“Sit on the carpet!” Yves ordered me in a stage whisper. The crowd at the gallery opening was pressed along the walls in a thick uncomfortable crust around a carpet in the middle of the space, breathing in and watching a blue film.
“Oh thank God for that,” I broke for the breathing space of the carpet and sat down with my bags and my gin cocktail. Other people followed, but more stayed. This is crowd dynamics.
It was busy and the sound of the microphone overloading wasn’t conventionally pretty but for me being in a wholly aesthetic intellectualised environment is a good relief of or distraction from stress. I feel I can breathe easier in these places.
Karin Kihlberg & Reuben Henry’s “This Building, This Breath” is a new film-stroke-performance, which they presented for Week 43 of Fig-2.
You don’t know when you go in that the voiceover is being performed live. It sounds a bit distorted and unpolished because it hasn’t been filtered or produced. Watching the film as just a film is enjoyable in itself. It is a wide-ranging meditation on breathing referring to culture, biology and martial arts and it develops through an engagement with the buildings and spaces we inhabit to establish a poetic proposition that the room itself is breathing.
You might notice after a few times through the film that the sound seems to be changing, or that some of the utterances don’t seem to come from the speakers but a cappella, or someone might just tell you. I was astonished, and had a cheeky peek round the corner of the back of the screen that delineated the viewing room, and there he was, Reuben Henry hidden away behind a computer and microphones, performing in camera. It was a Wizard of Oz moment. The curtain drops away and ecce homo. More Latin, sorry! I only used in camera (‘in private’) because I enjoy the fact that in camera means off camera.
It seems relevant here, because another clue would have been that above the screen was a camera pointed at us through which Reuben could view us and sometimes respond to us. When the studio space was empty in the week he would be able to see, and rest until someone came in, but he essentially performed the film all day every day for the whole of Kihlberg & Henry’s week at Fig-2. This makes it a durational performance, like Marina Abramovic or sitting through The Hobbit.
It’s especially extraordinary given many viewers would not have known it was a live performance at all. There are of course other instances of performances taking place in camera or unbeknownst to an audience. Examples of the latter usually have an element of anthropological study, such as when Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, recording the reactions of the other people to the whiff.
The classic example of invisible performance is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) in which a ramp was installed in the gallery underneath which Acconci reputedly lay masturbating for eight hours a day. The work is simultaneously private and public. I also recall reading that there is an ambiguity as to what he was really doing down there, about the truth value of it. Reuben Henry could have set a backing tape off and sat back and we’d have been for the most part none the wiser.
We have to accept that the piss in Andras Serrano’s photo Piss Christ is piss when it could be lemonade, and some still believe that Piero Manzoni (I seem to be really into Latin and Italians today), that Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit actually contain gummi bears rather than the artist’s waste. This reveals that there is a contract that occurs between the artist and the viewer when they come in contact, an element of trust, faith in the work, like the suspension of disbelief you experience while watching a story. In a sense, the Wizard of Oz moment is a disruption of that. You thought this was a film? It’s a man!
The exhibition will be touring to Plymouth Arts Centre and Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool in 2016. These spaces are totally different to the ICA Studio. Even if the script and images remain largely the same, the work will be different, both because of the nature of live performance as unrepeatable and because the film draws attention to rooms and spaces so the viewer will be more aware of the space they’re in, which will be different in each case. I wonder what the Wizard of Oz moment will be like elsewhere.
The voiceover begins soothingly explaining what is about to happen: “The images will cease. There will be blackness. Like the room, you will be weightless. In ten minutes there will be nothing but images.”
We are encouraged to “Breathe deeper, breathe slower.”
“The breath you took – did you mean it?” This is a interesting little kōan. How can you ‘mean’ a breath? We think of breath as involuntary and don’t notice it until we choke on a pretzel and momentarily lose the knack. Learning to control our breath can have a real effect on our wellbeing. In a moment of stress, you take a deep breath to calm down. In exercises like yoga and meditation breathing is one of the basic techniques you use to improve all-round physical and mental health.
The film lists symptoms of unbalanced deep breathing (UDB) patterns that can lead to “almost all maladies including excessive stress, anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, high blood pressure, allergy, fatigue, poor sleep, speech or singing issues, emotional imbalances, personality distortions, excessive body weight, heart problems and may forms of cancer.”
In my yoga session in Fig-2 Week 27 Siri Sadhana Kaur told us “Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom.” The breath is the key unit. A breath is to yoga what a word is to a poem. Though you haven’t heard me wheezing at night. Not quite what Graham Coxon said about Pete Doherty’s lungs, “they sound like a bag of crisps” (what with all the crack) which isn’t that great for a happy meditation experience, but then neither is being on crack. Crack just makes you want to make loads of phone calls.
