Breathing in a Time of Disaster. Image courtesy of the JackStraw Cultural Center

On November 4, writer and community organizer Ching-In Chen and interdisciplinary artist Cassie Mira held an Artist Talk for their project Breathing in a Time of Disaster, currently being hosted at Jack Straw Cultural Center during December.  The Artist Talk was presented as part of the Autumn 2022 Imagining Trans Futures symposium “Asian/American Ecologies of Trans Care.”  During that talk, which can be viewed on Youtube, Chen and Mira shared the multi-year history of their project, as well as some of the writing and video from participants who shared both their words and their breathing in what the artists call a Breath chorus. 

This project began several years ago in Texas, and the original flyer for July 18, 2019, in Houston, describes the project as a community ritual that is part of “formerly floodland,” a project curated by Ching-In Chen.  “Breathing in a Time of Disaster began as a response to the Tax Day Floods in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey,” Chen said. “As a creative writer, I began charting my struggle with breath as someone who grew up with severe asthma.”

Chen began to explore through speculative and documentary writing.  “I reflected on my own changing relationship to breath and public air in light of the questions of public health, air pollution, and ecological change,” Chen recounted.  “As I was writing, I learned that I wanted to expand the conversation to other voices and was especially interested in cross-community dialogue amongst BIPOC communities and trans/nonbinary/gender-creative communities.”

Chen had met Mira in 2010, and they later moved to Houston together.  “I appreciate Cassie’s quick on-the-ground problem-solving abilities which was really helpful in installing our show in Houston,” Chen said.  “We wanted to break down the divide between audience and performer or artist, and create a more communally shared experience.”

Likewise, Mira found Chen’s talents essential to the project.  “I appreciate Ching-In’s community organizing skills, their ability to design, build, and lead workshops with the most thoughtful care of the people who attend them,” Mira said. “Ching-In’s warmth and attention to detail in curating the experience of those attending our story circles was critical in facilitating vulnerable sharing.”

In 2019 in Houston, Mira handled the exhibition design and coordinated the artists’ installation.  “We had a group of artists who created physical media in addition to live performance and video projection,” she said.  “The pop-up art gallery was only up for one day and it was a whirlwind of problem-solving to ensure each piece was given adequate space in the two-bedroom Montrose home we used for it.” 

Now, at Jack Straw, the duo has more space and resources, and has had the time to explore the differences in the project due to Seattle’s environment.  “I ended up moving to Seattle and trying to figure out how to relate and adapt to this new landscape and how to relate my breathing practices to this new place,” Chen reported.  “The landscape, climate, and air quality are drastically different than in Houston, but there were still connecting threads that we slowly discovered, the fact the annual rainfall quantity was similar even though Houston receives its rainfall in monsoon-like rainfall, whereas Seattle spreads its rain out over the course of nine months.”

Chen felt the impacts of this year’s fires, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic itself, when considering both breathing and the sharing of breath with others nearby.  “In one of the Seattle story circles, one participant suggested taking a collective breath together between each story, which became a beautiful part of the ritual,” Chen relayed. “Thinking across two different regions and landscapes also helped me to think more deeply about connections across communities and how to find solidarity.”

For this project, Chen and Mira asked participants to tell stories about their name, location, breath/body, and healing experience.  “We anticipated that some of these questions might be more challenging than others and deliberately asked them in sequence of what we felt is least to most challenging, starting with asking about their name because everyone has a name story that they are familiar with,” Mira shared. “In practice, we haven’t found any of these four questions to be any more or less challenging than the others for people to share.”

Mira focused on the team’s technical needs for the Jack Straw exhibit. “Because of the amount of participating community artists and the variety of media involved in creating simultaneous streams for the Houston and Seattle area, it was challenging to figure out a good system to orchestrate all the moving parts in the show,” Chen described. “Currently, there are over three hundred cues for the Jack Straw show.”

Additional events related to the Breathing exhibit included a community ritual on November 30 in collaboration with climate data sound artist Judy Twedt, and a Youth Sound Art workshop on December 3 offering hands-on creative work in an audio story circle, as well as training by Jack Straw audio engineers in sound design and creation of original soundscapes.

Even after the Jack Straw exhibit closes, Chen and Mira want to utilize the technologies available to extend the project’s reach.  “Our future plans for this project include creating digital access to the collection of stories and rituals by creating an archive of the work to be accessible to current and future breath practitioners,” Mira said. “We are also interested in iterating the project a second time in the Houston area to further the dialog between Seattle and Houston.”

Through breathing and listening, the pair have learned a lot.  “People have really complex relationships with their breath in ways that I hadn’t even imagined,” Chen said. “It really is true that each breath is a world.” 

Mirroring the inhale and the exhale, Chen and Mira have experienced much giving and receiving.  “I love the generosity of holding someone’s story in the space and seeing the threads across locations and time and other axis of difference,” Chen said.  “I’d also love to work more deeply with specific communities such as people with asthma.

Breathing in a Time of Disaster runs through December 23 at Jack Straw Cultural Center, 4261 Roosevelt Way Northeast, Seattle.

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