Can a city be happy?
With a question as big and broad as that, it’s hard to imagine how a group of artists are planning on addressing it. But beginning May 18, Denver will undergo a six-week artistic “intervention” by a group of local, national and international artists, aimed at inciting happiness in the city. This intervention is dubbed Happy City: Art for the People and is the brainchild of British artist Stuart Semple.
Since 2013, when Semple created a huge bouncy cloud in Australia, he’s been on a mission to cheer people up. On the surface, most of his installations or artwork are intentionally silly and endearing. Smiley face clouds, hug huddles, bouncy blobs for adults — they are disruptions in daily routines, and in that interruption, Semple hopes to connect people in meaningful ways. When he first set his sights on Denver as the next city to intervene in, there wasn’t enough funding for the expansive scope his project entailed. But, with the help of Denver Theatre District (DTD), many other organizations offered their support — making the city-wide intervention possible.
So in two weeks, the Mile High City’s landscape will transform, sometimes rather dramatically. Under the artistic direction of Denver’s Black Cube (a nomadic art gallery), Happy City will touch alleyways, billboards, LED screens, public libraries, Union Station and more. Most everything is free to the public, which is part of the overall goal of breaking down the barriers to happiness. The term “Happy City” comes from both Semple’s previous work and as an homage to Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s book of the same name, which addresses how urban design impacts happiness.
With more than 11 participating artists — most of whom are local — Happy City will definitely interrupt your normal routine. Which is why we’ve put together a guide to what’s happening, where it’s happening and why you might want to check something out.
Emotional Baggage Drop (hello stranger)–
When: May 18 – June 10, 2018 — Wednesdays – Fridays, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Where: Union Station
The Lowdown: Created by Semple, this installation operates only through interaction with strangers. Set up as a baggage drop in the Great Hall at Union Station, it serves as a safe place to “store” thoughts. Instead of leaving physical bags, people are encouraged to leave their emotional, spiritual and maybe even transcendental baggage in a booth. The catch — and the way to connect participants with each other — is that you spill these beans to another stranger sitting in the (private) booth with you, who then, in turn, spills their beans to you. If we were to guess, this kind of interaction could end in a hug, or at the very least, a weight off your shoulders as your figurative baggage stays at Union Station.
When and Where: Happy Cloud launches (listed below with date and time) are free and open to the public, with the exception of Red Rocks.
The Lowdown: What could be more giggle-inducing than a bunch of smiley-faced bubble clouds? Semple first released these in 2008 in London, when the country was facing a pretty serious recession. His goal was to simply make people smile. Since then, these “happy clouds” have been released in Dublin, Moscow, Milan and Australia. Made with environmentally-friendly soap and released using helium, these cloud-like structures will float softly on the wind and eventually dissipate. Because of their popularity, the happy clouds will find their way all over Denver. But we especially advise going to the release at Red Rocks (though it’s the only one that costs money), where The Colorado Symphony will perform Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. as the smiley faces reach into the sky.
May 19, 2 – 4 p.m., Colorado Convention Center
May 22, 6 – 8:30 p.m., Museo de las Americas
May 31, 7 p.m., Red Rocks — in partnership with The Colorado Symphony. This is a ticketed event*
June 2, 3 – 5 p.m., Denver Art Museum
June 4, 12 – 2 p.m., Bear Valley Branch Library
June 5, 5 – 6:30 p.m., Lakewood Cultural Center
June 6, 3 – 5 p.m., Hampden Branch Library
June 8, 1 – 3 p.m., Woodbury Branch Library
June 9, 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., Schlessman Family Branch Library
June 15, 7 – 9 p.m., McNichols Civic Center Building
June 17, 4 p.m., Levitt Pavilion — launch is prior to Flor de Toloache free concert
June 20, 4 p.m., Mental Health Center of Denver’s Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being
June 22, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., Virginia Village Branch Library
June 28, 2 – 3:30 p.m., Montbello Branch Library
When: May 2018 – May 2019
Where: Outside Buell Theatre
The Lowdown: Based on research in the ’60s by Alexander Schauss, the certain tone of pink called “Baker-Miller” lowers the heart rate, pulse and respiration of people who are looking at it. Using that knowledge, local artist John Roemer decided to install a triptych billboard outside of the Buell Theatre featuring that very hue. It seems like a low-impact installation — maybe even one that seems unintentional or unfinished — but if that pink actually calms people down, it’ll be worth its weight in paint or materials.
When: May 18 – June 30, 2018
Where: At four locations throughout the Denver Theatre District: 14th Street & Champa Street, 16th Street Mall & Champa Street, 15th Street & Champa Street and 14th Street & Arapahoe Street
The Lowdown: The DTD owns and operates the large LED screens in downtown Denver that typically switch through advertisements and other video content. For Happy City, they’re lending out airtime for four artists. The four artists are Milton Melvin Croissant III, Vince McKelvie, Zach Reini and Theresa Anderson — all local save for McKelvie, who is based in Los Angeles. Playing between the regular schedule, these short digital artworks will disrupt and interrupt in positive, affirming ways. And they fit into the other point of Happy City — which is to interpret technology’s influence on our well-being.
When: June 8 – 29, 2018, Wednesdays – Sundays 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Where: Understudy, 890 C 14th Ave.