“Breath cleans the mind of images,” said Reuben’s voiceover, “Think of nothing..” This is not at all what meditation is about, as I learned at a meditation session here during Fig-2 Week 38 when the instructor explained that meditation is not about emptying the mind: “You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working? If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”
“What does nothing look like?” asks the voice, another kōan to accompany the one about the meaning of breath. I’m reminded of a Prince song except I remember the lyric wrong; it’s similar but actually it’s “We’ll try to imagine what silence looks like,” which seems even harder than imagining nothing. To me nothing looks like an eye (a camera is a pale imitation) and silence would have been preferable to Prince’s records after 1994.
While Week 38 explored how if you better inhabit and use your own body you will benefit – through breathing and exercise – this week explored some of the same themes by thinking about the buildings we inhabit, imagining that the building itself is breathing. The film describes “a room with an unbalanced breathing pattern” while we view film of buildings being earthquake tested. “The room expands” making the proposition that the room itself is breathing.
Sick Building Syndrome is an acknowledged condition that affects the health and comfort of building occupants that appears linked to time spent in the building but without identifying a specific illness or cause. Most of the suggested causes are interestingly linked to breathing: poor indoor air quality, poor heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, contaminants such as aerosols and gases, molds, ozone exhaust and poor air filtration.
These are all how a building ‘breathes’. It sounds odd to say a building breathes, but think of it in the way we describe how a food tastes. The food isn’t doing the tasting, it’s being tasted. A book might read well, but it can’t itself read (unless Google has already invented some kind of self-reading book, which wouldn’t surprise me). A building might breathe well.. or ill.
I hope this feat of linguistics doesn’t spoil the poetry of imagining a building breathing. Truth is beauty and all that. Speaking of linguistics . .
At one point in the voiceover Reuben read the textual punctuation, the way you would if you were dictating to an amanuensis. Full stop. New sentence. A text’s punctuation indicates when you’re supposed to breathe. I don’t mean that you’re at risk of dying if you read the unpunctuated text of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses or took a gamble on Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, though the film does state “Breath is the punctuation of your death.” You’ll still breathe, though there are those suspenseful Silence of the Lambs moments when you suddenly become aware you haven’t breathed for the past two minutes.
If written punctuation is there to tell us when to breathe, the opposite is true in speech, where our breathing may be one of the ways in which we punctuate our speech to clarify what we’re saying. In Fig-2 Week 30 we discussed punctuation in Anna Barham’s work with voice transcription software.
When we listen to someone speaking we hear a stream of unpunctuated syllables to which we have to apply our own punctuation to understand, deciding between whether we hear ‘four candles’ or ‘fork handles’. If you wanted to be really clear you might take a little breath between four and candles to spell it out. So breathing can be a kind of punctuation, making it in the context of speaking a linguistic act, which is another way of answering the question “The breath you took – did you mean it?”
The room becomes a living thing, a character. We say that something – an environment, a person, an expression, an idea – ‘takes on a certain character’ sometimes when it comes into contact with a new thing or when we think of it in a new way. This curiously points toward a notion that these things are not discrete entities that are complete and immutable but are in fact a sum of sensations and definitions subject to change when their context alters.
The film concludes with these words “Do you feel C-A-L-M? Breathe this breath. 30 seconds. This building.” then he whistles, and concludes with the injunction “Hold your breath indefinitely, room.” Roy Orbison’s song “House Without Windows” strikes up and we see a slideshow of buildings whose windows have been covered up in diverse ways. These are choked buildings that can no longer breathe.
“He’ll have it memorised by the end of the week” said Fatoş at the Monday opening. Reading it all day for a week, that’s what you’d expect, but by the end of Sunday Reuben hadn’t memorised it. He still had to read the words. After a few days mistakes had started to creep in. In the last performance on Sunday he stumbled over a “comma” (luckily he didn’t fall into a coma, ahaha).
Everyone is familiar with having a job that they soon learn how to do perfectly and which they subsequently start doing perfectly badly.
There should be a name for that. There’s the Peter principle, but that’s a bit different, that’s when people are promoted for their competence in their current role rather than the intended role, so they stop rising when they can no longer perform effectively, having risen to the level of their incompetence. This is why you always think you can do your boss’s job better than them.
It’s different to the Peter Principle though: it’s about repetition, in a job, or a performance, or making a film. It’s not even boredom, it’s just entropy. Seeing or doing the same identical thing a hundred times makes you notice the tiny details of difference between these supposedly identical things, and they become destabilised.
As Stanley Kubrick’s endless takes of a scene progressed, film would spool out of cameras, actors would forget lines they had said a hundred times. It’s a curious quirk of repetition. Maybe it makes our brains unravel, sometimes in a good way. During the yoga weeks ago Siri Sadhana Kaur said “Through repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space.”
Essentially, during the week while Reuben had been hidden away in a tiny cell behind a screen he had been exploring space. Far out.