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The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine

(Interactive Kinetic Installation, Milton Keynes, 2018) neoliberal texts, carbon fibre, plastic, steel, chain and gears, wood.

 

This is a piece about the individual’s relationship to global consumer capitalism.

The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine was realised in 2018 in Milton Keynes Library, and supported by Arts Council England. (More about the piece itself below.)

There was a sold-out event in association with the piece, in which I spoke about consumer capitalism and Dr. Jason Hickel spoke about economic degrowth. You can watch this event in its entirety below, or you can hear me talk about the piece specifically at 4m 44s.

 

I conceived of this piece initially in 2017 and prototyped a small version of it as part of my Dark Games at ArtOmi in NY. I then received an Arts Council England grant to develop it into a fully-realized interactive installation.

 

The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine is a metaphor for the individual’s relationship to, and participation within, global consumer capitalism.

 

Participants are seduced by the artist into turning the crank because they are charmed by the motion of the pleasing objects – a desire is gratified. Similarly we feel good when we buy or consume.

 

At the same time the participant is unknowingly part of something more sinister – a wider machine they are animating. Taking a closer look, the books from which these pretty things are constructed are ideological texts whose ideas underpin our current economic system of extreme free market capitalism – commonly referred to as neoliberal economics (they are mostly Ayn Rand books – seductive manifestos for individualism bordering on sociopathy.)

 

I’m fascinated by the tacit consent we give to our subconscious being manipulated by advertising and PR, shaping us into compliant consumers. In essence, the artist is tricking the participant to take part in a consensual colonization of their subconscious.

The piece explores our role – particularly the grey area of consent – as consumers.

 

There is something creepily Randian about the self-motivation of the crank, whilst there are also resonances with Marxist ideas about productivity and surplus labour.

 

I was triggered by Adam Curtis to think about the moment around the ‘20s where a deliberate and cynical decision was made to use the ideas of Freud to manipulate us into subconsciously attaching desires to objects we didn’t need, in order to create a consumer-driven economy.

 

The title comes from a speech by President Hoover in 1928 to a group men from the very new advertising and PR industry: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

 

Paul Mazur, Lehman Brothers (bank), 1927: “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America – man’s desires must overshadow his needs”

 

Freud’s Nephew, Edward Bernays, coined the term ‘Public Relations’: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. (And) Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was try to find some other words so we found the words ‘Counsel on Public Relations’”.

 

With thanks to Clive Doherty, Ellie Stout, Michelle Herriman, Dr. Jason Hickel, Rosemary Hill, Ewan Hutcheson, Kevin McConway, and Adam Curtis.