The Eerie Optimization of “Self-Care” Decor

Stay WellTM room, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Marriott International, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amid the panicked anticipation of an “automation revolution” in the workforce, some of the safest labor sectors remain those dominated by women workers. Perhaps this is because it’s still too unnerving to think of care work being administered by Artificial Intelligence. Nevertheless, this job security is also attended by lower income and greater precariousness in most countries. The so-called “feminization of labor” refers both to a rapid increase of women engaging in paid labor since the 1980s, as well as the effects of this increase on the nature of work, more broadly, for both sexes. According to a 2001 report for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, “Informal activities, subcontracting, part-time work, and home-based work have proliferated while rates of unionization have declined.”

These themes underlie Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (the CCA). A case study of one so-called “Wifi Family” – who opted for location-independent jobs requiring only a laptop and a internet connection, and who often live out of AirBnbs – outlines the choice to “unsettle down,” and challenges the idea of “home” being attached to property ownership. The romanticization of this family’s seemingly radical choice, to detach themselves from possessions and a fixed address, links to the marketing strategies employed to rewire our conceptions of “wellness.” We see a commodity that can be procured on-the-go. Today, home ownership and affordable housing are not options for most people; reimagining this impossibility as an informed decision normalizes insecurity and positions individual well-being as a concern for the market, rather than the state. Community care is trumped by the more profitable concept of self-care.

Erin Weisgerber, “Now, Please Think About Yesterday” (still). Gallup Riverfront Campus, Omaha, US. © CCA

It’s no surprise, then, that the flexibility and nomadism of our contemporary condition are now being rebranded as keys to happiness for millennials. The workplace is regarded as a ball-and-chain apparatus to be shirked, while the future of work, for many, is characterized by global mobility and access to the web. This phenomena has far-reaching effects on our notions of what constitutes belonging – as the meme goes: “home is where the wifi is.”

Our Happy Life is a research-heavy exhibition that dissects our obsession with happiness from the perspectives of city-planning, architecture, and design. Aesthetically, the exhibition attempts to replicate a near-clinical atmosphere, one characterized by a neutral design that avoids sensory disturbance. Its point of inquiry – what makes people happy? – is naturally subjective, but the research focuses on a data-centered narrative (through a series of videos, documents, photographs, and reports) that highlights the universalized and commodified aspects of joy, and how that joy comes to be ranked geographically. The UN’s annual World Happiness Reports – the first of which was launched in 2012, a year after its official “Declaration on Happiness” was published – marked a turning point for studies about what makes certain countries happier than others. This year, Finland ranked highest, but some rotating combination of Scandinavian countries typically rises to the top.

Our contemporary notions of happiness, as exemplified in the installations at CCA and the reports from which they draw inspiration, has to do with the way we design and furnish our living environments. A space’s so-called “hygge” (a Danish word for “coziness,” repeated ad nauseum since its entry into popular culture in 2016), and the feeling of conviviality it produces, boils down to a certain configuration of basic sensations. A nice view, fresh air, pleasant aromas, proper sleep (aided by everything from the right pillows to gravity blankets, sun simulators, and sound baths), and a balanced diet. With this simple formula, happiness can easily be quantified and achieved through a series of dehumanized, outsourced practices.

Transposed onto an urban scale, the reports seem to suggest that there also exists a formula for city-wide happiness. The word “Copenhagenize” – which was coined by designer Mikael Colville-Andersen – refers to a process of cookie-cutter urban planning inspired by the eponymous city’s advanced bike culture and a “human-centered” approach to citizen well-being. This term and its sickly-sweet city-branding strategy marked the beginning of a global trend toward aggressive wellness-marketing and competitive city rankings, backed by a mixture of corporate and institutional bodies.

The exhibition at the CCA attempts to replicate this brand of Scandinavian comfort, despite its simultaneous (and seemingly contradictory) aim to visually parse a slew of metadata and research reports. A white, shag carpet covers the entire floor of one room, entered by passing through a thick curtain. Four easels stand impossibly on the plush surface, under a wide, circular – almost surgical – yellow light fixture. The lighting and furnishings are pathologically placid. The easels hold a series of similarly tranquil collages entitled City Scenes (2019), made by Dutch office Bovenbouw Architectuur, in collaboration with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska. They depict interpretations of ideal urban happiness. The paper reliefs represent one of a handful of artistic moments in the exhibition, which is otherwise comprised of documentary evidence to support its dense analysis.

Bovenbouw Architectuur in collaboration with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska, “Our Happy Life: City Scenes,” 2019.

In the adjacent room, a series of images by Irish artist Yuri Pattison, entitled The Sleep Industry (2019), adopt the visual codes of sleek advertising, confusing his artistic interventions with actual advertisements presented nearby, promoting “Stay Well” vitamin C-infused shower heads and “energizing light mirrors” offered in various Marriott hotels across the US. Pattison’s series is almost imperceptibly different from the Marriott ads: he has zoomed in on a collection of sleep aids – a softly-lit portrait of a bottle of Melatonin, for example, or a close-up of an assortment of glowing orbs, sold as sun simulators – making their innocuous surfaces almost absurdly benign. Visually, a thread runs through the exhibition that connects the supposed neutrality of the collected data on happiness with the neutralized spaces apparently required to invoked that same happiness. The nature of the Happiness Reports and rankings as universal indicators, removed from too much individual or regional specificity, causes them to engage in a virtual whitewashing of actual spaces and emotions. Curatorial choices – smooth surfaces, soft lighting, and soothing sounds – render the exhibition indistinguishable from familiar wellness marketing, a placeless product of the very happiness rankings that it seeks to critique.

A series of short, framed statements and questions are mounted on the walls, highlighting key themes for those unable to digest the research in its entirety. One reads: “Are the producers of rankings the new designers of our cities?” Another, perhaps a response: “The market of city ranking is producing a different geography of quality of life.” The presence of these overt moments of critical inquiry cut across the forced tranquility of the exhibition design; by inserting the larger thematic questions throughout, Our Happy Life heavy-handedly demands that we not get lost in the smooth aesthetics and become complacent. Despite itself, the exhibition insists, happiness is not for sale.

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