are alone, together, or with a group. In the moment that we share time and space, around the bridges and canals of the Wallen, at 11: 56 AM, we, together, make up a “lived space”, made up of thoughts and desires that are somehow attached to our bodies. As we move, we carry our own narratives with us, narratives that make up our identities and memories.
In such a “public” space as the Wallen, such narratives often remain under the surface of anonymity. Such anonymity is secured by the rules of use of this space. For most people, the bridges and canals around the Oude Kerk are temporary spaces, through which one moves as visitor or spectator. Often these visitors or spectators dwell and make pictures, but anonymity towards each other seems to be safeguarded in the encounters in this space.
In his research project, Jurjen Klant has set out to explore such rules of anonymity and, maybe, more importantly, play with them. His goal in this project is to create games of interaction. On the first day of the research, Jurjen took the idea of sharing a happy personal memory as a starting point. As an observer of this first day, it became visible to me that sharing a memory, even for a small moment, creates an insight into the narratives that passer-by’s carry. When passers-by are willing, this sharing often leads to a small conversation and the mutual exchanges of smiles. Breaching the surface of anonymity was even taken one step further when participants were asked if they were willing to be photographed together with the performers.
For an artist, such explorations are maybe also a way of pushing yourself out of anonymity. As I see Jurjen preparing to go onto the streets and engage with the unknown, I see that he is stalling. There seems to be a fear of what might happen, for what others will think of you as you are breaching the unspoken contract of anonymity. Before he goes out to the streets, Jurjen is talking about his project to another artist at Peer Platform. Here, there is a sense of comfort, of feeling at home in the surrounding of others who, in a way, automatically assume that they understand what you are looking for, as a fellow artist. When engaging with passer-by’s, such understanding is not necessarily shared, which presents the artist with a threshold, a negotiation that still needs to take place. A negotiation, I would say, that involves stepping out behind the “work” and engaging yourself, in hope of creating engagement with others.
While it may be the case that the space of the Wallen is governed by anonymity, it may also be said that this space presents us with aspects of the spectacle. As the “Amsterdam Entertainment Area”, the Wallen is also a space for showing and looking, and for engaging in prostitution, drinking and smoking weed. On the second day of his research project, Jurjen is engaging with this aspect of the space in a different modus. Jurjen has asked the performers to walk around in animal costumes with a sign saying “free hugs”, a gesture in which The Happy Research loses some of its assumed innocence as art, and starts to move towards entertainment. Whereas the first day was geared towards unfolding the narratives behind the spectacle, here the opposite seems to be in play: the folding in of the personal into the anonymity of the public spectacle.
How do we, as artists, position ourselves? With what modus do we approach our environment? Can we only point to aspects of the space that we move through, or can we also actively intervene? Should we also address the social, economic and political relations that are in play in these encounters? How do we document, and talk about, the moments that we set out to create?