There are many ways to brighten someone’s day – a anonymous thank you note, an unexpected smile, a handpicked bunch of flowers. But what about the discovery of a lone swing, in an unexpected location, just begging you to sit upon its perch and begin a clumsy aerial ballet with your legs, pumping higher and higher until your heart soars? The simple and infectious joy of a swing is what inspired Jeff Waldman and a group of his friends to create a project that installed swings in random locations across San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Marshall Islands and Panama. Soon after, impassioned by the dire situation that many children in Bolivia face, Jeff created a Kickstarter project with the aim to source enough funding to supply wooden swings to children in the troubled South American nation’s capital, La Paz. The project has since received twice as many donations as its original goal, proving that the power of a swing is a simple joy that is universally understood.
What was your childhood dream?
I don’t remember that far back but, according to my parents, I was pretty adamant about becoming a garbage man as a kid. I’m sure it had something to do with unlimited access to the world of forgotten treasures and, given that I’m still mildly obsessed with bringing home and repurposing whatever scrap I find on the street, I’d say I haven’t progressed much beyond that.
What were you doing before you started the Swing Project?
My background is best described (and I do mean best) as renaissance- esque or eclectic, but if you asked my parents it’s probably more often called flippant and as aimless a blind marksman. I’ve held a dozen jobs with positions so varied that the only thing tying my efforts together is a thirst for experience and education. Not that I consider this a bad tie to bind – I’m proud of the fact that I’ve learned skills and lessons in creative and unconventional ways and that my resume is more my talents as a person than it is certifications and fancy titles.
What inspired you to start the Swing Project?
A conversation among very intelligent and inspirational friends about the effects we could impart on strangers passing by … emotions to create and to influence and vehicles that would do so. Eventually this was thought up and I pulled the trigger some time later. But it’s far from original – there are at least two Parisian artists who have installed urban swings.
Why did you choose the Marshall Islands, Panama and Bolivia in particular to extend the project overseas?
Well, the former two are places I lived. They say the best camera is the one you have on you. Same goes for people you’re able to motivate around you and trees in your backyard capable of swinging from. Best to work with what you have … Bolivia on the other hand was about creating a next-step proof-of-concept that would enable us to go bigger and farther and allow for a greater narrative to be told, because it’s the story and the packaged product that really sell this message. Bolivia could just have easily been the favelas of Brazil or the villages of Burma. This isn’t to say we don’t believe in where we’re going, but that cases can be made for a variety of locales. For that matter, you could add Detroit to the list.
Where would you like to see the project ending up in the next few years?
I believe strongly that what we’re pushing is a message and a motivation, not just one installation, and quality media spreads a lot easier and further for those purposes, so ultimately I want to see a successful documentary from Bolivia with widespread appeal and adoration. That success should spawn at least one other greater endeavour on a global scale as a final dissemination of the message meeting hands-on interaction. It would be finale of sorts – one last global campaign to feel as though we’ve done all we can with this project and a springboard to do the next big thing on an equally global level.
What inspires the first seeds of an idea in your imagination?
Simplicity. This stuff is meant to motivate and inspire others and first and foremost the question is: ‘Does this resonate well, on a basic level?’ If it’s benevolent or childlike, the reception will be that much greater. If it’s simple, that appreciation will breed duplication. Hopefully.
You say you work to create ‘unexpected joy’ and ‘cerebral happiness’ – how can we bring this more into everyday life?
Think outside the box. I don’t mean inventing the next great technological device, but simply acknowledging good ideas and realising them, instead of dismissing them. You don’t have outside of conventional wisdom and act. Doing so begets more ideas. Me doing this begets more ideas. That’s the point – that someone sees a project of ours, realises the impact and how little effort it took, then they go hand out pre-made picnic baskets to couples in the park via a donation from a local grocer.
What would that cost … and how little effort would it take?
Setting aside people’s suspicions that you’re trying to poison them with delicious cheeses and jams, the exponential impact of your goodwill and creativity would be enormous. You’ve done a lot of volunteering for different causes.
What set you on this path?
If I’m being honest, it’s because it gives me something more than altruistic good feelings. I’ve worked to support organisations I believe in or causes I admire because the contribution I made was in some way tangible and enjoyable. That I didn’t do more of these types of things earlier in life is because I didn’t realise that ‘volunteering’ could mean something like welding for fun. Hopefully more kids realise that not all volunteering means doing something you don’t enjoy.
Why do you care?
I surround myself with good people. Great people, really. The support and one-upmanship of positive individuals is an amazing influence. This isn’t to say that I’d be pitching ideas of world domination if left to my own devices, but when the discussion turns creative, positivity and societal contribution are not too far behind. That said, it’s very much in our own way. Finger-painting in the park, hanging a swing or tacking your art project onto a building are not clean water or good medicine initiatives.
What have you learned most from living and working with people in third-world countries?
Probably something cliche like the universality of just about everything. The more you get around the more you realise that pointing, smiling, thanking, bonding and haggling with lousy cab drivers is universal – the world’s not so different or scary. It’s just full of bad cab drivers.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Mental blocks. I’m a very rational person and often times that logic gets in the way of taking on challenges that require leaps of faith. It’s been hard for me to go through with something when I add up the obstacles or reasons against it and come up short – despite knowing that when I have done so I’ve largely been met with success.
Where do you find peace in life?
I have little moments where I retreat to a park or go for a walk and, in these moments of reflection, I’m hyper aware of how good I have it and where I stand in life. Of course it’s also in these moments that I realise I’ve got to get to work in an hour and that harsh reality is bittersweet. Nonetheless, I make time for those meditations daily, if possible.
What is your dream now?
People have been so much more receptive to my ideas than I would have ever imagined, so, knowing that, I think my goal is to realise that potential and do some really great things. What that means, I have no idea. This door has just been opened for me and it’s really recalibrated my expectations. Up until last year I was still planning my garbage man retirement party.
What are your words of wisdom?
You had some silly, stupid idea that you think would be fun, then you threw it into the trash can? Fish it out, find a couple friends, and take a weekend to see it through. You’d be amazed at what can happen, how it’s received and what comes of that reaction. Tiny things can do big things.