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Entertainment & Arts

Coronavirus quarantine inspires artist Pablo Helguera’s project: singing telegrams

Artist Pablo Helguera is offering singing telegrams as part of an art project in collaboration with Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.
(Grand Central Art Center)
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What’s a specialist in socially engaged art supposed to do during a pandemic, when social distancing is a new hallmark of life?

Artist, performer and author Pablo Helguera came up with a solution: singing telegrams delivered via Zoom.

The project, “Pablo Helguera: The Grand Central Singing Telegram Co.,” launches Monday in collaboration with Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, where the Brooklyn-based Helguera was an artist in residence last year. The idea came to Helguera as the novel coronavirus swept through New York City in March. Plans to launch it last month were put on hold when Helguera said he came down with COVID-19 himself. (He was never tested but said he suffered many of the disease’s hallmarks, such as fever, loss of smell and extreme exhaustion.)

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Now on the mend, Helguera said he is looking forward to singing to as many people as possible during the project, which runs until May 28.

“We are so yearning to connect with others,” Helguera said recently over the phone from his quarantine in Brooklyn. “It’s a moment of great grief where we are trying to understand the heaviness we all feel every day.”

Artists, he said, are in a difficult spot.

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“We are all isolated in our homes, and we are trying to think of things to do that can help people and help ourselves because we are going crazy in this isolation,” he said.

Helguera plans to dress like an old-time Western Union worker when he delivers his Zoom serenades. Participants have 30 songs to choose from. Helguera’s repertoire ranges from “Rigoletto” to ranchera songs. “I can sing ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘West Side Story,’” he said. “I know a few Renaissance songs, I know a few lullabies.”

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He’s no opera singer, he joked, but he’s available and free.

The concept is an expansion of a project he did in 2001 at an arts festival. He simply offered to call friends of participants to deliver a message with a song. He was going to do it for only 30 minutes, but the line grew so long that he stayed for eight hours.

“People cried, people were so moved by the experience,” he recalled.

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To be a part of Helguera’s coronavirus-era social art experiment, send an email to grandcentral@fullerton.edu. Coordinators will then send a form for you to fill out in the same way one might have to send a telegram or cable back in the day.

“I was so thankful for people’s concern and messages that I want to give back,” Helguera said of the period when he was sick. “I think we all want to try to help in the best way we can, with the best resources available to us.”

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