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Candy Chang asks: "What do you want In Minneapolis? What do you want in St. Paul?"

If you’ve been at the corner of 7th Street and Hennepin Avenue since Thursday, and looked up, you may have noticed three digital billboards with the question, “What do you want in Minneapolis?” Under the white thought bubble housing the question is a statement enthusiastically encouraging a response: “Let’s shape our city!” In other words, the billboards are interactive. They’re scattered throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. (The St. Paul billboards ask the "what do you want?" question for that city.) And you’re being invited to text your ideas for improving the Twin Cities.

Some of those texts will show up on the billboards over the next month. Others can be read, commented on, or agreed to (by clicking “want it”) on Neighborland.com.

Neighborland is an interactive social activism project, covering multiple cities and founded by New Orleans-based public artist Candy Chang (with Dan Parham and Tee Parham). The billboard launch--a collaboration between Chang, Forecast Public Art, and Clear Channel Outdoor--coincided with Chang’s public talk Thursday evening at Walker Art Center, the third in the “Talk-It Hennepin” series that’s part of “Plan-It Hennepin.”

A year-long initiative funded by a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, “Plan-It Hennepin” is a series of public conversations and workshops that are bringing together historians, city planners, urban designers, public artists, and the public to plan the future of Hennepin Avenue. Click here for The Line's coverage of the first “Talk-It Hennepin,” (“Placemaking/Minneapolis: The arts take the lead on Hennepin”) and here for the second (“Hennepin's history and Hennepin's future”).

"Fun, Lower-Barrier Tools"

During her presentation last Thursday, Chang talked about her career and the sorts of “fun, lower-barrier tools” she’s created and deployed to get people sharing about their hopes and dreams for their lives, a building, or a city. A former graphic designer for The New York Times, design field researcher at Nokia, co-founder of record label and design studio Red Antenna, and co-founder of Civic Center (a studio/clearing house for her speaking engagements, various projects, and merchandise related to those projects), Chang spoke with the thoughtful precocity of a highly accomplished, multi-talented, much-awarded young woman. (A MacArthur “genius” grant is, no doubt, in her near future.)

Her ability to engage with a community through projects of an almost childlike simplicity is remarkable. She effectively reduces complex issues to an easy question that invites public opinion, poetry, and revelation. In the project “Before I Die,” she covered one exterior wall of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood with chalkboard paint, then stenciled onto it the question “Before I die I want to…” Neighbors filled in their answers almost immediately, answers that ranged from the humorous to the heartfelt. (Ever the entrepreneur, Chang created a toolkit with illustrated guide, chalk, and headline template--which can be downloaded or purchased--so communities throughout the world can “share their dreams in public space.”)

Using the ubiquitous red-and-white “Hello, My Name Is…” stickers as her template, Chang created fill-in-the-blank “I Wish This Was” stickers made of vinyl (for easy removal) that she places on abandoned buildings for passersby to complete. This project also got its start in New Orleans, when Chang made thousands of free stickers available in businesses around the city for people to pick up and use, and pasted grids of blank stickers on vacant buildings. Responses ranged from the functional “I wish this was a community garden,” to the humorous (“Brad Pitt’s house”) to the poetic (“Heaven").

In Fairbanks, Alaska, Chang was invited to address the Polaris Building, a former apartment complex and then hotel, vacant for more than a decade. She designed, fabricated, and covered the building with a four-story sign that read “Looking for Love Again,” to entice passersby to visit the building. What they found were two green chalkboards at the street level with headline, “My Memories of the Polaris Building.” Notes ranged from memories of living in the building or dining in its famed Tiki Cove Restaurant, to ideas for reuse.

Public Space as "Information Commons"

Chang talked about these and other projects as experiments. One of her mottos is “Be curious, have an open mind and just try things out.” Through work like a pictorial guide that helps New York City street vendors better understand city regulations, she investigates “communication tools as infrastructure…as ways to make city information fun and engaging.” With projects like Neighborland, which takes place partially online, she’s examining how public space can be transformed into information commons like the Internet.

During a brief question-and-answer period following her presentation, Jack Becker, Forecast’s executive director, said that Chang “creates public art as a field of inquiry. She asks questions and lets others respond.” To which Chang responded, “I’m just providing a platform for people.” Asked about the long-range public policy implications of her work, she mentioned that projects like Neighborland reveal residents’ needs and build support for their requests, which may include calls for new businesses (a coffee shop, dance studio) and infrastructure (streetcars, bike lanes). “Small interventions can lead to better-informed big ones,” she says.

Harvesting Ideas

So what might Neighborland Minneapolis reveal about people’s hope and dreams for Hennepin Avenue? So far, respondents’ suggestions have been more geared to the city in general. Remarks include “car share locations in Northeast” to “an art park in Seward,” and range from “organic food options in the skyways” to “Milwaukee style pubs and taverns.” In St. Paul, texts have called for co-op groceries in numerous locations, tapping city maple trees for syrup, and bridges, seating areas and community gardens.

What these suggestions have to do, ultimately, with Hennepin Avenue's future as a key place of exchange in the city's new economy, with community input on design, or with how to collaborate to make the street more dynamic and welcoming to a diverse population is anyone’s guess. As the two previous “Talk-It Hennepin” conversations revealed, Hennepin Avenue has evolved over several centuries, from an American Indian trail to a necessary and often contested urban thoroughfare. The NEA grant supports a one-year planning process to “re-invent Hennepin Avenue as an arts-inspired cultural corridor stretching from the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi Riverfront.”

Perhaps the hopes, needs and imaginings expressed via Neighborland will end up, in some form, on the future avenue. In the meantime, you’re invited to give voice to your thoughts--and comment on the ideas of others—24/7 via the Neighborland website, or next time you pass the Neighborland billboard near you.

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line reported on an earlier phase of "Talk-It Hennepin," in our March 13, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Candy Chang

The event announced, at the Walker Art Center

Jack Becker of Forecast Public Art addresses the Chang crowd.

Walker director Olga Viso welcoming Chang

Chang stenciling during the "Before I Die" project

Images of Candy Chang courtesy Civic Center; other images by Bill Kelley
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