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)