Happiness Machines: A Conversation with Caroline Picard

June 29, 2011 · Print This Article

 

Caroline Picard is a well-known artist, arts administrator, publisher and all-around indie maverick here in Chicago who runs The Green Lantern, a project that encompasses publishing, exhibition projects, and a daily blog. Needless to say, we are very fortunate to have her as one of our regular columnists here at Bad at Sports. When Caroline’s show Happiness Machines opened at Roxaboxen earlier this month (sadly, its run was short and the exhibition closed last weekend), I was personally very excited, because up until now I’ve never had the chance to see any of Caroline’s own work in person. Her core issues of interest — the notion of self, the construction of personal identity, and just what it is we mean when we talk about “happiness”– are subjects that I think about and puzzle over almost every day. I am truly grateful to Caroline for taking part in this extended conversation with me, where we discuss all of the above issues while also taking the opportunity to dish on celebrities…just a teeny bit.

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Claudine Ise: Your show at Roxaboxen is titled “Happiness Machines,” which for me signifies any automated something that can deliver quick (and temporary) shots of pleasure on demand. There’s something intrinsically connected to human instinct and biology there too. Philosophically, the happiness machine relates to Robert Nozick’s idea of the pleasure-giving “experience machine” — Nozick’s thought experiment that asked people to consider whether, if given the choice, they would prefer to live in a pleasure-filled virtual reality over real life. The idea of the “happiness machine” has historical resonance too:  Herbert Hoover used the phrase in a speech he made to advertising executives: “You have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines that have become the key to economic progress.” His words presaged America’s transition from a needs-based economy to a desire-based one — ironically, as Hoover himself presided during the Great Depression.

Cut to 2010, when Coke puts out a YouTube video that, amazingly, referenced Hoover’s idea with a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness – the video depicted a kind of advertising stunt, the Coca-Cola company put this special “magical” coke machine on a college campus, the coke machine gave students balloons or dozens of cokes to distribute to everyone, or flowers, pizza, submarine sandwiches — all delivered by human hands through the slot– after it received coins for a single coke. When one of the students in the video says something like, “aw I just want to give it [the machine] a hug…Thank you Coke!” – that was pretty chilling. I don’t have anything against Coke as a brand–it was just the perfect smooth execution of an idea by a corporate entity, and how perfectly the students appeared to buy into it – literally speaking and, if what appears on the video is to be believed, emotionally speaking as well–that grossed me out.

And now, you as an artist have created your own brand of energy drink as part of your project “Psycho Dream Factory.”  I tasted one from that flowing pile, and was shocked at how delicious it was (I like how the empties were put back into the pile, too, so it’s a pile of plenty and a pile of trash in one). It would have been even better if it were chilled, but – this tasted just like liquid hard candy! When I popped the top this disgusting sweet smell wafted out of the can, like a vapor, but the taste itself was really good. Anyway, tell me about what “Happiness Machines” means to you, how you would define or describe what a “happiness machine” is in 2011, and how it functions in our culture.

 

 

 

Caroline Picard: I started thinking about it when I watched this amazing four part Adam Curtis documentary called “Century of the Self”. The documentary talks about how our ideas about the psychology and the self are directly tied to the ways that marketing and advertisement has developed over the last century. Curtis makes the case that the two fields have developed along a reciprocal path. The documentary begins with Freud focusing specifically on the relationship Freud had with his nephew, Edward Bernays. Allegedly the “father of public relations” he was the first to use psychological tactics to manipulate large populations of people, almost as a kind of way to save them from themselves. So, for instance, one early example of how that kind of approach would influence advertising: they tied smoking with the suffregette movement, encouraging women to smoke as a way to illustrate their independence (thereby opening up a new body of consumers, who had previously not smoked). Over the course of the documentary, ideas of self and signs of independence, success etc change. So, for example, in the 60s there was a backlash youth group who didn’t want to “sell out” and wouldn’t buy into the lifestyles their parents were supporting. Instead of being afraid of themselves and their inner urges, they were suspicious of the status quo that was (ostensibly) trying to control them. They wanted to be recognized as unique individuals with individual taste; they did not want to conform and many of them resisted taking on traditional jobs that tied to them to specific locations and markets. Marketing had to shift to accommodate them.

