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Spinning Hula Hoops with My Dad, and Other Ways to Make Happiness

By Lori Waxman

Art historians don’t usually write about happiness. It isn’t considered a serious approach to art these days, not in terms of what a painting might be illustrating for a viewer nor what an installation might lead a participant to experience.

Philosophers, however, have never really stopped writing about it, not since Aristotle first opined about “Eudaimonia,” the classical Greek word commonly translated as “happiness,” in 350 BCE. Of course Herodotus, Cicero, Locke, Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Freud, etc. hardly all agreed on what constituted happiness or on how it was best attained. I like Aristotle’s formulation: Happiness, he believed, was the “activity of the soul expressing virtue.” It was neither an emotion nor a state, not about feeling good but doing good. (Never mind that he understood doing good in terms of leading a radically rational and intellectual life, contemplating truth rather than seeking it in any practical sense.)

Two thousand years into the present, Aristotle’s definition of happiness as action echoes in the final seconds of Kirsten Leenaars’ video Not in Another Place, But This Place… (Happiness). After sixteen minutes of Dan Bitney’s spare musical score, which pings heartstrings while teetering on some emotional brink between joy, tenderness, possibility, pain and loss, the noise fades to silence and the screen dims to black. Then, a moment after it seems like it’s all over, the artist’s voice calls out: “Action.” She’s just saying what film directors say, but she’s also offering a concise, Aristotelian explanation for what happiness is and how to pursue it.

Not in Another Place also begins with a word, the titular one, HAPPINESS, spelled out in seven-foot-tall cardboard letters cooperatively assembled by a handful of the random, regular people who populate Leenaars’ video. They work together to get the letters in the right order and to keep them from flopping down; it’s a work-in-progress involving negotiation and constant upkeep. The result is a shoddy cousin to the Hollywood sign, but a far more legitimate beacon for making dreams come true. Watching Not in Another Place on a loop brings these linguistic cues together such that one becomes an illustration for the other.

Most of the folks in the video live in Edgewater, a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s north side that is walking distance to the lakefront. There is one children’s music teacher, a dancer, an architect, lots of high school students, an art teacher, a political candidate, and plenty of others. There are two cops holding cacti, in portraits of unfathomable kindness and sympathy. There is also me and my young daughter, since this is our neighborhood too.

Back in the spring of 2012, forty-eight of us found ourselves, mostly through communal word of mouth, being interviewed by Kirsten Leenaars in a storefront on Thorndale Avenue that had recently been used as an election office. She questioned our sense of happiness and its connection to responsibility, community and local politics. It felt good to have this conversation at the time, not least because as the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old I was more invested in someone else’s state of being than ever before, and also more involved in our local community. That music teacher? My daughter learned to sing from her. That dancer? Her child and mine go to nursery school together.

Interview answers led to drawings and transcripts which led to making videos with Senn High School students which led to developing performances with a freshman class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago which led to a two-day film shoot in the Senn auditorium which led finally, after time spent on other projects and in India, to editing down thirty-two hours of footage shot on three cameras and then commissioning a musical score to help pull it all together.

Leenars’ approach was lengthy, generative and social but, unlike in relational or process-based practices, ultimately it is her video that is the final and complete artwork. In it, bracing and consistent aesthetic choices unify a diverse community’s notions of happiness. Three channels screening simultaneously affirm this diversity. A simple black box set, constructed of Kraft paper, masking tape, balloons and little else, insists on the constructed nature of the situation and focuses attention instead on what the actors are doing. This has rarely been attempted in film; the Danish director Lars von Trier tried it in his 2003 movie Dogville, a parable starring Nicole Kidman that tells of the potential for evil in all people. Leenaars wields vacant scenery to similar effect but opposite ends, producing a reverse-Dogville, wherein we learn of the potential for happiness that exists in all people. The black box set allows for this to be about us in Edgewater, but also anyone anywhere who can imagine themselves and their home in place of all that blackness.

So what do we do for happiness? In Not in Another Place we:

Play guitar for a plant

Live in the city, where there are surprises on every corner

Push red balloons out the door

Dip cookies in a glass of milk

Carry picket signs

Run for political office

Have breakfast with dad

We also play games, run races, spin hula hoops, dance with each other and sing about women needing to take over the world. Some of these acts are literal, others symbolic. But mostly they are something in between, both more mysterious and more intuitive, hinting at situations so profound and recognizable that the quality of life itself might be said to hinge on our ability to enact them.

