On Our Way to Happiness

The search for happiness has become our number one job, the activity we can never escape. Happiness is no longer a feeling, an emotion, but a must. Happiness was transformed into a myth, a sort of modern Valhalla, to which one only has access if one lives one’s life right, the land of all promises.

There are maps to happiness, checklists, instructions, steps to follow, annual charts with the happiest countries, self-help books, happy pills, therapy, online love, McDonald’s even has a Happy Meal, and Deichman is always there to take care of your happy feet, and yet, a part of the world is starving, for another, the infernal and terrifying noise of the falling bombs just became the soundtrack, a few are still under tyrannic dictatorial regimes, some are slaves on their own lands, and what remains of the world, the “happy ones”, the ones who eat happy meals, drive happy cars, live in happy houses, watch happy films, read happy books, work happy hours, take happy pills are depressed. Depression is the disease of our century, and it is so because depression is convenient for the current power owners.

Sugar, spice and everything nice! A bit of romantic, monogamic, heterosexual (if and when possible white) love, stability, safety, dreams, hobbies, family, freedom, a few years of hard work, and that’s the recipe of a perfectly baked and tasty slice of happiness.

But we forget that, as a quote from The Beach (2000, Danny Boyle), bases on a book by Alex Garland, says, Heaven is not a place, but a moment, and so happiness is not a state of being but a second, in a whirl of other constantly changing feelings, emotions and experiences which weave one’s existence. We were not born to be happy, we were born to live. Happiness became a required life condition when it started making money.

We search for happiness in commercial merchandise, we attach happiness to objects as if a lifeless thing could come with a feeling as if a feeling could be universal and invariable. We search for love online, in sex shops, on dark shady alleys, as if sex would be the exact synonym for love, and the other way round, because friendship is not good enough (or commercial enough), and physical intimacy is the highest form of intimacy. We search for freedom in Lana Del Rey’s songs, as if being absolutely free would be riding in an expensive car and living the American dream. As if all of our dreams could be bought with money, as if a paper bill would be the ticket for our ride back to our souls, and fear, exhaustion, alienation would only be the tests set up, for use to prove that we deserve to be happy. But there’s a petty trick to it, they never end, which only means we are always failing.

It is time to be happy, not because we earned it, but because happiness is a simple and deep emotion, as is fear, as is sadness, as is hope and it is in the human nature to feel it, to lose it, to desire it, to feel it again and lose it again. It is the time to stop buying and start feeling, it is time to stop pretending, and start loving. It is time to stop mistaking obsession with need. It is time for us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to understand fear as an emotion and fight it, to accept beauty, without looking for the stereotypes and patterns. It is time to allow ourselves to make mistakes, to fail, to fall, to cry and to scream, to be tired and to rest. But there are mistakes which are not allowed to continue, which should not have ever been allowed to exist: the wars, the famine, the exploitation, the inequalities and inequities, the racism, the homophobia. The Western world is so eager to get to happiness that on its way annihilated everyone else’s chances of being happy.

We need to accept that happiness is not universal and invariable, that as many individuals there are, as many different kinds of happiness. That what makes you happy, might not make me happy as well, That one might love and be loved without being happy, that another might be happy without having a family, that happiness comes in different forms and shapes, and that freedom, more than happiness is a right and should be a necessity. And we need to understand that our feelings are our own and that we are or we should be in charge of our emotions, not society, not some happy pills, or some happy meals.

P-p-p-precarity and the Art of Uncertainty

We are walking on trembling ground, our whole world turned into an endless compound of quicksands. Our lives from the beginning to the inevitable end are under the mantra of instability. The only constant is inconsistency, the only given is precarity, the only certainty is uncertainty. We’re mobile, we’re flexible, we have the elasticity and skills of a saltimbanco, of a trapeze artist with no safety net, who never comes down. The most practised skill of the contemporary worker is maintaining his/her equilibrium on a continuously turning ball.

