This performance research project comes from the desire to explore a bi/tri-way web of interdependence between technologies, bodies and energy beams to see if it is possible to depend upon each other mutually as part of a closed circuit life support system. Could two bodies interpenetrate and interdepend to constitute a perfect morphological and physiological unit? Could the cycle of gaseous exchange between our bodies sustain regular respiratory function with the assistance of a closed circuit biotech intervention? Could we achieve a state and condition of endo-symbiosis that is self-sustaining? Could our respiration be eternal? Moreover, can this transmission of energies affect the space and the audience?
The performance of sharing of air is an act/action/activism no matter how you look at it. It is a voluntary and involuntary function that taunts life and death with each cyclic inhalation and exhalation. The body-politic of the breath is a really interesting departure in/of/as performance. It is neither a personal, private nor entirely public intercourse. Respiration and gas exchange - particularly within the body - is a tremendously intimate and essential performance that occupies most of our existence and traverses many jurisdictions. Imagine the amplification of this in extreme, confined environments. Sarah Jane Pell, 2007 GreenMusuem.Org
United biological function via a prototype two-person re-breather system. All inhalation and exhalation was concentrated within the design of the system. We configured the apparatus so that the inhalation of one person is expired and converted to become the source of inhalation for the other and so on in a loop of respiration. In essence, the external re-breather effectively performs the inverse function of a normal biological lung. The duo-re-breather does not function like an iron lung and does not replace the normal biological function of the bodies attached to the system; instead, it allows a closed circuit of interdependent respiration between two people and performs gaseous exchange to connect two perfectly healthy bodies.
The circuit included a long figure-of-eight piping system between the mouthpieces. It also has a filter of lime carbonate (called a scrubber) that converts the expired carbon dioxide into oxygen by absorbing the carbon into its chalky crystals. The configuration also had a bellow of standby oxygen and a direct source of 100% oxygen. We could purge the demand valve on the 100% oxygen source to flush through the system at any time. We wore the device with the aid of two harnesses, but for the most part, our clenched jaws secured it to our bodies.
The two-litre scrubber contained approx twelve hours of effective lime carbonate. When saturated the crystals turn bright purple, so we included a view port in the canister design to observe this. The 65lt cylinder of industrial grade[i] compressed O2 contained approximately 4 hours of air between two people on land. Given we were purging for 10- 30 sec intervals every 3-5 minutes, it would last much longer.
I based the principals of the duo-re-breather on the design of the mono oxygen re-breather. Dr. Hans Hass (famous for underwater adventure films with Lotte Baier) was the first to use these principals. He sent requirements for a breathing apparatus to the diving equipment company Dräger. In 1942, they provided him with a modified oxygen re-breather that supplied pure oxygen from a cylinder to the bladder inside a life vest, from which the diver breathed along a looped hose. Caustic soda (created when lime carbonate gets wet) ‘scrubbed out’ the carbon dioxide from the exhalation and allowed the diver to draw the remaining oxygen back from the system and maintain a closed circuit underwater breathing pattern. Hass was the first to use self-contained breathing apparatus or SCUBA for either sport or research well before Gagnan and Cousteau came up with an aqualung. I preferred re-breather technologies to aqualung principals because the system does not release bubbles into the atmosphere and therefore remains a truly self-contained breathing configuration.
During prototype testing Coutts and I quickly learnt that it was important that our respiratory function was out-of-time with each other so that as one exhaled, the other inhaled to avoid both drawing down the air supply at the one time. Our bellow had a 10lt capacity and we generally drew down a maximum of 8-9lt when we both inhaled at the same time. My lung capacity was much smaller than Coutts and therefore I was on the second-stage of the re-breather receiving less direct flow. While Coutts had the dominant lung capacity, he had not used self-contained breathing apparatus before and we positioned his mouthpiece at the first stage near the 100% Oxygen source and the bellow. This meant that I occasionally I would have to wait a few seconds for the suction rate to lower in order to draw air. My mouthpiece was only 40cm from the scrubber and, as we had only used cotton wool as a filter. I occasionally inhaled gritty lime carbonate as well! In addition to this, there was a lot of ‘dead air space’ between the long lengths of hose and I imagine we inhaled a degree of not-so-fresh air that was stagnating in the piping. To address this health and safety issue, Coutts would manually press the demand valve on his back to regulate free flow and purge the system with 100% oxygen when the respiratory rate became tired. I employed a commercial diving hand signal to “make it hot” meaning to turn it on or activate the mechanism when I too felt that the system was sluggish.
We forbid temporal and geographic alienation.
The closed circuit performance must not contain superficial action.
The sonic architecture must be live and produced from the present body, space, audience, etc.
