I hate balloons. I do. Okay, maybe hate is too strong a word to use here. But balloons make me uneasy. I hate the sound they make when they burst and I hate the fact that people think it’s okay to burst them with a pin just to make us jump. So, I don’t like them. I won’t like them. No matter how much you decorate my memory of the childhood birthday parties, or how during festivals and fairs we would queue up to buy one big enough to play catch with, or even if you twist and turn and manipulate it to make it into little deformed kittens and elephants.
But what I do like are projects. When people take it upon themselves to do something which is in plain view of us but just collate and collaborate to make it into something tremendously beautiful.
For example, Jonathan Harris and his ‘Balloons of Bhutan’ Project. Harris is a photographer and project maker. He creates various projects which explore the relationship between humans and technology. And to add the quirky artistic bit to his tale, he is obsessed by the number 27. (Like taking the shade of Cobalt Blue for his blog, because that is the 27th element in the period table. You know, artsy!). His other projects include I Want You To Want Me, an installation about online dating; Cowbird, a public library of human experience; 10 x 10, a system for encapsulating moments in time;The Whale Hunt, a series of photographs timed to match his heartbeat; andI Love Your Work, an interactive film about the daily lives of sex workers.
Having been featured in major exhibitions all over the world, including Museum of Modern Art/ MoMA (New York), Centre Pompidou (Paris), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Central Academy of Fine Arts (Beijing), Harris is also popular for his lectures or talks on TED, Google and World Economic Forum, to name a few.
Well, anyway. The reason why I got to know about him and his project is because I wanted to know how happy people are around the world. Bhutan, being the only country which takes the Gross National Happiness (let’s call it GNH for now) into account, was obviously one place I would search for. Long back, when I first read about it in a trivia book I was impressed. Later, I started to question it. Just because they have GNH in their policy, does that make the citizens actually happy? I mean, really happy? Children are happy, but it’s not a young country so to say. And if they are happy, does that mean they don’t wish for anything more? Curious mind of a teenager who always wants to be happy and not face up to reality!
It was surprising to see that someone else had actually though of these things as well. Harris made a project in 2007 ( so, I am writing about old stuff. Big deal! ) where he spoke to over a hundred Bhutanese people. He asked them 5 simple questions : what makes them happy, what is their happiest memory, what is their favourite joke, if it could be quantified what would their happiness rating be between 1 and 10, and if they could make just one wish, what would it be. Based on the rank they gave themselves, Harris gave them balloons. So, if someone thought that his happiness rating is 8 h would get 8 balloons, if someone else was very sad, he would get only 1. He then wrote that person’s one wish on that balloon and photographed them. While the photographs were made into the project Balloons of Bhutan, the balloons themselves were tied on Dochula – a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet. So you can imagine, over 100 balloons, of different colours, bobbing up and down on a windy pass in Bhutan.
I am sure this would have made the fourth King, Jigme Singe Wangchuck (the one who thought of the crazy let’s-count-happiness-instead-of-national-product concept) very very happy.
What is remarkable is how many of them really feel happy with simple things, like meditation while some others are not at all happy. Some who are needy want a better house or a suitor who can take care of her. All the same issues which are there in every other country. But Harris chose to depict in a fabulous way and bring up Bhutan’s happiness from textbooks to a vision in front of our eyes. And, in case you think that isn’t cool enough, he also recorded them while they answered questions like, what is your happiest memory, what would you do if you were the King of Bhutan etc.