In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Public Space.
Anyone who doubts the role of public space in catalyzing community cohesion or expression has probably never stumbled across one of Candy Chang’s projects. The artist and designer is best known for her now internationally replicated and lauded project, Before I Die . . . , which transforms empty public spaces into bucket lists by inviting people to use public walls to write down their wishes for their own lives. Chang has spent the past several years conducting art projects that prompt communities to use public space to connect and engage with one another. Her projects range from the practical—enabling community members to share information about their housing costs in order to determine a fair price for rent, share general resources, or voice their desires for their neighborhood’s development—to the introspective. But all her projects express one common desire: to connect with each other and ourselves through common space.
As part of Lab | Log’s 100 Urban Trends Series, Candy agreed to add her two cents on Public Space, what it means to transform it, and where we go from here.
Your work in public space deals with the deeply personal, emotional, even spiritual aspects of our lives. Why bring these out into public space?
We’re all trying to make sense of our lives and there’s great comfort in knowing you’re not alone. And you’re not. Everyone you’re standing with in line, and everyone you’re sitting next to at a café, and everyone you walk past on the street is going through challenges in their life. There’s a lot we can learn from the people around us, but there are a lot of barriers to opening up. And while the barriers remain, it’s easy to forget the humanity in others and be impersonal and even adversarial.
The interactive public art projects started out as my quiet way to ask my neighbors things I was too shy to ask in person. Only later did I realize the open prompts had other benefits. Anonymity can be a safe and gentle first step towards honesty, vulnerability, trust, and understanding. I think 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 public spaces were graves and sacred groves. We gathered so we could grieve together and worship together and console one another and be alone together. Our public spaces are our shared spaces and at their greatest, they can help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.
Can you share one personal anecdote of a public art project that has had an impact on you—either one of your own projects or someone else’s?
Years ago, I lived in Chinatown in New York City, four blocks from 11 Spring Street when it was an informal hub for street art. Here, in the middle of downtown, was this gigantic building absorbing layers of beautiful, bold, big-hearted art. New things were added every day and people came from far away to add their mark. It made a lasting impression on how I perceived public space. It made me feel like public space wasn’t a pristine, sterile space that I shouldn’t touch. Instead, it made me feel like public space was an informal, colorful place where I could add to the mix, too. My friends and I ran our own record label and design house and we wheat-pasted a few images of our own onto the building. I was studying urban planning at the time, and my dalliances in street art and my questions about local communication began to brew. Eleven Spring Street gave me the moxie to create my first interactive experiments in public space.
We often talk about the need to “scale up” small solutions in order to have them make a broader impact. Does this concept translate to public space transformations and interventions that are felt on such a hyper-local scale? Is there a macro effect that they can or already do accomplish?
Some projects only make sense in one place. Some projects make sense in many. I never expected the Before I Die . . . project to go beyond New Orleans. It was a very personal gesture on an abandoned house in my neighborhood. But when people around the world started making [similar] walls with their communities, I saw how relevant and hyper-local it remained. The beauty of the project lies in what people write. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community. Each wall is a tribute to our universal longing to make our life personally meaningful. Thanks to passionate people who have spearheaded their own walls, the project has now been made in more than 50 countries and stenciled in more than 20 languages. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life to see this little experiment grow into a global project. Collectively, they remind me of our shared connections and challenge what our public spaces are fundamentally made of. So many of us want to make our public spaces more ours.
What is the most promising movement or conversation that you see happening around public space today?
I see more programs enabling people to experiment in public space. This is great. The freedom to try things out is essential for places to prosper. The rules around public space can be ambiguous and intimidating. The more this process is made accessible, the more residents can self-organize and drive the change in their communities. You can tell a lot about a city by its public spaces. Our sidewalks, squares, parks, and civic buildings are for everyone, but if you take a quick look at the messages on display in many of our public spaces, it seems like we only care about sexy beers and fruity shampoos. In an environment where taping a flyer to a lamppost is illegal while businesses can shout about products on an increasing number of surfaces, we need to consider how our public spaces can be better designed so they’re not just reserved for the highest bidder. The results and remedies of privately owned public spaces is an important conversation. Do our public spaces currently reflect what we value in our brief and tender lives?