Review of Pronoia: Paranoia In reverse, Curated by Sophie Nibbs

Pronoia: Paranoia In reverse, an exhibition curated by Sophie Nibbs, at 12 Felstead Street, London, threw up all sorts of questions. The various works provoked the audience to consider the pressure to constantly pursue happiness, despite depressing economic realities, the way American mantras of positive thinking have infiltrated UK culture, how governments are measuring growth in terms of happiness (rather than GDP) and if unhappiness could be a new form of dissent. In a world where aspiration and positivity are sacrosanct, the idea that pursuing happiness might be self-destructive seems kind of taboo.

For the exhibition, Nibbs connects an array of artworks through the little-known concept of “pronoia”, a psychological term coined by Fred Goldner in 1982. Simply put, pronoia is the opposite of paranoia. It describes a condition where someone suspects that the world is conspiring to do them good (even if evidence might suggest otherwise). Over 20 years since the term pronoia first came to light, this exhibition hints that this psychological affliction could become the defining cultural pathology of our times. Could we be moving from a paranoid society to a pronoid society, marked by delusions of happiness and positivity?

The standout piece was Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun, a speculative project by Zoë Hough that questions the motivations behind the global legislative trend of measuring happiness. The piece showcases two films simultaneously. On the left screen, people are skipping and smiling as they move through a UK town (in one memorable scene, a woman grins manically while calling for an ambulance). On the other screen, a group of businessmen discuss investment opportunities in “Yellowburn” – a new moniker for Blackburn, which was voted one of the unhappiest places in the UK in 2011. The piece even includes an ersatz investment document that encourages “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. Fans of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror will 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 more sinister aspects of talent shows and reality TV. This theme is also evident in the only performance piece in the show, #IAMFAMOUS by Joshua Dean Perry. Here, the artist’s self-professed fame is an interesting meditation on how social media has changed what it means to be successful. Other works include a row of prints by Anna Berry, entitled Masks (series), where the artist overlays photos of businessmen in suits with white, smiley faces. Meanwhile, a photograph Devotion by Lara Morrell depicts an enigmatic 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 is key to this exhibition. What does it mean when we force ourselves to be happy, despite living in an unjust capitalist society? Moreover, when governments actively encourage us to be happy, is happiness a choice or an order from above? These are the sorts of questions that have been triggered as a result of this exhibition. They are fascinating and important questions, and they will probably haunt the viewer for some time to come.

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

Emma Cummins

1. Devotion, 2013, Lara Morrell.