Candy Chang

Year of Graduation: 
1995
Artist Candy Chang

"Public art has the power to snap you out of your routine. It’s about remembering why you want to be alive in the world today."

Take a minute and think about the public spaces you pass through: the sidewalks, the parks, the shops, the buildings you walk by. What do you wish they could be? If you could interact with these places—or the other people you see in them—what would you want to know about them? What would you want them to know about you? 

It’s questions like these that occupy the mind and days of artist and urban planner Candy Chang ’95. She has made a career of querying local residents about the desires for their lives and their environment through quirky, thoughtful, interactive projects. She painted the plywood boarding up an abandoned home with blackboard chalk and stenciled rows and rows of the phrase, “Before I die I want to ... .” Passersby obliged with responses ranging from “drive a solar-powered car,” to “get my wife back,” to “learn French,” to “be tried for piracy.” 

A magazine insert offered readers a door hanger with an invitation for neighbors to drop by between certain hours to borrow or lend particular items, forging connections with shared resources. Vinyl stickers reading, “I wish this was...” asked New Orleanians to weigh in on what they aspired for their neighborhood—bike racks, restaurants and grocery stores were popular themes. But some were more wistful: “full of people,” “not so scary looking,” “full of nymphomaniacs with Ph.D.s.” “It’s easier and easier to reach out across the world, but it’s still hard to reach out to your neighborhood,” she notes. “Where better to reach out to your neighbors than in the very public spaces we share every day?” 

Candy Chang's "Before I Die" art installation

Her union of art and urban planning bloomed in New York City’s Chinatown, where she lived when she studied urban planning at Columbia University. “I was surrounded by storefronts and lampposts covered with all kinds of flyers, stickers and posters,” she recalls. “A lot of them are really useful, and yet they’re often illegal and discouraged. Communication tools are just as important an infrastructure system as roads, electricity and sewer drains. If our public spaces were designed differently, we might have more to say to each other than, ‘Have you seen my cat?’” 

Meanwhile, in her daily life she found significant barriers to participating in neighborhood planning as a private citizen. “At first my projects were mostly about how to improve my neighborhood,” she says. “Who knows a neighborhood better than the people who live and work there? We know what businesses our neighborhood needs. We know what things need fixing. And we need better tools to easily share these ideas.”

Over time, though, Chang has found her questions turning more personal. “I think it’s easy to get distracted by the little things and forget what really matters to you,” she says. “Public art has the power to snap you out of your routine. It’s about remembering why you want to be alive in the world today. The people around us can not only help us make better communities, but they can also help us lead better lives.” 

While she notes that she never made any public art at Exeter (apart from carving her name on the desk in her dorm room), she acknowledges that the foundation for her work was laid here, particularly in the classroom of English instructor Fred Tremallo. “In his class we read everything from Joseph Campbell and T.S. Eliot to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We watched 'Black Orpheus' and Fellini’s 'Satyricon.' He made me realize all these things were connected. I think that’s when I saw compartmentalized disciplines for what they were. There are many spaces between them, and no one says you can’t go outside of the lines. So it’s only natural we make our own disciplines out of the bits and pieces that we’re interested in.” 

— Susannah Clark ’84 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2012 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.