The Art of Breathing
At times, breathing seems material, at others immaterial. Normally we don't much notice it in ourselves or in others. It just goes on. We swap molecules for molecules, sharing them with other people, both strangers and intimates, recycling them. We only pay attention to breathing, it only becomes visible to us, when it troubles us, when we are breathless in the face of some emotion, out of breath or struggling for breath. Normally, when we can ignore it, breath is barely perceptible. When it does take on a more apparently material form, in the cold, or when it stinks, or when the air is laden with pollutants, these are signs of danger, of decay, or of some limit being reached.

It seems impossible to talk about breathing without quickly slipping into the use of the words "we" and "people". Who are "we" "people"? The breathing project asks this question insistently. Divided by culture, language, religious belief, fenced in with racial and a myriad of other prejudices humans may be, but there is something about our animality, the sameness of our basic physical condition and our awareness of it, which inspires a sympathy as much felt in the body as in the mind. While such a feeling can hardly be relied upon, it is nevertheless far more often present than not, an insistent pulse in human relations. In extreme circumstances, this sympathy for living, breathing beings can move people to risk their lives, and those of their families, to help complete strangers. The machine, by contrast, and computers particularly, runs to a totally alien rhythm; when we relate to them or express ourselves through them, perhaps something fundamental about us changes.

Once we turn our attention to breathing, or have our attention turned for us by some respiratory problem, we realize that it is not only an unconscious mechanism but also something learned. We can take control of it, and must in many situations from diving to public speaking. Learning to breathe is learning to control ourselves and our passions, a process that may never be completed. In this way, breathing, our most basic physical action, both unconscious and conscious, is in part a cultural matter.

After all those works of art about how unbridgeable the difference is between different categories of people and different cultures, is it possible to make a project which is founded on something that we all share, and without which we would not be? The same rhythmic movement of tissues sustains us all, unconsciously, sleeping and waking. Usually invisible, an art project which asks people to turn their attention to breathing, to make it materialize, is necessarily critical, concentrating attention on the cultural uses of breathing, on what it means for us personally, and on the political and economic matters which surround it. In dealing with this subject, the strands of the physical, the political, the subjective, the scientific and the cultural are twisted together; as with the ropes of the Royal Navy of old, in each twisted whole there is a single red strand, a vessel bearing our oxygenated blood.

Julian Stallabrass is a writer and photographer. He is the assistant editor at 'New Left Review', and guest lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art, in London.