Can Art Change Lives?

How do we know that art has a lasting impact?

Ideally, social sector organizations enact interventions that will lead to a specific change that they seek. They use unbiased evidence to develop those interventions, and then they track whether the interventions are actually having the effect they want. If they’re not, organizations know that they should change what they’re doing. This can be a difficult process, especially when funding for this analysis is scarce, and so many factors shape our lives.

Nonetheless, it’s been on my mind as an artist for a decade. I wanted to better understand whether art can be an intervention, without losing the individuality and pure creativity that differentiates it from institutional enactments with narrowly defined goals. I also wondered whether art can function as a medium, where the participant decides their direction. Can art help build creative space for participants to choose their change?

This was where my games began, as site-specific installations that ask viewers to creatively confront their way of looking at the world, slowly walking a road from audience to maker. 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 stands for an emotion. You’re asked to write a work of microfiction, combining the emotion and event.

A simple game generated a dramatic spectrum of experiences. Some picked an event reflecting their lived histories; others, their hopes; others, pure fiction. Some discovered that the emotion they picked was exactly what they felt; others, the exact opposite; others, a hidden layer of truth; others, pure conjecture shaping their story.

The reactions were personal, emotional, creative, and generative. 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 unlock creativity in people that even they didn’t realize was possible.

By developing longer connections with participant-creators, I believe that art can foster, and possibly cause, life change. To test this, I designed a horoscope system around an installation on the past and future of our Universe. Creators received a “fortune” based on how they expressed themselves. Sometimes, their fortunes were eerily prophetic. From there, they decided on 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.

What I found out from people who wrote back is that an artwork can manifest or move along change that was in-the-making, helping people turn their lives into art, like a micro-movement of soul. But life-change takes time, and sometimes it needs to gather momentum through different and complementary reinforcements, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

The more time people have with art, the less fleeting their artistic experiences, and the more makers listen to the people we make for & with, the deeper we can understand and support movements, of souls and communities.