“Thanks to you, I love my city, I met lots of people, sung, danced, until 4am.” Here is the type of testimony that Dan Acher, social artist and founder of Happy City Lab receives at Following his projects when he is recognized in the streets of Geneva, he succeeds in his work by creating moments of sharing and conviviality in anonymous squares. he tells us about his vision of the city and its 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 journey and how today this association of anthropology with artistic creation makes sense in your daily life?
Since my youth I have traveled a lot and what interested me was to see how people live together, what rituals punctuate their lives, which gives meaning to their life together. I studied in New Zealand. Before I left, I spoke with two friends who read the book “Songlines” for their ethnology course in Switzerland. This book talks about the songs of Australian aborigines, who describe the landscape as they traveled across the country. If all these songs are combined, we obtain a precise and exhaustive geographical map of the country. It was a revelation because at the time I did not know that ethnology was an area that could be studied at the university. When I arrived in New Zealand, I changed my BCom (trade) course to BA (Arts) and studied anthropology for 3 years. Today I do not consider myself an anthropologist but 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 conceived 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 this impact be scaled up across a community, neighborhood, city, or world?
Do you perceive a universal character or do your projects take a different form depending on where you develop them?
It is more generally the universal aspect that prevails. And yet, I do not count the times or creating situations I faced the assumption “it will never work at home”. Many French people were convinced, for example, that exchange boxes intended to encourage exchanges between inhabitants of the same district would not take place because there would supposedly not be the same civic education as in Switzerland. It is nevertheless a success. We must accept to try the experiment and to watch what happens. The authorities are often surprised by the result and the way 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 create situations. Happy City Lab is a laboratory where we test different projects to see how they fit into society, and what are the effects and impacts they produce.
You have an approach 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 appeared in the 50s and 60s to push a revolution of daily life. The street and the city became large playgrounds rather than smooth and frictionless geographical spaces. May 68 in Paris, the book The society of the spectacle of Guy Debord, or the Cacophonie Society which gave birth 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 is something that resonates in me, without being revolutionary for all that.
Regarding art, I started to give myself the label of artist when it was not something that I claimed. In fact, I feel closer to the term artivist, which means using art to create social change, or anglicism social artist . This is because the result of my work does not focus on something palpable, 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 that it makes live and share with the citizens. How this installation creates impact. And how the population seizes the project.
My goal is primarily in the experience of people in contact with my installations rather than in the medium used, even if the rendering is artistic.
On the other hand, even though the art sector often does not 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 describe the art of bringing together people and to share common experiences with them.
And concretely, how does this materialize, art for change? What are its effects ?
This can be done through projects that make it possible to reach out to people in neighborhoods where we would not be expected, often poor in cultural initiatives. It’s also about giving people the opportunity to take ownership of the project and give it meaning.
Some works of contemporary art may annoy or provoke “but what is this thing, why?” For my installations, I’m looking for ease of access. That residents have a sense of pride in their neighborhood. That people say to themselves “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 lived differently and new imaginations are emerging. In a second time, the inhabitants become applicants for new initiatives. Often they mobilize themselves and understand that they too can organize, appropriate a space. And this is also putting pressure on politics to accentuate the development of initiatives to create living spaces in cities.
The policies of the city are too often developed with efficiency in mind to go from point A to point B. By creating meeting and sharing places, my projects show that public space can be an encouraging space. meeting and sharing experiences. That the city must and can be a place of life and cohesion and not just a place of work and sustenance.
And today, how do you define your relationship with the city of Geneva?
We have very good relationships and we know how to work together. As everywhere, there may be purely political tensions, such as when a decision maker kills a project because it is the end of his term and he does not wish that this benefits his successor. It’s a strategic game to play on our side, 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 impact and image.
In general, do you perceive an evolution of cities as to the understanding of this type of initiative?
