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

Brecht, Aelita, and other Inspirations

Natella Abashwili in the CourtroomOne of my other recent projects was at the same school where we did Charlie Brown, but with the “Upper School” students (Grades 9-12). It was the play by Bertholt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It takes place in the Caucuses region in what is present day Georgia. It is not about “white” people, though if one did it as a period piece, set in the 1940’s and the 1920’s, I suppose people in that part of Western Asia are white.

The play is a parable based somewhat upon Solomon’s Judgement, but also focusing on the political situations in Russia and Germany at the time. That is, the Historical framework upon which the play sits is that of the Bolshevik Revolution in the late 1910’s, the ensuing chaos, and political drama.

The director, Emily Wilson-Tobin chose to use the current influence of The Hunger Games as a lens to help the students relate to the sideways angles of Brechtian drama, and make the underlying unfamiliar history relatable. The costumes in The Hunger Games, by Judianna Madkovsky have crazy lines, beautiful high-end construction, and a finish that in 9 weeks with 2 plays going at once weren’t going to be possible.

Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow

To solve this quandary from the beginning, we planned to use non-traditional materials which don’t need to be hemmed, can be glued rather than sewn, and theoretically are cheaper than fabrics, since many of them can be got for free. For example, the Balloon Dress above, or the wild pink-ribboned farthingale.

The Balloon Dress was actually one of the more expensive pieces because it went through several iterations and in order to allow the actress practice time with it, we had to re-inflate and add balloons at a few points. We made it modular rather than all taped together so that this would be possible.

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First, looking at the costumes in The Hunger Games, I realized there was some relationship to the costumes in Fritz Lang movies, and in a Russian Film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a film which drew my gaze while browsing in Paris at a DVD shop because it holds my namesake, and held my attention because it had such wonderful sets and costumes.  It is a silent film, made in 1923.

So in the costumes for Greenhills’ production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, as well as the set, we were most influenced by Russian and German Avant-Garde Cinema and Constructivist painting between the Wars than by the real clothes people in the region would have worn.

It was fun to work with students, and many of them helped with the design process, or just came to help out a little here and there. They learned a little about how we would do things in a larger scale professional production, about how to make design choices, and how some things are good on paper but less so on the proverbial boards.

For those who were interested, I also talked a little about my own family’s history and experiences at that time in Karelia, on the other side of Russia; the social connotations of dress and how to manipulate the audience’s perceptions; and how the history and social connotations of clothing and fashion are still present today, though in a different form.

Director: Emily Wilson-Tobin

Music Director and Composer: Benjamin Cohen

Tech Director: Laura Bird with assistance from Tim Ebeling

Assistant Costumers: Sarah Ceccio, Luena Maillard

Assistant Makeup Designer: Cat Bonner

(All Photos except Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow, are by Gabe Linderman, Greenhills student)

Goings On About Town

Big things are in the works. Baby steps!!!

Though my drawing a day project has once again fizzled, I have in fact been making art nearly every day.  When I started the project, my intention was to do all kinds of work, showing progress, drawings, sketches, and finished work as it went on.

But as the project went on, my parameters got more and more narrow.  First, somehow, I decided it had to be a drawing. Then I decided it had to be a drawing on a particular size of paper.  But as an artist, I’m all over the place.  I do several bodies of work in several media all the time.  All those limitations are not how I work, but somehow I talked myself slowly into that consistency and regularity.

Some of the work that I do as an artist is less photographic.  Like the above shot, a photogenic rearrangement of something much less exciting to look at: making the “paints” for my “paintbox.”  Each sheet has to be torn and in order to use them more efficiently be rolled into a ball so when it comes to making the carpet, no detangling is needed.

In any case, I wanted to outline for you some of what I’ve been working on, though each of these things will get more attention as time goes on this summer, perhaps you would like to know the whole list of “what’s up” in Adventurous Art land.

Recycle Ann Arbor had an Earth Day Art Contest, and my “Sun Rug” was selected to be a finalist.  Though the turnout was small, I stuck around for the Public Reception and made some good connections to people in the community.

My small success in that contest persuaded me to shoot higher and I’ve been working on a proposal for a larger series of rag carpets to be displayed in narrative series from Cloud, to Rain, to Rainbow, to Sun.  The first proposal contains some mistakes and omissions, so we will see.  In either case, I’m excited about the project and you will see some progress shots soon.

One person I met through the program was the Outreach and Zero-Waste coordinator for RAA with whom I’m coordinating the translation of some of their materials about how to recycle in Ann Arbor into Spanish.  It’s cool to get to do some translation work, if only as a volunteer.

She also introduced me to someone at the Ecology Center, and I’m volunteering with them to do an interactive recycled art table at the Eco-Ride on June 23 at Riverside Park in Ann Arbor.  Yes, Ann Arbor, not Ypsi.  I’m going to do a whole entry about this since I made them a video and I think you’ll enjoy our project, even if you can’t attend the Eco-Ride.

Another of the people I met through the Recycle Ann Arbor Earth Day Contest was the director of FLY Art Center, an Ypsi organization that does outreach to under-served public school children.  We met up and I’m going to teach some “Studio Skills” classes (one about no-sew upcycled t-shirts, and one about rag rug coasters or placemats), and do some volunteering for them in their outreach and public programs.