Cowbird, Balloons of Bhutan: Jonathan Harris and Real Life Storytelling

In the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, nestled between China and India, happiness is no small measure and it’s surely not immeasurable. While its neighbors are under constant scrutiny for economic growth, the kingdom of Bhutan has opted, among other factors, to measure its growth in the well being of its people. As early as 1972, erstwhile King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), and in 2005, the Royal Government of Bhutan “made the decision to develop GNH indicators in order to move the concept of GNH from the point of academic discourse to a measurable one.”

The government “developed a detailed questionnaire that measured key areas such as “psychological well-being, health, time use, education, culture, good governance, ecology, community vitality and living standards.” The results of this survey can be found on their website, but it suffices to say that the prayer flags in Bhutan flutter with the happiness of its peoples!

A few years later, in 2007, Jonathan Harris, an artist who combines “elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling” set out to measure Bhutan’s happiness not in percentages, but in balloons!

Balloons of Bhutan chronicles his two week journey through Bhutan where he interviewed a 117 people and asked them how happy they were on a scale of one to ten. He would then proceed to give them the number of balloons corresponding to their happiness level, and thus increasing that happiness, if only temporarily. Harris’ interviews  provide an insight into the stories of each of these individuals; their identities, their happiest memory, their favorite jokes, and their wishes. In the end, he wrote down each person’s wish on a balloon in a color of their choice. Each of those balloons was “strung up at Dochula, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, leaving them to bob up and down in the wind, mingling with thousands of prayer flags.”

The website for Balloons of Bhutan, wherein lie a 117 short stories, provides a glimpse into moments of happiness and into the life and culture of Bhutanese people.

Stories rooted in reality and “collected in some unconventional ways” have always held Harris' fascination. In a TED talk in 2007, Harris spoke of his desire to eliminate the role of the narrator in his stories. One such example is his project titled The Whale Hunt, where he “spent nine days living up in Barrow, Alaska, the northern most settlement in the United States, with a family of Inupiat Eskimos, documenting their annual spring whale hunt.” The entire story-line can be divided into sub-stories based on context, characters, color, and moments of excitement and lull (a timeline akin to a heartbeat graph).

Another, more recent, of his projects centered on the idea stories from life and even crowd-sourced journalism is Cowbird, a place where people can “keep a beautiful audio visual diary” of their lives through stories.

Our short-term goal is to pioneer a new form of participatory journalism, grounded in the simple human stories behind major news events. Our long-term goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons, available for this and future generations to look to for guidance.

On Cowbird, these stories can be categorized and read in numerous ways; by sagas or major news events, topics, cities, countries, tags, and people. If you enjoy creative writing, Cowbird is a neat way to share stories with the world and transform the site into a collective “witness to life.” Many will agree that social media content on sites such as Twitter or Facebook can, at times, lack forethought, even originality. (Yes Facebook ask us what’s on our mind, but if the posts on Facebook are indeed indicative of humanity’s contemplative tendencies, we may just be in trouble). Thus Cowbird is different in that it encourages thoughtful sharing of personal musings and ideas.

Jonathan Harris is an undoubtedly novel storyteller, but he desires more than an audience that will listen, he desires one that will engage in storytelling. He has built the foundations of a world that can be interconnected through stories that are his own and more importantly, theirs, the worlds. It is through these stories that we can listen in on a Bhutanese shop keeper talking about her love for Korean television or experience the melancholic evocation of an Islamic prayer call in old Jerusalem while overlooking the Great Dome of the Rock.