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Candy Chang prepares a wall for a `Before I Die` presentation. Participants share their personal thoughts on the wall while completing the sentence, `Before I die ...`. (Photo by Kristina Kassem // provided by the University at Buffalo)
Candy Chang prepares a wall for a "Before I Die" presentation. Participants share their personal thoughts on the wall while completing the sentence, "Before I die ...". (Photo by Kristina Kassem // provided by the University at Buffalo)

Candy Chang, creator of 'Before I Die,' to kick off this year's Buffalo Humanities Festival


Tue, Sep 19th 2023 09:25 am

Chang’s ‘Before I Die’ walls represent ‘one of the most creative projects ever,’ according to The Atlantic; several local installations will be in place in the days prior to Chang’s talk

By the University at Buffalo

Candy Chang, the artist and TED Fellow who created “Before I Die,” a global participatory art project that reimagines how public art can help communities address mortality and meaning, will kick off this year’s Buffalo Humanities Festival, a three-day event with the theme “Communities: Trust.”

The festival, organized by the University at Buffalo’s Humanities Institute (HI), one of the most important entities supporting the humanities in Western New York, takes place Sept. 22-24 at various community locations.

Now in its 10th year, HI will partner with SUNY Buffalo State University, Canisius University, Daemen University, Humanities New York and Niagara University for this year’s festival, which marks a postpandemic return to a fully programmed event with multiple speakers, panels, films, music, seminars and food trucks.

Chang will deliver the festival’s opening lecture, “The Power of Public Art to Engage Communities,” at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Central Library auditorium, 1 Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo.

Several “Before I Die” walls, all prepared by the Fabrication Workshop in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, will appear locally prior to Chang’s visit, including installations in the UB Center for the Arts, Torn Space Theatre, the Hostel Buffalo-Niagara on Main Street in the Theatre District, and another planned for Buffalo’s Five Points neighborhood.

“Before I Die” uses a public space – a building or wall – as its canvas. Each iteration is a uniquely evolving community undertaking, an intimate yet collective reflection upon death as a tribute to living an examined life. The project asks participants to publicly share in writing their personal thoughts by completing the sentence, “Before I die…” Its open-ended design inspires an emotional community-specific expression of sentiment, crafted by those who also become its audience.

Since Chang created the first “Before I Die” wall in New Orleans following the death of someone close to her, more than 5,000 other communities across 78 countries have called upon her gift and initial inspiration to develop their own “Before I Die” walls, an artistic achievement The Atlantic calls “one of the most creative projects ever.”

“The ‘Before I Die’ project is a compelling example for how the humanities can impact communities by bringing out the personal within a public space,” said Libby Otto, Ph.D., a professor of modern art and art history in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, who also serves as HI director. “Candy Chang fits perfectly into our theme by thinking about the humanities in public facing contexts in order to illustrate their effect on our daily lives.”

Most festival events are free and open to the public, including Chang’s talk, but guests are asked to register in advance for events. Registration includes free shuttle service from UB’s Center for the Arts to various festival locations, including transportation to Chang’s opening night appearance.

Tickets for the Sunday matinee performance of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a special festival event presented with D’Youville’s Kavinoky Theatre, starring UB’s Lindsay Brandon Hunter, Ph.D., associate professor of theatre and dance, can be purchased online.

The humanities as a suite of disciplines provide the mechanisms necessary to address contemporary challenges, but they also serve as a reminder of our interdependence. We discover and understand those connections through our stories and histories.

The festival extends that narrative through the theme of “Communities: Trust” to demonstrate how many publics, neighborhoods and families come together in ways that bind our communities. This year’s programming examines those connections to recognize and emphasize how communities exist, not in isolation, but in relation to one another, both in harmony and in struggle, all the time surrounded by the implications and various forms of trust.

Christina Milletti, Ph.D., associate professor in UB’s department of English, who serves as HI’s executive director, said the hope underpinning this year’s event is to redefine the radical potential of building trust, especially during a time that she views as a “trust crisis.”

“Community and trust are multilayered terms, and by saying ‘trust’ we’re also highlighting the existence of ‘distrust,’ and how both function in various communities,” Milletti said. “The festival is an opportunity to talk through the social, political and cultural elements that contribute to the trust we should embrace and the distrust that we need to work on.”

Otto points to several examples for how the festival’s theme plays out in variations across its diverse programming. They include a roundtable conversation on public trust and the Buffalo waterfront. Another session explores culture, conversation, food and hospitality.

Elizabeth Mazzolini, an associate professor in the UB department of English, will have a talk on toxic culture and Love Canal; Rinaldo Walcott, chair of the department of Africana and American studies, will discuss “Black Studies, the University and the Future of Democratic Life”; and Holly Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability, will discuss renewable energy and community environments.

Maki Tanigaki, HI program coordinator, said the festival will deliver multiple perspectives both across and within its panels and roundtables.

“The hope is that these discussions carry over into conversations among our attendees,” she said. “Part of our motivation is to create gathering spaces to talk in person in ways that bring the public together with academics and advocates.

“This interaction can help provide the skills to better address contemporary problems and challenges.”

But that’s not the only reason to attend, according to Otto.

“It’s fun,” she added.

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