Candy Chang: Making Art to Make a Difference

Image credit: Destinations NSW/Candy Chang

This story first appeared on Open Journal on May 24, 2014. Image courtesy of Candy Chang.

Artist, designer and urban planner, Candy Chang is renowned for creating art that redefines the way communities perceive and engage with public spaces – from their neighbourhoods through to their cities.

She has lived and worked around the world – from New York and Helsinki to Nairobi and now New Orleans. Her defining work, Before I Die, has been recreated over 450 times in over 60 countries and 30 languages.

A TED Senior Fellow and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Chang is speaking at the Vivid Ideas Exchange, part of this year’s Vivid Sydney festival, which runs from 23 May to 9 June.

Chang spoke to Open Journal about her art-led approach to urban design and city planning.

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Can you tell us a little about yourself and your work as an artist and urban designer?

I’m interested in the relationship between public space and personal wellbeing. By creating safe public spaces to be introspective together, we can gain a lot in both self-realisation and communal kinship.

How did you come to blend the two?

I studied architecture, graphic design, and later urban planning. I also made street art. All those experiences mashed together and it seemed like a natural progression. When I was younger, I remember worrying about being mediocre if I didn’t focus on one discipline.

I ended up following various interests — I designed, made music, ran a record label, worked at large companies, worked with small community groups around the world, found inspiration in people from Carl Sagan to Carl Jung. Looking back, I’m glad I did because every experience gave me a new perspective on life and taught me more about who I was and what felt right for me.

You’re renowned for creating artworks that bring together communities. Can you share a little about your ideology and practice?

My projects all come from questions I have and they’ve become more introspective as my existential confusion has grown. I’ve been thinking about why we came together in the first place. The city historian Lewis Mumford once wrote that the origins of society were not just for physical survival but for “a more valuable and meaningful kind of life”.

Some of the earliest gathering places were graves and sacred groves. We gathered so we could grieve together, worship together, console one another, and be alone together. Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and they have a lot more potential to help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.

Why do you think art is such a powerful tool in transforming the way people connect with and inhabit public spaces?

Our communities have changed over time and as a whole, we don’t know as many neighbours as we once did and we don’t bump into every neighbour, so a lot of wisdom never gets passed on.

Art can do many things to change that by creating hubs, lowering barriers, and exploring what our public spaces are fundamentally made of. These personal and anonymous prompts in public space offer a gentle first step towards honesty and vulnerability in public, which can lead to trust and understanding. These are essential elements for a more compassionate community, which can not only help us make better places but can help us become our best selves.

How would you describe Before I Die for those not familiar with it?

It’s a public art project that invites people to reflect on their lives and share their personal aspirations in public space. I made it on an abandoned house in my neighbourhood after I lost someone I loved and struggled to maintain perspective.

It has been recreated in over 60 countries. Did you ever imagine it would resonate so strongly across the globe?

No, I didn’t know if anyone would respond on the first wall. The response blew me away and it’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life to see this little experiment grow into a global project, thanks to passionate people around the world.

These public walls are an honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, fear, and wonder you find in every community. Everyone is going through challenges in their life and there’s great comfort in knowing you’re not alone, but it’s easy to forget this because there are a lot of barriers to opening up. And while the barriers remain, it’s easy to forget the humanity in the people around us and be impersonal and even adversarial.

Can you tell us about I Wish This Was and the response it received in New Orleans?

I’ve been to many community meetings where the “voice” of the community ends up being the handful of people who can attend the meeting or the loudest person in the room. How can more people get involved over time and how can the quiet people, like me, share just as much as the loud ones? These fill-in-the-blank stickers on vacant storefronts were a crude tool and experiment to see what might happen if we could easily say what we want, where we want it.

You’re one of the founders of Neighborland. How did it come about and what does it hope to achieve?

After seeing the response from I Wish This Was and the ways people wrote on each others’ stickers, I wondered how this idea could develop and help inform real projects. My talented and creative friends Dan Parham and Tee Parham were thinking about similar things, so we teamed up and started Neighborland.

It’s a tool, both online and in public space, that helps organisations and residents collaborate on the places they care about. We’ve tried to combine the strengths of both online tools and public installations to help make the process more inclusive and collaborative. Civic collaboration is essential to create places that are meaningful and cared for by the people who live and work there.

Your keynote at Vivid is “On making art to make a difference.” Can you give us a teaser for what the audience can expect?

It will be a very personal talk where I will share some of my inspirations, projects, and things I’ve learned along the way. It will be filled with both practical knowledge on making projects in public space and introspective thoughts on personal fulfillment and wellbeing.

What role do you think decision-makers like city planners, policy makers and architects play in creating space that inspire communities?

They play a great role. My request to them is to make it easier for people to share, connect, and experiment in their communities. There are a lot of residents with great ideas, but the process can be intimidating. Make it easier for the people to try things out and make their community more theirs.

What do you think the public can do to inspire and engage art within their own communities and spaces?

Follow your questions, try things out, and keep an open mind. All of my projects come from personal experience, confusion, and curiosity.

Anyone you are looking forward to meeting, seeing, or working with at Vivid?

This is my first time in Sydney so I want to experience the Sydney Opera House. I love heartbreaking, melancholy, cinematic music. It helps me do my best thinking, so I’m excited to simmer to Nils Frahm when he performs there on Tuesday night as part of the Vivid festivities.

Candy Chang is presenting On making art to make a difference’ on 26 May and running a Masterclass – for which tickets are still available – on ‘Offering Art to the City’ on 27 May. Both events will be held at the Vivid Ideas Exchange, Museum of Contemporary Art.

Vivid Sydney, the Festival of Lights, Music and Ideas, is on from 23 May to 9 June.