Throughout all of this, I kept thinking about how happiness seems like the thing that has been marketed consistently. The American Dream, I guess; it feels like this very American idea to me–in so far as happiness is a thing to be purchased, and that we want happiness specifically: a finite peak of experience that is, I think, different from contentment or satisfaction or, even, joy. I know this is stepping even farther away, but what does it mean that “happiness” as a concept makes such an early and seemingly integral appearance in our national identity? (i.e. the declaration of independence: what does it mean that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right?) How does it reflect on other cultural expectations? For instance, it’s also interesting to me because, as an idea its secular and a-moral: it is the idea of a feeling, not a behavioral prescription…

So. Yes. I also saw the Happiness Machine coke commercial on youtube and was thinking about how there is a constant desire for gratification. How it is still palpable. If it’s delightful and clever, all the better. Similarly Hoover, as you point out, was celebrating the idea of everyone’s potential happiness. Our cultural mythology is that we live in a place where anyone can be happy, just like anyone can be president. The idea of happiness then, I think, becomes an odd manifestation of power: if everyone has the capacity for happiness then it’s up to each person to manifest that on his or her own. Purchasing goods is a way to exercise some aspect of power and so I feel like it makes sense that they would get conflated. I felt like making an energy drink, as another element in the show, would draw out the idea of happiness and its relationship to consumerism more than the drawings alone. It felt like it also became an interactive feature that would help people engage and play with the materials, while also giving the idea of the show power outside of the immediately physical show: in other words, there’s almost an idea that these objects could circulate outside of the show.

CI: How does the entertainment celebrity function as a “happiness machine”? Can art’s “celebrities” be said to function in a similar way? I’m interested in your thoughts on this because I am not sure that they do, I don’t think that art celebrities affect us on that same emotional level as tv and movie stars do. I am not compelled or interested in the lives of art stars the way I am with celebrities.

 

 

CP: I think there is a difference, for sure, though I’m not quite sure how to hash it out, exactly. I mean maybe one example would be somebody like Jeff Koons and Cicciolina; I feel like his porn photo project was a way to think about public and private distinctions and publicity stunts. At the same time, Cicciolina has always seemed like the much more compelling figure in the story–that she was a member of the Italian parliament and a public sex worker. Still, the Koons-irony thing turns into a bummer so fast. Like it’s amazing that the distance between himself as an artist and his art would collapse, so that even his personal life seemed like a project. One that produced a child–.

Still, I guess I’m interested in the way our understanding of celebrity culture reinforces professional expectations in other fields. In the same way that actors are legitimized by appearing in tabloid magazines, so too I think the predominant model for artistic success is one of fame and monetary income. If your paintings translate into economic or cultural capital then the artist is legitimate. His or her practice has been deemed worthy. I understand the practical (and unavoidable) connection between art making and market economy, but I feel like it still provides a very a limited vision of art’s function–because the artistic gesture suddenly has to be commensurate to a market value in order to be meaningful. Is it possible to establish alternate criteria? With alternate methods of sustainability? What would that look like and, of course, why is that important? It reminds me of the recent upheavals in Universities in the UK. Middlesex University, a school with an outstanding international reputation for philosophy closed its philosophy department because it made more money in other, non-humanities departments. This has become a rampant trend (and caused a number of student protests in the UK), even in the United States: the humanities don’t translate directly into financially viable positions, so their seeming public value diminishes. (Martha Nassbaum also wrote a book, Not for Profit, that also talks about why the humanities are important–because they encourage the imagination, and therefore empathy as well as critical thinking, which leads to more actively engaged citizens). I guess I want to argue that we should think through alternative means of legitimizing contemporary practice. Maybe one way to do that is to think about what an object means as an object, not as something that translates into a monetary or marketable equivalent…is this possible to do? I don’t know….

In many ways, I feel like there is a strong, pessimistic undercurrent in the show. I don’t feel like propose any solutions–my favorite artists do that. I like to think it’s because I’m building up towards that direction, but who knows. I think it’s easier to have a sense of how things could shift than it is to imagine what that shift might look like.

