Breathe: Art Lives in Community

“This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song. With special love to all the musicians and music teachers in my life.”

[Michael Moore from: https://cortarts.com/cspa-blog/2017/2/13/quote-from-michael-moore]

This quote from Michael Moore was generative both for visitors, and for me. These last several months working in person in a [small well-organized] school during the last two waves of the pandemic, I have been focused on safety and projects with my learning community rather than art and political discourse.

I took a breath while the broader community kept singing.

Finally this long weekend, Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday weekend, I have a moment to breathe in and focus on the generative installation we created together for YpsiGLOW back in October.  

In the process of making this work, I had three stalwart collaborators, my father, Jolleen Filio and Paolo de Petrillo. My dad helped me install, tie knots, carry ladders and troubleshoot. Paolo was the mastermind who created a program that automated the movement and colors, taking his evenings and afternoons both to solder and to debug. Jolleen helped me work through some of the conceptual knots, finding texts and songs for a playlist related to breath, health, and earth. She created hand-lettered signs that we hung up as inspiration for those who visited.

You can see more process photos and videos on my Instagram Highlights and a video with sound here

What did people in Ypsilanti say they did to help them breathe the last few years as we all face the crises of health, environmental, and racial justice?

The chorus of contributors to this project goes beyond my friends. On that rainy Friday night, thanks to WonderFOOL Productions YpsiGLOW festival, many passers by who stopped to watch the ten foot lungs breathe in and out took a moment to listen to the river rushing and add their thoughts to pieces of fluorescent paper that floated in the breeze. 

They shared strategies that they have used throughout the pandemic with pictures, words, and conversations with one another.

As the Omicron variant crashes over the United States, it felt urgent to share the “findings” of this arts-based community record. Perhaps their commentaries and strategies will help you, dear reader, get through the next several weeks of uncertainty.  

Pets: 9

People named their pets, cats, dogs, even a horse. One interesting note outlined and action strategy. “I snuggle my cat and sync my breathing to his. He reminds me to breathe.”  Someone also created a green cat silhouette to emphasize their attachment to their “SO and my cats.”  

Family and Friends: 9

There was a common thread of togetherness and trust in the family and friends notes. My favorite crossed boundaries a bit. A child drew a picture of having a party with their best friends. The child wrote their names, and Park Party LOVE LOVE  with a bright sun above their heads.  

Nature (various kinds): 13

Some of the nature notes just named the kind of nature, while others outlined a strategy, like the action of hiking or walking in nature.  Another strategy, perhaps emphasized in people’s minds because of the volume of water hurtling beneath the gazebo was, “Listening to the water, wind, and birds.”  

Music: 9

One person wrote, “Dancing and playing flute,” but most of the music ones were about listening to music as a way to escape, or even listening to podcasts.

Play and Creature Comforts: 7

Leisure and rest are extremely important and there were a variety of answers in this category from playing football to just playing, and someone even mentioned, “Good jokes, bad jokes, good sex, and poetry”

Action Strategies: 10

While some of these were general, there were a few specifics, focused on gratitude words of encouragement, and movement building. Someone shared a CBT/OT strategy called “Box Breathing,” in which you trace your finger around a shape and breathe in and out as you go around it.  This is a calming technique common in schools.  

Literalists (Breathing/Oxygen/Lungs etc) 3, and Random: 4

The most useful response to “what helps you breathe?” was “Keeping my mask on.” Other maybe wanted to create something but didn’t know what so they wrote “My lungs, my nose knows,” or “Oxygen.” 

There were 55 responses in all. There are a few that had multiple ideas on one paper, so the total number of items I counted is bigger. 

Art lives in communities. Are you listening to the voices and visions?

For myself, I appreciate that the desire to improve our world is held in people’s hearts alongside my own. I appreciate that others have kept singing and creating these last few months that my creative breath has been taken up with daily labor.  

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a federal holiday, I am thinking about how I can contribute to the dream of justice for all, both in my daily practice as an educator, and in my vocation as an artist. 

When Art lives in communities, in the voices and visions of the public, it has immense power for social change. It is past time to honor the ways that art lives outside of museum walls, outside of urban and academic elites, outside of consumerism and production.

March Spring Winds

A sequential animation with improvisational flute using a Japanese pentatonic scale.

March Spring Winds is a contemplation on tensions that coincide as seasonal change crashes into human emergence from the pandemic.  Created through a meditative practice on internal ecology, the video consists of a sequential drawn animation combined with an improvisational flute melody to evoke the interplay between complements. As plants sprout and animals emerge from hibernation, this is a reflection on how we can evoke joy and honor loss.

A swoosh of orange criss-crosses the green and blue background. A still from the video above

What has emerged?

