A Collective Assemblage of Notes, Quotes, Pictures, Sounds and Movement By Renata Gaspar, Erica Böhr, Stephanie Hanna, Alia Zapparova and Frauke Ebert.
With windows wide open, air draft around us, a piano between us, we five sat in our different corners of the space, keeping distance, in order not to breathe each other’s breath. More than ever before, the continuous encounter and exchange of breath are palpable, accompanied by the endeavor to avoid as much as possible to breathe heavily, to make any respirational noises or sounds, aiming to be as silent as possible. Nevertheless, it is breath and always has been breath, that keeps us alive, connects us with our surroundings, breathing in and out in a continuous cycle of life. Through the huge shop window sun beams lightened the old wooden floor while we could observe passengers enter or get off the bus at the bus stop, wearing masks. An invitation to experiment with thoughts on breath , to physicalize text and breath, to give body or shape to breath-writings.
The Place Beyond, where the Sky Ends and the Stars Begin
Your breath strokes my skin
are you then in
the place beyond, where the sky ends, and the stars begin?
Was your breath your soul that left and
the place beyond, where the skies end, and the stars begin?
Whose breath will soothe me now?
Because I can’t drift off to
the place beyond, where the sky ends, and the stars begin.
My breath can’t reach that
My breathing must endure a while longer,
before its crossing to
the place beyond, where the sky ends, and the stars begin.
Is there a map to
that place beyond, where the sky ends, and the stars begin?
a landscape of emptiness
unfurled as you left
beyond the furthest horizons,
s t r e t c h e d,
I stepped, bereft,
onto its shimmering surface of nothingness.
space and time yawned
flooded with loss,
knowing I would never find you.
Breath is in every mouth, has been and will be in every mouth.
Breath is the first action our bodies need to learn when we are born. The moment we arrive in this world, after leaving the waters in the womb and the warm and lovely providing space in our mothers’ bodies. Breath connects, relates and allows us to realize our mutual dependency with all being in this atmosphere. While being apart from our mother’s body, for the first time, we continue being a part of a cosmos of complexity, where oxygen is being consumed, metabolized into carbon dioxide, being consumed again and metabolized into energy and oxygen thanks to plants’ photosynthesis.
Breath means life, means energy, health and freedom. But, not always and not to everyone.
Breath is viral, breath may bring death, especially in times of a pandemic.
And, breath is actively taken from people; breathing is made more difficult for some people, just because they are being categorized as different, dangerous or just because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Breath as a concept, may allow us to realize how deeply we need the environment and how little we, so called, and with Steve Fuller, conceptualized Human beings, may move and reach without the mutual protection, provision and care between all the organisms in these worlds.
In Conversation with Nelly Sachs
Aus einem Brief von Nelly Sachs an Rudolf Peyer vom 5.10.1959:
„Zwiegespräch – alles ist Zwiegespräch
Aber du – wer ist Du –
… ich atme das Du in jedem Augenblick – in jedem Augenblick – und wenn ich es wage, es in Buchstaben zu hüllen, so steht es überall. Auch bei mir in der Küche, wenn ich die Petersilie schneide oder eine Kartoffel koche. Nur ist das Universum immer in unserem Blut und Atem. … Sehnsucht nach dem Du – läßt mich Monolog oder Dialog über die Dunkelheit hinweg führen.“1
The sinner’s bench.
Reading God’s words, in words from Hillel von Verona2. Souls are moving, flying, going back and forth. My breath got lost.
I got to pause. To breathe. To catch my breath.
Hold my breath.
Let the air flow again. Circulate.
The camera’s eye moves through the space. My feelings move and take my breath. May I ever ‘own’ my breath? Would anyone ever own breath?
Back in Time. Being a child, I never even thought about breath. Whispering, voicing, listening, and embracing what is there, what has been, and what is to come.
Breathless. Breathe less. Would there be more breath if I would breathe less?
Reactions that I can’t control, physical movements, I can’t control.
How breath moves in my body, space, and mind, depends on my surroundings. Circular breathing, emotions that make breathing heavy.
Two years ago, I encountered breathlessness.
Breathlessness means being close to death. Lungs that are huge as whole flats, that could cover floors with their arboreal structures, that still need the ‘Zwerchfell’, the midriff, this part in our body that jumps when we have the hiccups.3 To train it needs space, body space, bellies! Lovely bellies.
