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Before I Die I Want To...

March 14, 2011 |  8:45 am



"There's this blighted house that has been collecting dust for many years and I bike by it all the time -- I live right around the corner. There are a lot of abandoned houses in New Orleans and I thought, 'wouldn't it be nice to make this a nicer space in my neighborhood.' So I did."

That's public installation artist and urban planner Candy Chang on why she spent $300 of her own money and many, many hours creating the "Before I Die" board in her New Orleans neighborhood.

Chalk With the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Art In The Streets" exhibition just around the corner, Culture Monster is more interested than usual in the art people make in their own backyard.

In Chang's other work, she takes pains to keep the barriers to participation low. The Before I Die chalkboard is equipped with bowls of chalk, so people walking by can easily fill in the blank.

The idea has caught on, especially with passing Mardi Gras revelers. When the board gets full, it is photographed and then washed. Participants are not deterred by a wet board. "When we were cleaning it the other day, people were adding responses so by the time we were finished it was 25% full."

The mural-sized chalkboard has been open since Feb. 25 but was six months in the making. "It was a long process because I wanted to do it above board," said Chang. 

"I got permission from the property owner.  It's kind of a sad story. The building is owned by a single mother who wanted to do right by New Orleans and invest in it after Katrina and the contractor stole her money. I asked all the neighbors on the block, since they have to live with it, and they were all cool with it and offered to help paint."

Community support was high but even so, halfway through the installation, Chang had to stop because a neighbor called the police on the grounds that a chalkboard qualified as a mural and therefore needed extra permits.

When Chang presented her case to the city, she couldn't quite believe her ears. "I thought I would have to be all apologetic but they were all like, 'No, this is great. How do we make it so you don't have to go through more bureaucracy. If anyone doesn't like it, well, that's the way the banana bends.' "

 Street art projects, even when sanctioned by the city, are often resisted by communities who fear that a spray-painted mural will only beget tagging and depress property values. Those fears rarely come to pass and many cities across the country are incorporating street art in their efforts to create something positive into rundown neighborhoods.

"I welcome a few penis doodles, if that means there are this many more constructive comments from residents," said Chang.  "Actually, I've been really surprised as to how few [doodles] there are. One of my favorite answers is 'Before I die, I want to eat a salad with an alien.' Another person wrote 'Before I die, I want to marry this person' with an arrow pointing to the alien one."  

It seems that Chang is on to something with this sort of public confessional, and while she is considering bringing the project to other cities, ultimately her goal is a stronger local community. "I want people to trust each other.  There are a lot of great things to be said and shared with your neighbors."

A website is in the works for the project, which will include images of the wall and a space for people to comment anonymously. 

In the meantime, what about you?  What would like to do before you die?


Graffiti and street art show to take over MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in 2011

-- Marcia Adair

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