One piece of British artist Stuart Semple’s “Happy City” is already causing a stir in Denver, and it hasn’t even officially debuted yet.
His “Emotional Baggage Drop” has already been installed at Union Station where it’s both delighting and confusing passersby. Redditors have started to speculate and when I went to see it for myself a few days before its May 18 debut, I found several people peering inside the little booth designed to fit in perfectly with its surroundings.
Believing it’s a real thing and not piece of art, one woman said to me — and I’m paraphrasing here — “We must really have everything if we think we need this.”
The installation will make a lot more sense once it’s up and running. Then, according to “Happy City” program materials, people will be “invited to confidentially share their burdens with a stranger who, in turn, listens to and accepts their emotional baggage.”
It’s just one piece of the city-wide art project — full name “Happy City: Art for the People” — that intends to spread comfort and cheer around downtown Denver.
And maybe we do need it.
“People ask why did we want to do this — it’s more of, we have to do this,” said David Ehrlich, executive director of the Denver Theatre District. “What appealed to me was — I challenge you to find any family in Denver that doesn’t have a person or have a friend who suffers from depression. The breakdown of our community and the rise of anxiety are massively important issues and they really haven’t been taken on in an urban context. This is an important dialog that we feel has to happen.”
Denver Theatre District is producing “Happy City” — the culmination of its Terra Firma arts initiative, which included Konstantin Dimopoulos’ “The Blue Trees,” Shantell Martin’s mural project and Understudy. Artistic direction came from Black Cube, Denver’s nomadic contemporary art museum.
Semple himself is a bit of an art nomad. He’s created art projects all around Europe, Australia and Russia. The inspiration for this Denver project comes from his 2009 “Happy Clouds,” during which he released more than 2,000 smiley-faced “bubble sculptures” from the Tate Modern over London’s financial district.
The clouds (which they say are environmentally friendly) will come to Denver, too, along with… just so much else. It’s a massive project. Ehrlich told the Denver Post back in January that it was “in excess of $500,000.” Funding partners include the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Community First Foundation, Denver Arts & Venues, Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, Downtown Denver Partnership, McWhinney, P.S. You Are Here, Sage Hospitality and Visit Denver.
With all of that backing, “Happy City” will spread work by 11 artists, some of whom are local, from Union Station to the Denver Art Museum and put on events and panels all across Denver and beyond (even Red Rocks). The goal: “inciting curiosity and encouraging togetherness” and invoking the question, “Can a city be happy?”
“The dream outcome is that how what we do as a city impacts us personally and collectively from a social and mental well being perspective becomes part of the dialog,” Ehrlich said. “We think it’s relevant today, the next year and five years from now. When we as the city start doing things … an element of it should be: How will this effect us individually and collectively from a mental well being perspective?”
“Happy City” launches with a free event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday at Union Station. In addition to opening the “Emotional Baggage Drop” for feelings deposits, they’ll be unveiling custom B-Cycle bikes decorated by Denver-based designer, illustrator and animator Dayna Safferstein and distributing “Ear to Ear: Beyond the Smile,” one-issue newsprint publication from the Denver Theatre District that “investigates the concept of happiness through a myriad of perspectives.”
So here’s what you’re going to see out there.
This will be a quick, light overview pulled directly from the program materials (and edited for brevity). For more details, including event listings, visit happycitydenver.com.
“Emotional Baggage Drop (hello stranger)”
The installation mimics a luggage drop that collects emotional, as opposed to physical, baggage within the great hall of Union Station. At this private booth, people are invited to confidentially share their burdens with a stranger who, in turn, listens to and accepts their emotional baggage.
Happy Clouds is composed of smiley-face bubble sculptures, that when released with helium, drift amid public spaces. Intended to provide viewers with a brief moment of cheer, Happy Clouds will be launched at over a dozen sites across the Denver-metro area from Red Rocks to Denver Public Library branches.
“Triple Billboard — Baker-Miller-Pink”
Baker-Miller-Pink is a public installation featuring a triptych billboard outside of the Buell Theatre by Denver-based artist John Roemer. Using the research behind the psychological effects of the color Baker-Miller pink, this monochromatic work seeks to positively influence public space. In the 1960s Alexander Schauss, director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research, studied psychological and physiological responses to color. He discovered that this particular pink hue lowers the heart rate, pulse and respiration of people exposed to it.
Four artists exhibit video-based artworks utilizing The Denver Theatre District’s outdoor, digital screens in downtown Denver. These animated shorts by artists Milton Melvin Croissant III, Vince McKelvie, Zach Reini, and Theresa Anderson will rotate throughout the duration of Happy City, mixed among the regular advertising. The works focus on technology’s influence on our well-being, explore the nuances of emotions, and subvert the typical commercial use of these screens.
The exhibition Soft Something at Understudy is an immersive installation by Colorado Springs-based artist Matt Barton. Featured within the installation is a mix of vibrating beds, aquaponics systems, and other functional materials, which together blur the boundary between a gallery, greenhouse and sanctuary. Within the exhibition’s dynamic environment, viewers are positioned as participants invited to relax, play and explore the uncertain middle-ground between belief and cynicism.
“Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project”
Five artists transform alleyways along Denver’s 16th Street Mall into site-specific, sculptural art installations, in conjunction with “Happy City.” The artists include Carlos Fresquez, Kelly Monico, Stuart Semple, Joel Swanson and Frankie Toan.
“JUMP (bring us together)”
JUMP (bring us together) is a participatory artwork envisioned by Stuart Semple that invites the public to experience an immersive dance party, complete with an inflatable dance floor. The inflatable floor is a variation of a previous work created by Semple titled, “Jump,” which was first installed in Australia in 2013.