While artivist Dan Acher may not (yet) be famous in his hometown of Geneva, his groundbreaking "cultural experiences" are quickly becoming so.
Don't be Zombies!, Play Me, I'm Yours!, CinéTransat, Neighborhood Exchange Boxes, and his newest project Touch 'n Dance are enjoyed by thousands of people every year and are changing for better the way residents (and many visitors) of all nationalities see themselves, their neighbours, the local community and the city at large.
These projects all fit in perfectly with Dan's mission to create "happy cities", starting with Geneva. Each offers in its own unique way a joyful, participative experience that invites people to live in the moment and step away from the numbing routine of daily life.
Geneva the Perfect Canvas for a Happy City
"If I have a beautiful experience, I want as many people as possible to experience it as well," Dan Acher recently told a packed gathering at CreativeMornings Geneva.
The CreativeMornings movement is a global initiative with more than 80 chapters worldwide that organizes free breakfast lectures for "creative types".
Born in Bangkok, Dan was raised in Geneva but studied, lived and travelled abroad for seven years before returning. This give him fresh eyes with which to appreciate the city's cosmopolitanism and openness. "It's the center of Europe and a beautiful city," he believes.
A cultural artivist (someone who combines art with activism), Dan views Geneva as the perfect canvas for fulfilling his vision of a city that is "joyful and colorful, with a sense of belonging and happiness, and where people get to know and help each other."
His participative experiences are an act of rebellion against cities that he says are "dull and grey, where people walk in the streets with headphones on, not connecting with each other." They also work against the accepted logic that everyone has to "live every day with insecurity, stress and unhappiness."
Here's a look at the events that Dan and his team are bringing to Geneva in 2014:
Don't Be Zombies!
On May 9 and 10, things are going to get terribly scary around Geneva with the onslaught of Don't Be Zombies!
This zombie apocalypse scenario has been realized by Dan's team at 42prod. to fit in with its raison d'être of creating participative events, urban shifts, and public catharsis.
With the help of some very committed (and terrifyingly made-up) actors, this intense event "encourages participants to move around the city, learning its locales, and living in the moment," Dan says.
Given its power to invoke fear and surprise, Don't Be Zombies has all the right elements to accomplish that brief to perfection.
Touch 'n Dance
The newest of Dan's projects and created to coincide with the just-finished Fête de la Danse, a Swiss-wide dance festival, Touch 'n Dance made its first, successful appearance at Geneva's Plaine de Plainpalais in early May.
Touch 'n Dance relies on the creation of a human chain to activate some great music, leading of course to impromptu dancing! It is a call to spontaneity, togetherness, and to public involvement.
This project includes the very best elements of Dan's various projects: it's a participative experience that thrives outdoors in an urban setting and whose success depends entirely on what people invest of themselves to make it come alive.
Music and dance transcend differences of age, nationality, culture, and language, bringing people together for moments of laughter, enjoyment and self-expression.
Play Me, I'm Yours!
A project originated by English artist Luke Jerram and recreated in Geneva by Dan's Tako Cultural Propaganda, the immensely popular "Play Me, I'm Yours!" will bring 45 upright pianos to 17 city communes from 9 - 22 June.
Experience has shown that pianists of all ages and abilities cannot resist giving a spontaneous recital, invariably attracting appreciative audiences from among passers-by.
Now in its fourth year, Dan says this creative encounter results in something wonderful, "with people sharing experiences and transforming the city with music."
For the sixth time, from July 10 to August 17, the crowd pleasing CinéTransat will gather thousands of fans of all ages for free, themed movie nights in the Park Perle du Lac, with a shimmering night-time Geneva as a backdrop.
Last year, movie-goers showed up in fedoras for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Before that, Dirty Dancing enthusiasts practiced their dance steps on-stage in 1950s outfits.
Moviegoers vote in advance on the movie line-up, the only stipulation being that the film must have a happy ending.
The movie itself isn't the objective, Dan says, but the participative and collective experience it engenders, something all his people-oriented projects share.
Neighborhood Exchange Boxes
Part street art, part "experience creation", neighborhood exchange boxes bring local citizens together by offering them a chance to take a little something in exchange for giving a little something. That could be a book, CD, game or toy, or even kitchen utensils.
What will I find? Has my donation found a new owner? There's always the potential for a pleasant surprise, an experience to brighten the day and to give a human face to the local community.
At the moment, there are 25 neighborhood exchange boxes in the Swiss Romandy, with 12 in Geneva alone (and another 28 scheduled there by year's end). Already more than 100'000 objects have been exchanged.
Ultimately, Dan says that "we want to find a box on every street around the world."
Creating Happiness on a Global Scale
To help realize his projects, Dan receives partial funding from the Geneva government on a project-by-project basis. "Because of my track record people know they can trust me," he says.
While his experience manoeuvring in political circles and knowing who to talk to helps him get heard, he says that "simplicity, humanity and positivity sell the projects. If it brings out something good then they're open to me."
Dan's vision is to go global with his projects, and he is eager to obtain backing from individuals or enterprises that can help him achieve that. However, creating happy cities needn't be about orchestrating big events on a worldwide scale, he says.
"Just do your part, even if you can just bring out a smile in someone. If one person is happy, it spreads. I'm an artivist and that's my work, but we can all do this!"
(Photographs copyright Tako – Cultural Propaganda, 42 Prod., CinéTransat. Photo of Dan Acher at CreativeMornings Geneva copyright Julia Paranhos.)