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This audio installation lets you hear a city breathe

In New York, “Out Of Thin Air” creates a soundscape of the breathing sounds of city dwellers, to draw attention to the environmental and psychological issues affecting our daily breathing.

This audio installation lets you hear a city breathe
Sari Carel [Photo: Vanessa Terán/More Art]

Whether it’s from a respiratory issue, poor air quality, or another health condition, breathlessness is by nature an inaudible struggle: The sounds of city life often drown out an individual’s wheezes, gasps, and struggling.

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A new exhibit at New York’s City Hall Park this month aims to change that. “Out of Thin Air” is an outdoor installation driven by sound instead of images.

Inside the park, opposing rows of speakers line a path that connects the area’s large central fountain to the nearby municipal building. As visitors come within earshot, they’ll hear the collective breaths–or attempts at it–from a few dozen people of all ages, fitness levels, and neighborhoods. The goal is to create what Brooklyn-based artist Sari Carel calls a “canopy of breathing”.

[Photo: Vanessa Terán/More Art]

“[This] is a public sound art installation,” Carel says. “It was conceived to be outdoors so to be enmeshed into a cityscape.” The goal is to raise questions and inspire understanding around what she considers a hugely important and universally shared resource. “Air is all around us. It is a sort of commons when we share it, but there is a constant battle over the uses and abuses of air,” she adds, noting that those who have trouble breathing also often suffer in silence and feel alone.

She felt challenged to take that small and intimate act and make it into something evocative and monumental. To do that, Carel worked with More Art, a nonprofit supporting community art that encourages conversations around social and cultural issues.

More Art put out a community-wide call in New York City encouraging academics, activists, and even asthmatics and yoga practitioners–basically the kind of people who think a lot about these issues–to attend one of several workshops to talk about better breathing practices. Those efforts included an easily accessible therapy of sorts, lessons in what’s called the Alexander Breathing Technique from a Yale drama professor named Jessica Wolf, who works to correct involuntarily yet problematic posture and physiological hang-ups.

At the sessions, participants used a digital stethoscope designed by ThinkLabs, to listen to themselves and others inhale and exhale. Carel recorded those sessions, and also worked with both ThinkLabs, which has its own library recorded breaths, and another clinician who uses the device, to share more sounds.

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The resulting soundscape is multi-channel: Different speakers emit different intonations at differing intervals, which changes the experience as people move around the park. For visitors that want to probe deeper, More Art has organized lots of related public programming throughout the duration of the listening experience, which runs until July 8. That includes guided blindfold walks for families and teenagers who want to focus on the noises even more, although learning how to de-stress and practice mindfulness is another theme.

More Art is also planning a larger symposium for those with different stakes in the air quality and appreciation world to come together and share thoughts about it.

While the result may be powerful, Carel notes that she’s agenda-free. “This is meant to be experienced. It’s not there to tell you this or that, but to open up a space for a physical sensory experience that is connected to all kinds of thoughts and ideas.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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