Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

By Sarah Nesbitt

I managed to catch the highly Instagramed exhibition Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on its very last day this past Sunday afternoon. It seemed like an appropriate choice for a long weekend when people are having lavish meals with loved ones for Canadian Thanksgiving.  I also recently started listening to a happiness podcast by Dr. Laurie Santos based on a blockbuster course she developed at Yale University. I really want to believe in the happiness doctrine, but as Our Happy Life indicates, not only is it challenging (more so for some of us), with “the mechanics of the neo-liberal economy, the new marketplace of emotions, and the relentless ideology of positivity,” it is hard not to approach proposed methodologies for accomplishing it with skepticism or even revulsion.

Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism, 2019, installation view

As is typical of the CCA, the show was less a display of artistic production than it was a demonstration of rigorous investment in the centre’s “four decade-long work of exposing contradictions, preconceptions, and attitudes in our culture and in how we practice architecture.” Artists were implicated, but only Questions by Peter Fischli and David Weiss stood out as an original artwork – a clever inclusion given the international status of the duo, their interest in design, and their having authored the thematically aligned publication Will Happiness Find Me. In Questions multiple slide projectors are lined up horizontally, sequentially projecting  squiggly, yellow questions to the sound of shifting slide carousels: “Do I have to go through all of that again?”,  “Is my ignorance a roomy cave?”, “Am I being exploited?” The exhibition is powerful because it is so wholly relatable, not only on a personal level, but in a way that reflects how intangible systems like the internet, social media, and the stock market have united us on a global level to varying and often counter-intuitive ends.

Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism, 2019, installation view

The elaborate exhibition design – conceived by an international team of designers and architects based in London UK, Brussels, and Montreal – is central to conveying the research and overall impact of Our Happy Life. Yellow shag carpet, Facebook blue walls, mustard yellow velvet curtains, pastel pink velvet table coverings, wall texts printed in vinyl and framed against some kind of luxurious textile all contribute to a somewhat sickening experience that merges aesthetic values promoted through social media with spatial design. Pantone declares its “color of the year” in January, and somehow everyone’s palette magically transitions. Printed and framed statements like “Happiness Rules Are Defining Spatial Values” or “In the Age of Emotional Capitalism, Affect is a Project’s Greatest Asset” take on the status of art objects that also mimic the codes of contemporary millennial home decor, where the cheesiness of the motivational slogan is reconfigured by a team at Urban Outfitters or Zone to create its cool contemporary.

The show hinges on three core strategies: exposing recent and abundant research on human happiness (the Gross Domestic Happiness index) and its spatial implications; creating affective and immersive environments through design, text, and images; and case studies that “reveal the ambiguous and complex dynamics between our contemporary physical and emotional landscapes, within variable civic, political, and economic contexts.” One particularly effective case study, represented through a video by Brett Story, followed a retirement-age couple who lost everything in the 2008 crash. After giving their home over to the bank, they invested the last of their money in a mobile home in which they travel from job site to job site as part of a newly created “camperforce,” where Amazon is a primary employer. As emphasized by this case study, I have to conclude that out of the hundreds of “questions” posed by Fischli and Weiss, perhaps the inquiry “Am I being exploited?” is most poignant as our experiences are indexed,  quantified, and fed back to us through sophisticated capitalist systems.

Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism was on display from May 8 until October 13.
Canadian Centre for Architecture: https://www.cca.qc.ca/en/
The gallery is accessible.

Sarah Nesbitt is an independent writer and curator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal).