Originally published 8 January by The Polyphony
Artist Lucy Sabin reflects on making art about breath in 2020.
Breathworks began as a participatory arts project on social media, expanding to become an exhibit and events programme supported by Art Fund and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Launched by myself and hosted by Modern Art Oxford, Breathworks was originally conceived in January 2020, adapting to respond both to the respiratory pandemic of COVID-19 and to the antiracist protests of 2020 that railed against breathlessness in all its forms. In this post, I focus on the beginnings of Breathworks: its digital grass roots.
When designing Breathworks as an online campaign, our aim was to gather information about people’s personal and unique relationship with breathing in 2020, particularly considering the constant media coverage of breathlessness as a symptom of COVID-19, the lockdown-related lack of access to community spaces, and enduring concerns surrounding mental health. The intention was to create an accessible framework that would allow a range of experiences to find creative expression.
A methodology for producing a breathwork was developed thanks to a series of focus groups with gallery volunteers. An open call then invited the gallery’s online audiences (Instagram followers, newsletter recipients, etc.) to contribute their own breathwork by following three steps: first, make an image; second, record some sound (20-60 seconds); and third, upload via the online form with an optional description. At the receiving end, we added a circular sound wave to marry image with audio before uploading the breathwork to the exhibition webpage.
This systematic approach, inspired by arts-based research and participatory arts, transformed a creative exercise into an empirical enquiry. The umbrella term ‘art(s)-based research’ (ABR) was pioneered by art therapist Shaun McNiff (1998, 2008). In ABR, ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ are enmeshed because the practice itself is designed systematically as a repeatable resource, substantiating claims that art production can contribute to knowledge about wider issues (McNiff 2008, 33-34). Similarly, ‘participatory arts’ subsumes approaches wherein creative co-production generates ‘dialogue, social activism, and community mobilization’ (https://participedia.net/method/4451).
The breathworks we received from 40 individuals reflected a lively array of ideas and sentiments. Participants followed breathing along a number of threads, including the volume of air inhaled or exhaled; the paralinguistic expressiveness of gasps and sighs; reconnecting with self and nature (plants, the ocean); cosmological narratives about breath as life force; confronting climate change and forest fires; breathing beneath and through a face covering; machinery that ‘breathes’ (from fridges to rotary fans); an ephemera of birdsong, shadows and blurred images; experiencing health conditions as laboured breath; and suspending breath in poetry and blown ink.
We gathered verbal feedback. One participant wrote, “It took me out of my lockdown day’s plans and into something I had not expected this morning”. An audience member observed, “Breathing is always important, but in the current climate it needs to be focussed on – usually we just take it for granted”.
Breathworks, screenshot of online exhibition. Modern Art Oxford, https://www.modernartoxford.org.uk/learn/breathworks-exhibition/. Image: Helen Messenger.
Breathworks made breath and breathlessness visible beyond the clinical or biological framings that might sometimes contain respiratory narratives (Macnaughton 2020; Mbembe 2020). In responding to the theme of breathing through creative engagement, participants drew attention to both microcosmic stirrings and seismic ripples. The resultant body of audiovisual works spans multiple scales and includes beyond human perspectives, highlighting ecological connections and expanded imaginaries of breath’s importance and scope.
As I move into the evaluation phase of this project, I begin to consider what Breathworks might contribute to broader conversations about the ‘becoming together’ of people, places and the air that flows through both. Encouraged by a subsequent research collaboration with cultural geographer Derek McCormack, I have contemplated Breathworks’ synergy with recent attempts to develop political ecologies for our present moment. I am especially drawn to anthropologist Timothy Choy’s re-appropriation of the word conspiracy, which he describes as a ‘commitment to breathing together from and in and unequally shared milieu’ (2016). If ‘to conspire’ means ‘to breathe together with’, then Breathworks is a conspiracy of breathers, breathing together yet uniquely.
Conspiratorial practices are re-emerging in queer and feminist studies, black scholarship, and decolonial and multispecies bodies of literature (among others). These voices and the social movements that buoy them use breath as a tool to galvanise and reveal underplayed histories and less visible instances of suffocation (e.g. Crawley 2016; Simmons 2017; Cervenak 2018; Hecht 2019; Mbembe 2020; Myers 2020; Neimanis 2020; Rahman and de Mori 2020). Why pay heed to breath in all its shapes, flows and rifts? The answer might be in the practice. To follow breathing is to perform an ontological networking. Emulating the inhale and exhale by turning inwards to turn outwards, there is a conflation (literally ‘blowing together’) of self and other. Air becomes breath then air again, tracing our existing connections with(in) the atmosphere and, in continuation, its material, biotic and energetic forces.
Cervenak, S. J. (2018). “Black Night is Falling”, the “Airy Poetics” of Some Performance. The Drama Review, 62(1), 166-169.
Choy, T. (2016). Distribution. Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, January 21. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/distribution
Crawley, A.T. (2017). Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press.
Hecht, G. (2019). Air in the Time of Oil. Los Angeles Review of Books, January 21. https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/provocations/air-time-oil/
Macnaughton, J. (2020). Making Breath Visible: Reflections on Relations between Bodies, Breath and World in the Critical Medical Humanities. Body & Society, 26(2), 30–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X20902526
Mbembe, A. (2020). The universal right to breathe. Trans Carolyn Shread. In the Moment, Critical Inquiry. Available at: https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/. Accessed: Monday 14 December 2020.
McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
McNiff, S. (2008). Art-based research. In: Knowles, J. G., & Cole, A. L. (eds.), Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 29-41.
Neimanis, A. (2020). The sea and the breathing. E-flux. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/oceans/331869/the-sea-and-the-breathing/
Myers, N. (2020). How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. ABC [online]. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/natasha-myers-how-to-grow-liveable-worlds:-ten-not-so-easy-step/11906548. Accessed: Monday 14 December 2020.
Rahman, E., & de Mori, B. B. (2020). Breathing Song and Smoke: Ritual Intentionality and the Sustenance of an Interaffective Realm. Body & Society, 26(2), 130–157. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X19900525
Simmons, K. (2017) Settler Atmospherics, Member Voices, Fieldsights, November 20
The author wishes to thank Art Fund and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) for their generous support. She is also grateful to Professor Derek McCormack, author of Atmospheric Things (2018), for steering the research project that Breathworks became.