Fill in the Blank

Anna Dozor

Walk along 18th Street in Pilsen and you’ll pass taquerías, cafes, clothing shops and liquor stores. But if you turn north at the intersection of 18th and Carpenter Street, the latest installation of Candy Chang’s interactive art piece “Before I Die” lies waiting, asking what you want to do before you die.

The concept is deceptively simple: take a public wall or building, cover it with black chalkboard paint, and spray-paint the phrase “Before I die, I want to _____________.” Then leave some colored chalk, and watch as the blanks (and all available space around them, for that matter) get filled with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of passersby.

Anna Dozor

According to Chang’s website, the first wall was installed on an abandoned, decaying building in Chang’s New Orleans neighborhood just over a year ago. Intended as an “enlightening way to understand your neighbors and discover what matters most to the people around you,” the piece was embraced by the community and quickly picked up by the national media (The Atlantic called it “one of the most creative community projects ever”). After receiving many requests, Chang, a designer, urban planner, and artist, came up with a toolkit for others hoping to put up their own version in their communities. “Before I Die” has now been installed on more than 12 walls across seven countries, with over 25,000 responses in places as varied as Kazakhstan, Mexico, Portugal, and England.

This particular wall in Pilsen, chosen mostly for its well-trafficked location, smooth surface, and supportive owner, is part of a Chicago-wide incarnation of the project organized primarily by the community arts non-profits Good News Only, based in Edgewater, and the Chicago Urban Art Society, based in Pilsen. Walls are now up in three locations around the city (1101 W. Granville Street in Edgewater, 18th & Carpenter, and 18th & Laflin) and four more have been planned for Wicker Park, Chinatown, Little Village and Dvorak Park.

When I first arrived, the piece on Carpenter had been there for a couple weeks, and it was entirely covered in distressed chalk scribbles. The quotes on the wall ranged from the more serious “Never stop loving my mom” and “Leave a legacy” to jokes like “Find Waldo.” They overlapped one another and were often difficult to make out. Rain and weather had given the entire thing a misty, faded effect. Elizabeth Shank, one of the organizers from Good News Only, was contemplating whether it was time to erase the chalk. Periodically the wall is returned to its original state of blankness, free to be filled once more–emphasizing a troubling part of the piece: its impermanence. The board provides a space for each participant to share his or her dreams, but chalk is so easy to erase.

One woman specifically asked Shank not to rinse away one particular ambition about health care written on the Edgewater wall. Even though she had not penned it herself, she felt so connected she didn’t want to see it gone. And Shank did comment, looking wistfully at the now quite chaotic wall, “I do feel a little bad. We’re asking them to put up their opinions and thoughts” while also knowing that they will soon be gone.

And sure enough, when I returned to the wall for a second visit just hours after the first, the organizers had already wiped it clean. The dreams I had just read and deciphered had been rubbed away. One woman, though, quickly took the opportunity to fill an empty space with her own dream. Only after she wrote it did I realize that I had seen this desire–“to run a marathon”–written in the same handwriting just before. In rewriting her wish, she seemed to try to assure its permanence, even if the chalk wouldn’t.

One positive aspect of the chalk’s transience, though, has been its resilience to the little vandalism the walls have experienced. “There have been some slightly profane drawings,” said Shank, and while she found it discouraging and not in keeping with the spirit of the piece, she was able to shake it off: “At least it’s only in chalk.”

Before I Die Chi can be found at the intersections of 18th and Catepillar, and 18th and Laflin

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