The Lowdown: Colorado Springs-based artist Matt Barton will take over the little artistic incubator, Understudy, for the month of June in conjunction with Happy City. His exhibition, Soft Something, invites viewers to passively participate by relaxing in an artificial sanctuary. The artificial sanctuary comes to life using vibrating beds, aquaponics systems and other functional items — all of which loan themselves to the overarching theme of taking a break. But, as Barton engineers it, there is also an underlying concern with purpose, pushing participants to ponder the relationship of function and design. As with most of Understudy’s exhibitions, this one is site-specific.
Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project
When: June 15, 2018 – May 2019.
Where: 16th Street Mall alleys
The Lowdown: Let’s face it — alleys don’t have the best reputations. And during Happy City, five artists will challenge that infamy by remodeling some of the alleys along 16th Street Mall with artistic installations. One of those artists is Semple himself. The other artists are Carlos Frésquez, a celebrated Chicano artist based in Denver; Kelly Monico — a local artist and professor who works in film and performance pieces; Frankie Toan — a past resident artist of RedLine, PlatteForum and Arrowmont School of Arts in Tennessee who lives and works in Denver and Joel Swanson — a digital artist who displayed a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver in 2014 and teaches at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. With these artists’ varied and fascinating backgrounds and experience in the art world, each alley is sure to emulate their own styles and ideas about inciting mass happiness.
JUMP (bring us together)
When: June 23 -24, 2018, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Where: 17th St. between Wynkoop St. and Wazee St.
The Lowdown: How often is dancing associated with sadness? If the answer is “very little” like we think it is, then it makes perfect sense why Semple organized JUMP (bring us together) for the end of the Happy City intervention. As he envisions it, the public will turn a block of downtown Denver into an immersive dance party — complete with an inflatable dance floor. Basing the dance floor design off the Jump installation he created in Australia five years ago, Semple hopes the Denver iteration will inspire people to move with less inhibition than a normal dancefloor allows — “generating unexpected moments of joy and the freedom of self-expression.” So put on some stretchy clothes and prepare to “jamp” — jump and dance — to your heart’s content.
When: May 2018 – May 2019
Where: All B-Cycle stations throughout Denver
The Lowdown: Dayna Safferstein, a Denver-based designer, illustrator and animator, created a Happy City bicycle wrap for the B-Cycle bike share program. Since biking is a workout and working out releases endorphins and endorphins make us happy — this pairing of art and exercise should bring a smile to some Denver faces. Enjoy the specially-designed wrap for the next year, even after the city-wide art interventions are over.
Ear to Ear: Beyond the Smile
When: May 18, 2018
Where: Available online, here
The Lowdown: This one-print publication dives into the different perspectives of the elusive concept of happiness, from a variety of local and national contributors. With personal stories, figurative works and research, the viewpoints range from scientific to poetic. Ear to Ear is made for everyone, no exceptions. The release date is the first technical day of Happy City, making it an unofficial “guide” to experiencing the next six weeks. It also provides an insightful look at the definition of happiness — how it fluctuates, changes and vastly differs from person to person.
When: May 22 & 24, 2018, 6:30 – 8 p.m.
Where: Museo de las Americas and Union Station, respectively
The Lowdown: With the help of special (and qualified) guests, these two discussion periods will look into the intersection of art, mental wellness and civic participation. Open to the public, these discussion panels offer citizens an opportunity to hash out questions regarding happiness while learning about how their surroundings intimately impact their pursuit of that state-of-being. Author of the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery and Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas will lead the casual talks.
When: May 23, 2018, 6:30 – 8 p.m.
Where: Lewis Sharp Auditorium, Denver Art Museum
The Lowdown: Go more in-depth with Montgomery and Simon-Thomas, with the help of the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) young philanthropist group, CultureHaus. For one night only, the two speakers will explore the main thesis of Happy City — can a city be happy? Can people living in a city be happy? And if cities don’t necessarily foster the right avenues for happiness, how can we change that to maximize our well-being? This panel discussion will lean more on the scientific side of happiness than the artsy one and it’s free and open to the public.
And, a bonus installation:
7000 Reasons Portrait Project Pop-Up
When: May 11 – July, 2018
Where: Hotel Lobby of Maven in the Dairy Block
The Lowdown: Local artists Jonathan Saiz and Wes Magyar have been instilling happiness one portrait at a time since the beginning of 2018, out of a little studio in RiNo. The duo decided to drop their more “serious” careers for a few months in order to work full-time painting custom oil portraits that only cost $143 each. The project is called 7000 Reasons, and their intentions vibe appropriately with the goals of Happy City — that is, cheering people up with art. Working together on every single portrait, the two artists combine their very different styles into an eye-popping, brightly colored, goofy rendition of a subject — whether that subject is a human, a dog, or just someone’s favorite plant or toy. Because their project coincided with Happy City, local art curators NINE dot ARTS offered 7000 Reasons their own pop-up space in the lobby of Maven at Dairy Block for the duration of the city-wide intervention.
All photos courtesy of Denver Theatre District unless otherwise noted.
Happy City is the third installment of the Terra Firma series by DTD and will be artistically directed by Black Cube (a nomadic art gallery). Other important funding partners include Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Community First Foundation, Denver Arts & Venues, Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, Downtown Denver Partnership, McWHINNEY, P.S. You Are Here, Sage Hospitality and VISIT DENVER.