Breathing Outside: Notes from Cotati

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This past summer, we participated in a week-long artist residency in Cotati, a small town in Somona county just north of San Francisco. The residency culminated in a public performance event hosted by Merlin Coleman, Mary Armentrout, and Ian Winters who run the MilkBar quarterly community gathering and evening of experimental performance.

Our challenge was to create a site-specific version of Breath Catalogue for a mobile audience. The piece was timed to occur in the moments leading up to and just after sunset on a beautiful outdoor farm property. Our days were spent scouting locations, planning the audience route, and rehearsing the movement sections in these new terrains. However, the more unexpected work occurred during a precious evening hour each night when we would “tech” the piece, attending to shifts in the natural lighting. We soon realized that not only did we have to carefully time each section so that it caught a particular look as the sun set—but the audiences’ experience were part of this choreography. We needed to coordinate the flow of the 45-minute work while also bringing the audiences’ own breath to the forefront.

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Instead of the cabinet installation that we use in more conventional theatre spaces, we decided to bring the drawers to life by giving audiences tasks to complete along their journey. The idea was for the performers and spectators to move somewhat simultaneously. As the audience approached the garden by walking along the field and up past the chicken coop, we were already performing the opening section. Between the garden and the trellis area where the next two other short breath curios occurred, we asked them to blow their breath into balloons and tie them to a nearby tree, creating a mobile set piece. From here, they were to take a circuitous route through the main lawn while we set up in the greenhouse with Ben running tech from a nearby bathtub. The piece took an unexpected turn here as audience members, who were instructed to “think of something that took your breath away” and say it out loud in one breath while blowing a feather, formed a circle to share the stories with each other.

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Coaxing the audience back (but keeping this format in mind for future performances!), they proceeded to gather around an installation section in the small greenhouse. Here, they were  invited to blow bubbles through a small window as Kate and I shifted positions on the stools inside. A subtle visualization of accumulating blue orbs on a back screen added to the overall effect. This was followed by the section we call “Noir.” Placed on the steps of the house next door, with the audience seated on either side, we projected a video scene from Kiss Me Deadly as we moved down the stairs, on the porch, and around the house itself. We concluded this section by passing out breath mints for the audience to refresh themselves on their way to the work’s conclusion.

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Now dark, the final location was the barn next to the main house, on which we projected the live visualization that ran live from the sensors we were wearing. Performing here with the simple backdrop, but with the history of the journey we had just completed together, the technology took its meaningful place. While we had focused on the relation of our and audience members’ breath to the landscape until this point, scaling back direct use of our new sensor technology due to light limitations for projection, here the curious meeting of technological and rural aesthetics created a new perspective. As the audience huddled under blankets in the darkness, the illumination of my breath extend beyond the lung capacity that produced it. At one moment while performing I looked back and also experienced the wonder of my breath, which seemed to have a life all its own.

Photo credits:
Howie Coleman (1), Ian Winters (2, 3, 5), Jon Jackson (4)

Breath Catalogue at Feel It Festival

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We are so excited to be presenting Breath Catalogue at Feel It Festival in Bristol in November. Ben, Megan, and Kate will be at Circomedia on November 19th to show old and new curios. We will also have a small catalogue installation set up from Thursday the 17th through Sunday the 20th.

Tickets are available via Eventbrite. There is a Facebook event. And check out all of the other fabulous events in the full Feel It festival program. 

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New Sensors

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We are back in the studio for phase two of Breath Catalogue, and thrilled to be working with new technology from StretchSense.

Here the new capacitance resistance bands are hooked (wirelessly) into our software for a bit of breathing. Clearly, the next step is to insulate the circuit board with something other than masking tape!

 

Ben in SciArt Magazine

Here is an excerpt from the interview with Katharine Hawthorne that was first published in  Sciart Magazine:

Katharine Hawthorne:  What is the output of the breath sensor (what does it “measure”), and how does this get manipulated or translated into the visualizations?
Ben Gimpert:  The sensor measures four things: the diaphragmatic or chest pressure placed on the device, as well as three dimensions of acceleration. These four numbers are sampled about thirty times per second, and then sent over Bluetooth radio to a laptop.

Is there latency in the sensor, in other words, how quickly is information transmitted and processed?
There is very little latency between sampling and receiving the data via Bluetooth on the computer. However, there are a lot of complications. First the Bluetooth transmitter in the breath sensor can be easily disrupted or interfered-with by other radio frequency devices. Ironically, a dancer’s body can also block the radio transmitter in the device.There is also an important but nuanced frame-of-reference problem when using this sort of sensor in performance: The breath sensor does not know the Euclidean origin of the space, what acceleration might occur at point (0, 0). It similarly does not know what is the beginning or end of a breath’s pressure. For this reason, the different breath visualizations avoid working with much memory of a breath. They always work from the difference between this moment’s breath pressure, and the last moment one thirtieth of a second ago.  For the mathematically inclined, the viz uses lots of moving averages and variance statistics. These moving averages give an intentional sort of latency, as Kate or Megan’s movement eases into the visuals.

I am curious about how you chose the specific graphics and visuals used in the piece (the lines and the other projected images).

The famous Joy Division album cover. Smoky particles at a rave in the nineties. The dancers wanting their breath to leave an almost-real residue in the space. In each case the breath is not visualized literally, because that would be boring. If the pressure sensor has a low reading, suggesting that Kate or Megan is at an inhale, the code might move the frequency blanket imagery in a snapped wave upward. Or invert the breath by sending the neon bars outwards.

Who is driving the collaboration? Did the dancers/choreographers suggest modes of interaction and then the visuals develop to suit the choreography? Or did the possible visualizations shape the movement landscape?
I have seen a lot of contemporary dance where an often-male technologist projects his video onto usually-female dancers. This is both sloppy politics, and pretty lazy. I wanted there to be a genuine feedback loop between what my code would project in the space, and how Kate and Megan move. So I was in the dance studio with the dancers throughout the creation of the piece.

In Breath Catalogue, we developed a custom piece of software specifically for the piece. This custom approach took a hardware prototype like the sensor and avoided a proprietary (commercial) software dependency. In a very practice-as-research sense, I would often make live changes to the code while in the studio. The Breath Catalogue visualizations run in a web-browser, so it was easy for Kate and Megan to run them outside of the studio. at home. We are planning to release the Breath Catalogue software under an open source license, to support the community. (Some utility is already released on Github.)

There’s a moment in the piece when the Megan takes off the sensor and transfers it to Kate. Is their breath data significantly different? Also, has this moment ever caused any technical difficulties? Does the sensor have to recalibrate to a different body?
Yes, Kate and Megan each have a distinct style of breathing. If you are adventurous, this can be teased out of the breath data we posted online. In this piece, Megan’s breath is usually more staccato and Kate’s sustained. The sensor reconnects at several points, which is technically challenging. In the next iteration of Breath Catalogue, we will be using multiple sensors worn by one or more dancers. The visualization software that I built already supports this, but it is trickier from a hardware standpoint.

In your experience, how much of the data visualizations translate to the audience? How easy is it for an untrained eye to “get” what is going on and understand the connection between the performers’s breathing and the images?
It turns out to be quite difficult. We added a silent and dance-less moment at the beginning of the piece so the audience could understand the dancer’s breath’s direct effect on the viz. Yet, even with that, the most common question I have been asked about my work with Breath Catalogue was about the literal representation of the breath. As contemporary dance audiences, we are accustomed to referential and metaphorical movement. However I think visualizations are still expected to be literal, like an ECG. Or just decorative.

What is your favorite part of the piece?
In the next-to-last scene, the wireless pocket projector was reading live sensor data from the dancer via the attached mobile phone. Which was pretty fucking tough from a technical standpoint. Also the whimsical moment when Kate watches and adjusts her breath according to the baseline of that Police song. And when Megan grabs the pocket project for the film noir, and then bolts.

If you had the time to rework or extend any section, which would it be?
In one scene we remix the live breath data with data from earlier in that evening’s show. I would have made this more obvious to the audience, because it could be a pretty powerful way to connect breath and time passing.

Breath in Conversation

Stray fragments of conversation as we get ready for our premiere in San Francisco at the Fort Mason Firehouse July 16-17:

  1. We have said from the start that breath is intrinsic to dance; but what we are discovering is how easily moving our bodies can overwhelm the movement of breathing. For example, Dan the  composer for the piece pointed out regarding an experiment when we slammed our torsos against a wall to provoke exhalation: “the thump of your body can be much louder than your breath.” So the trick is to figure out how to keep the breath primary, and then how to communicate to the audience this alternate way of attending to a dancing body.
  2. Ben, the interaction designer, is now working with three data sources for the show’s visualizations based on the breath sensors. The first is the interactive visualizations that are based entirely on the dancer’s live breath in real time. The second is data that is captured from live breathing during the show but remixed to form an additive image that accumulates over time. The third is a live breath from the prior run of a dance section that is captured, saved, time-shifted, and then reused later in the same performance.
  3. The performance is currently broken down into two types of “curios”: longer, more developed sections, which could be considered concrete “breath choreographies/objects,” and then “fragments” that are shorter investigative events. The curio fragments are based on singular breath tasks or tests: what happens if you breathe fast and move slow at the same time or vice versa? Can you choreograph inhalations and exhalations the way you choreograph movement? Can you move, breathe, and tell a story at the same time while keeping all three on separate tracks? What are the breath events that happen between language?
  4. Each of the 12 catalogue entries that make up this particular show need to be unique enough to open different drawers of possibilities in the cabinet of breath curiosities, but cohesive enough to together build and sustain an evening of performance. We are mourning eliminating some breath ideas at this late date. At the same time, not displaying these curios now means that the catalogue will continue to grow outside the constraints of this specific performance. Given the right opportunity, these drawers can be opened and shared as we continue to collect and catalogue new material in the future.
  5. We now accept that our breath is directly connected to the visualizations, albeit in ways particular to each section. However, as we move toward the performance and refine the specificities of the various breath events, we are also reminded what it is like not to know or assume this connection, and to instead be in a landscape of discovery.

Looking forward to sharing with you next week!

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Choreographing with Spire, Part 2

In the first blog in this series, I wrote about our early experiments with using Spire prototypes in the dance studio. Recap: We wanted to understand how this technology might change the way we think about moving, by pushing us into less familiar relationships with the breath that is so intrinsic to what we do as dancers. And we were testing how we could produce new choreographic processes through this interactive technology by building feedback loops with the sensor data (among other things).

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At the end of our first period of research and development, Megan, Ben, and I arrived at an overarching framework for the project and its public presentation: the Breath Catalogue. Think of an old European cabinet of curiosities, except in performance form. Here, instead of collecting knick-knacks and tangible things, we collect, use, and share palpable experiences of and data on the performers’ breathing. Under different tasks, our breath is unpredictable, messy, and varied. What appeals to us about the idea of the cabinet or catalogue is retrieving these different breath samples in new circumstances through the process of live dance. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to treat new performances as breath events that can themselves be collected as catalogue entries grow. Each performance pulls these various “curios” out of the catalogue and also adds new ones back in.

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We are currently working towards our first evening-length performance in late July in San Francisco, but in March we were invited to Copenhagen for our first “catalogue entry.” My solo in Denmark was a performance-lecture: it started as a traditional lecture but ended up as primarily movement. The lecture and movement components were connected by two choreographic vocabularies that we have been working on in the studio: i) speaking as itself a kind of breath exercise, and ii) using dance to “agitate the container,” ie: moving to move the breath within the body. As the background for the first part of the performance, we projected a photograph taken during a walk in Copenhagen the day beforehand. While we had been walking, we recorded data from my breath. The lighting washout on the image correlated to sensor data saved from my breath during that walk, and in performance my movement also correlated to the changing image. Toward the end of the performance, we changed from this saved breath sample to a different visualization, one that was based on the data from my breath right then and there. I told the audience: “That was my breath then. And I’m saving this with you now.”

Back in the rehearsal studio, these materials return. The photo for example, from the corner of Borgergade and Kongens Nytrov, is part of a new scene. And we are still experimenting with how to mix saved breath samples like a DJ. If you want to hear about the Breath Catalogue performances coming up in San Francisco on July 16th and 17th at Fort Mason Center, give us a shout .

 

a cabinet of breath curiosities: contemporary choreography meets medical technology