Rachel Pastan
June 1, 2012

The Found Poetry of Happiness: Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show

Not long ago ICA’s social media channels were running pretty dry, sort of like those so-called canals on Mars, a planet on which water has yet to be discovered.

Miranda: MARS BIGGER

This year, though, our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels are flowing in streams while meetings about social media swim across our calendars.

It’s not easy to decide how to use a new form, maintaining the voice and priorities of the institution while hurtling down the Niagara of platforms, images, abbreviations, exclamation points, urls, likes, repostings, friends, and followers. Which way is up? How much is enough? Will these old barrel staves of thought, judgment, and grace protect us in the torrent?

One current ICA exhibition, Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, has proved an ideal testing ground for social media: its flexibility, allure, and potential creativity. The Happy Show has its own Tumblr page, a sunny yellow miscellany of photos, quotations, video clips and—predominantly and wonderfully—drawings by visitors of what happiness looks like to them.

Miranda: breakfast

We have a station in the show with cards and markers, inviting viewers to make these pictures.

Miranda: happy-corner-A

Every week ICA’s assistant digital media editor, Pam Yau, retrieves the cards, sorts them into categories (activities, animals, people, food, etc.), scans them, and sends them off to Sagmeister, Inc. where a few are selected for inclusion on the Tumblr, and all are fodder for infographics.

Miranda: food chart

You can see all the drawings on Flickr, a diversion I highly recommend. People have drawn palm-treed islands, roller skates, DNA strands, lips, space ships, ham haunches, laundry hanging jauntily on the line, and many suns.

Sagmeister has also issued a series of questions via Twitter for visitors to answer:

What is the happiest word?

What would you do if you had a year off?

What food makes you happy?

What have you done to make someone else unexpectedly happy?

Followers have Tweeted back in droves. Their responses, especially when considered in grouplets, read almost like found poems:

What Would You Do If You Had a Year Off?

Road tripping from Alaska to Patagonia.

Write a book, maybe? Learn Indian handicrafts?

Photograph Irish dancers in every country possible.

What Did You Do to Make Someone Else Unexpectedly Happy?

I took care of a dog last summer. I emailed pictures of her every day to her owners with funny captions.

I like to write an unexpected postcard to my friends.

Remembered to bring the macchinetta del caffe camping!

What Food Makes You Happy?

A runny boiled egg with potato waffle soldiers for dunking.

Nutella crepes.

Oysters on the half shell.

Lasanga….yeah!

Miranda: cake

Stefan Sagmeister goes out of his way to say that his exhibition will not make you happier. And in general, whether or not social media promotes happiness (this blog excepted) is still an open question. That said, the lively, imaginative, diverse outpouring of material being shared online around The Happy Show is truly a delight. It may not make you as happy as a Nutella crepe or seeing a flying saucer, but for a virtual experience, it’s right up there.

Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show is open at ICA through August 12, 2012.

To sign up for Miranda‘s mailing list, email miranda@icaphila.org.

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