Which brings it all back to art historians and their general inability or unwillingness to address artworks as things that can help equip viewers for a more loving, more fruitful, more serene life. The British philosopher Alain de Botton and art theorist John Armstrong recently published a book that offers another way. In Art as Therapy, they contend that the greatest purpose of art is to help us psychologically navigate the world. And indeed, in the very broadest sense, it is. Art tries to make sense—and sometimes nonsense—out of every bit of life and death on this planet and beyond. To the extent that we open ourselves up to it, we can absorb or experience these evocations in the safe space of the gallery or museum. And maybe, just maybe, we can learn what it might mean to be happier.

For full publication with drawings see:

Updated: Feb 12, 2019


Kirsten is a Dutch artist whose minimal and open studio is found within her home on the north end of Humboldt Park. Crafting childlike sets, Kirsten creates spaces where her participants often play themselves in collaborative narratives.

I\W: How did you develop the soap opera you worked on for the MCA, “On Our Way to Tomorrow”?

KL: Eighty percent of the actors were staff members of the museum. The curator played the curator and the administrative assistant played the administrative assistant. I based it on a month-long research period at the museum. I was at every meeting, interviewed everyone and met all the board members. I wanted it to be based on real things that happened, but have everyone play a fictionalized version of themselves. Everyone knew that they were going to play whatever function they were at the museum at that time, but they could tell me that they wanted to be ambitious or another characteristic, and based on that I developed story lines for them specifically.

Did you know from the beginning of the project that you wanted to create a soap opera?

At first I was asked to do a performance project at the museum, but I don’t really do performance and there was a requirement that the audience should be able to interact. That is something that I don’t really do either, so I thought how can I come up with something that is closer to what I do, but also fits the criteria. It also had to take place during opening hours, and be visible to the visitors. It was shot all on the exhibition site, so the other art works became a set for my soap opera. There was one little recycled house which was Dan Peterman’s and it was meant to be interacted with. That became the function for all sorts of meeting places. In the end I shot for two weeks. We worked from eleven until closing time so the audience could see what was happening. There were constantly people walking in and out of the frame. I have never done anything like that, and I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I edited 13 twelve and a half minute episodes, so it was structured like a season. In the end maybe 32 people participated, so there were 32 story lines I had to weave together. The longest video I had made up until then was 10 minutes.

What was your idea behind the removed role of the self in both “On Our Way to Tomorrow” and “Not In Another Place, But This Place…(Happiness)“?

I am interested in how we represent ourselves, how the camera mediates that. When do we perform, and when we are authentic? I am usually surprised that people kind of do what I ask them to do, but I think that is partially because people like that moment of play. They also like the chance to do something they don’t usually do. I used to do a lot of photography, and I thought about what portraiture is and if you can capture someone’s essence. In some ways I used to be a neutral observer, but I also am never a neutral observer because I am always framing. However, when I moved to stage portraits, and asked my subjects how they wanted to be staged, it seemed like a more accurate reflection of someone than me just snapping pictures. I then realized through that exchange that I loved the model of collective making. It is not just me making the decisions, I set up a framework that is the playground for whomever is participating to do whatever they want.

How did you make the transition from still to moving image portraiture?

I think going to UIC instigated that. I had access to cameras. With photography I always felt a little frustrated with just the one image. Specifically because I was maybe more obsessed with the story behind a picture rather than the picture itself. Video I saw as a space to put in much more narrative and work with movement. I love movement and sound and have a sculpture background, so I was excited to make sets and props. It just made sense.


What qualities to you have in common with a director?

I guess more and more I am shifting to a director role, but I never work with a script or a storyboard. I work now with two cameramen that have worked with me for the last three video projects. It has been really amazing and they know intuitively what I want. I leave it up to them, they have much more knowledge than I do—I trust them completely. Sometimes I will give them some direction. I usually call the actors ‘participants’, but they are always real people. It is more like I am giving them instructions. I never tell them exactly what to do. I accept whatever they come up with. I guess I like that surprise, or I am curious how someone will interpret what I give them and what they will come up with. It is always very different from what I had imagined.

Does this complete acceptance tie into your viewpoint of love?

Yeah! Whenever I say ‘love’ people get nervous, but for me love is this place of acceptance. It is not romantic love, it is a general love. Thinking about how you approach people with love—without sounding like a hippie. For me that is accepting the other. There was a German choreographer Pina Bausch who I really connected with the way she worked. She found a richness in having no preconceived notions of what something needed to look like, just seeing what happened.

The sets you build have a real craft aspect to them. Is that a nod to democratizing the art making?

Yes, but I just also really love cardboard. I love making things from everyday materials. It is an appeal to your imagination—what can you see in these everyday materials. I think partially it has just been a financial necessity. I like making do with what is there, and seeing what I can use. I think another aspect of it was celebrating Sinterklaas growing up. There is this tradition of making gifts for your loved ones where you make it a gift within a gift. They are always made with cardboard paper and cardboard rolls—you work with whatever materials are in your home. I think part of my aesthetic or craftiness also comes from that. Those were my first narrative objects.