In English, the word “emergency” indicates an urgent crisis, something that came up, an emerging need. During this year of acute slow-motion crises, this linguistic quirk of English has occurred to me more than once. In French and Spanish, a the wing of the hospital for treating trauma is Urgence or Urgencias, respectively.

Shadowy amoeba shapes on a red and gold background. A still from the video.

As I was drawing, I watched as motifs slowly emerged, creating new layers of meaning and emotion .

It made me stop to consider how with a crisis, there is potential for disruption and trauma. In my day job, which is at a school, there has certainly been a complete overhaul of our systems. There are things that are frightening about massive change, especially when it is accompanied by inequitable risks for marginalized members of our society.

However, transformation is not all bad. The acute injustices that have become visible– emergent– to more people have spurred people to push their own limits. Existing networks of care have mobilized deeper generosity and participation. Technology that seemed like science fiction when I was a child has become a broader everyday platform for education, art, and connection.

These emerging transformations have the potential to create sustainable and lasting change, but it requires everyone to make a conscious choice to continue troubling the waters of injustice.

The orange swoosh returns on multi-colored background with green zipper shapes and reddish footprints. A still from the video.

What will you carry forward?

This year has been full of barriers, pain, and sadness, but there have been moments that emerged for me that have deepened my sense of community and interconnected ness. As you watch this video, please think about how both pain and empathy have had an impact on your own life.

What challenges have you faced?

What has helped you get through this year, and how can you pay that forward to someone else?

This video was streamed through the FOOLMoon CommUNITY Facebook page, and at the Ann Arbor Art Center on April 9! Check out the event here to see some other stellar artists.

Songs of Urban Ecology: Cathedral of M-14 Fugue

What spaces around you do you ignore?

Stop, Observe, Listen.

The Second Song to Urban Ecology, this one was actually begun first. It was originally a photo series that I took in one of my favorite parks, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

M-14 is an expressway that runs between Ann Arbor and Plymouth, which is an ex-Urb or Suburb of Detroit.

The “Cathedral” is the open space beneath the overpass, as it runs over the Huron River. The light on the tracery of the steel-framed bridge combined with the rhythmic organ of the traffic overhead make it a very contemplative place. Nature and City collide here, not just because of the highway, but because it the western bank of the river is skirted by an old industrial corridor where welding and manufacturing shops once dominated, though few now remain.

Although the overpass could be thought of as marring the landscape, and the noise pollution and runoff can be harmful to the ecosystem, there is something beautiful to be found in the coexistence of this massive basilica of concrete and steel, designed not for occupancy, but instead for passing over.

Re-claiming the beauty of labor normally masked by its utility, I seek to showcase the labor of the Ironworkers and other skilled trades as they contribute to our culture by re-claiming the space for something besides a pass through.

The light shines off the tracery of the steel frame. The fog hides and reveals the ugly concrete pylons. Graffiti quite literally marks people’s interest in the site. Ripples highlighted by the thin line of light between the lanes create calligraphic flourishes on the surface of the water.

In this project, I also re-claim the space beneath the bridge for the ways that nature and land shine through human imposition. I stopped there and meditated, watched, listened about once a week for a couple of years. I began to notice many small details. All the photos are of plants which grow* along the banks of the river in the natural area opposite the old industrial corridor.

Here I want to acknowledge that one person or set of people cannot truly claim the land we inhabit, whether they hold deed and title or not. In re-claiming the land, I do not claim ownership. I re-claim the right to create a stronger relationship between people and the earth. This “Cathedral” is part of a complex system for which we are each responsible, and which is affected by our actions.

Beyond that interconnectedness, I also acknowledge that Washtenaw County has its own storied history of disputes between Native Americans, French, English, and ultimately the Territorial European Americans who became “Michiganders,” like me.

The Huron River, after all takes its name from one of the several local groups of Native Americans: groups that have traversed and lived here include speakers of Anishnaabe and Wyandot, known to many Americans by their tribal names (Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Huron, Iroquois respectively) as well as other tribes from Canada and Ohio with whom they traded well into the 19th Century.**

One step, beyond acknowledging who was here first, is to think about how we can better honor the land itself. I don’t own any land that I could give back, but I can be a better steward of the earth, and advocate for more harmonious relationships and care between humans and nature.

Place Based Education: Stay at Home Workshop

Saturday May 16, 10:30 AM

Eastern DaylghtTime

Join with Google Meet: https://meet.google.com/cwg-akvj-hed

For the participatory art part of this project I am creating a workshop which will be geared to sharing some ideas about how to combine art and science to take advantage of the time we are all spending stuck at home.  

Everyone is somewhere.  But what is somewhere?  How do we know our own “where?”

Place-Based Education focuses on those questions in order to engage people.  Looking closely at the world right in front of us.  It is something that people often take for granted, but to study it, to really look at it to see things as they connect to you and to other things, takes practice.