 

CI: I loved the way your plastic-wrapped drawings were packaged and displayed (on hooks and in rows, not unlike a magazine stand or checkout shelf) and “delivered” to the visitors to your show. I loved the feeling of rifling through them all, I loved that there was such a multitude to look at and variety choose from, I loved that perfect balance of repetition and difference so that every one was just a bit unique, or at least gave the appearance of uniqueness to a buyer – you used precisely the same logic as higher-end mass merchandising does, and I suppose as certain types of art production as well. Your show definitely hit my own personal pleasure zones as a “shopper” and yet, the somewhat awkward way that you render these super-familiar celebrity faces, and the spare and barely-there ness of your compositions – the drawings still feel beautiful and unique to me in all those old-fashioned ways of talking about works of art.  Here’s my question: why were your drawings so inexpensive ($3 each)? They were so shockingly inexpensive I have to assume there’s a conceptual reason behind it – that in order to deliver that quick shot of pleasure on demand, you had to make your drawings so attainable that virtually anyone could buy one right away without much pain.

 

CP: Yes. That’s totally true, about the cheapness, I mean…
First though, to talk to the drawings themselves. Underneath all of this, I really really love making work. I really love the process of painting and drawing, and the way it lets me meditate or think through ideas. It’s like drawing gives me another way to digest material–in this case it gave me a chance to take in tabloid covers and then reenact them in some way. There is a way where I can’t get away from that pleasure, as a central tenant to what I do. Over the course of the process, I got to think about the materials I was using–white out, florescent marker, nail polish: all of these very shitty, somewhat toxic and probably imported materials. Participating in subject through medium seemed like another way to communicate some amount of uselessness: like I really don’t know how you’re supposed to get out away from capital or the hierarchical systems it instills. I think I wanted to create that experience in the space itself too–I wanted to encourage people to look through the drawings. That’s one of the most important elements: the way it’s interactive. The way you can take something home at the end of the day, the way everything (the materiality, the quickness of the drawings, the way a number of them have been xeroxed and added to or deteriorated via reproduction): I didn’t want them to feel precious in the end; I wanted them to feel almost like party favors. Of course, they mean more to me than that, and I think they stand up more than that–but I wanted to make them ride that line, and indicating a low-price seemed to be a way to do that.


CI: Your collage drawings make reference to celebrities and the tabloid narratives associated with them, among other things.  My favorite was the Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy one because I’m personally fascinated by that narrative. Not so much by the “Angelina pushing Shiloh” angle, but by the idea that Shiloh may in fact be transgendered and how cool is it that her parents are allowing her to be that way, to be who she wants to be, despite their super-high profile life and the gossip pressures associated with that. What interests me most about tabloids actually, is tabloid writing. These are all written narratives, i.e. crafted by someone or a group of someones who are giving it some thought, the “stories” comprised of this weird psychological pastiche of culture, desire, and whatever new photographs are available via the paparazzi. I think I’m most interested in the celebrity narratives that sort of don’t go the way the public might expect or want. So when Jennifer Aniston turns 42 or whatever and still doesn’t have a baby, I’m fascinated because…she really is supposed to have had that baby by now. When Shiloh dresses like a boy, I’m fascinated because…Shiloh is the golden child, she is supposed to represent the blending of two of the world’s most gorgeous people: Brad and Angelina. She’s not supposed to be transgendered (or god, maybe she is – the most perfect, precise blending of those two people!!!) – yet she doesn’t fit that Suri Cruise model of what a perfect princess, cute little girl should look like – Shiloh looks the way many people think a boy “should” look.

So, with my own tabloid weaknesses revealed to all – tell me what kind of tabloid stories you are attracted to? And why do you find them compelling?

CP: My favorites: also “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh into a Boy?” and “I Love My New Body”. Those are really my two favorites. I guess I also like the one about the Kardashian daughters (what’s awesome is that I’ve no idea why they are famous or where they came from–they just started appearing in magazines and on bilboards; I assume just because I don’t have a TV, but I feel like Paris Hilton was also very famous all of a sudden for more or less being famous and (this was years ago) being mean. Like she was best friends with LiLo one day and then someone else another day and basically did nothing but play dumb mind/playground games: it’s amazing to me that that is somehow a viable option for fame) where it says “Tormented for their Bodies.”

I like the Angelina one because I’m continually impressed by her ability to stay in the tabloids, consistently for the last five+ years. It’s moments like that where you realize some degree of effort or planning goes into a media spotlight. (Especially, for instance, that the coverage is selective: no one at all talks about their youngest twins)–so there’s a way where her presence is so consistent as to feel strategic. The narratives start to quake a little; they feel constructed. Then too, the “turning into a boy” is so amazing because I feel like it reflects a hyper-conservative perspective about gender and, even, how that manifests/is projected in childhood. I think it’s related to what you’re saying as well–this idea of what we expect their child (or an ideal child) to be, and how we interpret the signs of their comportment.

