Sandra Noeth / Janez Janša (eds.)

Breathe
Critical Research into the Inequalities of Life

An artistic and theoretic conversation about how the protection of bodies is unequally and ambivalently distributed and how resistance can find expression in the figure and the act of breathing.

Breathe is the first volume of Corporeal Matters: a new publication series on arts-based research, in particular practices and concepts that place the body at the core. It illuminates how the body appears simultaneously as witness, document, and agent in contemporary life, and offers insights into corporeality as the often neglected dimension that cuts through ethics, aesthetics, and politics. The series hosts edited volumes, authored publications, workbooks and other formats from multiple perspectives and fields of practice. It is grounded in moments of research, encounter and debate that are generated in the context of the HZT-Inter-University Centre for Dance Berlin. This publication is an attempt to open further critical discussion on breathing and the inequalities of life.

Breathing is a vital fact, something that assails you when you are born, when you are impacted with air into your lungs and pushed from waters and liquids into a social life. Breathing is about social ties, about how you enter into community, and in that sense, it is a political matter. Breathing is a social act and like other social acts, it enacts regulation and punishment by individualizing people to mark and identify responsibility.

In a state of emergency, like a pandemic, breathing is interrupted in its circulation and you are asked to take in the air you exhale, a mixture of the carbon dioxide that you produce and the oxygen that manages to penetrate the filter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the contagious notion of breathing was radicalized and institutionalized. Bodies were turned into both targets and weapons. Masks were used as a shield and to disarm breath and to instigate a performance of discipline and obedience, a performance of self-protection and protection of others, a performance of solidarity and care. This social, collective dimension of breathing is one of the key topics that runs through the contributions in this book.

In recent years the attention that was given to breathing as a practice and as a concept across different disciplines has certainly intensified, engaging, for instance, with concerns related to environmental justice, debates on decoloniality, ongoing experiences of police and state violence and, at the same time, a renewed attention to practices of care and healing. In their contribution Abécédaire of Breathing, choreographers Miriam Jakob and Jana Unmüßig bring a compendium of notions and conceptualization of breath based on their joint extensive artistic research project. Breathing became key in controversial discussions about how to protect oneself and others, but also about who to protect and from whom to withdraw protection individually and collectively. Depending on intersecting aspects such as class, gender, wealth, migration background and others, a person’s capacity to breathe clearly reveals that we are not all disposed of the same conditions to keep ourselves and others secure.

As Francesca Raimondi points in her contribution »breath is not a function of the body next to others, but the intersection and opening of these functions for each other as well as for an exchange with the world, which can be reception or elimination, permeability, but also resistance. Infused with breath, the various functions are not simply juxtaposed and subject to a strict division of labour, they interpenetrate and merge.« The circulation of breath subverts the hierarchy between milieu and individual, as it does with sharp divisions between species. The lesson we had to learn from social isolation widely experienced during the pandemic is that distance from each other, lack of bodily circulation and exchange among us, made our bodies less resistant and weaker.

Bojana Kunst discusses different agencies that are inscribed in breathing and breathlessness as  powerful drivers of freedom. She claims that with »the breath and the blast, the circulation of the air masses is at its core, the disciplining and domination of bodies is grounded on the silencing, the invisibility and the deprivation of breath.« This happens through material and symbolic violence against bodies and the environment, by creating atmospheres, and habitats that don’t allow for breathing and in which air becomes toxic for living beings. Since breathing is the hinge between the immaterial and the material, she argues that there is actually no essential difference between the poisoned atmosphere created by interpersonal relations and the poisoned air created by ecological waste. In line with this, artist Hope Ginsburg and her practice of land diving offer a poetic yet instructive approach towards experiencing the mutual dependencies of vital conditions. In her words, it is about »exploring the practice of mindfulness—defined here as awareness of one’s present-moment experience without judgment—as a way of attuning to the catastrophe of climate change.«

How do the conditions that allow us to breathe impact our ways of being, and the very possibility of constructing ourselves as subjects? As Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme state in their contribution »Our way of thinking about breath and breathing goes back a long way, and refers to the impossibility of the Palestinian condition, in the sense that you are aware, from a very young age, that your very presence is questioned, that you should not even exist.« Titled Being in the Negative, their contribution reflects on the danger that you are living in when you are Palestinian at any given moment, a danger that comes with »this constant narrative that is material, infrastructural—through the system of occupation, of colonization, of apartheid—that is basically all about negating you entirely.«

Shahram Khosravi reflects on the inequalities that define the right to breath at the outset in his Archive of Stolen Breaths. In his contribution, he states that »you should die first and then you can claim your right to life«, and continues: »Being alive indicates a lack of credibility as far as one breathes, speaks, one claims. Breathing itself is enough to make one suspected. (…) Black Americans, Indigenous people, travellers without papers and political prisoners are robbed of their faces while breathing and become visible to the rest of the world when breathless. Death gives bodies washed up on the shores of Europe, suffocated migrants in small shipping containers, or racialized bodies under the knees of white brutality a visibility they did not possess when alive. Death qualifies the unqualified. Death re-faces the de-faced. Death demands stories and stories induce names and faces.«

Finally, political theorist Emily Beausoleil reflects on the possibilities of »decolonial allyship«. Reflecting on different economies of breath within settler-colonialism, she warns us to remain attentive and connect to the »(un)sensed experiences of the body« to understand how inequalities get reproduced even in gestures of solidarity and care: how »those who breathe easily within an unjust world can cause further harm within gestures of solidarity.«

               


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