In Making Learning Visible, the children created their own maps of the city of Reggio, for example.

Another example is a project that Lisa Voelker from Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition collaborated with me and FLY in which we created a digital installation and a mini map of the park behind the Riverside Arts Center based on a series of small projects that students did in just one week.

Place Based Learning can begin with a small moment right where you are.

Everywhere you go, there you are. Place is an easy text for anyone and everyone to begin a learning journey.   

Before the Workshop Saturday at 10:30 AM:

In this workshop we will play with taking time out of every day to look and listen by drawing and photographing something you can see near your house. Since we are all on various versions of Stay Home Stay Safe, I ask that anyone wishing to participate adhere to local public health recommendations and local law enforcement. If you are allowed to go to a park, do it! If not, don’t.

  • Take a picture of something you are interested in that you see nearly every day (for example outside your window).
  • Take a picture of the same thing every time you notice a change.
  • Write down or draw out things that you notice:
    • What is the same?
    • What has changed?
    • Is it only visible things? What about sounds and smells?

If you don’t have time between now and then, don’t worry, I will have some samples and give time to go out and take a picture during the workshop. You might also want some things from your recycling bin, some crayons, some water, something to stick (tape or glue) and some markers.

*With the exception of the trillium, all of the plants were photographed within a half-mile of the bridge. The trillium grow there, but mostly in very small patches. I found such a beautiful large pink patch elsewhere that I couldn’t resist cheating This particular trillium plant was photographed in Montibeller Park in Pittsfield Township.

**In some ways, Michigan’s history, with French dominance into the 1820’s means that relationships between present inhabitants and past inhabitants have been preserved. The French wanted to convert, and “save” rather than dominate like the perpetrators of Manifest Destiny. There are still Native Americans from local tribes living in Michigan, particularly farther north. This does not mean there was no harm. Forced family separations, discrimination, and damaging economic practices remain to this day. But I did learn Native American History during my second grade class, and it did include the harms and the wars in my eighth grade class, and went into staggering detail about the cruelty by my junior year of High School.

First Song to Urban Ecology: Jamaicaway Matins

While natural systems and cities are symbiotic everywhere, there are huge equity gaps across the globe. Higher income areas have more access to open space, and foliage and are therefore more likely to have active and noisy animal populations. There have been many articles about this through the years. One of the most memorable for me was in 2012, on a blog called PerSquareMile titled, “Income inequality as seen from Space. It was during the time when Google Maps was becoming more detailed and people outside the research community were just starting to think about this and the author, Tim de Chant, collected anecdotal information about many cities and their open space which he shared in the second link above.

When I started this project last fall, and even when I sent the germ of it to FossilFOOLs I was not thinking that it would come to life during a global pandemic, but it turns out, the decrease in human activity in cities has drawn attention to how animals are influenced by human action in urban ecology. I heard a piece on New England Public Radio via the NPR app this morning about hearing different and more birdsongs now that there is less traffic on the roads due to quarantine measures so that even in dense urban centers, people can hear more natural noises.

Wildlife biologist Paige Warren of the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation has reviewed research on how human-generated sounds impact animal communications. She talked about the challenge different kinds of birds normally face when they sing near the rumble of cars. “If you have a high-pitched, ‘tweety tweet tweet’ sound, then it might get through better than if you have a low-pitched kind of sound,” Warren said, imitating the call of a dove. “So if you’re a dove, it might be harder to get your message through the traffic. And then when there’s less traffic, it might be easier to be a dove.”

Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPR, March 31, 2020

To create the sound in my video, I raised the treble to accent the birdsongs that I was hearing, and raised the bass to accent the traffic rumbles and whooshes. It is true that the middle range of sounds is not as audible, and with the sheer volume of those other sounds, even on the unedited audio recording, it would have been hard to distinguish sounds closer to the pitch of the traffic noise.

The audio track was created before the shutdown began in Boston, as I was getting into my car for the morning commute, with many other motorists flying by on the Jamaicaway less than a football field away from me. Now, even at the height of rush hour, there are gaps in the roar and sputter, and fewer planes rumbling above.

Yesterday on my short walk, I jaywalked across the Jamaicaway into Olmsted Park at a place where that would normally be unadvisable. As I meandered into the trees, I heard at least five different types of birds in the middle of the afternoon, fighting, calling, chasing each other. There was even a red-headed woodpecker high in a tree on the border with Brookline. Right now, I hear wind in the trees, two mourning doves calling to each other, groups of starlings, a robin, a jay, a house wren, and a distant redwing blackbird from the park.

Looking from Olmsted Park across Jamaicaway towards the Jamaicaway Tower.

