Last year, when my best friend Yuri asked for my help as an architect, my response was, “Absolutely.”
The project wasn’t a building, but an installation, and in order to make it happen, we wouldn’t be presenting to a client — we would be appealing to a larger community for their support by creating a Kickstarter campaign.
The premise of the installation is straightforward: Our goal is to elevate awareness around cancer by creating an experience that everyone can share, and we’ve designed a proposal for a multimedia installation that will take place in New York City this October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Click here to check out the campaign, and read on for the full story.
The story behind Notes to a Friend: The Experience is a bit more complex and a lot more personal. My friend Yuri is a graphic designer who was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2010 while I was in my first semester at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design). After a year of aggressive treatment, she was declared cancer-free. Heading into her fifth year of remission in 2015, her cancer came back in the form of Stage 4 breast cancer and had metastasized to her lungs, bones and brain. There is no cure for metastatic cancer. It is something she lives with every day.
“Nowadays, there isn’t a person you meet who hasn’t been affected by cancer in one way or another … but it’s still a taboo subject in our culture. Most people have a naive understanding of what ‘cancer’ entails: chemo, hair loss, death. But what about everything in between?” — Yuri Angela Chung
Just prior to her cancer’s recurrence, Yuri had begun to write a series of “notes” that were reflections on her experience with cancer. When the cancer returned, she felt a sense of urgency like never before to share her story and started to post these notes on Instagram. She called this project Notes to a Friend, and the response was overwhelming. What began as a way of coping with her own trauma was helping to create connections within a larger community of those who have also been affected by cancer and support those who were going through similar experiences of their own.
At the outset of 2016, Yuri knew she wanted to bring Notes to a Friend to a larger audience and continue to connect people through it in a meaningful way. She wasn’t sure exactly what it would be, but she knew that it would be in New York and that it would use technology.
I was onboard, but I also knew that I wasn’t the person to convincingly pull off anything related to technology. This is when we approached Space Craft, a creative technology studio comprised of Jason Tucker and Mike Degen that specializes in creating transformative experiences. I was lucky enough to have become friends with Jason and Mike while at the GSD and knew they would be amazing to collaborate with. Luckily they said yes, and they have brought an invaluable perspective at the intersection of the digital and physical realms, both having studied architecture prior to entering the Master of Design Technology program at school (Jason at Sci-Arc and Mike at Virginia Tech).
As we began to collaborate, we had no idea what the proposal would become, but we knew that we wanted to create something that would bring people together through Yuri’s notes. It would be an experience that is grounded in physical space and augmented by technology, and we knew if anything else that we wanted to avoid using technology simply for technology’s sake.
We were able to land on the key elements of the proposal early on: audio of the notes, letterpressing and projection mapping. Over the past year and a half, we would meet over weekly Hangouts (we’re all in different cities) and continued to iterate, prototype and refine the proposal, taking it as far as we could on our own.
Combining both digital and physical elements, Notes to a Friend: The Experience brings to life the deeper themes embedded in Yuri’s notes.
Originally posted as short reflections on Yuri’s Instagram, the notes will be letterpressed as large format prints and mounted on the walls in the space. They will be blind-debossed, which means the words will be pressed into the paper without ink. While they will still be able to be read, the idea is that they are not “activated” until the audio of the actual note being read is heard in the space.
Left: recording Embeth’s audio at her home; right: Embeth and Yuri in Los Angeles
The notes themselves are read by actress Embeth Davidtz, a fellow breast cancer survivor who Yuri connected with after reading an interview Embeth gave recounting her own experiences. Within the space, audio of Yuri’s notes being read by Embeth will play on loop. The audio of a note activates the digital projection mapping, which fills the words with light, a form of digital “ink.” Sounds become light, and light becomes the conductor of space, guiding people through the notes.
“Sounds become light, and light becomes the conductor of space, guiding people through the notes.”
By situating the project within a vibrant neighborhood, we hope to connect with not only the person who has already heard about Notes to a Friend, but also the passerby who happens to chance upon it. We hope over the course of October to elevate awareness around cancer. Cancer is a lot of things, but one thing it is not is easy to talk about. By transforming one person’s incredibly intimate journey with cancer into an open experience, we hope to help continue normalizing conversations around what is an incredibly difficult but necessary subject to talk about.
After taking Notes to a Friend: The Experience as far as we could on our own, we realized we would need help from a larger community to realize our vision. The prospect of creating a Kickstarter campaign seemed daunting at first until I realized that this is what architects do all the time. We construct narratives and design the best way to communicate them, which can include anything from drawings to text to images. The difference here was instead of a presentation or deck, we needed a video; and rather than pitching to a clearly defined client, we were appealing to an audience who may or may not care about the project in the first place.
Creative director Priscilla Jimenez stepped in to craft our video, which has been everything to our campaign. It has been without question the most effective way to tell our story to a broader audience. We officially launched our campaign on July 27, 2017, with a goal of raising $50,000 to cover the cost of this project. It has since been recognized by Kickstarter as a Project We Love, which is their way of showing their support for the project. As Kickstarter’s funding model is all-or-nothing, I’m writing this in hopes of getting our story out to everyone who might feel connected to it in some way. We are currently 54 percent to our goal with 11 days to go.
Notes to a Friend: The Experience has been an incredible journey thus far, and, in a way, it has allowed me to step back and reflect on the extent to which we are affected by the media we are immersed in. We surf the internet, watch movies, listen to music on a daily basis — and they all have the power to move us and make us consider something in a way we hadn’t before. In a way, I feel like architects are the original UX designers and our medium is the physical space around us.
We have the unique ability to choreograph experiences that can actually affect people, and there isn’t anything more tangible than the spaces we inhabit (at least until the singularity happens). This ability is often coupled with a knack for approaching any project with unbridled optimism, that any project regardless of scale or type is embedded with potential and meaning, and these together are what allow me to believe that even a temporary installation under 1,000 square feet can be extraordinary.