The minute I began speaking with San Francisco-based artist George Zisiadis, he inquired about how my day was going. “Good,” I replied. “Why are you doing good?,” he asked. I pause, trying to figure out what it is about my day that made it better than the one before.
I give an honest reply, and wonder whether the fact that the young Greek-American is so interested in human response is because he studied Sociology at Harvard University. Or maybe it’s because he’s been referred to as (quite possibly) the “Happiest Guy in San Francisco.” It may even be because he’s so in tune with people that his most recent exhibit, Pulse of the City — currently on display in Boston — manages to play music back to someone based on the rhythm of their heartbeat.
Zisiadis, who was born and raised in the highly populated Greek community of Astoria, Queens and regularly visits his parents’ hometown of Thessaloniki every summer, didn’t initially plan on being an artist. He went to Greek school at St. Demetrios in Queens, then attended NYC’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School before heading off to Harvard University in Massachusetts. Now a San Francisco resident, he says his decision to switch coasts was based on the need to explore, his desire to “stretch,” and the fact that “curiosity is at the base” of everything he does. That innate curiosity led him to create a bridge between his studies and the arts, and he’s worked on exhibitions that have been seen by thousands of people. In addition to projects like Pulse of the City, Zisiadis had the opportunity to work with Nestle on The Bubbleverse, “a cosmic portal into your childhood imagination,” which was based on a storyline of “creating happiness” in a laboratory.
Now, with his latest book of illustrations, Urban Imagination, hitting bookshelves, Greek Reporter sat down to chat with Zisiadis about his playful and brilliant imagination, as well as what others can do to make their daily lives a little….happier.
When did you decide to become an artist?
I studied Sociology at [Harvard] University. I see the world a lot in terms of people. Everything I do is about trying to enhance the understanding of people and the way we interact with each other, and the way we interact with the world and the systems around us; understanding that is really at the base of what I do and what I’m interested in. A lot of the work I do is in the realm of interaction and interactive art, and kind of saying, “How can we poke at all of these kinds of ways that people interact with each other and the world around them and bring a different experience of the world to light?” That is the bridge that brought me there.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
There’s no magic bullet. It really is just in the everyday. A lot of my work focuses on playfully reimagining the world around us, so the things I’m inspired by really are the things we take for granted. I think life and the universe are full of so many things that we don’t really take a second look at, either because they’re so commonplace or so routine. That doesn’t mean they’re not incredible objects or facts. I really just keep my eyes open for funny things that people do, or funny things that I find in cities, and really try to bring those to light in a humorous way that can hopefully give people a way to experience and look at the world in a new way. And then through that, hopefully they can start looking at their life in a new way as well. That shift in perspective is really hard to have sometimes in society when it’s really just about Point A to Point B, and repeat.
Let’s talk about your Pulse of the City exhibit in Boston. How did that come about?
The idea behind it is that, in cities, there’s so much happening all around us that we tend to lose track of what’s happening within us, in our bodies and how we’re feeling. Amidst the chaotic rhythms of the city – all of the traffic, the noise and the congestion – I really wanted to give people a chance to reconnect with the rhythms of their bodies. It was really born out of a desire to give people a moment to reconnect with themselves…in kind of a playful, creative way.
Pulse of the City connects people with the rhythms of their bodies by turning their heartbeats into music. So this big red heart you hold onto will start playing back your heartbeat on music that is composed uniquely to you at that point in time. Someone who’s jogging by it will have a totally different experience than someone who is just strolling by.
There are now five of these hearts in the city of Boston…the reception has been overwhelming by people. There have been thousands and thousands of individual interactions with them, and people can’t help but smile and be delighted when they’re interacting with these hearts.
Why do you think it’s so important for people to enhance their environment?
I think deep down, we all really want to believe that there’s something more than what we see and there’s more than what is just available to us. Our daily experience doesn’t really allow that to happen because we do the same things over and over again. But I think if you can give people a little glimpse, just a little peephole in which to see a whole different world of possibilities, it allows them to embrace the idea that if there’s more to this thing that they took for granted, maybe there’s more to other things that they take for granted in life.
A lot of my work is trying to say that the world is not inevitable…we usually forget that. We walk around and we see buildings that are just there; we are born into this world not being taught that we can change it, and learning to accept that, and accepting all of the social structures and iniquities that come with it as well.
You’ve been given the title of perhaps the “Happiest Guy in San Francisco.” What’s it like to wear that crown?
My work and my personality are unabashedly optimistic so I’m fine with it. It’s cute. However, I’m definitely just like any other human and experience a full range of emotions regularly.
What has been one of the happiest and unhappiest moments for you so far?
Once Pulse of the City was installed, I immediately stepped back to observe how people would start interacting with it. Within 10 minutes, dozens of people completely ignored it, while dozens others were curiously drawn to and absolutely delighted by it. Those 10 minutes were definitely among both the saddest and happiest I’ve ever been. Putting your work out there can be like that. It was quite the emotional roller coaster!
Do you have advice for someone who wants to change their own environment to make it a little happier?
I don’t want to be prescriptive in any of my work. The last thing I want to do is tell people to do certain things. I’m really just trying to share a way of looking at the world and share the belief that it’s okay to be playful and lighthearted. If our environments can be more like that, we could possibly be leading more fulfilled lives. Simply by showing a different way of being or looking at the world, I hope that people would apply that to their own lives in however they see fit.
You recently published a book of illustrations, Urban Imagination. What’s the thought behind that?
Urban Imagination is about playfully reimagining your urban environment. The things we take the most for granted — like a bench — we walk by it every single day of our lives. If we can look at benches in a different way, what else can we re-examine in society? It’s two things: #1 is really getting people in touch with that playful side of themselves, that creative inner child which exists in all of us but sometimes doesn’t really have an outlet. And #2 is really engaging people in questioning the world around them, which will hopefully one day lead to bettering the world around them. I think in order for the world to change, we have to realize that it’s changeable.
Do you plan to work on any international projects, particularly in Greece?
I’m very open to that. The beauty is that [Pulse of the City] fits into any urban context. You can interact with it regardless of your culture or the language that you speak. It would be a pleasure to have it benefiting people anywhere.
What’s your ultimate goal when coming up with one of your projects, or what do you hope people will take away from it?
To be totally honest, I’ve thought about this a lot and the conclusion I’ve come to is that as an artist, or as a creator of anything, especially something that is meant to be direct with the public, you can have so many hopes and dreams about how it will affect people. If you can put a smile on someone’s face where it wasn’t there before, then you’ve done well. That just summarizes my philosophy.