In early 2018, I did an hour-long interview about breath and Breath Catalogue for the BBC Radio 4 series The Rhythm of Life. My favorite part was the challenge of representing dance on radio, by describing the Wall Pant curio in real time. Some extracts, including some of Wall Pant, appear on the “The Symphony Within” episode, which aired in August and is still available online.
In March, I had the opportunity to return to Breath Catalogue to both give a talk and lead a breathing workshop at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as part of Hold Me Now: Touch and Feel in an Unreal World, organized by Studium Generale Rietveld Academie. Featured on a day devoted to “Haptics, Creativity, and Knowledge Between Bodies,” curated by Mark Paterson, what I shared was inspired by so much that I’ve learned through this project, at the same time as I discovered new aspects of the work by revisiting it through touch or, as I framed it, palpability — in terms of the way definitions slip between the capacity to be both touched and to felt. Here was the first slide of my talk, entitled “Making Breath Palpable: Theatricality, Somatics, and Technology in Uncertain Archives.”
I was invited to take part in an Editors’ Forum in ASAP/Journal on the question of “What is a Question?” The prompt invited artists and scholars to use their own work to describe how they formulate critical problems: “What does it mean to pose a question—and to whom and to what ends are such questions posed?” Here is my response about Breath Catalogue specifically and inquiry in artistic research more generally:
I often teach a two-term graduate-level methods class on practice-as-research. The pedagogical framework is designed to guide students through the process of generating performance by gradually accumulating a constellation of questions. The first term uses a “devise and shed” format to model what it means to follow a line of inquiry. Each week students present material to be discussed by their peers; their task for the following week is to let go of everything they had previously done and begin again, retaining only the part of their work that had emerged as the most sticky in discussion. This “stickiness” can encompass many types of critical thresholds: a friction, for instance, between the ideas that students are grappling with and the artistic process or even medium through which they are trying to do so. This leads to a question or set of questions that becomes the catalyst for a new practice, which is then performed the following week, with the same follow-up task, and so on. It is only during the second term of the course that students are allowed to hold on to their working questions; this ultimately builds to a single performance in which those questions materialize in new forms.
In my own work Breath Catalogue, such a constellation of questions emerges from multiple strands of inquiry that have to do with embodiment, theatricality, technology, and medicine. The often provisional sub-questions of each strand that have been most generative for my collaborators and me articulate concerns arising in the rehearsal studio, while also facilitating discovery through the conditions they pose for possible action. To give a quick background, this research project combines contemporary choreography with technology to create a cabinet of “breath curiosities” in performance. I collaborate with another artist/scholar, Megan Nicely, as well as data scientist and interaction designer Ben Gimpert, and composer Daniel Thomas Davis. Taking inspiration from the old European cabinet of curiosities, we collect, save, and re use breath experiences and breath data. This ranges from the stories people tell us or our own choreographies of breathing, to the interaction in performance with additive visualizations that mix the dancer’s live breath from one scene with archived breath from the previous one. The cabinet and indeed the curiosity or curious thing become ways to assemble questions within an artistic framework.
The first strand of inquiry for Breath Catalogue involves questions about embodiment, both everyday and dancerly, that are posed as starting points for physical practice. From the beginning, we have been interested in complicating the intrinsic connections between breath and movement in dance, in order to access forms of breath that circulate independently of a single body. So what happens when, instead of relying on breath to support solo movement patterns, we ask breath and body to move autonomously, and what cues do we need to actually do so? Likewise, instead of breath being the “felt” thing that connects two dancers, can it be visualized as an external third component in the relationship, and what might this catalyze?
This leads to questions about sharing such forms of bodily experience with others through a theatrical medium: how do we bridge the gap between the visual or sonic representations of breath, and the somatic experience of breathing, in order to make the many dimensions of breathing palpable to an audience? Whereas in a “normal” dance show, the breath would tend to be obscured behind lots of movement, we ask whether there are ways to shift that hierarchy in order to keep the breath as a priority for spectators watching a moving body that has all sorts of other things going on.
Using wearable technology to pursue these strands of inquiry also raises other sets of questions. First there are practical issues: for example, because our sensors cannot intrinsically distinguish the movement of breath from other forms of movement that expand the chest, what ways of moving allow the sensors to register breath? The technology has the potential to make breathing visible in a way that is otherwise impossible for the dancing body alone, but there is also a massive difference between an expert dancer’s experiences of breath and what a monitor can pick up and quantify. In what ways can these two forms of expertise inform one another? There are also cultural implications of breath in this context: in this moment of the increasingly quantified self, when wearable personal sensor technology is currently being sold to consumers as a way to buy mindfulness, happiness, and health, many technologies of the quantified self tend to treat the body as an object to be disciplined rather than expanding corporeal registers of feeling. So how can dance help to model a more curious approach to the quantified self that builds new somatic and artistic feedback loops?
A newer strand of inquiry involves the medical aspects of Breath Catalogue. The nature of this project, through which we experiment in making our breath palpable to others, sometimes results in audiences wanting to share their breath experiences with us, often in the context of respiratory illness and other non-normative breathing patterns. During an artistic residency at Southmead Hospital, I discovered the answer to the why-question I had not yet asked: namely, that many of the exercises we devised choreographically by inserting spaces between breath, movement, and speech actually map onto pathological symptoms—for example, the “speaking in broken sentences” that is used to diagnose clinical breathlessness. Whereas Breath Catalogue began from an investigation into our own breathing, we are now grappling with how we can not only take the breath patterns of others into our own catalogue, but also allow them to inform what we retrieve for future performances. Many audience members describe holding their breath with us at times. So how can we push the breath in a way that is—at minimum—safe for, and perhaps even useful to, those with respiratory illnesses? And given that medical professionals and patients struggle with the unsharability of breath experiences, can our work help them in some fashion?
The devise-and-shed format of my methods course models how such individual strands of inquiry can be developed. By attending to the students’ critical thresholds, it ultimately builds toward constellations of questions as they proliferate, layer, and interweave. With Breath Catalogue, this can be understood in terms of the curios in a cabinet of curiosities, as well as the attitude of inquisitiveness that accompanies such critical and affective collection without necessarily seeking solutions. The historical form of the cabinet comes from a moment when the distinctions between scientific and artistic experiment were less defined than they are today. I am interested in how recalling the curious practice of accumulating and organizing, whether things or indeed questions, may be useful today to considering bodies differently.
Kate Elswit “What is a Question?” ASAP/Journal, 2.1 (2017), 34-36
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.
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.
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.
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.
Howie Coleman (1), Ian Winters (2, 3, 5), Jon Jackson (4)
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.
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!
We are so pleased to have a highlight reel edited from the July 2015 performance at Fort Mason.
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.
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.
The sensor data from the two shows is now up online.
Thank you to all who came out to the Firehouse on Thursday and Friday. We loved breathing with you!
photo credit Kecya Felix Donnelly
Stray fragments of conversation as we get ready for our premiere in San Francisco at the Fort Mason Firehouse July 16-17:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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!