Hopes and dreams from New Orleans

Wednesday 13 Jul 2011

Disused building in New Orleans transformed into insightful tool for public speech

Rejuvenation projects don’t necessarily have to be extravagant or expensive, or indeed take years to design and complete. Candy Chang, New Orleans resident, artist and urban planner demonstrated this with aplomb several months ago by converting an abandoned building in her home town into a transformative medium for individuals from the community to express themselves.

The seed of the project was planted several years ago when Chang was living and working in Helsinki as a design researcher and suffered numerous personal tragedies including the loss of close friends. A number of her friends faced similar hardships, causing Chang to view her future in a very different way. She explains: “Those months made me very aware that life is brief and tender and not to be delayed. It made me think hard about what was really important to me. I realised my heart was in public space and experimenting in different ways to make cities better. So I ended my job, moved to New Orleans last summer, co-founded a civic design studio called Civic Center, and started to fool around with public space again.”

Therapeutic this may have been for the artist, but this interactive project seems to have had a significant effect on the community of New Orleans. Having coated a street-facing side of the abandoned building in chalkboard paint and stencilled on repetitions of the phrase ‘Before I die I want to ___________’, Chang and her team invited passers-by to relay their ending to the sentence on the wall using the coloured chalk provided.

The results are enlightening. As the images to the left of this article show, the confessions left by New Orleanians are a revelation and range from the funny, to the touching, to the downright bizarre. Golden nuggets include: evaporate into the light; be someone’s cavalry; hug a sloth; be completely myself; be the one that she believes I am and I know I am; cook a soufflé; own a monkey; see my daughter graduate; and find my mythical creature.

Such is the success of the ‘Before I Die’ project that plans are being put into place to continue the scheme in other cities across America, with packs in production including a one-column stencil making it simple for those elsewhere to recreate the wall at home or in a city of their choice (with appropriate permission from local authorities). Getting to this stage was not as easy as it first appears however, as whilst the majority of local residents responded positively to the installation others were concerned that it would encourage lewd messages to be scrawled in the public domain.

To this Chang responds: “I understand [these residents’] concerns and I think many people’s knee-jerk reaction to informal messages in public space is negative...In a built environment where citizen’s flyers are illegal yet businesses can shout about their latest products on an increasing number of surfaces, we need to consider whether public spaces can be better designed so that they’re not necessarily allocated to the highest bidder but instead reflect our needs as residents and human beings.”

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