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Coffee on the GO with Candy Chang

The artist, author, and speaker talks about her participatory public art project Before I Die, which became a global phenomenon.
Coffee on the GO with Candy Chang

Fans of TED Talks are likely to recognize artist, author, and speaker Candy Chang from her talk in 2012 about Before I Die, a participatory public art project that invites passersby to complete the prompt, “Before I die I want to…” by writing responses on a chalk board placed in a public space. Before I Die originated in 2011 with a board erected on a vacant lot in New Orleans, La., and grew into an international phenomenon with installations in locations around the world. Participants have provided answers that ranged from silly (“have my own theme song”) to poignant (“speak with my children one last time”)—all giving a glimpse into the minds of those we may pass on the street daily.

Chang spoke with GO about the importance of Before I Die and how leaders can use the concept of the project to enrich their employees.

GO: It’s interesting that the “Before I die I want to …” prompt is a way to get people to think about death, but also about their lives.

CHANG: It has a lot to do with our mortality and our anxiety and denial regarding death. At same time it has a lot to do with empowering ourselves to seize the moment and know that our future is really in our hands, and how to maintain this perspective in our lives.

GO: What do you think it is about this project that made it so popular?

CHANG: It strikes a nerve with a lot of us. We can easily get distracted in the day-to-day stuff, but here are these big questions that loom over all of us: What are the things that are important to us? What do we really want to accomplish before we die? I think that’s why the project has grown so quickly. I imagine that the popularity of the walls has been because you get to understand the people around you in a unique, new, inspiring way.

We have so many barriers to be able to open up about the things that are meaningful to us. There are often a lot of masks in between. What I like about this project is that it tries to strip those masks away and tries to cut through all the junk to really get down to the things that are meaningful to us.

GO: Why do you think those barriers exist?

CHANG: A lot of it comes from lack of trust and understanding, because there are challenges to really connecting with the people around us. When those barriers aren’t there, it’s fairly easy to be fearful, to call something the other, and to stereotype it and forget the humanity in the people around us. It interests me that these personal, anonymous prompts offer this gentle first step towards honesty and vulnerability in public which can lead to trust and understanding. Any way that we can provide platforms where we can better understand one another can help remind us that we have so much more in common than not.

GO: What can companies learn from the success of Before I Die?

CHANG: There’s this extra challenge in workplaces where this idea of being vulnerable is something most people don’t do, because they feel they need to show they can be trusted and counted on, that they’ve got things under control. That’s all the more reason to figure out ways to create a space where people can share their confusions, their fears, and their anxieties because that stuff is not often encouraged in the workplace.

If you’re able to create spaces where people can be more open and you can cultivate trust and understanding, all the better to be able to have a deep connection and then work together.

Especially in an international community, it’s important to find ways to continue to connect on a deeper level because once you feel empathy and compassion towards others, it changes everything in the way you work together and the way you want to work together. That leads to a whole snowball effect in productivity, collaboration, and beyond.

GO: Do you think your project would have been as successful 30 years ago, when there wasn’t quite as much technology isolating people?

CHANG: Before I Die could not have grown like it did if it wasn’t for social media. But I also think that one of the reasons it was popular was because of digital fatigue. There is a kind of novelty to being able to use a piece of chalk and write on this chalkboard wall in public. There are times when I’ve looked at a lot of these responses and felt so much because of the handwriting. There is so much personality bursting out of a lot of these handwritten responses, and sometimes that personality gets lost with digital tools.

GO: Do you think the popularity of the project had something to do with the ephemeral nature of the medium?

CHANG: Yes. I’ve spoken with a lot of people who were standing in front of walls and they’re like, “I’m not sure what to write.” I think at least the chalk helps them to feel like this is not set in stone.

GO: You’ve said the two greatest resources that we have are time and our relationships with others. Do you think businesses understand that when it comes to their employees and how they treat them?

CHANG: It depends on the business. In many instances, there is a divorce between your personal life and your work life. When you’re working, you’re bringing your whole self, including your stresses, your conflicts, and whatever problems you may have at the time. It’s extremely important for companies to do better to serve the psychological health of employees. More and more, you see companies creating gyms and ways people can exercise for their physical health, and while physical health can improve your mental health, there are many other tools needed. I’m interested in figuring out ways we can cultivate our mental health, because it’s easy to neglect.

GO: What’s your dream project?

CHANG: I’ve been thinking a lot about a bigger project. I like to take road trips across the U.S., and I was just in Death Valley again. I want to make a Before I Die library in the desert. It would be some sort of small library, like a destination when you take your pilgrimage on your road trips. It would be a destination point for me to store perspective, to contemplate the people we’ve lost, to think about our own mortality, and to think about the next steps in our lives.

Chang’s latest installation is Grief is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed, a meditation on loss, located in Heraklion, Greece.

Talk to an Expert: Coffee on the GO with Candy Chang
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