Art in public space: Before I die I want to ____

A local art project becomes the biggest bucket list in the world

If you were to walk past a large black board with some complimentary chalk, could you resist the urge to stop and doodle? What if it asked you a deeply personal question, such as what you want to do before you die – would you want to leave your answer? And why?

It seems that most people would, and they have. The result? One of the biggest community art projects in the world. The idea comes from artist Candy Chang. After the loss of someone she loved, she went through a long period of grief and depression. She found herself contemplating death again and again, thinking that we often forget to be grateful for what we have in life. “It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you”, as she puts it. So she decided to channel her grief into her passion and profession: urban planning. As many other areas in New Orleans, her neighbourhood was home to a number of derelict buildings. She painted the side of an abandoned house with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to ______”. The idea was that anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations. Right there, publicly.

It was an urban experiment (though possibly therapeutic, too). Candy had no idea how people in her neighbourhood would react. She must have been quite surprised to see the wall the next day – completely filled out and still growing. The responses were varied, some of them funny, many conventional, some ambitious, some charmingly simple. “Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, own a monkey, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself, straddle the International Date Line”. My favorite one is “Before I die I want to eat more everything” with a reductionist dinosaur drawing next to it. The pirate who wants to be tried for piracy is a close second.

A few surprised through their critical tone (“Before I die I want to see the elite fall”), but many were unexpectedly creative and abstract. What does one make of “Before I die I want to evaporate into the light” or “Before I die I want to find my mythical creature”, or even “Before I die I want to be someone’s CAVALRY”? I have no idea what it means, but then I don’t think this is about understanding everything.

As for Candy, reading all those responses made her laugh (and tear up, sometimes). She says that she found consolation in them, and that they made her understand her neighbours in new and enlightening ways. The wall, she says, reminded her that she is not alone in trying to figure out the meaning of life. As newspapers picked up on the story and requests to copy the concept rolled in, the project gained considerable momentum. Candy designed a wall toolkit which can be downloaded from her website, and today more than 400 Before I Die walls have been created in over 25 languages and over 60 countries, including Kazakhstan, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Iraq, Argentina, and South Africa.

“It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life to see this little experiment in my neighborhood grow into a global project. It’s all thanks to passionate people around the world, and their walls have been a constant source of inspiration and therapy for me.”
Candy Chang to The Re|view, November 2013.

It is a pretty impressive development, considering it started out as a local design experiment. One ought to ask how a small venture like this could have triggered such positive reactions all over the globe. The project creates a personal atmosphere in an otherwise anonymous urban community. It gives a voice to the individuals within it. In addition, it projects these private moments onto buildings in the public realm, which is nothing short of transgressive. In twentieth-century America, as Setha Low has pointed out, a “fairly straightforward opposition pertains between public and private space” (3).*

It seems that, although the distinction between public and private life does not actually hold up very well when put to the test (we bring our private lives out in the open all the time), there is still a lot of truth to it. In cities especially, public spaces are overly regulated, often to the point of wonderment – just think of park closure times, drinking and smoking bans, prohibitions to walk on grass, or the need to obtain a license for street performances (as in London for example. It turns out that what should be public space is felt by many to lack opportunities for individual involvement. This is something that Candy’s work is counteracting. Not only has she re-claimed buildings and sites in the public sphere, but she has also made them projection spaces for the human psyche. The BID wall allows for writing down wishes and doodling, which is a way of “tapping the deep reservoir of self-knowledge” according to psychologist Robert Burns.

But the wall is just one of Candy’s ideas. Another involves sticking post-its to abandoned buildings, asking the neighbours to jot down what they would like to see there instead – a bakery, a home, a coffee shop. A post-it message thus acquires the dynamics of a tweet, but more localised. Candy’s work has created some amazing phenomena: a new form of urban communication, the transformation of the public sphere and the manifestation of collective memory in space. As Maurice Halbwachs writes: The group’s image of its external milieu and its stable relationships with this environment becomes paramount in the idea it forms of itself, permeating every element of its consciousness, moderating and governing its evolution. (from the chapter Space and the Collective Memory in The Collective Memory)

*Low is Professor for Anthropology at the City University of New York and has researched the politics of public space. Quote from: Low, Setha and Neil Smith (2006) ‘The Imperative of Public Space’, in Setha Low and Neil Smith (eds.), The Politics of Public Space, New York: Routledge, 3-15.

The Before I Die book is published this month by St. Martin’s Griffin.

This article is based on the content available on Before I Die.

The images come from the same source, used with the kind permission of Candy Chang.

Agatha Frischmuth

Agatha Frischmuth is Chief Editor of The Re|view.

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