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KINGSTON, N.Y. — The O+ Festival in the Hudson Valley town of Kingston, now in its fourth year, trades art and music for health and well-being. Per its tagline — “The art of medicine for the medicine of art” — the festival re-imagines the terms of exchange between artists and musicians and the communities in which they practice their craft. This year, 40 participating artists and 40 musicians were invited to a full range of medical services in exchange for gifting their practices and performances to the community.
Freely festooned by murals and art — paste-ups, and sculptures installed in public spaces, music in bars and churches (Spiritualized closed out the festival Sunday night at the beautiful Old Dutch Church) — the Festival is a bit of a cultural scavenger hunt. And among those participants returning to the festival was renowned performance artist Linda Mary Montano, who did her part to blur the lines between art and life and whatever account of well-being pleases you. Her participatory piece “7 Hour Art/Life Counseling” offered a unique opportunity to meld into one of the great performance art practices of recent decades.
(Incidentally, Montano told me that she is sending off her archives to NYU’s Fales Library. In just a while you’ll be able to trace back her practice and career. Young art historians inclined to think the last 50 years constitute interesting history: be at the ready.)
For the fourth year running Montano took up her “7 Hour Art/Life Counseling” piece inside a tiny, nigh-vintage storefront. With a recently broken and mending hand, reclining on a beach chair for 7 hours daily, all weekend long, she and I chatted, like we had last year, about the ways that the world fits better with you or me, or she in it. Hand on our hearts, we talked about the ways certain roles constrain and incentivize careerism and abuse in the arts. I had some problems, you see, some worries. She took the roles that serviced those worries and switched them around by switching our seats and had me stand in the stead of my own interlocutor. It was a deeply moving turn.
Before parting she asked to be blessed. By me?! My weird hand on her head, warm from the midday chat, she in turn blessed me. My parting gesture was a kiss on her forehead, hers, a smile and a “thank you.” This clarifying Socratic exercise only helped reconstruct my views, without knocking down a thing.
So, about that healthcare and well-being: O+ doesn’t offer health services only to its participating artists and musicians, although crucially there is that. It offers medical services to its volunteers as well. (Full disclosure: I was a volunteer.) And that may well be the more socially valuable portion of the festival’s work. Wherever it goes, say in the future, the festival’s moves will track a spike in a community’s well being. This is a good thing, Obamacare roll out or no.
For my share, I checked into the medical center at the festival and joked through my check-up by the attending nurse. And then I met my attending physician, Dr. William Murphy, with whom I engaged in conversation and advice for over an hour. We talked about topics as wide-ranging as Sri Lankan immigration patterns and the hypothesis that Rembrandt did not possess binocular vision. Throughout our chat we went through the check-list of the things well-being consisted in and he, finally, put his hand on the lump of fatty tissue tightly wound in my chest and feeling around reaffirmed that I had nothing to worry about; no, this wasn’t the kind of thing, that breast cancer, that killed my mother. It was a blessing of a sort, a healing touch, the conversation, just as much as the medical run through.
I understand Montano as the embodiment of the O+ Festival’s gift. Her medicine, like Dr. Murphy’s, is her time, and her account of the world, which is probably your gift too, in reading this, in offering whatever welfare increasing service, gift, you can provide. And it’s a service that by Montano’s hand shows that the roles you assigned for yourself and for others are all up for revision and re-articulation.
The O+ Festival took place in Kingston, N.Y. October 11–13. It will also run in San Francisco November 15–17.