Can Art Change Lives?

As an artist, what does it means to make a difference, to know that our work makes the world better?

I am an artist, and I also have a career in the social sector. As a result, I’ve thought a lot about change. In the social sector, organizations often measure impact by having a theory of change—for example, wanting to repair the ecosystem of our planet or end the traumas of racism. Then, they work backwards to identify and test how evidence-based interventions can achieve those goals.

But as an artist, I wondered if it was possible to have a measurable impact without having a specific impact goal. I wanted to create something visually moving, and create space for participants to choose their own path. And, importantly, I didn’t want age or language, to necessarily be a barrier to participation.

This is where Random Generator began.

A Mirror to the Self

Imagine that an artwork could read your mind. Somehow, it was able to predict how you were feeling about an event in your life. Maybe it was a positive moment, like the birth of a child. Maybe it was a loss, or a crime. It was a 1 in 1000 chance, but somehow, an artwork told you exactly how you were feeling about it. How would you react? Would you dismiss it as chance, or would believe it was fate? And what if the emotion is the opposite of how you felt? Would you question the truth of your own feelings?

Random Generators are site-specific installations or ‘games’ that ask viewers to creatively confront their way of looking at the world. This is their power.

While every game is different, here’s how one of them works.

You pick a “gamepiece” that has a unique meaning. But you don’t yet know what it means. You put it on a “game board”, carefully selecting an event from thousands laid out in front of you like a whirlwind of human experience. You’re surrounded by people, collectively making choices together. At the end, you find out that your game piece stood for an emotion, and you’re asked to write a work of micro-fiction, as I call it, combining the emotion and event.

It’s pretty simple, right? But here’s what happened the first time I did it. I was told that about 300 people would participate in 2 days. Instead, it was over 8,000. People working in local businesses told their customers to come play. One participant told me that the game changed her life. Another shared with me, a complete stranger, a secret that was causing her intense guilt.

What they reminded me was that meaningful, and sometimes uncomfortable, rules can actually unlock creativity in people that even they didn’t realize was possible.

Measuring Impact

By developing longer connections with participants, I believe that our creative responses to artwork can turn into a life change.

To test this, I designed my own horoscope system around an installation on the past and future of our Universe. Participants essentially received a “fortune”, based on how they participated. Sometimes, their fortunes were eerily prophetic. From there, they made a decision about a life change they wanted to make. I offered to contact them a year later to find out if they followed through. And on August 29th, 2016, I did just that.

Although it’s early, what I’ve found out from people who wrote back is that an artwork can potentially help people turn their lives into a work of art. And that may be a route to long term change.

But imagine if there was a real place, where hundreds of thousands of experiences built up over time? What would our collective story look like? How would communities be different from each other? One day, I would love to find out.

Thank you.

–Anjali

 

Written by anjalisdeshmukh