Hearing Is Seeing in Art Piece Featuring Ear-Opening Breath Sounds

Zoey Hart leads Will Sylvester and those behind him on a blindfolded walking tour through Sari Carel's sound installation, "Out of Thin Air," in City Hall Park. Three more evenings of eyes-closed tours are scheduled. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Jun. 03, 2018

Hisses, gurgles, growls and other beastly noises are greeting visitors to City Hall Park these days. Fearsome though these utterances may seem, they are the life-sustaining sounds of breath.

“Out of Thin Air” is a new sound installation, through July 8, by Brooklyn-based artist Sari Carel that features the recorded breathing of dozens of people, many with obstructive lung diseases. These sounds (some recorded internally with a digital stethoscope) are not only unfamiliar, but often unsettling.

“I’m sure this is catching a lot of regular Downtown workers a little off guard and I think that that’s great,” said Jennifer Lantzas, the city Parks Department’s public art coordinator who selected the work. The project is sponsored by the non-profit organization More Art.

Carel, 43, said she wants visitors to become conscious of breathing as a way to highlight the importance of air quality. Listening to breath was like a total eye—or ear—opening experience for me to consider the endless variety of breaths,” she said. “They reflect in a very authentic way our bodily experience—our embodied experience. And it’s something we do in community. We share our air. It is our right to have clean air.”

The recordings, three 16-minute programs that loop every half hour, come from six speakers on lampposts above the walkway north of the park fountain. Recorded by sound engineer Kerry Pompeo, they grew out of workshops with people who suffer from breathing problems, as well as other volunteers. A doctor also supplied recordings.

To help visitors tune more keenly into these and other park sounds, More Art is offering free eyes-closed walking tours on three Thursday evenings, June 7, June 21 and July 5, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. On the first walk during the opening on May 31, Zoey Hart, an artist and meditation specialist, led lines of blindfolded participants through the park, along Park Row, and back to the installation. There, the multifarious sounds of breathing compete with a cacaphony of everyday city noises, the park fountain, sirens, pigeons, you name it. Hart said the “mindfulness practice” is about “nonjudgmentally noticing how your body responds to your environment.”  

“Being blindfolded and walking around New York City don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” she noted with a laugh.

“To be able to experience New York without seeing is amazing,” said Will Sylvester, 33, a video artist who participated in the walk. “And then to walk into the installation and experience the breaths on top of the sounds of New York is another transformative experience.”

Carel dedicated the installation to her sister, Havi, a philosopher who at 35 was diagnosed with a rare and incurable lung disease and has since written extensively on illness. “I am in awe of her resilience and incredibly inspiring body of work that she has generated in response to her life-altering experience,” Carel said.

“It was first with her diagnoses,” she added, that I became deeply aware of just how exquisite breath is.”

Additional public programming and other information about “Out of Thin Air” can be found at moreart.org/projects/out-of-thin-air/.