How to Renew the Experience of Living Together Through Artistic Creation.

By Clothilde Sauvages

“Thanks to you, I love my city, I met a lot of people, sang, danced, until 4 am”. Here is the type of testimony that Dan Acher, social artist and founder of Happy City Lab receives at following his projects when we recognize him in the streets of Geneva. Through his work, he succeeds in the feat of creating moments of sharing and conviviality in anonymous city squares. We met him so that he talks to us about his vision of the city and his relationship to art.

Hello Dan, you studied anthropology and today you are the founder and artistic director of “Happy City Lab“. Can you tell us about your background and how today this association of anthropology with artistic creation makes sense in your daily life?

Since my youth, I traveled a lot and what interested me was to see how people live together, what rituals punctuate their lives, which gives meaning to their common life. I notably studied in New Zealand. Before I left, I chatted with two friends who were reading the book “Songlines” for their ethnology course in Switzerland. This book talks about the songs of the Aborigines of Australia, who describe the landscape when they traveled across the country. If we combine all of these songs, we obtain a precise and exhaustive geographic map of the country. It was a revelation because at the time I did not know that ethnology was a field that could be studied at university. When I arrived in New Zealand, I, therefore, changed my course BCom (commerce) to BA (Arts) and I studied anthropology for 3 years. Today I do not consider myself an anthropologist however it opened my mind to different ways of living and different representations of the world.

I am sensitive to questions such as: what is the universal nature of certain celebrations, ways of sharing experiences, emotions? How will a project think for a given place be lived elsewhere?

What interests me deeply is to explore what can make two strangers meet, share an experience, an emotion, beyond what separates them. How can art and rituals achieve this goal and how can we increase this impact at the level of a community, a neighborhood, a city, the whole world?

Do you perceive a universal character or do your projects take a different form depending on the place where you develop them?

It is more generally the universal aspect that prevails. And yet, I no longer count the times or when creating situations I faced the assumption “it will never work with us“. Many French people were persuaded, for example, that the exchange boxes intended to encourage exchanges between inhabitants of the same district would not take because there is supposedly not the same civic education as in Switzerland. It is, however, a success. You have to accept to try the experience and watch what happens. The authorities are often surprised by the result and the way that the population appropriates the projects positively.

How would you define “Happy City Lab”? Is it creating situations?

Indeed one of the definitions of my work is to be the creator of situations. Happy City Lab is a laboratory where we test different projects to see how they fit into society, and what the effects and impacts they produce.

You have a process combining sociology, art and events through which you extract people from their daily lives. How do you define it?

A strong influence in my work is that of the “situationist” movement that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to push for a revolution in everyday life. The street and the city became big playgrounds rather than smooth, frictionless geographic spaces. May 68 in Paris, the book The society of the spectacle of Guy Debord, or even the Cacophony Society which gave birth thereafter to Burning Man in the United States, are emanations of this current of thought which aimed at breaking the routine and to be constantly in the present and the extraordinary. It’s something that resonates in me, without being revolutionary.

Regarding art, they started to give me the label of an artist when it was not something that I claimed. In reality, I feel closer to the term artivist which corresponds to the fact of using art to create social change, or of anglicism social artist. This is because the result of my work does not focus on something tangible, concrete; it is not a painting or a sculpture. If in my projects there are installations with artistic renderings, my goal is not the installation itself but the experience it creates, the experience it brings to life and shares with citizens. How this installation creates an impact. And how the population takes over the project.

My goal is above all in the experience that people live in contact with my installations rather than in the means used, even if the rendering is artistic.

On the other hand, even if the artistic sector often does not yet know how to position itself in relation to this tendency to use art for change, I find it interesting to use the terms art and artist to qualify the art of bringing together people and give them common experiences.

And concretely how does it materialize, art for change? What are its effects?

This can go through projects that allow us to reach out to populations, in neighborhoods where we would not be expected, often poor in cultural initiatives. It is also about giving people the opportunity to take ownership of the project and give it meaning.

Certain works of contemporary art can annoy or provoke “but what is this thing, why?”. For my installations, I prefer the ease of access. Let residents have a sense of pride in their neighborhood. Let people say “wow it’s happening in MY neighborhood, on MY building”.

This leads to two effects. At first, people realize that it is possible that this or that space can be experienced differently and new imaginations emerge. In a second step, the inhabitants become requesters of new initiatives. Often they mobilize and understand that they too can organize themselves, appropriate a space. And it also creates pressure on politicians to accentuate the development of initiatives to create living spaces in cities.

City policies are too often developed with a view to efficiency to go from point A to point B. By creating places to meet and share, my projects show that public space can be an encouraging space meeting and sharing experiences. That the city must and can be a place that brings life and cohesion and not just a place of work and subsistence.

And today, how do you define your relations with the city of Geneva?

We have very good relationships and we know how to work together. As everywhere, there can be purely political tensions, as for example when a decision-maker kills a project because it is the end of his mandate and he does not wish that this benefits his successor. It is a strategic game to play on our site, here and elsewhere. We must understand the interests of our interlocutors in order to demonstrate to them the adequacy between our projects and their needs in terms of impact and image.

