Breath Control is an interactive audio-visual installation that relates the visceral experience of one’s last breath to the sounds of everyday life. Breath Control also confronts the conventions of the gallery experience by altering the gallery’s interior design in order to re-structure the sensory hierarchy.
Breathing measures time. It is a rate of control, a rate for balancing input and output. R. Murray Schafer once pointed out that the human body is one of the best engineering examples of refined acoustic design. In order to best hear the sounds around one, the sounds of the body are minimized. Could you imagine trying to listen a long distance away if your heartbeat thumped loudly in your ears? Yet, in our society we tune out the sounds that exist in the distance and even in our immediate midst and replace them with an artificial soundtrack by wearing ipod earphones. In the process, we not only encourage the world to be louder but we chip away decibel by decibel, frequency by frequency, at the quality of our own hearing. No wonder the world needs to be louder.
There are two components to the work: the breath of the artist and the breath of the visitor both of which control the sound environment of the installation. The breath of the artist is represented by a video abstraction of his lips breathing. The sound of the breathing is heard in the distance through long tubes that peer out like smoke stacks. This breathing also controls the rise and fall of sounds derived from nearby environs. The breathing of the gallery visitor seated on a yoga matt is used to control the volume of the destruction of a nearby building, recorded earlier in Parkdale.
The artist’s initial inspiration for the piece comes from a sound memory of his mother when she was dying from respiratory complications caused by melanoma. The sound that plays in his mind is the sound of her breathing through the oxygen tubes. Since sound is the center of his artistic work he would often record sounds that intrique him, but this sound he could not bring himself to record. Almost two years later this still plays in his memory and has influenced the way he hears the environment. Now instead of listening for interesting timbres or reverberations, he finds himself listening more and more to rhythmic oscillations in sounds from the everyday environment. In a sense, he finds himself searching for how an environment breathes and speaks over time and pays less attention to its mere acoustic spectra.
The artist is grateful for the artistic contributions from Robert Fantinatto (video production), Katie Kehoe (scenic design), and Laird MacDonald (Technical Direction).
Breath Control was exhibited at Gallery 1313 in Toronto in March 2008 and funded by the Ontario Arts Council.