Bring the Happy, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

As Oscar Levant famously said, “happiness is not something you experience, it’s something you remember”. This way of viewing happiness is particularly pertinent to Invisible Flock’s latest project, an undertaking to map the happiness of an entire city. Setting up a hub at the centre of Leeds, for a period of two months this group of artists collected happy memories from local people, recording them and plotting them onto a 3D map. What emerges is as much sadness as happiness.

The performance that Invisible Flock and accompanying band Hope and Social have created from this vast compendium of memories, however, is about as joyous as theatre gets. Memories, from the mundane to the sublime to the ridiculous, are recited by the performers and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, backed by alternately raucous and contemplative music. There are odes to the hundreds of babies born in local hospitals and to the chemically enhanced euphoria of going out and getting wasted. We wave glowsticks and sparklers and are invited to waltz with strangers.

Despite this encouraged silliness and unapologetic delight, more serious threads are plucked through the fabric of contemporary happiness. There is something inherently poignant about happy memories; the very fact that they are memories indicates that those moments must be in the past and in some sense lost. For this reason, the happiest of recollections on the map are often born from the most moving of circumstances. There is also an intensely personal quality to Invisible Flock’s creation. While being specific to the city of Leeds – a city I have never visited – the piece has the gentle power to summon memories of the places that hold happy memories for you wherever you might come from, providing a delicate diversion via reminiscence.

Unsurprisingly, however, not everyone embraced the idea in the same way as the audience at St Stephen’s. The question that Invisible Flock were most frequently asked by irritated passersby was simply “why?” Why spend time doing something so twee, so ridiculous and so seemingly without a purpose? Why sugar-coat a city rather than address its problems? Why – the most aggressive complaint – is this being funded? In the time since Invisible Flock began this project, their reasons have been vindicated, though possibly not in the way they would have hoped for, by the government’s concern with happiness in modern Britain. Unlike David Cameron’s falsely smiling initiative, however, there is something profoundly heartfelt about what Invisible Flock are doing.

It is also easier than it might initially seem to conjure valuable reasons for this project. As much as it is, on the surface, about happiness, asking questions about what makes people happy also seems to inevitably reveal what makes them unhappy, uncovering more truths about modern society than might be imagined. The project presents a way of understanding how we live today and how we lived yesterday – a living document of a city.

And, of course, there is the simple but not to be underestimated joy that Invisible Flock’s resulting creation is capable of engendering. Leaving with a smile like a stain that can’t be scrubbed off my face, it’s difficult to demand any better reason than that.

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