Thursday, October 4, 2012

TED: Candy Chang: Before I die I want to...

FILMED JUL 2012 • POSTED SEP 2012 • TEDGlobal 2012

In her New Orleans neighborhood, artist and TED Fellow Candy Chang turned an abandoned house into a giant chalkboard asking a fill-in-the-blank question: “Before I die I want to ___.” Her neighbors' answers -- surprising, poignant, funny -- became an unexpected mirror for the community. (What's your answer?)

There are a lot of ways the people around us can help improve our lives. We don't bump into every neighbor, so a lot of wisdom never gets passed on, though we do share the same public spaces.

So over the past few years, I've tried ways to share more with my neighbors in public space, using simple tools like stickers, stencils and chalk. And these projects came from questions I had, like, how much are my neighbors paying for their apartments? (Laughter) How can we lend and borrow more things without knocking on each other's doors at a bad time? How can we share more of our memories of our abandoned buildings, and gain a better understanding of our landscape? And how can we share more of our hopes for our vacant storefronts, so our communities can reflect our needs and dreams today?

Now, I live in New Orleans, and I am in love with New Orleans. My soul is always soothed by the giant live oak trees, shading lovers, drunks and dreamers for hundreds of years, and I trust a city that always makes way for music. (Laughter) I feel like every time someone sneezes, New Orleans has a parade. (Laughter) The city has some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, but it also has one of the highest amounts of abandoned properties in America.

I live near this house, and I thought about how I could make it a nicer space for my neighborhood, and I also thought about something that changed my life forever.

In 2009, I lost someone I loved very much. Her name was Joan, and she was a mother to me, and her death was sudden and unexpected. And I thought about death a lot, and this made me feel deep gratitude for the time I've had, and brought clarity to the things that are meaningful to my life now. But I struggle to maintain this perspective in my daily life. I feel like it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, and forget what really matters to you.

So with help from old and new friends, I turned the side of this abandoned house into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with a fill-in-the-blank sentence: "Before I die, I want to ... " So anyone walking by can pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.

I didn't know what to expect from this experiment, but by the next day, the wall was entirely filled out, and it kept growing. And I'd like to share a few things that people wrote on this wall.

"Before I die, I want to be tried for piracy." (Laughter) "Before I die, I want to straddle the International Date Line." "Before I die, I want to sing for millions." "Before I die, I want to plant a tree." "Before I die, I want to live off the grid." "Before I die, I want to hold her one more time." "Before I die, I want to be someone's cavalry." "Before I die, I want to be completely myself."

So this neglected space became a constructive one, and people's hopes and dreams made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times. It's about knowing you're not alone. It's about understanding our neighbors in new and enlightening ways. It's about making space for reflection and contemplation, and remembering what really matters most to us as we grow and change.

I made this last year, and started receiving hundreds of messages from passionate people who wanted to make a wall with their community, so my civic center colleagues and I made a tool kit, and now walls have been made in countries around the world, including Kazakhstan, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and beyond. Together, we've shown how powerful our public spaces can be if we're given the opportunity to have a voice and share more with one another.

Two of the most valuable things we have are time and our relationships with other people. In our age of increasing distractions, it's more important than ever to find ways to maintain perspective and remember that life is brief and tender. Death is something that we're often discouraged to talk about or even think about, but I've realized that preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.

Our shared spaces can better reflect what matters to us as individuals and as a community, and with more ways to share our hopes, fears and stories, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us lead better lives. Thank you. (Applause)

(Applause) Thank you. (Applause) (Applause)


Candy Chang creates art that prompts people to think about their secrets, wishes and hopes -- and then share them. She is a TED Senior Fellow.

Why you should listen:

Candy Chang is an artist, designer, and urban planner who explores making cities more comfortable and contemplative places. She believes in the potential of introspection and collective wisdom in public space to improve our communities and help us lead better lives.

Recent projects include Before I Die, where she transformed an abandoned house in her neighborhood in New Orleans into an interactive wall for people to share their hopes and dreams -- a project The Atlantic called “one of the most creative community projects ever.” Other projects include I Wish This Was, a street art project that invites people to voice what they want in vacant storefronts, and Neighborland, an online tool that helps people self-organize and shape the development of their communities. She is a TED Senior Fellow, an Urban Innovation Fellow, and was named a “Live Your Best Life” Local Hero by Oprah magazine. By combining street art with urban planning and social activism, she has been recognized as a leader in developing new strategies for the design of our cities. She is co-founder of Civic Center, an art and design studio in New Orleans. See more at candychang.com.