Dreams of a City

A sample of the postcards from New York City, 2008-2009.

From Fall 2008 through Spring 2009, within my last year living in New York City, I obsessively created hundreds of pre-stamped, self-addressed postcards, omitting my name. Written on each postcard was the prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas,” as well as a code on the bottom corner. I then left these postcards in public spaces all over Manhattan, using the codes to record where I placed each one. When the postcards returned to me, I was able to tell where each had been found, and, gradually, I pieced together a map of the city from all these people’s dreams.

It was an exploration in breaking down barriers between:

  • the private and the public (by its nature, letter-writing is an intimate act—although it’s interesting to note that, with postcards, anyone who intercepts your card can read what you wrote—and here were these people sharing their deepest fears and greatest hopes with me, a nameless, faceless stranger, perhaps emboldened by the safety net of anonymity, or motivated by that very human desire to connect, to be recognized, to know that someone, anyone knows about you);

  • artist and audience (I may have been the originator of the project, but was I the artist or were these people the artists, or both?); and

  • geographical boundaries (did the dreams of Upper East Siders differ that greatly from those in Alphabet City? on Wall Street? would the fine upstanding citizens there even pay attention to a handmade postcard taped up onto a streetlight?).

It was a labor of love.

You can view all the postcards I received here. (Some replies are NSFW.)

Now, I am revamping the project in the great city of Chicago.

This time around, the project will be even grander in scale and scope. Much, much grander. Besides the increase in geographical size (Chicago’s 234 sq. mi. as opposed to Manhattan’s 23*)…

*I stuck with one borough as it was my senior year at Columbia University and I was juggling schoolwork; internships at Christie’s and at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center; responsibilities as President of the university’s undergraduate art gallery; responsibilities as Head Curator of an underground art, music, and multimedia festival in Bushwick; and general confusion as a young adult. This is not to say that I’m not just as swamped and confused now (probably more so, especially on the confusion end), but I am a little older and hopefully a little wiser.

…I will be creating and leaving thousands of postcards in every neighborhood of Chicago. In the end, I will sort through all the postcards I have received, match their codes with their locations, and map them. The project will culminate in:

1.) A book. // I will publish a book of all the postcards I receive.

2.) An exhibition centered around a large-scale installation. // Visitors will be able to walk through a three-dimensional map of Chicago and the city’s dreams. Arranged according to where they were found, the postcards will be displayed shooting up from the ground, and, if possible in the exhibition space, select postcards (see no. 3) will be hanging from the ceiling. All cards will be displayed at levels in which they can be read and touched, with both sides of each card visible. Each neighborhood will be labeled, and it will be made clear where in the city a visitor is figuratively walking through.

A rough sketch of the proposed exhibition.

(For the New York version, I exhibited the postcards at Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Gallery, arranging them as a map of Manhattan and displaying them two-dimensionally on the gallery wall. Although I was grateful to share them, this method of display was not my ideal. This time, the dreams will be seen and experienced the way they deserve to be seen and experienced.)

The New York City postcards displayed at Columbia
University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery, 2009.

3.) Site-specific installations throughout the entire city. // I will select dreams from each neighborhood and “return” them to their original locations by installing art there. This art will include a large reproduction of the postcard, with the written dream displayed verbatim, as well as a visual component. At the exhibition, these select postcards will be the ones hanging from the ceiling (again, if possible). Also at the exhibition, there will be maps showing the locations of these installations so guests can go and see them in person, thus bringing people to various neighborhoods they might not otherwise visit. In turn, the site-specific installations will include exhibition information, bringing people from all over the city to one location.

The site-specific installations infuse the city with art. The exhibition infuses the art world with the reality and energy and life of the city.

In a way, this is my love letter to the city of Chicago.

We all know how segregated Chicago is. I hope to unite the city, connect the city, give a microphone to different voices in the city.

I hope to inspire people.

This is my dream.

-Jenny Lam, 2012


Update 1: Check out the blogs Dreams of a City tag for related posts!

Update 2: Ive been selected to receive a 2013 Individual Artists Program grant from the City of Chicagos Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for this project!

Update 3: Ive been invited to collaborate with the Chicagos Children Museum and do a series of visiting artist workshops related to this project! 

Update 4: Ive been invited to speak at 20x2 Chicago, and Ive chosen to talk about Dreams of a City! Heres a video of my set.

Update 5: Ive been selected to exhibit Dreams of a City at the Chicago Cultural Center! The exhibition is called The Subject Is Chicago: People, Places, and Possibilities and runs 11 February to 9 April 2017.

Update 6: As of 11 February 2017, there are over 355 mapped Chicago postcards, and I want you to be able to see them all. I am sharing one card a day, every day, here!

Update 7: The project is on hiatus due to the pandemic, but as of March 2020, there are over 607 mapped Chicago dreams! View them at the link in the previous update.

Update 8: The project has resumed in 2021 thanks to the vaccine, and Ive been interviewed live on WGN Morning News, WBEZ, and the Chicago Reader about it!

Update 9: The project has an exhibit and activation at 21c Museum Hotel Chicago!

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