„[Gen 7,22] Jeder, der in seiner Nase den Lebensgeist atmete.“4
Deep in my moments of breathlessness, I feel my mother. I feel the need to hold her and being hold by her at the same time.
Breath, Stress, Mess.
Out of it again.
Feel my strengths, the power of my emotions, of my vulnerability | breathe out.5
Warriors of breath.6
I never tried to write my breath. But as well, I never tried to write without my breath, and I continue anticipating, I ever own my breath. I never owned my breath. But, if it was given to me, I guess it wasn’t God, it was my mom.
She is the one and she’ll always be the one who holds me, even when I hold my breath in breathlessness. While she’s the one needing an oxygen mask during nights. Breathing and sighing at the same time.
With Renee Gladman
I don’t know how to write in such a way that when someone reads this, later, weeks or months after I’ve written it, I will have left enough space for the unknown to tear everything I’ve said apart but will have left me and you with some semblance of form and experience.7
In between, I, Frauke, invited to an artistic research experiment, delving into Breath and Playfulness, in times of Covid19. In the summer semester we discussed in Stefanie von Schnurbein’s ‘Extra-Oberseminar’ from time to time how breath and/in society changes during the experience and life in a pandemic. Inspired and encouraged to pursue these questions and to engage with them more deeply, I started to collect quotes on breath, in poems, books, articles, artworks, research, blogs, newspapers and so on, amazed by the manifold occurrences and topics that these quotes addressed. Nelly Sachs, Hilde Domin, and Rose Ausländer for example, experienced writing as a way to keep breathing, to survive the Holocaust. Ashon T. Crawley, Jason Reynolds, Ali Black, Vanessa Vu, Joshua Bennett, and many more, write on breath and raise awareness to racism, to the discrimination of black people, to the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd and others, whose breath is taken from them due to violence, racism and discrimination. Wanjiku Mwaurah, Renee Gladman, Jessica Braun, Nelli Palomäki, and many more, write and think about breath and bodies, exploring different entrances and materials to grasp and embrace human (and humanities’) intra-actions, dependence and interrelatedness with everything more than human.
Proceeding with the workshop, after a short introduction I spread notes, quotes, books, material I brought along, on a tiny round table, that needed a balance help with one of its legs, on a chair and since there still wasn’t enough space, on the floor around the small table. When I read Wanjiku Mwaurah’s poem ‘Breathe Me’ for the first time, it spoke to me as an invitation to think, write and breathe together. So, I chose reading it out loud as an invitation to each of us, to experiment with thoughts on breath, to physicalize text and breath, to give body or shape to breath-writings.
My plan was then:
20-30 minutes reading, thinking, writing, drawing, connecting, mapping breath.
Wind. Air. Voices. Breath.
Who breathes around us?
Breathing. Breathtaking. Breath and spirit, gasping, inhaling, panting, wheezing, respiration…
I planned then, to move into silence with the following instructions:
You may write as short or long as you prefer, no limits or expectations regarding style, form, length, genre – just keep your potential readers in mind, share what feels good for you to share – and sure you may decide during the writing process, and as well afterwards, not to publish your script/draft/sketch/
Maybe you want to move with these questions in mind: How does your breath move you while you read, think and write? Where do we encounter our breathing and the breathing of others? What do you know about your breath, how it connects to your body, to your mind?
But, we five stuck with our plan not to plan, we had to risk being unprepared. For a moment, we five couldn’t breathe anymore together, and it seemed we got stuck in our plan. Intensity overwhelmed us and we needed to find space, air and light, we needed to transform and design together what would happen next anew. We needed to make space for differences and diversity, to open up and embrace how much we learn when we allow each other to differ, to take detours and to discover new paths to engage differently with materials, with breath, and with each other. We did. And this is our assemblage of thoughts, notes, poems, motions, pictures, sounds, that emerged, while tracing breath.
„we must plan we must plan we don not plan“ is a video improvisation which Stephanie Hanna recorded during the summer meeting at JVB. She was letting her breath move her. Following the direction of her breathing awareness, she moved the 360° camera through the space. In retrospect, she edited the perspectives and framings of the rather confined kitchen space she moved in, responding to the organic rhythm of breathing in and out. Her spoken words shift through a stream of consciousness, picking up on the earlier collective writing and its machine translations. Mixed in are reflections on current social experiences, also of the conflicts and divisions which became apparent during the first months of Covid19.