I see a change that I think is related to the erosion of the social fabric. With the closure of all the small neighborhood stalls, with the development of supermarkets, headphones, links that we weave with people geographically distant, there is a need to find the human link and not just cross. It took 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 it can have on the experience. And even if art and the social are always the first to suffer from budget cuts, from now on it seems to me that politics has taken the measure of the importance of the quality of life in the city.
Cities realize that without social connection, society collapses.
What does the public space bring you that you would not be able to find in a theater, a cultural place?
In a theater or cultural venue, the audience is most often spectator and captive. In the street, I ask that people be actors and I do not create constraint. Nobody has the obligation to stop and to live the proposed experiments. Everyone decides, on their own scale, their level of commitment. For the boxes of exchanges it can go from a fortuitous consultation to its daily storage.
Can you tell us about two of your projects to illustrate your remarks?
The Borealis project is the ability to create anywhere in the world of the northern lights, on large city squares. At the origin of this initiative, the will to live an experience that lifts us, surpasses us, and during which our socio-economic differences, age, gender, handicaps … fall. I thought of the northern lights because the people who had the chance to see them describe a very strong experience. Yet the percentage of the world population that will have the chance to live this experience is tiny. It is also to bring something into the urban space that should not be there, which surprises passers-by.
The second project, SECRETS, is particularly close to my heart because it comes to question our humanity. What makes you feel empathy, what makes you feel part of a community, who is connected to other people in a city?
We create letters of 4 meters high, spelling out the word secret and placed in a circle on very large city squares or in the near periphery. The next population is invited for five days and entered this created space. Once in the center, we discover cards on which it is written “This is my secret, burn all”. It is an invitation to the population to anonymously release a secret, light or heavier, and display it, anonymously, on the inner faces of the letters, visible to all. The evening of the fifth day, we all meet and burn everything. Behind this act there is the idea of bringing back the ritual in the city, but also a way to bring out the personal work, nowadays done in relations one by one, either with his family or with his psychiatrist, during 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 level of a city. The establishment 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 in front of my intention. For example, in Geneva we have a known initiative that is an open-air cinema. The invitation is “come, we make a free film at the lake” , when in fact the intention behind this invitation is to use the film as an excuse for the experience we live on the grass. We put in place a series of processes so that the 2000 to 3000 participants meet and share emotions. To encourage all these people to participate, we continually think about different levels of engagement because there are always more outgoing people or used to participating in projects. But how to reach others?
It’s about creating a new standard where participation is the norm.
Sometimes, this means creating situations where it is permissible to simply be, with its qualities and faults, to look ridiculous, without judgment.
A little higher up, you talked about impact. How do you quantify it and where do you qualify?
In the past, interviews were conducted to find out about social backgrounds, time spent near the facility, the state in which people felt before, during, after, and so on. But we are a little back from these methods and today we prefer to attach ourselves to the qualitative aspect and the lived experience. For that, we rely on the testimonials we are given. I do not count the times when I was stopped in the street to say to me “Thanks, thanks to you, I love my city, I met many people, sung, danced, until 4am of morning ” .
During small iterations of the SECRETS project I saw messages such as “I’m afraid of becoming like my father”, “I’m homosexual and I do not know how to say it”.
The impact is there! In the journey that these people have made to go up to the installation write their secret, being “seen” and participating personally in a common work.
For the long-term impact, we rely 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 so replicated that they are no longer linked to Geneva and the original project. For outdoor cinemas, we have advised and helped many organizations to develop the same sharing approach as ours.
I have also studied the potential of open source models for my projects because I believe tremendously in these steps of sharing knowledge. Today the exchange boxes have a website with a download tab and a map to geolocate them. Once the first iterations of the SECRETS project are completed and the intention is right, I will also consider releasing it in Creative Commons License 4.0 (CC by SA) so that people can reproduce it, evolve it or create it financial resources with. The advantage with this tool is that anyone can continue to evolve your project provided, among other things, release developments under the same license. Your project continues to evolve while remaining connected to the initial project.
Interview conducted with the participation of Marie-France de Crécy Studio DE CRECY
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