Critical Inquiry, “Public Art: Given a Chance, Can It Work for You?”by Amy M. Mooney, Ph.D., Columbia College Chicago

Not In Another Place, But This Place… (Happiness), 2014. Photo by Clare Britt.

The Federal Government in suddenly becoming the greatest patron in the world has contributed incalculably to the rise of American Art….Not only has the project itself expanded in many useful social directions, knitting itself more and more into the life of Chicago, but under it, individual talents have developed and grown into maturity. Given a chance to work for you, the Chicago artist has emerged from his isolation and is in the process of creating a typical and vital art. [1]

My quoting of Daniel Catton Rich, then-director of the Federal Art Project, is not intended to cast nostalgia for the Works Progress Administration, though a guaranteed living wage for artists would be much appreciated. Instead, I mean to use Rich’s words as a historic foil for contemporary discourse on public art, reminding us of previous aspirations and goals. The idea of art “knitting itself more and more into the life of Chicago,” seems especially pertinent to the recent bourgeoning of socially engaged art practice in this city. Though I do not subscribe to a teleological progression of artistic styles and objectives, socially engaged art has expanded the realm of public art possibilities.[2]

For some time now, artists and advocates have challenged the expectation of public art to be a permanent monument positioned on a public site. Numerous organizations have embraced the possibilities of participatory and process-based practices, seeing the positive impact on individuals and communities.[3] Some more than others lend an activist voice “knitting” the most pressing issues facing our city today into their practice. Chicago artists such as Maria Gaspar, Faheem Majeed, and Cheryl Pope are among those who work with diverse communities, addressing social inequalities, incarceration, and gun violence. To experience their art is to experience a creative collaboration with youth, community stakeholders, educators, residents and organizations that employ strategies for empowerment (fig. 1).

In neighborhoods, community centers, and even museums and galleries, the efforts of socially engaged artists point to a growing movement toward interdependence rather than separation.[4] Using formats that challenge our expectations of “art,” such as potlucks, story exchanges, or dance parties, social practice artists produce a variety of imaginative experiences, yet all work toward establishing relationships and connecting communities (fig. 2).

Social practice allows for the generation of porous, process-based projects that accommodate a dynamic and inclusive understanding of what constitutes “the public.” As such, this art form—in its myriad realizations—has the potential to support critical discourse generated by self-determined participants, thus reinstating the ever-elusive public sphere.[5]With co-curator Neysa Page-Lieberman, I recently explored the determinants, expectations and possibilities of social art practice in an exhibition titledRISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice.[6] With funding from the Joyce Foundation, we commissioned new work from a diverse group of Chicago artists that unfolded throughout the city over the course of four months (fig. 3). The show highlighted the interdependent role that risk and empathy play in forging social relationships. Questions around aesthetics, endurance and participation informed the generation, execution and evaluation of the work. To varying degrees, the participating artists and audiences extended themselves to others, risking the personal and the political. Partnering with both conventional art spaces such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and unconventional sites such as Sacred Youth Keepers Sustainability Garden, viewers traversed our segregated neighborhoods and engaged in a robust series of programs and projects.  For many of the artists in RISK, the forms realized in the gallery served as placeholders, symbolic of their broader practice and its reflexivity to people and their environments. Like the “front porch” of Faheem Majeed’s Shack or the bench in Alberto Aguilar’sLunchroom Expanse, the exhibition was a temporary perch intended to generate discourse for anyone who wanted to participate (figs. 4 and 5). For some, it afforded the opportunity to contribute their own experiences to contemporary discussions of what constitutes happiness as seen in the performances by Kirsten Leenaars and her Edgewater neighbors or how we view our histories of migration and immigration as plotted on time-lines constructed by Samantha Hill and her contributors (figs. 6 and 7).

The conversations around the exhibition were evocative in many respects. Social practice reveals our mutual dependencies, yet the generosity, acceptance and reciprocity that such work demands is difficult to establish and even more challenging to sustain. Current evaluative determinants of “success” and “failure” fall short of explaining the value of cultural inclusion and acceptance. Importantly, social practice challenges the negative connotations of the “culture of dependency” and calls out for a reconsideration of one’s relationship with self, society and site.

