Don’t Ask Too Much, or How to Encourage Participation in a Public Participation Art Project

Posted by: Elaine Luther

“Before I die… ____________________”  Now there’s an irresistible fill in the blank question if I ever saw one.  That’s the question you’re invited to answer, with a piece of chalk, in Candy Chang’s public participation art piece, known as Before I die…

Candy encourages replication of this project and even has a whole website dedicated to helping you do that.  You can buy the stencils ready-made so it’s a terrific first project to try.

I made a Before I die…  wall at the Self-Employment in the Arts (SEA) Conference in 2015.  Our wall was indoors, so we used chalk daubers to stencil in the questions and headings, and chalk markers for participants to write in their answers.

Participants at the conference found the question irresistible too, and wrote in some terrific examples.  It was very exciting to see how this less-used back hallway at the conference hotel truly became activated by the participatory art.

The following year at the SEA conference, I was again invited to create something on the glass windows in that back hallway.  Not wanting to replicate another artist’s work again, I decided to quote a song lyric and invite responses to that.  I love Jana Stanfield’s song, “If I were Brave,” and I chose the lyric, “What would I do today, if I were brave?”

My assistants and I again used chalk daubers to create the stenciled question and provided chalk markers for participants to write their answers.  Clarity is key in public participation art, so we drew shapes for people to write inside of.

Asking questions, big questions, that can all be answered with the same form of sentence, is another key to success.  Complicated questions, where the participate has to create a new sentence or phrase in order to answer the question, discourages participation.

And questions are irresistible!  Our brains love to answer questions.

Another terrific Candy Chang project, that she also encourages you to replicate, is “I Wish This Was,” she is terrific at getting us to think big, to tap into our hopes and dreams and wishes.

For this project, she uses the form of the familiar red “hello my name is” name tag, but she’s changed the words to “I wish this was…” and provided blanks at a vacant store front. Passersby, who are likely to live in the neighborhood, and likely to have a wish about what that vacant spot could become, can take a blank name tag, write their wish on it, and put it up.  The vinyl name tags are special easy to remove material and do not cause damage to the site.

In creating some question and response public participation artworks, and in reflecting on Candy Chang’s, I’ve come up with some thoughts on what makes this kind of project work.

•  Easy.  It should be easy to participate.

•  It should be immediately clear HOW to participate.

•  The question (if there is a question) should be clear and compelling, even inspiring.  It should be irresistible.

•  It should be at least a little bit fun.

•  If it’s not fun, the setting and preparation require more planning, commitment and time in creating the project.

A fun project I created in the summer of 2015 was the EXPLORE project for the Forest Park Public Library.  The theme for the adult summer reading program was “explore” and I built 4′ tall wood letters that we installed on the front lawn of the library.  Participants could register in advance to come and paint, or drop in.

While I built these wood letters from boards, if I were to do this project again, I would have the letters CNC cut by a service.

The librarian I worked with on this project, Alicia Hammond, and I wrote a how-to guide on how to replicate this project.  You can read that on the Library as Incubator Project blog.

Participants were able to paint whatever they wanted, with a limited range of colors.  They found it delightful and it really activated a completely underused space.

A “less fun” but incredibly moving project is the Carin and Cloud project by Corinne Peterson.

According to the Oak Park Art League, which recently displayed the work, “The rocks and cloud pieces in Cairn & Cloud were carved and shaped by more than 500 adults, teenagers, and children who participated in 50 Shaping Clay, Shaping Life workshops. They formed the clay rock to incorporate their memories of trauma and created the porcelain tokens to represent their inner light. Viewed together, the dark rocks and white cloud stand for transformation of individual feelings of loss, into a collective expression of healing.”

Powerful works like that can’t be created on a drop-in basis.  People have to know what they are signing up for and know that the workshop space is a safe one.  It’s notable that it took the artist 50 workshops to create the piece.

She worked with “immigrants; LGBTQ youth; cancer survivors; survivors of sexual abuse; families of gun violence victims; the homeless; Iraqi, Burundi, and Burmese refugees; veterans; nurses; the bereaved; the blind; among many other men, women, and children from diverse communities across the city. ”

Undoubtedly her background as a psychotherapist was useful in creating a safe space for participants to create expressive art about trauma.

Learn more about the cairn project on its own website.


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