All posts by Kate Elswit

What is a Question? Breath Catalogue in ASAP/Journal

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

Breath Catalogue at Feel It Festival


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. 


New Sensors


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!


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!


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).


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.


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 .


Cataloguing Breath Through Choreography

(first posted at The Life of Breath)

I am currently collaborating on Breath Catalogue, which is a practice-based research project that combines choreographic methods with medical technology to externalize breath as experience. Dance artists inherently link breathing and movement patterns in both creation and performance. Our goal is to expand the common dance connection between breath and gesture by visualizing the data obtained from the mover’s breath, and inserting this into the composition process to make the breath perceptible to the spectator.

In the first phase, my collaborators (artist/scholar Megan Nicely, and data scientist Ben Gimpert) and I conducted preliminary research and development using prototypes of medical breath monitors from the San Francisco-based start-up Spire. We wanted to understand how this technology might change the way we not only move but also think about moving, by pushing us into less familiar relationships with the breath that is so intrinsic to what we do. We asked how attending to the visualized sensor data could change the conditions under which we dance. (If you are curious about the genesis of the project and some of the ideas that we initially workshopped, I wrote a post for Spire’s blog back in September).

Now we have returned to the studio for a more protracted period of research. The objective is to build a choreographic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in performance form, where what are collected and shared are palpable experiences of and data on the performers’ breathing. One of the things that struck me in the first stage was how unpredictable, messy, and varied our breath was under different tasks. What appeals to us about the idea of the cabinet or catalogue is the possibility to retrieve 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 the catalogue continues to accumulate and grow.

One of the key elements in our approach to Breath Catalogue is the possibility of breath as something that moves through our body — a quality that we move and that also moves us, but that also has a force of its own. At this point in the process, we have come to see three overarching aspects to our experiments with what we call the external agency of this breath. The first is the way that breath might create choreographic structures or games, changing the nature of the relationship between two performers. In this way, we might think of an unpredictable ‘breath object’ in the sense that the choreographer William Forsythe speaks about ‘choreographic objects‘. The second has to do with the ways in which manipulating breath changes the sensorial experience of the moving body. The body feels different with different breath techniques, even as the movement task remains the same. And the third has to do with building a theatrical environment based on magnifying and scaling the minutiae of breath experiences. Even though each of these three aspects intrinsically calls on the others, this provisional categorization is productive in helping us make sense of what it means to bring choreographic thinking to breath and share it with others.

As Breath Catalogue continues, we are excited to be a part of the Life of Breath project. We want to continue to explore how our expertise in this choreographic means of externalizing breath as experience can play a part in this larger project on the clinical implications of medical humanities research for respiratory illnesses.