The “I love my new body” I think is amazing because it was text right next to Britteny Spears and she was wearing a bikini and I think that it points to a really crazy relationship between where we locate the self (or the “I”) and the body. Somehow these two things are extricable: how does that happen? Is that simply because of plastic surgery? (i.e. that it is possible to get a new nose, or new breasts or a chin, or whatever—) But then too, how is it that the implied “I” is constant and unchanging? Where are we locating it if not in the body? And then I guess that idea is also reiterated in the “tormented by their bodies” statement. And what on earth does *that* mean? It’s like they’re weird slaves or something–slaves to a physical embodiment of beauty? I don’t know. I just think it’s amazing stuff to think about, because I guess I see it as a kind of cultural mirror.

Psycho Dream Factory by Caroline Picard.

CI: Let’s talk about the non-fiction essay you wrote as a coda to your book, Psycho Dream Factory, starting with your observations about celebrity and its dependence upon / propagation of fictions of the Self, or as you put it, “the illusion that something, or someone, can be simplified and projected onto a surface….those are dangerous illusions. They evade any sense of consequence or complexity–elements essential to the human condition.”  In contrast to this simplified notion of self-hood, you propose an alternative understanding of the self which you describe as “the additive self”. For those reading this interview who can’t get their hands on your book right away, can you talk a bit about what you mean by the additive self and how it might help us think about identity — as well as notions of success/legitimacy — in new ways?

CP: Maybe it makes more sense to think about the stability of self and self-image. For instance in statements like,  “Figure out what makes You Happy,” or “What do you really want”: there is an idea that the self is singular and maybe even intrinsically static. Even in a specific and relatively small time-frame one is presumed to have a singular integrity. You could see this also reflected in the idea of a “soul mate,” where some-one-specific individual supposedly is out there to complete you. That idea in particular is propegated through love songs and pop songs and movies: it’s a very Romantic ideal, I think. What’s interesting, though, is the stability it assumes. Like it assumes an unequivocal certainty: something which I think is, actually, impossible to maintain. At least in my experience, I am a mix of probably countless desires and those are very often in conflict with one another. I think you could point to a similar aspect of self, if you look over a long period of time: there is an idea that one has a unique and unchanging nature. Some idea of an I or a center endures. I want to know, though, where is that located? And even how can it be? Even though I have always more or less experienced myself as a stable constant, I think I’m taking that idea for granted–at the very least because I want to see what other philosophical conclusions an alternative would lead to. What I love about Deren’s description of Voodoo in The Divine Horsemen is that the individual is actually constantly and fundamentally changing as it is inhabited (and thus influenced) by more and more loa (or spirits). Like a ship accumulating barnacles, the individual gathers different ghosts and having gathered those spirits, it cannot go back to what it originally was. I might make a corellary with experience, to suggest that once you’ve experienced trauma or pleasure, you cannot imagine yourself without that experience: it’s a transformative knowledge, like an emulsion. It even changes the way you look back on yourself prior to that experience.

CI: I keep wanting to question or complicate some of the ideas about celebrity put forth in your essay – whether we’re talking about Hollywood or the art world. For myself, I definitely don’t share Adorno’s pessimistic take on popular culture and its effects. I very much believe in a person’s ability to go beyond the face-value of a given cultural narrative and make it into something else, to redirect it in ways that can be authentically empowering. And so I don’t see celebrity or a celebrity persona as monolithic.  I see them in terms of stories that we as a culture tell each other, they are written and rewritten, and are also interactive in that the narratives can be read subversively (like the Shiloh/boy stories).  I agree, the celebrity persona is compelling in part because its fictions reinforce the idea of the self as a stable signifier — which also makes it into a thing, or as you put it, a commodity, and an unchanging commodity-thing at that (Mandy Moore = All-American Good Girl; Amy Winehouse = Alcoholic Fuckup, Shepard Fairey= Sellout, Damien Hirst = Soulless Art-Commodity Producer, etc.). And yet the celebrity narratives that are often the most fascinating to me are the ones where an established fictional identity implodes – when all-American good girl Britney Spears goes nuts and shaves off her hair and makes monster faces at the paparazzi, or when stars like Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin and/or Charlie Sheen go on violent, abusive, self-destructive benders. I guess what I’m ultimately arguing against is the idea that cultural production and dissemination, even in a product as debased as a tabloid magazine, is inherently one-dimensional. We already have the power to shift the narrative, and I think we employ that power on a regular basis. Maybe that’s what you are getting at too, when you propose at the end of your essay, “Perhaps then the key lies in focusing our attention elsewhere: studying the blurred, interstitiary matter between categorical selves.”  Where do you think those interstitiary areas can be found?

