An Artist’s Quest: To Force Strangers In Cities To Talk To One Another

No one likes an awkward conversation. But if anyone can get unlikely neighbors chatting away, it might be artist Hunter Franks, who is trying to inject a sense of “love and play” into changing urban communities.

Icebreakers. They’re widely considered to be the worst. But is there a way to make the scourge of corporate getaways not contrived and terrible? More importantly, could the right kind of icebreaker forge meaningful connections on city streets?


That’s the question that San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks will be asking himself as he travels to four American cities over the next several months. With $55,000 from the Knight Foundation, Franks will travel to Philadelphia, Detroit, Macon, Georgia, and Akron, Ohio, to stage a series of three-week-long “creative interventions.”

In cities wracked by social and economic inequality, Franks says he hopes to inject a sense of “love and play.” “The main reason for this tour is to figure out how to get people of different neighborhoods, different generations, different class levels, different heritages, to get them to talk to one another,” he says.

So what does a “creative intervention” look like? One of Franks’s planned activities is something called “Vacant Love,” which aims to transform abandoned or neglected buildings with messages of affection. Another, called the “Free Portrait Project” asks residents to sit for a Polaroid photo taken by Franks, and during the 120 seconds it takes for the picture to develop, entertain a brief interview about their lives. Other interventions include two-way advice booths, for citizens to both give and take advice from one another, as well as an activity that asks people to write sticky notes about their loves and fears on a public wall. Franks will also be expanding his SF Postcard Project, in which he gathered postcards written from low-income San Francisco neighborhoods and mailed them to homes in ritzier ZIP codes.

Franks isn’t the first artist to stage street interventions of this kind. In 2011, artist Candy Chang decorated neglected buildings in Fairbanks, Alaska, with “looking for love” banners and chalkboards, encouraging citizens to write down their hopes for the buildings’ future uses. She’s also worked in post-Katrina New Orleans, asking residents to write down visions for future neighborhoods on sticky notes. Several other artists are working with rural and urban communities to try and interrupt the status quo through creativity.

You can check out some of their work here, here, and here.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.