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Stuart Semple’s HappyCloud floats through Milan in 2009. Photo courtesy of Stuart Semple

Denver Gets a Happiness Intervention

For the next six weeks, 11 artists from Colorado and beyond will present work across Denver to explore how the city’s design can influence feelings of well-being.

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The complaints are familiar: Headlines are dreary. Commutes are long. No one looks up from their smartphone anymore. But for the next six weeks, the Denver Theatre District will tackle the “meh” feeling created by those grievances in an offbeat way—with a series of interactive art exhibits across 16 downtown blocks.

David Ehrlich, Denver Theatre District’s executive director, told 5280 that “Happy City: Art for the People” is about breaking down barriers between Denver residents. Under the direction of nomadic art museum Black Cube, 11 artists from Colorado and beyond present work exploring mental health through an artistic lens.

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Smiley-shaped clusters of soap bubbles floating around LoDo and site-specific sculptures emerging from oft-ignored alleyways are designed to get attention. “A lot of the art is cool and happy, which invites people in,” Ehrlich says. “But ideally there’s also a dialogue about change.”

Perhaps the best conversation starter is “Emotional Baggage Drop (hello stranger),” an installation by Stuart Semple located in Union Station’s Great Hall. It opened on May 18, the happiness intervention’s kick-off. On the outside, “Emotional Baggage Drop” is just a black box with two doors. On the inside, it’s a vulnerability workshop.

It works like this: You walk through one door and sit down. There’s a wall dividing the box in half. Behind the wall sits a stranger, who asks you to share an emotional burden you’ve been carrying. After listening to your story, the stranger says “I have heard you, your baggage has been checked.” The stranger then leaves, and it’s your turn to listen to someone’s burden.

The box inspires conversation both inside and outside its boundaries. Looking at your smartphone while in line feels inappropriate. Instead, people talk to one another, often about how nervous they are to share. Analyzing the barriers between yourself and vulnerability is its own kind of intimacy. Most exit the box looking relieved. Tiana Medina, a psychology and art student at Metro, said it felt good to be heard and validated. “I dropped what I needed to say, and then I got to listen to someone else,” she said.

A mental health professional stands watch in case anyone becomes upset in the box and will be on hand whenever the “Emotional Baggage Drop” is open May 18 through June 10.

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Studies show a connection between social isolation and depression; pieces like “Emotional Baggage Claim” try to break through that isolation. Cortney Stell, executive director of Black Cube, said she chose artists for “Happy City” who reflect similar mental health concepts in their work. “Mental health is something to care for and pay attention to,” she says. “We’re having that conversation through an experimental, creative lens.”

Because the art show starts during May, Mental Health Awareness Month, its goal has always been about more than what Ehrlich calls “a momentary, ephemeral state of happiness.” Instead, he’s hoping participants will think about how the city infrastructure impacts their mental health. “Denver has seen insane growth over last five, 10 years,” he says. “Growth is not entirely bad, but those changes are causing an enormous amount of anxiety in this town.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that the art installation shares a name with a 2013 book encouraging infrastructure that considers happiness. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design was written by Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery, who helps city planners use psychology and neuroscience to design urban areas that promote well-being. He’s known for performing informal experiments to learn more about how people react to certain spaces. “Love Night,” for example, was an event held at New York’s BMW Guggenheim Lab that used soft lighting, projected images of public affection, and more (not to mention encouraged hugging) to build trust between strangers. Though he admits it’s not exactly peer-journal reviewable stuff, Montgomery said participants seemed to develop more empathy as the night went on.

Montgomery will be on hand during Denver’s six weeks of happiness intervention, observing how we react to certain design elements and atmospheres. Whether it’s the emotional baggage drop or another piece of art, we’re more than happy to be his guinea pigs.

If you go: “Happy City: Art for the People” will feature various events and exhibitions throughout the next six weeks. Find a full schedule of events at happycitydenver.com

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