What is needed to have the museum practice more engaged in and with society? René Pingen, former director of Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch wanted to make space for experimentation on several levels of the museum practice. He asked me to be the guest curator and to work with him and his team on a three-year long project that would give a platform to artists and designers with a socially engaged practice and that would allow for different participatory moments happening in and outside the museum space.
We decided to work with an overarching theme: Reinventing Happiness. Could a new definition of happiness offer a more sustainable and social prospect for the future? Artists Jeanne van Heeswijk and theatre director Paul De Bruyne, Frank Bruggeman and the artitst duo Sjaak Langenberg & Rosé de Beer were asked to join us in this three-year adventure.
The first year was meant as the exploratory year. It was research and question based and in dialogue with visitors of the museum. Within an exhibition frame of huge newspaper walls – sharing the joint research materials – each artist (duo) would program the space for three weeks and turn it into their own ‘studio’.
Sjaak Langenberg and Rosé de Beer looked into new manners. They questioned silent agreements, role patterns and happiness theories in public space and replaced them by improvisation and actions. They deployed “super-attendants” (hair dresser, philosopher, journalist, comic etc.) to introduce new manners and break through conventions. If they like, visitors could make appointments to have a personal encounter with these super attendants. These meetings would always be in the exhibition space and public, which stimulated spontanous interferences by other visitors.
Jeanne van Heeswijk and Paul De Bruyne called their research direction Staged Happiness. What does society do to you if you always have to be happy and be available for the labour market? They took the comedy narrative as their point of departure to look for daily drama in the archetypal living room set (family bliss). Visitors could audition for a role in a ‘Blijspel over Depressie’ [comedy about depression] and share life experience for the script. Cultural critic Mark Fisher came to talk about his book ‘Capitalist Realism’ and Brent Vandercraen gave a one-man performance on vulnarability and happiness. On the last Sunday there was a public masterclass with all auditioners.
Artist and botanist Bruggeman was interested in the topic of Nature as public property: windowsill happiness or new wilderness? What are the green spots in ‘s-Hertogenbosch that make people really happy? Bruggeman started an extensive field study, connected diverse urban and nature interested groups and represented them in an exhibition that functioned as the start of a local discussion on green policy. He took all these nature lovers to the museum (many of them for the first time) for public discussions and he invited museum visitors to explore the green spots outside together with city ecologist Johan Mees.
During the second and third year the artists worked within the frame of Reinventing Happiness on projects in the city. They could make use of the communications and project team of the museum and now and then we would organise activities (lectures, exercises, presentations or workshops) in the museum to reconnecting again with the museum visitors and the staff. An intense program that culminated in surprising work. Langenberg & De Beer started the Sociale Sportschool (a boot camp for athletes and elderly in wheelchairs), Van Heeswijk and De Bruyne and their collaborative team created the public Geluksparade (a military school to become happy) and Bruggeman planted many seeds within the city for a more open vision on wild nature.
The project was closed with a documentary exhibition and a symposium discussing the role of the museum as catalyst for social art practices.
Remark: Sadly enough in the last year of the project René Pingen died unexpectedly. I am grateful to have worked with him and I will always be reminded of his dedication to research the multiple meanings and functions museums can have for society. Within Reinventing Happiness visitors became more than viewers, they were material and maker.