In spite of all the pseudo-spiritual ideas that we preach as the utopic state of happiness and freedom combined in a perfect harmony, of  the idea of a burning and soul-uplifting love, which defies everything and anything, the reality check that we have to make in the morning when opening the fridge in search of the bottle of milk, is reminding us that in the end, it all comes down to money, in the most trivial and instinctual way: no money, no food. So we put aside our fanciful ideals and go out into the world to make the money needed for the fridge to be reasonably full and the rent to be paid for the next month so that we don’t end up sleeping under a bridge or in a cardboard box, as those social pariahs, who failed so miserably to juggle with the “good life”. But the world has changed and is constantly changing, in a succession of economic paradigms since the Middle Ages. Agriculture made place for industry and modernity, which stepped back to leave the place open for postmodernity and its process of informatization. So nowadays we don’t work with the soil anymore, not with the machines, but with people. Smiles recommend good workers, it’s the tertiary production that is most valued.  This of course on the privileged side of the globe, the rest can still bury their arms up to the elbow in the dirt as long as they provide cheap labor, and can be constantly blamed for wars and other sins, like invading the western world and stealing the jobs from under the nose of the white, entitled individual, who would not have lowered himself to do those jobs in the first place. But so it is, one only notices something and starts missing it, when that something is taken by someone else, isn’t that one of the first lessons love teaches us? You only love her, when you let her go.

The fact is, that immigrants come to America or Europe not out of a caprice but because they were driven away from their own homes, and they come in search of a better life, of the stability and safety they were missing in their own countries. The problem is that not even the western world can provide the stability and certainty of the next day so desperately desired, and it cannot because a worried and busy human constantly trying to ensure a good life, has already too much on his/her plate to notice the global issues. Rosalind Gill’s article on the practice of freelancing specific to the area of new medias, as a counterpoint for hours spent between the four walls of skyscraper’s office, highlights that even such a new and open environment cannot escape the defects of race or gender discrimination. And while she makes sure to emphasise the fact that only 3 out of all the freelancer interviewees from Amsterdam noticed that new media is mostly an area for white people, not even the white, middle class, male freelancer’s situation isn’t as bright as it is made to be in the adverts.

Work has been taken out of the factories and offices and sheltered in the private space of one’s home, where working hours cannot be measured because what one’s doing in one’s home is a private matter, isn’t it? But payment must be made somehow, and it is, by project, which by no means offers the security of a monthly wage. Work is no longer a way to live, but a way of living. Zero hour contracts, the frightening possibility of not finding enough projects to make enough money to cover the rent and student loans, part-time poorly paid student jobs, never ending work hours are the price one has to pay for flexibility, mobility, creativity.

Doing what you like does not even feel like a job, agree, but it should be paid like one, and it should provide the facilities that a full contract offers. Too much work to have time for having children, for having a relationship, to exercise, to eat healthy, to have enough hours of sleep, to read inspiring books, about how to live a perfect life, and all this could still be fine, if the image of a perfect life would not have been imprinted on our brains, which only transforms us into stressed, tired, depressed, anxious and frightened puppets searching for the Holy Graal of the contemporary world, stability and safety, which seem to be only a myth.

Of Power and Other Demons

The whole world revolves around the concept of power, of what it means to be in charge, to be the ruler, to have power over others. There are always a few who want to rule and more who are more than willing to follow. The human being has an incredible capacity to fool itself, to falsely ennoble oneself with the thought that freedom is the ultimate state that one desires. When asked what one wants from one’s life, the answer is usually “I just want to be happy”, followed by “I just want to be free”, but these two states can barely coexist with one another at the same time if we do not consider freedom as just not being incarcerated in a cell or suffocated by debts.

Happiness is much regarded as safety and the certainty of a settled future, in our contemporary society when safety and stability are such precarious concepts, while freedom is anything but stability and safety, the only constant of freedom, is freedom itself. With freedom comes not only the liberation of all constraints, but the whole crushing responsibility of one’s well-being, of one’s happiness, of one’s actions, and it is, isn’t it in the human nature to find scapegoats for almost anything that goes wrong. So we settle with different forms of power and allow them to be the frame within which we lead our existences. As Dostoevski’s Great Inquisitor from The Karamazov Brothers so majestically described, man is only free as long as there is no one to offer him food, once he senses the smell of food, he is willing to give up in the blink of an eye his freedom in exchange for the commodity of not having to hunt for himself, in exchange for safety. And by giving up his freedom, he not only receives in return the assurance of tomorrow’s meal but also the possibility of having someone or something to blame, other than himself, if there is no food on the table the next day.