Given the substantive and contested history of public art in Chicago as well as the continuing development of the Chicago Cultural Plan, there is no doubt that we need to speak loudly and passionately about the ways that art can foment social change. With such a pronouncement, I am aligning myself with a set of expectations that can be simultaneously liberating and constraining.[7] When we look to the arts to engage social issues, we have the opportunity to consider what matters most to us, questioning what merits our attention and limited resources. As an advocate of this art form and looking forward to the upcoming University of Chicago symposium on Art and Public Life, I would like to gather a loose skein of working guidelines for social practitioners:

1.     Learn about the history and social value of the place you seek to engage and about the people who inhabit and have inhabited those spaces.

2.     Consider the urban infrastructure of our spaces—artists and their collaborators must give thought to use patterns, zoning and transit. Our behaviors and social relationships are governed by them.

3.     Seek to create spaces, opportunities, venues and experiences that promote public agency to encourage development of participatory dialogue as well as urban development that can guide social and political outcomes.

4.     Strive to be inclusive and diverse, yet mindful that dissent and debate are critical to this practice. Not everyone will be pleased by the process or the results, as the nature of democracy demands discomfort at times.

5.     Note that the distinction between what is done for the community versus what is done with the community is significant. Too often, community members are asked to participate in such projects, but rarely consulted in the formation of objectives and structure.

Certainly this list could be expanded and edited in innumerable ways and is indebted to a rich context of influences ranging from Dolores Hayden to Pablo Helguera to bell hooks.[8]As noted in the shifting requirements for its Art in Public Places category, the National Endowment for the Arts encourages the generation of community forums at all stages of planning and realization.[9] Yet, whatever form it takes—a sphere, a square or a forum—a “public” is only relevant if its constituents are willing to take the risk of participation, seeing each other as engaged and empowered citizens. An engaged presence is the single most relevant indicator of a culture’s value of art. Perhaps paraphrasing the avocation offered by the Federal Art Project, another recommendation could be added to the publicity campaign for the Chicago Cultural Plan—how about “Public Art: Given a chance—can it work for you?”

[1] “Foreword,” Art for the Public by Chicago Artists of the Federal Art Project. (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1938): np. William McBride Papers, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library. For more on the educational innovations that Rich brought to the Art Institute of Chicago, see John W. Smith, “The Nervous Profession: Daniel Catton Rich and the Art Institute of Chicago, 1927-1958,”Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 19: 1 (1993): 58-79, 105-107.

[2] For example, consider the Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent exploration of the museum’s role in supporting social practice, see

[3] See, for example, the interactive community-based art projects in Michael Brenson, Eva M. Olson and Mary Jane Jacob, eds., Culture in Action (Seattle, WA:  Bay Press, 1995) and more recently, Nato Thompson, Living As Form(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2012). The impact of participatory efforts was recently outlined in a roundtable discussion at University of Chicago’s 2011 Future of the City: The Arts Symposium.  In particular see “Art Influences Lives: Why Participation Matters” at

[4] A more expansive discourse on the role of participation should take into consideration the perspectives offered in Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011); Gregory Sholette & Oliver Ressler, eds.  It’s the Political Economy Stupid! (London: Pluto Press, 2013) and Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York, Verso Press, 2012).

[5] By no means do I mean to suggest that every social practice supports critical debate, as posited by Jürgen Habermas, yet the expectation of participation makes such realization far more feasible than with other “stand and view” art forms. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

[6] Many thanks to Neysa for allowing me to borrow from our co-authored catalog essay, “The Quandary of Social Practice: Why Empathy? Why Risk?” The list of artists, examples of their work, and exhibition catalog may be accessed at:

[7] Andrea Phillips and Fulya Erdemci, eds., Social Housing—Housing the Social: Art, Property and Spatial Justice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).

[8] In addition to Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011) and bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York:  Routledge, 1994), I must also cite Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[9] For a historic overview of the shifts in NEA expectations, see Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1994), pp. 22-24. Current NEA guidelines include: “Creative methods for engaging audiences or increasing access to the arts.” See more at:

Figure 1. Cheryl Pope, Just Yell: Silence the Silence, February 18, 2014, Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by James Prinz.

Figure 2. Potluck: Chicago, Potluck at Inspiration Kitchen, 2012. Photo by Ali Zaidi.

Figure 3. Cover of catalog for RISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice (2014).

Figure 4. Faheem Majeed, Shacks and Shanties Performance with travis from ONO, Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, 2014. Photo by Jessi Zambrano.

Figure 5. Alberto Aguilar, Lunchroom Expanse performance, Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College, 2014. Photo by Ben Greiner.

Figure 6. Kirsten Leenaars, Not in Another Place, But This Place (Happiness), 2014. Photo by Clare Britt.

Figure 7. Samantha Hill, Topographical Depictions of the Bronzeville Renaissance, Hyde Park Art Center, 2014. Photo by Samantha Hill.
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