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Peter Fitzsimons looks at Oxford’s freshest facade

The wall which has just been built in Pembroke is not a typical Oxford construction. For one it’s not made of Keble’s ‘streaky bacon’ bricks or Christ Church’s Headington Stone. Neither is it a towering architectural beauty. Instead, it’s made of plyboard, painted over with blackboard paint, and liberally dotted with words in white stencil and handwritten coloured chalk scrawlings. It certainly wasn’t built to keep roofs up, or house academia’s finest, but somehow it’s one of the most inspiring walls in Oxford.

The ‘Before I Die’ installation is part of a ‘global public art project’ originally set up by American artist and urban planner Candy Chang. In stencil the words ‘Before I die I want to’ are printed on the wall. The space after is an invitation for others to write on the wall, projecting their hopes and dreams (and their humour) onto the empty space.

Back in February 2011, the first wall was set up next to an abandoned house in New Orleans after Chang had lost a loved one. Following a huge public response, with the wall being featured by Oprah and NBC, Chang and her team decided to provide the tools for other communities to do the same. Since then, at least another 12 walls have been built in seven countries including Mexico, Kazakhstan, Australia, Portugal and the Netherlands, with over 25,000 responses being sent to Chang and her group. 20 walls are either currently in use or upcoming around the world.

When I went to visit Pembroke, the wall was the subject of considerable interest, tempting some of those ‘hard at work’ on the sunny lawn to have a look and get involved. Students are genuinely enthused, with many students from the JCR and MCR telling me what a good idea it was, and all the spaces on the wall being used just a few hours after the wall was put up. Mike Maher-King, who brought the idea to Pembroke, said that he thought that exam time was the ideal time to build the wall in Oxford. He claims the wall allows students to focus on the bigger picture by thinking about what they would like to do in their life: thankfully none of the goals written on the wall were about finals results. The sense of perspective, the way it makes the onlooker focus on the long term, is certainly refreshing. I definitely felt a lot more relaxed after having put down my own goal.

Some of the funniest additions included people’s goals to ‘touch MC Hammer’ or ‘be catapulted into a swimming pool of champagne’ (not sure which I want to see more); others were clearly genuine aims, such as to ‘run a marathon’ or ‘live on every continent’; still more were unashamedly idealistic, like the wish to ‘find peace’.

The wall will make you laugh, think, and take a step back from the everyday stress of exams and essays to realise that whatever happens here in the Oxford bubble, there are always things worth living for. Even if it is just to see one author achieve their dream of punching a penguin.

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Mike Maher-King on how he painted the town black 

I first saw the ‘Before I Die’ wall a few years ago on t’internet and it struck a real chord with me. I love the concept of reclaiming a space and giving it to people to do whatever they like with. I love the balance of personal and public. It can be an intensely private thought and yet it is anonymous so is a rare space for people to speak, be heard and not feel like they are demanding attention. Just to express. That said I also giggled at some of the risqué ones and was struck by the more obscure life dreams. I like the fact the it is only chalk, and the rain will wash it away. Life is transient and beautiful, and without remembering that you will die it is easy to forget to live, or to delay it and wake up aged 60 having achieved none of the things you dreamed about as a kid. Any- way, when I first saw it I was living in Japan and never had the right space to do it, and it was at the start of this term when I heard about peo- ple stressing out about exams I realised that it was the perfect space and time for it.

I approached Pembroke College Development Office who have an Annual Fund for random projects and they were super supportive. I then mailed out to my MCR and people replied eager to help. After a quick meeting over Pembroke lunch we split up jobs and one team spoke to the Home Bursar while the other spoke to the maintenance department. Both were enthusiastic and helpful in the extreme: maintenance even sourced all the materials for us and built the wall leaving us only needing to paint it, stencil it and set it free. In the end the annual fund and MCR split the cost between them, both contributing around £100 to the project. My original idea was to do it by Pembroke so that students staff and passers by could all get involved, but I realised that for this year it would probably be good to pilot it inside college. Next year I want to roll this out to every college and permanent private hall, mainly as I think everyone should have a chance to do it, but also because it would be interesting to see if different themes develop at different places.

When the wall was being constructed we set up a twitter @pmbbeforeidie, to post updates, pics and lines to, and dropped lots of little teasers on college Facebook pages. We even started chatting to the staff and fellows about it to try to get everyone involved. After a morning spent painting, cutting out stencils and spraying white paint (fulfilling a child hood graffiti dream!) I was excited to see how it would be received by the college. Even though I am always optimistic I was completely blown away by the fact that all the lines were filled in after around three hours! People have started writing around the board, claiming the whole space. I could have written almost any of the dreams (and probably spelt them better too!) and that is what I love about this. 

It isn’t my project, the teams project, the MCR’s project or even really Pembroke’s project any more. It is every person that has written, or even stopped to look and thought about their own dream. Probably my favourite entry so far was a six year old lad, who was in the quad with his mum and dad, stood on his tiptoes and on the highest line he could reach, wrote, ‘have fun’. For me, that just kinda sums it up.

If you want to get involved in this next year check out http://beforeidie.cc/. It would be good to get every college involved so talk to people and drop me an email. I figure it would be good to coordinate timing and also to set up some in public spaces: get the whole of Oxford thinking about their life ambitions!

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