 

We step consciously and by free will in the cells of a metaphorical Panopticon, and swallow the stereotypes, the injustice, the lies, the unnecessary infamies because the cell is almost comfy. Not enough, to actually feel comfortable, but enough to, just like the Orwellian character, survive. Orwell’s 1984 would contour the perfect panoptical society if the constant following would not have been true, but as proven by the main’s character’s fate, no one could escape from the glance of the Big Brother. Our society, on the other hand, is another kind of reenactment of the Panopticon. We are not followed by any more or any less than our own expectations of a good life, and the fear of not obtaining it, or of losing it. We settle with gender stereotypes, with jobs that we hate, with dreadful companies, with ideas that are not our own, with compromises that wound our souls, that undermine our intellect, that discredit ourselves as humans, we run in circles with no direction whatsoever like beheaded chickens over things, situation, statutes that would most likely not satisfy us, but that would grant us the title of a complete, happy and respectable individual in the common conscience. We accept. We blame ourselves and are made to blame ourselves for every little mistake that jeopardises the fulfilment of the American dream, but we close our eyes in oblivion when it comes to the fact that half of the world if stuck in a Kafkaesque reality, while the other half is confronted with the most horrid nightmares. We take our insignificant share of goods, thrown to us by the 1% of the population who hold and manage most of the world’s riches and totally ignore the unjust power and wealth balance. We channel our fear into over mediatised figures or concepts, like terrorists and crimes, and we are happy that the war is on the other side of the globe. But who are the terrorist for the victims in Siria? Who are the oppressors of the children dying in the coltan mines? Who are the tyrants who value money more than the people’s lives in the Foxconn factories? We are.

We don’t want to take the blame, the crushing guilt, so we leave power in the same murderous hands, and we fall once again into the trap of electing the same kind of individual, of supporting the same kind of company, of blaming ourselves for our failures instead of blaming the society, and we blame the system for the downward path the world has taken, indifferent to the fact that we permitted the creation of a system which thrives from the destruction of our world.

Short story about fear

‘Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffused, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen. ‘Fear’ is the name we give to our uncertainty: to our ignorance of the threat and what is to be done to stop it in its tracks’ . (Zygmunt Bauman)

 

Modern life, modern love, modern fears and modern liquidity, the concept that binds all of them together, and which defines through, the characteristics of a liquid substance, the core of the nowadays world: mobility, their particles are not fixed and rigid and can move freely past each other, lack of shape, and the power to erode. Old institutions turned into new ones, old concepts were exchanged for new values, old forms of power reinvented themselves and became the power of constant fear. It was shown throughout history that with fear comes caution and obedience, but fear always had a form, be it Gods, a tyrannic dictator, or a horde of possible invaders. It had a face or a name. But today it’s the feeling itself that cripples the human kind and is embedded in the functioning mechanism of a capitalist and globalised society. The constant fear, the constant feeling that something’s always there, waiting to happen, and not in the dark, but in the broad daylight.

The Western world is continually haunted by the fears of those living the nightmare on the other side of the globe. The western fear has no tangible object. Of course, governments give us terrorists, new diseases or maybe a meteorite that might hit the Earth at some point, but a new president or prime minister will surely save us from that too. If it’s not Al Quida, then it’s Isis, if it’s not Isis then it just might be Goldstein, any name is a good enough reason for war. Because war isn’t it, became, just as George Orwell predicted in his political novel, 1984, not a way of conquering new territories or protecting the borders, but the most profitable and prompt ally of power. The war in Vietnam, Iraq or Afganistan was not for territory, the war in Siria is not to maintain our borders safe, is to maintain the western power over the western world, and the ones who rule over the western world, rule over the whole world. If there’s a war then there’s a reason for our most beloved governments to keep us safe, to assure us a propitious ground for us to attain and live a good life, and it also gives something to distract us from the true great fear of the 21st century, The Fear of Failure, and from the rotten inside of the juicy red apple that the western society is so eager to hide. The only thing that is asked of the western individual is to live a good life, in a world that provides everything that is needed for living a good life… or does it? So, if our life is not good enough, doesn’t fit the standards, is our own fault, we failed.

It’s the pressure of the good life that suffocates the western world, just like hunger and war destroy its counterpart. War might never get to us, but it’s the war within ourselves that erode our souls. The war between what is expected, of what we have been taught to expect from ourselves and our futures: a degree, a job, a career, a house with a beautiful garden, a lovely family, a fairytale love story, happiness, and what we really want. If you don’t get a degree, you’re not smart enough, and why aren’t you smart enough when society had provided you such a great education? If you have a degree, but no job, then it’s your own fault for not being able to harness the seeds that society gave you in the form of your diploma. If you have a job, but no friends, is your own inability of bonding with people, as your company surely organised at least twice a year some sort of team building activity. And if you have no friends how would you expect to have a lover, but if you have friends, then how comes you don’t have a partner when all you’re friends are getting married or waiting for their firstborn? Yes, something is wrong with you, but don’t worry there is therapy for that, and online dating, and ordering a bride over the mail, so even though you don’t meet the standards, society still comes to your rescue. If you have a job, and a partner and no house, then the moment to make a huge loan to buy one, was yesterday. If you have all of these and still are unhappy, then you’re depressed so take a pill, or two. And if you have all of these, then you’re terrified at the thought of losing them because they are all you’ve dreamed all your life, and you can’t live your dream, because just one tiny mistake might cost you your job, and with no job, you won’t be able to pay the house mortgage. Of course, mistakes are human, you’re allowed to make them, that’s what all the media says, what it doesn’t say is that you are allowed to make them, but in another life maybe. But what if the mistake that might ruin your good life is not even yours but your partner’s or your boss’? Oh, the worries never end, the fear is just increasing with every single thing you add to improve your life, and this fear is the fear of the unknown, of failure, of everything and of nothing, is the curse of cruel optimism.

