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A Breath of Fresh Air

Robyn Ravlich


 


Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day,
Little Mary wants to play,
Rain, rain, go away

From childhood we have an interest in the elements with weather patterns expressed in nursery rhymes and skipping rhymes

The North wind doth blow
And we will have snow

Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight

At least we did when children played outside games and when weather patterns seemed predictable. And talking about the weather has always been an acceptable opening to communication with strangers and friends alike.” Nice day for it, isn’t it?” “Dreadful weather, isn’t it? Gardens, food & water supply, sun dried laundry, road safety, sport, all depend on stable weather. As do our seasonal moods, and sense of well being. With increasingly erratic weather systems and the advent of global warming, the questions being posed are “What must governments do?” and “What can individuals do to turn this back?”

In Talking about the Weather, Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark put the focus on individual responses to a collective effort. They seek donations of breath to blow back global warming, and individual voices and musings to build a group response. It’s an absurdist undertaking with a great deal of heart and charm that locates the project within a range of artistic tradition from Dada to the happenings and conceptual art of the ’60s and ’70s, through to the newest of hybrid and media arts which once again draw upon community or participant generated content, here mediated by the artists. It’s a paradigm shift to help alter perception (Who is making the art? Where is the art in this? What is the art of change?).

This is a fascinating art project and installation comprised of video, specimen cases of breath, the written thoughts of individuals contributed to a blog, and a soundtrack collage of collective breaths.

In the video filmed by Miranda we see Neumark approach a range of people and engage with them to seek their breath donations – inhalations (oxygen) and exhalations (carbon dioxide). The human exchanges and responses are delightful and a pleasure to watch in their accumulation. They are gathered in the manner of television or radio news Vox Pops, with the interviewer stationed on public paths in parks seeking out likely comments, in this case contributions of breath. The contacts are quirky, amusing, and moving. An elderly, blind woman breathes willingly and with dignity into the unseen microphone for the unseen camera, media props which are on display to all others as part of the game. Maori girls are serious and then break up laughing with radiant smiles. People seem so pleased to be doing something personally. And they are disarmed by not having to comment, although some do. One young guy says, “I like the idea. I hope it works, I believe in it”.

A surprisingly recurrent theme is embarrassment at having sick breath, garlic breath, bad breath. And surprising too is the way everyone seems to accept that the microphone is actually collecting their breath when all it can do is record the sound of their breath. It is a conceit that seems to work wherever the artists take up their collection posts – in Holland, in New Zealand, and in Australia.

A further conceit is the specimen cases of breaths on show which are labelled as Selections from Northern Hemisphere Breath Collection and Selections from Southern Hemisphere Breath Collection. This is a quasi-scientific playful ploy that sets up a notion of difference. We are accustomed to seeing specimen cases in museums, but like the Emperor’s new clothes, here we can see straight through the display case.
Breath is not only elemental it is fundamental to our existence – breath is life - and it has philosophical and spiritual significance. When Maoris greet they rub noses, exchanging breath and sharing life force. In his poetic book, Air and Dreams, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard noted the correspondence between the soul (âme in French) and the sigh created when breath is expelled in pronouncing the word. In sighing, a little bit of our soul is sent out to connect with other souls. 
The air we breathe is also the air through which we transmit light and sound.

The sound element of Talking about the Weather is strong and has been a feature of the artists’ collaborative works since their innovative CD-ROM and installation, A Shock in the Ear, (1997). Here, the soundtrack is a rhythmic procession of recorded breaths (human and canine), occasional words, and surrounding atmospheres. From contemplation of suspiration comes the possibility of inspiration.

This project has resonances with other sound and radio art projects. The American artist Kenneth Gaburo undertook a project called Testimony for ABC Radio National’s innovative arts program Surface Tension in the mid-1980s. At that time, fears of a nuclear threat proliferated, and listeners were invited to leave a recorded message of their last thoughts in the minute before a nuclear blast. These were composed into a highly moving sonic tapestry of layered voices that revealed fear and love and the whole gamut of the human condition.

