Part public art, part design, part experimental urbanism, Candy Chang’s installations can be hard to classify. Her large-scale chalkboard installation Before I Die, featured in SOMArts’ exhibition Dial Collect, open April 5–26, has been installed in over thirty countries and in ten languages. For this interview, SOMArts communications fellow Lex Kosieradzki caught up with Chang to discuss the origins of the project, its relationship to social media, and her plans for the future.
“Before I Die” has been installed many times in many different locations after its original installation on an abandoned building in New Orleans. Can you give us a brief history of how this work came into being and how it has arrived at SOMArts?
I created the original “Before I Die” wall after I lost someone I loved. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, see the Pacific Ocean. I went through a period of grief and depression, then gratitude for the time we had together, and then clarity by contemplating death. Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I didn’t expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place. The things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. Regularly contemplating death, as Stoics and other philosophers encourage, is a powerful tool to restore perspective and remember the things that make your life personally meaningful.
My experiments in public space shifted to ways they can help improve our personal well-being. When I made Before I Die on an abandoned house two blocks from my home, I had no idea what to expect. It was cheap to make so I thought it was no big deal if it didn’t work out. By the next day it was entirely filled out and it kept growing.
After receiving requests from people around the world, my friends and I made a toolkit and project site to help people make a wall with their community. Calcagno Cullen contacted me about featuring the “Before I Die” wall and I am so honored to be included in her Dial Collect exhibit at SOMArts. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life to see this little experiment grow into something worldwide. Now there are over 150 walls in over 10 languages and over 30 countries. A book about the project will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2013.
How do you feel about bringing Before I Die into the gallery from the street?
I think it’s great. Whether you’re on the street or in a cafe or a school or a gallery, there are benefits to thinking a little more deeply about your life and understanding the people around you in new and enlightening ways. At their greatest, our shared spaces can nourish our well-being and truly reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals.
Does it matter whether people answer sincerely?
People can answer however they like. Depending on where you’re at in your life and what the scene is like when you’re writing on the wall, you might answer with more or less depth. I’m touched by seeing the range of responses on one wall, from driving an ice cream truck to overcoming depression.
You’ve worked as both an artist and a designer. How do these roles complement or contradict each other in your practice?
My experience as a designer has helped me present my projects in engaging ways. For the public art projects, it’s helped me think about how to attract people’s attention when they’re walking down the street. I also like having the skills and power to design and manage my own project materials and websites. I think my experiences designing for many communities, from street vendors to drug addicts to migrant workers, have made me a more empathetic person. I don’t feel contradictions. My experiences as an artist, designer, urban planner, traveler, reader, neighbor, friend, lover have all come together to shape who I am today. Disciplines are just one way to categorize fields of study or interest. It seems only natural that we each have a unique discipline that’s made up of our personal interests and life experiences. My projects today are part art, part design, part urban planning, part self-help. The lines are blurry.
Does “Before I Die” change when it’s installed around the world?
Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life. These public yet anonymous walls are an honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, fear, and wonder you find in any neighborhood. In the end, the power of this project rests in the hands of the passerby who picks up a piece of chalk, pauses for a moment, and writes something honest, poetic, and occasionally heartbreaking.
Do you think social media brings people closer together or farther apart? Is your work a response to social media?
Social media has brought me closer to many people but farther from myself. We only have so much time in a day and the more connected I am, the more my attention can be pulled in many directions. Some of it is meaningful and much of it isn’t. I was neglecting the solitude I need to read, reflect, and make. I was neglecting my relationships with the people I love. I’ve made changes to how much time I spend connected and responding to people each week and that has drastically improved my personal well-being. I think in our age of increasing distractions, it’s more important than ever to find ways to maintain perspective and be proactive about what really nourishes you. It’s easy to go with the flow and postpone our deepest needs. It’s easy to neglect our relationship with ourselves. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” To be true to ourselves, we need to take the time to step back, pause, be quiet, and reflect as we continue to grow and change. With every experience, we gain new perspectives that can reshape our guiding star.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working with the writer James A. Reeves to transform an abandoned gas station in a ghost town in the Mojave Desert into a library dedicated to personal transformation. Taking road trips through the American desert has been a regularly cathartic experience for me to step back and reflect. We hope to make this a kind of sanctuary for other travelers who are trying to make sense of their lives. I’m also working on an interactive installation about humility for the Centre for the Living Arts in Mobile. Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. Every passerby is another person full of longing and anxiety and fear and wonder. We struggle with a lot of the same issues and there is great power in knowing you are not alone.
About the interviewer: Lex Kosieradzki is an Oakland-based artist currently pursuing his MFA at the California College of the Arts.
Pictured above: “Before I Die” by Candy Chang, photo by Matthew Schoonmaker