The world is full of lovers. We don’t need anymore

“Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

You know that film… Revolutionary Road, with the unhappy American white, blonde couple, living the American dream, the good life, big house, beautiful garden, happy energetic children, corporatist husband getting a promotion? Nothing could go wrong, but then it does. The American dream not realised, but almost. All goes terribly wrong. Well, that’s what would have happened if Jack would not have died on the Titanic, but luckily he did, and then Rose had a nice romantic love story to tell. Marriage, house with a garden, kids, Lassy, grandkids, a few romantic trips to Paris, or Venice or Verona, they’re quite near to each other anyway, and actually who exactly cares? Both Italian cities starting with a V; a few sunsets on the beach and the annual kiss under the mistletoe, oh, love!

There’s nothing more beautiful than young love, isn’t it? Prince Charming arriving in his blue chevy nova, the young, innocent, Marylin Monroe wannabe, with her blonde wavy hair, red lips, and white dress sneaking out in the middle of the night. His dark eyes, her mysterious shy smile just in the corner of her lips, such a wonderful life awaits them. A great love never grows old, not even when there’s a pile of laundry above it, a house mortgage, dirty dishes, and an unemployed partner, a kid to be supported through college, old ill parents, no, love never dies, and guess what saves it? Yes, that cheesy Valentine dinner, and that pink heart-shaped Valentine card with a random quote about love “I love my life because it gave me you, and I love you because you are my life” – or something like that.

What would one do without the little love gifts? How would love survive when confronted with the ordinary little miseries of life? But does love make life better, or it just piles, even more, insecurity, fear and in the end misery on top of the house mortgage, student loans, stress and just daily worries?

I might sound like a cynic, but don’t worry, even cynics get struck by love at some point, sooner or later, because nobody can escape it. No one can escape the attraction, the desire, the crave, the lust, the disappointment, the suffering, the insecurity, and jealousy, the fear, because love is as Eva Illouz describes it her article Why We Don’t Celebrate Friendship With the Same Fervor as Lovedemocratic – good and bad people can feel it (almost everyone has felt love in their lives). And it’s the non-discriminatory feature of love that makes it universal, and its inevitability that makes it profitable, makes it commercial. Our whole lives are polarised around the notion of love. I need to get a degree, have a good job, find a man, fall in love, marry, have kids and be happy. Our whole world revolves around the things, situations, people that we want and hope to have in our lives, and once we have it (whatever that it might be), we are too afraid of letting it go even if it harms us, it suffocates us, it makes us deny our own freedom, our own soul.

And here my photographs come into the picture. Taken 3 years ago in the Little Paris, as Bucharest was called before the communist era, I considered them perfectly fitted to represent the cruelty of optimism, the cruelty of love, by the juxtaposition of the word love (followed by a whole palette of meaning) with something as trivial as a garbage bin. It is almost ironical how Paris is the city of love, and then Bucharest, its smaller sibling, after a “short” encounter with communism, and of course with its family values and abortion banning, decided to throw love into the garbage bin. And the second one… is just the outcome of a love that ended differently than how it was supposed to end. It’s the American dream gone wrong, the Prince Charming who went to work, had an affair with the secretary, the unhappy Marylin Monroe trapped in a dreadful marriage, but too comfortable, and too afraid to leave. It’s the norms, the rules, the “you must”-s and “you have”-s in a relationship failing, the Valentines cards and fancy dinners that won’t play their magic anymore. It’s the optimism of a happy ending, of the dream of the good life, meeting reality, it’s the ugly side of love. And this ugly side of love only appears when love is made the highest expectation, and not love in general but a certain kind of love, the monogamous, heterosexual, based on a sexual relationship kind of love. We idealise love so much, and at the same time advertise it so much, that it became one of the most common and trivial feelings. It is a must, but then it is an ideal too. The perfect lover, the soulmate, the other half is hard to fine, but then, why are you single? You should never let the loved one go, you should fight for it, but then, that loved one might at some point be the exact reason that you’re suffering. Love has been turned into a paradox and the “love” and the garbage bin is the image of this ironically and sad charade.

