The dubious pursuit of happiness in the time of late capitalism

Canadian artist Sara Cwynar speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about her ongoing exhibition at Blitz in Valletta, The Good Life, which turns a critical eye on ingrained notions about what constitutes and drives our contemporary conception of happiness

Sara Cwynar • Photo by Aubrey Mayer
Sara Cwynar • Photo by Aubrey Mayer

How does your former experience and work inform ‘The Good Life’?

I have a background as a graphic designer, working for magazines including the New York Times Magazine. I spent a lot of time there thinking about what kind of fantasies these big cultural products are selling, how images get re-interpreted and morphed and used once they enter the world, how they fit into our fantasies or preconceptions, and how we use them to imagine that we are working toward something, to maintain a sort of fantasy that makes working under capitalism worth it. In my own experience working crazy New York advertising and design jobs I began to really question these ideals, and the sort of life that is promised to us if we just work hard enough, which is a life that doesn’t actually manifest for a lot of people in the way it’s promised. I also learned first-hand how these aspirational ideals are communicated to us through images.

The title of the exhibition is certainly loaded and open to multiple interpretations. But perhaps most urgent and interesting would be the topical dimension of it; the idea that ‘this is how we live now’ or at least, ‘this is the way we aspire to live now’. How do you think your work grapples with this consideration, and are there any conclusions you can come to after you’ve explored this?

I was trying to get at what constitutes the idea of a good life, particularly in an American context (where I live). And as I mentioned before, how images and popular culture contribute to an ideal of what a good life is, that is in many ways unattainable for most. But as one of my favorite theorists, Lauren Berlant, points out in her book, Cruel Optimism, the idea of the good life is generative, it keeps us thrown into the world, it provides a source of desire and something to work towards or look forward to, so we need it, even if it holds us back and exhausts us, overworks us, wears us down. She is speaking specifically about the way that people work and work under capitalism toward something that may not really be within reach.

In my own work, I am trying to engage with this in several ways, for example, in my film Rose Gold, I think about how the rose gold iPhone is really just the same thing we already own but in a different colour, and how it gets sold to us as something new, and we often like this shift because we need to keep wanting things and it feels good to keep wanting things, but it also holds us back because it means working and working to acquire objects that don’t necessarily have the transformative potential they promise. The film is about desire in many forms, for people and for objects, and about the way we aspire to a good life through objects and images. It’s also about wanting something you know may be bad for you.

Magenta Rose, Pink Rose by Sara Cwynar
Magenta Rose, Pink Rose by Sara Cwynar

In my still photography I deal with these ideas too, for example, I look a lot at the kind of tropes of photography that sell us an idea of how we are supposed to live, and I rework and manipulate these pictures to try and reveal the politics behind them. By tropes I mean for example, the architectural still life which tells us which history we are supposed to find important, or a commercial still life which tells us what to buy, a studio portrait of a woman as described by patriarchy and capitalism, or an idealised nature photograph which may not be as “natural” as it seems.

The popularity and instantaneousness of social media is often held up as a bugbear against depth and considered meaning, particularly where the more supposedly ‘elevated’ forms of art – such as conceptual and fine art, literature, certain kinds of music – are concerned. How do you feel about this, and would you say your work engages with this dynamic in a significant way?

I think that I am trying to grasp something of the overwhelming amount of choice we have now and the overwhelming number of things there are to look at. Thinking about the crazy way the image world feels now was a big impetus for me to start making video work. I really wanted to be able to translate the feeling of being so overwhelmed by choices that may not really be choices (for example, whether to buy the pink or black iPhone is not a real choice, nor is choosing whether to look at Kylie versus Kendall Jenner). The films have a sort of rapid pace of endless consumer choice or endless things to look at, as if they have a hypothetical viewer in mind who can only pay attention to something for half a second before they need a new thing.

Which is often how it feels to be in the world of social media. But I think there is a lot to be done with social media too, for example, I have been trying to make more considered videos for Instagram and use it as a platform for art making. Although it has many many problems, I still love the democracy of this platform and I like thinking about how it is increasingly shaping the way we see – in short clips or individual images, squares, with subtitles, and so on, we are becoming used to looking at things through this.

SC Avon Presidential Bust (Lincoln, Gold), (Washington, Gold) and (Lincoln, Gold), Tracy
SC Avon Presidential Bust (Lincoln, Gold), (Washington, Gold) and (Lincoln, Gold), Tracy

How do you feel like exhibiting in a venue like Blitz in Valletta, and how do you think your work resonates with the dynamics of a place like Malta?

I loved exhibiting in Malta. I was so excited about Malta’s particular mash-up of different time periods and influences, I felt this had a big kinship to my work. I was really excited about the proximity of my show to the co-cathedral of Saint John, for example. The baroque is a period I’ve been thinking a lot about lately (particularly in the piece in the show called A Rococo Base) as a period that closely mirrors our own time in its excess, in the way everything was covered in detail and everything was completely visually saturated. It also mirrors our own time in that all the wealth was really concentrated at the top politically (in the Gilded Age) so they too had a 1% like we do in America, and a very huge wealth disparity.

What’s next for you?

I am working on an exhibition in February at the Approach, in London, and I am currently working on a project at MoMA working through their collection to make new video works (which are actually being posted on Instagram!). The works are thinking about what MoMA’s collection tells us about how we see ourselves and our history in ways that are often skewed or idealised (which also connects to good life fantasies). It is a sort of revisiting of John Berger’s 1972 piece Ways of Seeing, which looked at the role of art objects in perpetuating certain ideologies, and also the way they get taken up and used by capitalism in order to sell things.

The Good Life will be on display at Blitz, St Lucy Street, Valletta until 20 September