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.

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