A colourful mess (or about intimacy)

Intimacy. My space, your space. Private life, intimate relationships, secrets, comfort, security, alone time. Our lives are a constant negotiation between public and private, between intimacy and exposure. We all cry for our time, our space, our love, our intimacy, while still craving for attention, for someone, preferably more than someone to see and “like” our love, our space, our time, our clothes and friends, and that’s probably how the “cult” of food photos took over instagram.. Like little drama queens we wish to be seen, to be complimented, to be in the centre of attention. We masterfully manufacture our own image and then spread it on the internet in “no filter”, “no make-up”, “I woke up like this” photos, making it seem as we would live a wonderful life, the life that everybody desires to live, that is commercialised every day and with every possible means. It is the no-stress, heartbreak-free, stable and happy good life that we continuously try to highlight through our posts on social media. If we don’t have it, we can at least stage it. One only sees smiling faces in photos, people having fun, perfect make-up, tasty meals, hotel rooms and views taken out of dreams or artsy films, tickets to concerts or incredible gifts we just received for our birthdays. Some might be genuine, but most are not. Some might actually interest someone, maybe family, maybe some close friends, but most people don’t actually care what anybody else just had for lunch. And this is not because we are not interested in others’ intimacy, in others’ lives and personal spaces. Actually, if you ask me, voyeurism is a human feature. That’s why we go to films, that’s why we read others’ texts, diaries, and “overhear” conversations. It’s a guilty little pleasure. Knowing something that we are not supposed to know, seeing something that it is not for our eyes, hearing something which was whispered for someone else’s heart, violating others’ intimacy, while sheltering our own. It’s a “Dogville” kind of situation, we would wish for transparent walls, for the power of reading minds, but only for us, not for others as well. We would wish to be the witness of Dogville, not the actor. And most probably, once we would have those “powers”, we would get bored. This is exactly what happens when intimacy is willingly shared via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or other social platforms.

No one cares about your “private” shared life, the only one that matters is the hidden one, even though that “hidden” life is pretty much the same as everyone else’s. And this is exactly what I tried to capture in my first photographic project.

What I did in this photographic series was gathering small bits of my living environment. A series of personal mythologies, of small and unimportant things and aspects of my private life, which, as small ants building a complex anthill, are tiny bits and pieces that describe me as an individual. The way from my closet with all its skeletons, to my undone bed, the remains of a finished meal, my ugly little imaginary friends and the accessories used to shape my “outside” look,  all of these actually may have little to no appeal to anybody, not even to myself, because it is already something that I know so well, and this “I know them so well, that I don’t even bother to observe them anymore, just like the back of my hand” is what might just make them all the more intimate.

It does not feel like good life, even though it actually is: a room, a bed, food, clean clothes; it does not look beautiful., or better say flamboyant, bohemian or luxurious as the photos on Instagram usually look because these photographs were not taken with the purpose of gaining likes. It is mostly a pile of different random things, colourful things, but nothing more. Without the desire to stage “the good life”, these photos are just a colourful mess.

It’s something so personal, but at the same time so trivial, so random, so unimportant. This is so far from the intimacy we actually want to know in others, even though it is the exact thing I won’t normally make public on social media. We do not want filters, make-up, costumes, prefabricated backgrounds, we reject all mediated intimacies, searching for the raw one, searching for the “real” which in a Lacanian view has been lost forever once we started conforming to the unspoken rules of life. But when we do get close to someone else’s intimacy (if we exclude the reading of somebody else’s romantic texts, which is always “a feast”, thanks to all the commercial love we’re intoxicated with), we understand why no one actually shares “unmediated intimacy”. Because it’s common, it’s simple.

Following from the previous paragraph, I actually find the expression “unmediated intimacy” problematic in relation to my photographs and with any photograph, even with photographs which’s main purpose is to document. They are intimate, but certainly not unmediated, in the most literal sense of the word. The simple fact that the images are photographs (actually the simple fact that those are images and not the actual view) taken by me, from a certain angle, at a certain moment, and only of a certain conglomerate of different things is enough to challenge the “unmediated” statute of the series, but at the same time, the exact same factors, reinforce this statute, by showing something just as intimate as the things lying around in my room,  my own very personal view on my own “natural habitat”.