CP: I think it’s funny, actually: I was thinking the other day how funny it is that in my own life I feel very empowered. Or at least, I feel like when I run up against shitty stereotypes in conversation or something like that, I often enjoy the ensuing conversations–I guess because I feel like there is a lot to learn always, and I think reasoned disagreement can lead to valuable insight. At the same time I think I am easily overwhelmed by my experience of popular culture. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 90s with a pervasive myth–it came from everywhere, schools, parents, other kids–that culturally we had progressed beyond racism, sexism or homophobia; then too there is this American Dream floating around that you can be anything you want, that a class system doesn’t really exist–but I think the class system does exist. I think prejudices and stereotypes are still very much in play. I feel like now there’s a sense that we’ve progressed beyond prejudice so it’s OK to make bad jokes, because everyone knows no one means it, but it totally bums me out. I don’t mean to dismiss the progress that has been made, but it’s weird to turn on the television and see an off-hand gay joke just like it’s weird to hear about how fuckable Sara Palin is. At that point, when it’s coming from a television or a radio, I don’t feel like I have anything to push against directly. It’s like your not supposed to be critical of culture because it’s trashy junk food like popcorn and everyone knows it. It still there though, all over the place.

CI: I’m also interested in the potential of the first person point of view as a rhetorical tactic. In all of your cultural writing, I think you have employed the first person POV in such a lovely and effective way – it’s why I have always been drawn to the way that you write. Writing an essay in the first person might on the one hand appear to reinforce all those myths of the “stable I” – but in fact, I find that using the “I” actually allows us to talk about culture in non-monolithic, non-authoritative ways that make absolute sense right now.  Rather than emphasizing the writer’s authority over a subject, writing from the first person point of view seems to embrace a vulnerable and even overtly fallible position from the get-go: the form accurately reflects the contingencies of the subject matter. So – when you’re writing about culture, how important is it for you to write from the first person? For example, do you think you could have written the Coda to your book using the traditional third-person perspective and felt satisfied with the results?

CP: Yes! The first person! I never know what to do with it. I used to really, deeply fight against it. I used to feel like writing in the first person was self-indulgent. BUT! The thing is, I don’t know a better way to go about it. What I like about writing in the first person, is that I think you can create am empathetic body for the reader; so, when I describe a show by describing some of the physical attributes/impressions, I can bring a reader into a subjective experience. The flow gets more poetic, I think. It admits a subjective narrative–what art very often engages. But yes, in my essays I am always aware of my own vulnerability, or limits. I often feel like I have a limited understanding of my interests. Like, I am interested in social philosophies but I’m also alway going to feel like an amateur relative to those specialists who spend their lives studying one slice of that pie. By writing, I want to engage all sides; to be reflective and learning…I don’t think I could have written the Coda in an exclusive third person, for one thing because I don’t think Doug Aitken or Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is unequivocally bad. I actually enjoyed both bodies of work–they made me think about what was at stake and what made me suspicious–also they are so seductive and lush! Similarly, I don’t think Alys or Rohmer are unequivocally good–by talking about them in the first person, I feel like I have a better chance to open up a conversation. Still, I wish there were more pop songs in the third person, or pop songs without people. Or like, of there was an Entertainment Tonight show that was dedicated to the natural red carpet occurrences and talked about how sexy different hurricanes or cloud formations were.

Caroline Picard with moustache and energy drink. Photo: Devin King.

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Happiness Machines was on view at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21 St.,  Pilsen, Chicago, IL from June 10-24th.

One Response to “Happiness Machines: A Conversation with Caroline Picard”

  1. [...] drinks to in the show, and of course celebrity culture. You can check out the whole thing by going here. In the meantime, I’ve posted the opening paragraph and question [...]

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