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Fill-in-the-Blank: Candy Chang’s Urban Interventions and Open-Ended Questions

By Paul Schmelzer

For the past decade or so, Candy Chang has been filling in blanks. A graphic designer, guerrilla artist, and urban planner, she has been instigating site-specific interventions into public spaces. She’s stenciled sidewalks to indicate where she thinks her neighborhood could use a new tree. She’s distributed nametags to be stuck on boarded-up buildings in post-Katrina New Orleans—only instead of “Hello My Name Is,” they read “I Wish This Was,” leaving room for residents to complete the sentence. For her project titled Before I Die, an abandoned house became a chalkboard for a wish list on which passersby reminded themselves of “what really matters.”

Many of Chang’s works are platforms that engage the public and invite people to share. Which is why she’s been invited to Minneapolis to speak as part of Plan-It Hennepin, an initiative geared toward re-thinking and refreshing downtown Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue as a vibrant, people-centered public corridor. In advance of her April 26 talk, she agreed to discuss citizen-powered development, street art, and reclaiming public space.

Paul Schmelzer

Last summer you toldThe Atlantic that you were taken by the psychiatry “office” in Charlie Brown when you were a kid: Lucy’s “The Doctor Is In” sidewalk stand. Many of your projects today have that kind of listening-on-the-streets notion, although—unlike Lucy—you needn’t necessarily be present: fill-in-the-blank flyers or stickers, or even interactive websites, are your proxy. Say more about that initial impulse.

Candy Chang

I like the idea of a neighborhood psychiatry stand. There are a lot of ways our neighbors can help improve our lives. A few years ago when I was living in Brooklyn, I bumped into a neighbor at a stoop sale. One year had passed before our paths finally crossed, and in a matter of minutes, she totally schooled me on the history of our block and ways to get involved. She was so helpful and it made me wonder what my other neighbors knew and how I could reach out to all of them. We don’t bump into every neighbor, so a lot of this knowledge never gets tapped. But we do share the same public spaces and if they were designed differently, they could help us share a lot more with one another. I was making street art and studying urban planning at the time, and I started to think of ways I could make simple interactive public message spaces. The experiments started with flyers, and then post-it notes, doorknob hangers, stickers, chalkboards, websites, and beyond.

Schmelzer

We’ve seen an explosion in interest in site-specific urban interventions, from the early activist billboard modifications of Adbusters and the work of artists like Banksy to, in recent years, the many, many people—pros like Steve Powers, anonymous artists like Princess Hijab (who puts hijabs on women in ads), and prankster citizens like the Moustache Man in New York—now engaged in it. Has this form jumped the shark? How do you see it evolving next? Or is there some other medium you’re interested that you aim to use to engage the public in the future?

Chang

I think we’re just beginning to redefine what our public spaces are fundamentally made of. It reminds me of the internet. Since its earliest days, the internet was considered a kind of public space, and Lee Felsenstein envisioned it as an “information commons.” In many ways this has come true, and it makes me wonder how our physical public spaces can continue to advance and become an information commons too. In a land where citizens’ flyers are illegal yet businesses can shout about sexy beers and fruity shampoos on more and more surfaces, we need to consider how our public spaces can be better designed to reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. I think there’s a lot of potential for collective wisdom and introspection in public space to help us lead better lives.

Schmelzer

There’s a participatory nature to many of your projects, including fill-in-the-blanks in Neighborland, Before I Die, I Wish This Was. Given your work with communities, gauge the pulse of public agency: Do you feel citizens have lost will (or maybe permission) to voice their desires for change in their neighborhoods? Do you see your work as trying to “empower” people to realize their agency or to “give voice” to those otherwise not heard?

Chang

I’m just making things that I want in my world. I want to know how much my neighbors pay for their apartments. I want to publicize what businesses I want in my neighborhood. I want to know what’s important to the people around me. These experiments are all like a form of self-help, especially the Before I Die project. People’s hopes and dreams have made me laugh out loud, tear up, and feel consolation during my own tough times. Because our life spans have generally increased, I think it’s all the more important to maintain perspective and remember how brief and tender life really is. I think we struggle with a lot of the same things and there’s a lot we can learn from each other, if given the opportunity. These projects just reveal what’s already there—people full of hopes, fears, and stories that can help improve our communities and our personal wellbeing.

Schmelzer

Your work reminds me of some of the projects by Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, particularly those where citizens can leave their mark (giant pieces of chalk left for use in a public square in Lima; shoe soles printed to leave behind citizen’s messages on the sand when activists occupied the then-active bombing ranges of Vieques). What contemporary artists inspire you, or what artists do you feel a creative kinship with?

Chang

I’m interested in creating more projects about contemplation and perspective. This is something I’m seeking in my own life. It’s so easy for me to get distracted by my inbox and forget what really matters to me. I need to make more space in my daily life to step back, meander, absorb, and reflect. It’s an important part of being a creative person and a healthy person in general. I feel best when I remember my place in the universe, which helps me re-appreciate life, the people I want to be with, and the things I want to do. I’m inspired by James Turrell. I feel replenished after pausing in his spaces. I want to live in Wong Kar Wai’s film soundtracks for In the Mood for Love and 2046. Observatories, pilgrimages, and fables also put me in a good place. I’d like to roll around in a street vendor cart and narrate a series of bedtime stories to poignant music.

Schmelzer

You’re speaking in Minneapolis as part of the Talk-It Hennepin, a series related to Plan-It Hennepin, which aims to reinvent Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue as a robust, lively cultural corridor. Have you been here before? If so, what are your impressions/recollections of this stretch of downtown Minneapolis? If not, what tools can you suggest—design features, interventions, processes for seeking community input—that planners consider using in thinking about improving it?

Chang

I haven’t been to Hennepin Avenue, but it sounds like a lot of good things are happening. I think it’s helpful to give people different ways to participate. I’ve been to a lot of community meetings and many times the “voice of the community” ends up being the 10 people who can make it to the meeting. How can we make it easier for people to get involved on their own time? That’s something we’re trying to improve with Neighborland. We launched it in New Orleans a few months ago and we look forward to expanding to Minneapolis and St. Paul at the end of April. The site is still basic and we’re working with residents, community groups, civic leaders, and others to continue to test it and develop it further. It’s been an interesting challenge connecting people in real places to online pages, and we’ve experimented in various ways. Thanks to a partnership between Forecast Public Art and Clear Channel, digital billboards near Hennepin Avenue will feature a series of Neighborland signs. The digital signs will invite people to text their ideas for Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as display people’s ideas directly on the billboards. It will be an interesting experiment!

Schmelzer

Fill in the blank: “Before I die I want to _____”

Chang

Before I die I want to hole up and read books in soulful hotels.

Candy Chang stenciling the first Before I Die wall in New Orleans, 2011

Photo: Civic Center

A Neighborland participant on New Orleans’ Broad Street

Photo: Malcolm Mansour

A favorite reply of Chang’s in her I Wish This Was project

Photo: Civic Center

In 2008, Chang used spray chalk to help promote Great Chinatown Tree-Planting Movement in New York

Photo: Candy Chang

Chang’s Before I Die project in New Orleans

Photo: Civic Center