Exhibition Review: Pronoia, Paranoia In Reverse, 12 Felstead St, London

Is the world conspiring to make us happy? Do you feel pressure to pursue happiness despite depressing economic realities? Is it a good thing that governments are measuring growth in terms of happiness, as well as GDP? Or is this a worrying thing, a sinister thing, something to be feared?

These are just some of the questions posed by Pronoia, a fascinating exhibition curated by Goldsmiths graduate Sophie Nibbs. For this group show at 12 Felstead St, a pop-up gallery space in Hackney Wick, Nibbs connects an array of artworks through the little-known concept of ‘pronoia’, a psychological term coined by Fred Goldner in 1982.

In essence, pronoia is the opposite of paranoia. A condition where someone suspects that the world is conspiring to do them good (even if evidence suggests otherwise). Over twenty years since the term was first coined, Pronoia asks if the idea of enforced happiness is pertinent to our post-2008 world. If happiness, at a time of neoliberal austerity, is a choice or an order from above.

For me, the standout piece was Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun, a speculative project by Zoë Hough, questioning the global legislative trend of measuring happiness. The piece shows two films simultaneously. On the left, we see people skipping and smiling, blissfully living in a UK town (in one memorable scene, a woman grins manically while calling for an ambulance). On the right screen, a group of businessmen discuss investment opportunities in Yellowburn, a moniker for the city of Blackburn, voted one of the unhappiest places in the UK in 2011.

Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun
Film stills from Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun by Zoë Hough

Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun includes a fake investment document, encouraging Yellowburn residents to be happy through a mixture of laws and tax incentives – from happiness tax credits to fines if people don’t smile enough. If you’re a fan of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, you’ll love Hough’s clever blend of satire and social realism.

Another film, ProX by Benji Jeffrey, manipulates footage from an X-Factor audition to comment on the dark underbelly of talent shows and reality television. Meanwhile #IAMFAMOUS by Joshua Dean Perry is an intriguing meditation on the self-aggrandising aspects of social media.

Other works in Pronoia include Masks (series) – a collection of prints by Anna Berry, where photos of businessmen are overlaid with white, smiley faces. Meanwhile, a photograph by Lara Morrell, titled Devotion, depicts a field of dead sunflowers, where one flower has been artificially preserved in a glass vitrine. Although more subtle than the other works in Pronoia, this little sunflower on life support is a powerful metaphor for the idea of enforced happiness that runs through this show.

What does it mean when we force ourselves to smile when we’re dying inside? When we feel obliged to say we’re OK when, really, we’re not?

Pronoia provokes questions, gets you thinking. It’s a fascinating show, one that creeped under my skin, and will stay with me for a long time. Walking home from the exhibition on Saturday evening, questions rolling in my mind, I wondered if, in our post-2008 world, unhappiness could become a new form of dissent. Then I smiled at my neighbour, made myself a delicious meal and settled down to my favourite TV show.

Pronoia: Paranoia In Reverse ran from 5-10 March at 12 Felstead Street, Hackney Wick, London E9. Find out more here

This review was first published by Aesthetica Magazine. Read an edited version here