In general, do you perceive an evolution of cities in terms of understanding this type of initiative?

I see a change that I think is linked to the crumbling of the social fabric. With the closing of all the small neighborhood stalls, with the development of large surfaces, headphones, links that we weave with people who are geographically distant, there is a need to find human connection and not just cross. It took a long time, but today in our “western” cities, it is no longer conceivable to simply build a highway cutting a city in two without worrying about the impact that this can have on the experience. And even if art and social always remain the first to suffer from budget cuts, from now on it seems to me that politicians have taken the measure of the importance of the quality of life in the city.

Cities realize that without social ties, society collapses.

What does the public space bring you that you could not find in a theater, a cultural place?

In a theater or a cultural place, the public is most often spectator and captive. In the street, I ask that people be actors and I do not impose any constraint. Nobody has the obligation to stop and live the proposed experiences. Everyone decides, on their own scale, their level of commitment. For exchange boxes, this can range from a chance consultation to its daily storage.

Can you tell us about two of your projects to illustrate your words?

The Borealis project is the ability to create anywhere in the world the northern lights, in large city squares. At the origin of this initiative, the will to make life an experience that elevates us, exceeds us, and during which our socio-economic differences, age, gender, handicap … collapse. I thought of the northern lights because people who have had the chance to see them describe a very strong experience. Yet the percentage of the world’s population who will have the chance to have this experience is tiny. It is also bringing something into the urban space that should not be there, which surprises passersby.

The second project, SECRETS, is particularly close to my heart because it questions our humanity. What makes you feel empathy, what makes you feel you belong to a community, that you are linked to the other inhabitants of a city?

We create letters 4 meters high, spelling the word secrets and placed in a circle on very large city squares or in the near periphery. We then invite the population for five days to come and enter this created space. Once in the center, we discover cards on which it is written: “This is my secret, let’s burn it together”. It is an invitation to the population to come and free themselves anonymously from a secret, light or heavier, and to post it, anonymously, on the inside faces of the letters, visible to all. On the evening of the 5th day, we all meet and we burn everything. Behind this act, there is the idea of ​​bringing the ritual back to the city, but also a way of bringing out the personal work, nowadays done in one-to-one relationships, either with his family or with his psychiatrist, in a collective process.

SECRETS is a work of community art, a process of working on our deep secrets, at the individual level and at the city level. The implementation of a new ritual within the city.

For this project, you work with schools and prisons, do you regularly do cultural mediation?

Usually, I do little mediation on my projects because I am rarely frontal compared to my intention. For example, in Geneva, we have a known initiative which is an open-air cinema. The invitation is “come, we make a free film by the lake”, when in reality the intention behind this invitation is to use the film as an excuse for the experience we are having on the grass. We are implementing a series of procedures so that the 2,000 to 3,000 participants meet and share emotions. To encourage all of these people to participate, we continually think about different levels of engagement because there are always people who are more outgoing or used to participating in projects. But how do you reach others?

It’s about creating a new standard where participating is the norm.

At times, this notably involves creating situations where it is permissible to be simply either, with its qualities and faults, to appear ridiculous, without judgment.

A little earlier, you talked about impact. How do you quantify it and where do you qualify it?

In the past, we conducted interviews to find out about social backgrounds, the time spent near the facility, the state in which people felt before, during, after, etc. But we came back a little from these methods and today we prefer to focus on the qualitative aspect and the experience. For that, we trust the testimonies that we are given. I no longer count the times when I was stopped in the street to say “Thank you, thanks to you, I love my city, I met lots of people, sang, danced, until 4 am morning “.

During small iterations of the SECRETS project I saw messages such as “I am afraid of becoming like my father”, “I am homosexual and I don’t know how to say it”.

The impact is there! On the journey that these people have taken to go to the installation, write their secret, by being “seen” and by participating personally in common work.

For the long term impact, we base ourselves on studies that demonstrate the impact of our type of action on resilience, loneliness, happiness, sense of belonging, sense of security…

Have your projects already been taken up by others?

Projects are copied, others are reproduced, there are different forms of propagation. The exchange boxes have been replicated so much that they are no longer linked to Geneva and the original project. For open-air cinemas, we have advised and helped many structures to develop the same sharing approach like ours.

I also studied the potential of Open Source models for my projects because I strongly believe in these knowledge sharing approaches. Today, the exchange boxes have a website with a download tab and a map to locate them. Once the first iterations of the SECRETS project are finished and the intention is right, I will also consider releasing it under Creative Commons 4.0 License (CC by SA) so that people can reproduce it, evolve it or even create its financial resources with. The advantage with this tool is that anyone can continue to develop your project provided, among other things, to release the developments under the same license. Your project thus continues to evolve while remaining connected to the initial project.

Interview conducted with the participation of Marie-France de Crécy from Studio DE CRECY

This post was previously published on where the content of the website is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 France.

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