A Cartography of PLEASURE AND PLAYFULNESS IN TIMES OF CRISIS
In July 2020, a small group of five artists and researchers met in Berlin-Moabit, generously hosted by the non-profit-initiative JVB.e.V. Being and becoming a so-called Trace of this year’s Nordic Summer University, a nomadic and democratic initiative that enables research across and beyond disciplines, bringing international people together, above academic walls. Due to pandemic times, the Summer Symposium had to be partly reinvented, and to become even more nomadic, as a hybrid event, combining online-sessions and meetings of small traces if some participants of the nine different study circles would be able to meet regionally and remotely. Being a part of CIRCLE 7, ARTISTIC RESEARCH | PERFORMING HETEROTOPIA, we five jumped at the chance to gather for a full two days event, nevertheless sad to be apart from everyone else.
‘We’ that is Alia Zapparova, Stephanie Hanna, Erica Böhr, Renata Gaspar and me, Frauke Ebert – we all live in Berlin while our lives moved and move between Southern Africa, Portugal, Russia, Great Britain, Norway, Israel, and many other places, languages, cultural habits, translations, rhythms etc. Meeting bodily to work and breathe together, for the first time after the beginning of Covid19, was exciting and unfamiliar at the same time, making me, Frauke, nervous, with a familiar feeling of “first times”.
In June and July, we worked out a proposal that would enable us to meet to explore PLEASURE AND PLAYFULNESS IN TIMES OF CRISIS. With the desire to focus on process instead of productivity and efficiency, we decided not to plan but to let playfulness and pleasure be our guidance. Hence, we asked ourselves, what we might need in order to plan not to plan? What seemed central to us, was a framework that offered us: space, time, food, light, air, techniques, tools and toys, practices, and what else any of us might feel like sharing with each other. Fortunately, and thanks to JVB.eV, we found a location, agreed on a schedule that allowed for coffee and food, and decided to bring various materials, tools and toys that we could engage with, if desired. Conveniently, our event went with the title: ‘We (don’t) need a title’.
During the two days that we met, we experimented with collective cartographies8, engaged with multiplicities of languages, of layers, of selves while exploring modes of non-linear thinking, non-linear naming, non-linear trajectories. We created and became part of simultaneities, pluralities and shared reflection time, while different timescapes happened in place. Our collaborative engagement allowed us to encounter one another in alternative landscapes, where spontaneous combustions emerged that at the same time afforded us with and hold space together.
My interest in looking at our collaborative practice lies in the use of English as an almost universal lingua franca. With communication, with an intermediary shared language, much can go missing or become distorted and can impact on relationships as a result. As part of an ongoing conceptual writing experiment I used our joint proposal, co-written in English, and uploaded it into the following 5 most commonly used, free CATs (computer-assisted translation apps) namely Google Translate, Deepl, Yandex, Bing, and Wordlens. The original English proposal was translated in each CAT (above) from English, to German, to Russian, to Portuguese, and back to English. These languages are the first languages of the 5 participants in the Berlin hub of Circle 7.
The final English translation from CAT 1 (Google) was used as the INPUT for CAT 2 etc. Thus, the English original proposal was only inputted ONCE in the entire experiment at the very beginning and the final English version outcome was the result of having been filtered through each of the four languages in each CAT. The original proposal text was then compared to the final one.
The final version had been recycled many times through machine ‘intelligence’ and resulted in some interesting and strange deviations.
We read and listened to ONE DAY written and composed by Alia Zapparova, a powerful poem on language, belonging, becoming and so much more, and we bounced into an extended conversation on language, power and gender, concepts of first languages, mother tongues, menopauses, body ideals, and so on. I realized, I never spoke about menopauses before, and I am really grateful for the possibility of playful exchange. Thanks to Erica Böhr’s (A)DRIFT IN TRANSLATION, an experimentational work with CAT-machines (computer-aided-translation), we were amazed and amused by movements and transformations of words, sentences and meanings. Erica read to us different versions of our proposal after being translated to Russian, Portuguese, German and back to English – making palpable how different languages interact with each other, how much drift and loss occur in translations, how meaning emerges due to the choice and positioning of words, grammar, sentences – and we continued to reflect and discuss translational processes. Renata Gaspar pulled gently threads and conversations together, navigated us through discussions and reflections, and allowed us to breathe in and to process the intensity of two full days.