In 1992, Gregory Whitehead, in bogus guise as the Director of the International Institute of Screamscape Studies, invited listeners to deposit their screams on a recorded telephone line at ABC Radio’s Sydney studios for his audio forensic analysis. And he encouraged participants to also record the background story to their scream. Clownish pranksters, horror show Goths, angry people and sensitive souls contributed their primal screams and ultimately moving stories across a considerable range from mothers giving birth to the anguish of final loss. Assembled into a remarkable ‘screamscape’ for broadcast in The Listening Room radio show, Pressures of the Unspeakable gave voice to a multitude of very human expression. And as in Talking about the Weather there was a strong performance element to the work, both in the pseudo-scientific persona adopted by the artist Gregory Whitehead, and in the playful and dramatic screaming acted out by the participants. There are echoes of performance art here, but as the performance is amateur and fleeting and there is little or no artistic intention on the part of those whose screams and breaths are captured, it is perhaps more fitting to think of the works as performative rather than performance art. Although, the 2008 Sydney Festival director Fergus Linehan referred to the art created in the watching of children give adults haircuts in a festival work called Haircuts by Kids; it wasn’t in the choppy haircuts such as the one he affably received.

Two other radio artworks come to mind. One again draws on donations or contributions, this time from those willing to sing in the shower and submit a recording to composer Thomas Fitzgerald for inclusion in his radiophonic composition Shower Songs (2004). This explored climate change and drought, very much in evidence in Australia at that time, as well as a metaphorical drought caused by the drying up of individual musical expression. Shower Songs joined Damian Castaldi’s ABC artist-residency work In the Mist of an Arcane Pop (1997) in responding creatively to rising concerns about global warming and climate change. In the Mist of an Arcane Pop builds a cinematic sound world of environmental mismanagement by greed, the destruction of the Amazon forests, and the proliferation of unnatural forest fires. “Hey, bright spark”, a seductive voice calls, “gotta match?” With catchy rhythms and beats you could dance to this creation, animistically invoking the spirits of rain and clean air.

These works suggest a context for me where Talking about the Weather might be placed and considered – they are occupying similar airspace, but there’s a further key to be found in the artists’ collaborative body of work and certain modes that are emerging in it.

Two previous works seem particularly relevant. The Museum of Rumour, (2003) was an installation and an internet work that explicitly played with notions of pataphysics, an absurdist philosophical concept developed by nineteenth century writer Alfred Jarry. Parodying the theory and methods of science, pataphysics has been defined as “The science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”

Their later work, Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier, created during a Parisian artist residency and exhibited in 2006 and 2007, evokes a missing, lost or vanished street in Paris. Rue Simon-Crubellier is a street located in a dazzling book written by Georges Perec, where an imagined cross-section through an apartment building reveals all the individual lives of those who reside and visit there and the web of correlations and correspondences between them. It’s a tour de force of the imagination and of building and keeping track of a vast number of detailed connections. Miranda and Neumark are not ingénues, but they set off on a search for the elusive street with a beguiling illusion of innocence and artlessness. First, as they are media savvy, they have googled it. They have searched for clues in the text and tried to overlay the directions and landmarks given in the book on maps. Then, the real fun begins.  Armed with chutzpah and a video recorder, and Neumark’s increasing confidence at speaking French, our artists hit the backstreets and boulevards of Paris and film their performative encounters, firstly with variously obliging and bewildered strangers and then with map sellers, council bureaucrats, street name record keepers, and town planners. In the process of searching and performing their encounters, they accumulate the materials for an intriguing exhibition of which the most fascinating artefact is the edited video giving shape to their search. The search is unsuccessful, or is it? I think not. In the process of searching they have discovered many things, and been found, via their blog on the project, by the person closest to Perec, an intellectual and friend who maintains Perec’s interests and intellectual property since his death. The artists have played with an idea, and played with people, messing with their heads in a few amusing instances, and found this grace of acceptance by Perec’s friend who is also a member of OuLiPo, a literary organisation which emerged from pataphysics and has Dadaesque preoccupations with games and puzzles. Another clue.

The search is the art, the art of the search, the search for a street in a novel, the search for information in the age of internet search engines. Both networks – on the ground, and in cyberspace yield value and co-exist. Whilst immensely capable in working with contemporary art media and having explored its new frontiers, I regard the human qualities of empathy, playfulness, inquisitiveness, and storytelling as most valuable in their artworks. Even the blog of breath text has been transcribed in Miranda’s beautiful handwriting, humanising the thoughts it contains. The breath texts are personal, funny, meditative, and poetic – some entries are lyrical, others are abstract concrete poetry drawing the breath in letters across the page.

 During the political events (les événments) of May 1968, the French Situationists proclaimed, “Imagination seizes art!”, and this is what I see happening - as the artists do, in Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier – a real search for an imagined placeand in Talking about the Weather, the artistic creation of an imaginative response to real problems.

 

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