Spring 2005

Artist Project / Laughter, Interrupted (Introduction)

Instruments of happiness


“‘Tis good to laugh at any rate,” observed John Dryden, “and if a straw can tickle a man, it is an instrument of happiness.” The inspiration for the commissioned artist projects that follow began with a discussion within our editorial group about the causes of laughter. Could we ask artists to devise a machine—a sort of post-Industrial Revolution version of Dryden’s seventeenth-century piece of straw—that would act as an “instrument of happiness,” or, more specifically, cause laughter? What might it look like? How would it work, and what types of laughter might it provoke? Anticipating that the assignment might simply produce a succession of glorified Rube-Goldbergian tickling machines, we abandoned the idea. The question of laughter types, however, stuck.

In the end, we invited a number of artists to choose a particular kind of laughter from a list provided by Cabinet and to deconstruct it—essentially to supply a “recipe” for the production of the given laughter type, a scenario that might suggest the conditions required for its creation without necessarily attempting to produce it in the readers themselves. What we hoped to get was something akin to explaining a joke without ever telling it. Perhaps predictably, no one chose “joyful.” “Sinister,” “ironic,” and “nervous” also went unclaimed. But Paul Chan, Lawrence Weiner, Matt Freedman, and Steven Brower picked right up on “rueful,” “cruel,” “malicious,” and “perverse,” respectively, suggesting that the straight-faced take on laughter holds little appeal nowadays. (The artists who chose “drug-induced” and “hysterical,” which might have lent a note of levity to our laughter types, are absent as their dogs ate their projects just before deadline.)

Links to the accompanying artist projects:

Paul Chan. Laughter type: rueful, 2005.

Lawrence Weiner. Laughter type: cruel, 2005.

Matt Freedman. Laughter type: malicious, 2005.

Steven Brower. Laughter type: perverse, 2005.

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