In this fraught time of self-isolation, I feel privileged to be in a place where I have a backyard to look into and a park nearby. Even growing up in an economically disadvantaged area I was embedded in the City of Ann Arbor, it was surrounded by natural areas, and so I was privileged to have orientation to wide open spaces, and still be able to navigate many advantages of life in a thriving college town.

However, many economically disadvantaged urban communities have a lack of space devoted to sustaining accessible natural systems. Torn down houses in formerly “blighted” areas of Detroit, for example, may contain natural systems, but they have largely been left to hazard, filling up with invasive weeds, foragers, and pests instead of being re-planted with native plants and trees that might attract a more sustainable ecology.

Some attempts to reclaim land, like the off-the-books Water Street Common, have been pushed out by city governments in crisis, as Ypsilanti has, citing liability for the toxicity of that zone, about which much ink has been spilled ranging from hope to corruption. Others, like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and the Boston Food Forest Coalition here in Boston, have had more long term success at creating sustainable economic development combined with sustainable and/or permaculture practices. There are many other models of community and of place-based initiatives that have had some success in the arts or farming or sustainability, but I want to get back to this project.

Urban and natural spaces are permeable to one another all around the world, and human participation in natural systems is intrinsic.

We are part of nature, and hearing less traffic and more birds right now sounds out loud and clear both how interconnected we are, and how deeply our noise and pollution affects our ecology. These new commentaries about birds and silence and breezes make me hopeful that more communities will prioritize investment in creating cities that are sustainable by both human and ecological measures.

It has been inspiring to do online workshops: I can hear and see what others have been creating.

It has given me a peek out windows here and around the world. Even though I’m in Boston, since everyone is working online, it was easier to connect with two former students in Michigan. After teaching online, I then did a teaching-artist oriented workshop with two colleagues in Illinois and Sri Lanka. Observations from all the participants from their windows or wishes included sheep, school buses, monkeys, cobras, cars, trees, and more birds.

This project was originally created inside a portable tent cinema full of transparencies with the idea that I would bring this project around the world, packed into a market tent. I do hope to bring the project around the world in a tent.

However, you are invited to participate in this new permutation, and create your own shadow-puppet cinema! Join in with your own sound effects and puppet-stories through the FOOLmoon Reimagined Facebook Group

Or if you want to participate in with a slightly less complicated story just send me a photo of the view out your window and tell me what you hear or make a recording of the sounds.

The collected works that you share will be used to create another clip in this series, possibly “Lullaby for Empty Cities.” The next work already in progress will most likely be titled “Fugue for The Cathedral of M-14

You can email your submissions to me, comment on this post with your photos, or tag anything you make with these tags on instagram or twitter so I can find them: #FOOLmoonreimagined #foolishsongs20

Bedouin Cocoon: Spring 2001

The unexpected places in which surprises happen are the places where invention happens.  Whatever plans I made, the process of creating and performing forced me to push my limits.  Those limits left space for the air to pass, and for others to enter and share in the learning. 

This performance did not have a title when I started, it began with the feeling of transience and tension that exists in cities between constructed and natural space. I loved Chicago in many ways, but things moved so quickly, especially for me: I worked full time and went to art school part time, trying to afford space and time for myself to breathe was extremely challenging.

In response to that feeling of continual fatigue, my stream of making turned meditative. I did drawings, beading, knitting, manual work that I could carry and which made me stop to breathe.

These small works, however, did not solve the feeling of being stuck in close quarters: a too small apartment, the space between people on a bus, the low-ceilinged platforms of the Red and Blue lines, and no benches or welcoming areas to stop and contemplate the beautiful tall buildings and open spaces.

Out of this feeling of claustrophobia, arose a desire to create a sacred space, created through and set aside for the things that I value. So this performance had four goals: 

  • Creation of an artifact that illustrates or leaves traces in time or space
  • Consideration of sacred or meditative space as internal or external
  • Connection to pattern, repetition, but valuing biomimetic or organic 
  • Consciousness of processes for growth

To leave traces of the process of meditation, I designed a structure that could be sewn sequentially, one tube after another like beads. The finished product would be a 5/8 icosahedron.  To pull in natural and biomimetic forms, I then wove fabric in and out in a meditative way to create a cocoon-like structure. This was all done with a rhythm and in silence, considering, meditating and creating at once.  

Putting all of this together, the dome created a space for contemplation shared with others.  The process, artifact, pattern and form being inspired were combination of human and natural forms, and they created an interior space in open air.  I chose the spot, on top of the airshafts surrounded by wildflowers because they epitomized for me the tension between natural and urban that I felt in Chicago, and felt like a generative location.  

The surprising moments in the process, where the poles fell through the grating, and when the whole structure blew over, illustrate for me something that I have since taken on as key to my practice:  There is no such thing as a mistake in art, only a new opportunity to create something new.  As you click through the gallery you can read my thoughts on the artwork at the time.