In between, we connected via Zoom with other places, ‘Traces’, and events of the Nordic Summer University, we enjoyed food, coffee and breaks in light and air, playing ping pong and hula hoop in the nearby park, where we spent time to listen to the wind and the leaves, and to each other – discussing nation states, borders, Brexit, and collecting ideas for future events and gatherings, in times of Covid19.
Thanks to Stephanie Hanna, we enjoyed ‘LIGHTWEIGHT LUGGAGE FOR TRANSITIONING’, as a hybrid event during the evening. Stephanie screened four video-pieces and invited us to watch, listen, and experience a cow shed with quotes by Hartmut Rosa, tadpoles in a conversation with Naomi Scheman, a seagull performing Myna Trusthams words, and a journey with Kerstin von Brömssen and Kristian Jeff Agustin. After the screening we entered a Q&A conversation, online and on location, “engaging with thoughts that give direction, hope and momentum for an emancipatory transitioning towards a humane earthly survival”.9 Stephanie Hanna dedicated ‘LIGHTWEIGHT LUGGAGE FOR TRANSITIONING’ to ‘Tracing the Spirit’, a format dedicated to this year’s 70th anniversary of the Nordic Summer University with ten art projects that convey the spirit and the history of the organization.
How to prepare, not to be prepared – meeting ‘Cape Agulhas’ (Thank you, Erica)
For me, Frauke, it still is not an easy task, to feel unprepared. Before we met physically, we met a few times on Zoom and tried to stick to our plan not to plan. Quickly, I realized how I wanted to make commitments, to arrange a program, to prepare a workshop (even though I truly don’t especially like to speak up in front of others), to fixate a schedule – in the desire to structure and control as much as possible what might happen during the event. A part of me knows how much this is contrary to the possibility of emergence, of becoming, process, happening – but still, it doesn’t seem easy to let go.
In a short email correspondence, I mentioned my experience of unpreparedness and Erica Böhr invited me to an imaginative geographical detour, to a place I never heard about before: Cape Agulhas. The beauty of her description and perception of the interlinkage between human experiences of uncertainty and this geographical place, that resists its cartographic fixation, offered me a different look at this place of uncertainty, this moment of not being prepared and not being able to control; and a glimpse of its sheer powerful beauty that goes beyond what my words can reach.
With her agreement, I would love to share Erica’s description with you:
“The very essence, it seems to me, lies in just a place of uncertainty for us. It feels a bit like the geographical point on the globe where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean, at Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa: it is that ill-defined Point in which the excitement lies, the not-knowing, a place where borders exist but cannot be defined. In no way is always being able to be spontaneous, unplanned, able to give away control and a place of comfort and ease. A lot of my artistic practice lies in Cape Agulhas…and I love the excitement of it, but it always feels terrifying every time too…like staring down the abyss, before leaping into the unknown. I feel that I face down the possibility of failure every time. But gradually I have become used to that place in between, and love feeling both oceans crashing around me.“
cover picture: Stephanie Hanna
- Briefe der Nelly Sachs. Hrsg. von Ruth Dinesen und Helmut Müssener. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985, S. 232.
- With Hillel von Verona: Über die Vollendung der Seele. Übersetzt von Yossef Schwartz in Verbindung mit Alexander Fidora. Freiburg, Basel, Wien: Herder, 2009, S. 153.
- With Jessica Braun: Atmen. Wie die einfachste Sache der Welt unser Leben verändert. Zürich, Berlin: Kein &Aber, 2019, S. 22, 35.
- With Hillel von Verona: Über die Vollendung der Seele. Übers. v. Yossef Schwartz in Verbindung mit Alexander Fidora. Freiburg, Basel, Wien: Herder, 2009, S. 153.
- With Wanjiku Mwaurah: “Breathe me”. https://www.lyrikline.org/de/gedichte/breathe-me-11573.
- With Glennon Doyle: Love Warrior. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
- Renee Gladman: „The Order of Time“, in: e-Flux Journal #110 – June 2020, [27.08.20]. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/110/336896/the-order-of-time/.
- Braidotti, Rosi: The Posthuman. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2013. [Posthumanismus: Leben jenseits des Menschen. Übers. v. Thomas Laugstien. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2014].