The duty of care is reciprocal between bodies.
The integrity of ‘liveness’ is maintained during the performative score despite all outcomes and inclusive of all condition, eventuation and actuation
The duo-re-breather generated a great deal of heat for instance and this in itself affected the mechanism of our performance. Normally the heat produced by the chemical gas exchange would cool underwater. As this was not the case, the experience of performing with the device was like working in a very humid environment. At first I imagined this was a restriction for we had great plans to walk, dance, and “perform” amongst other things a tug-of-war together wearing our apparatus (hence the length of the hoses). However, it felt as though we needed to preserve our energies for the efforts required to breathe together efficiently. As a result, the wet, hot air seemed to dictate careful, conservative movement and periods of long stillness.
Coupled with this, the drag on our jaws and neck (caused by the awkward hose lengths and angles) pulled us both away from each other’s line of sight. The configuration of the system also meant that the cylinder and bellow worn on Coutts’ back was also out of direct sight. We positioned mirrors around us so that I could respond when the bellows were nearly exhausted and make any adjustments or modifications as required. This confined our gestures even further.
Likewise, the closed circuit respiratory system concentrated a significant amount of condensation and saliva. We were literally sharing our germs and exchanging bodily fluids without any physical contact between us. As a result, we had to be careful that our movements did not send the pools of drool and slime back along the hoses towards each other’s mouthpieces. The transparent tubes allowed us to monitor this phenomenon and fortunately neither of us experienced a ghastly surge of backwash. As you can imagine, we became more and more careful as this accumulated. We often looked strained and uncomfortable in preference to the threat of contamination that could so easily occur with a slight change in position.
By navigating the mechanics of the apparatus our performance was as slow and delicate as a ritual dance or traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Nevertheless, the performance of the exclusive closed circuit system also had a double edge to it. The notion of biological self-containment referenced terms of life-support confinement, incarceration and incubation from the analogy of humidity cribs and extreme environment survival suits to the bittersweet reference of artificial respirators used in medical and military contexts. The politics of care and life support vs. the invasion of technological securities and life-inhibiting orthotics paralleled the dichotomous preservation function of closed circuit television, artificial biosphere habitat enclosures, and panic rooms for example.
Marina Abramović and Ulay taunted life and death by sharing one single inhalation until falling into unconsciousness some 19 minutes later during a performance titled ‘Breathing In Breathing Out’ 1979. They then repeated the performance in 1986 with a similar result to confirm that they were conscious, culpable in their independence, and transgressive in their co-dependence. [McEvilley 1998:23] “…Breathing In/Breathing Out (1979), in which you and Ulay blocked your nostrils and kissed until the carbon dioxide passing between your bodies made you faint. Liminality is the space between breaths, the tiny pause when one is neither breathing in nor breathing out, neither kissing nor killing, neither writing nor reading, neither speaking nor listening, neither Peggy nor Marina. In the space of the mistake, before consciousness of the mistake emerges, something lives, vibrates, shakes. Perhaps it is in the mistake, the place of vulnerability, that we are completely alive.” Peggy Phelan to Marina Abramović, 2002.
Interdepend (Air Traffic) was devised and performed in early 2005 in the wake of the SARS epidemic and the Tsunami devastation of our neighboring countries. We were conscious of the increasing awareness of the “Policies of Air” (Dubrovnik). Fortunately neither of us had personal experience of chemical warfare or nuclear disaster. We were however becoming increasingly exposed to the EPA warnings of water-born and air-born disease in our region. Like blood rules and bodily fluid regulations and controls, there are cultural expectations and health and safety regulations governing the exchange of air and gas between individuals and the environment. On a micro-scale our social conditioning affects when, where and how it may be appropriate to kiss, cough and cover ones mouth. In some cultures, mouth-to-mouth or nose-to-nose greeting enables the sharing of air, breath and the spirit as a gesture of welcome and openness. There are warnings about contamination and risk these days. Devices to minimize contact when performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for example are commonplace. Similarly, atmospheric and smoking controls in industry and society designed to ‘keep it clean’.
Like any system, the sum of the individual components affects the whole. Within the duo-re-breather, we had an exaggerated and immediate reciprocal responsibility to each other. In terms of our loop, the inconsistency of one performer’s respiratory function for example, was our shared problem. I continually used hand signals to check if Coutts was okay, particularly if I could see the bellow rapidly decreasing capacity or hear an increased respiratory rate, or if I found it difficult to extract air from the system. The mouthpiece design masked the majority of facial expression and verbal communication and we relied on hand signals and eye contact. We also took it in turns to hold the hoses precariously in place to accommodate a comfortable arrangement and function between us. There were other restrictions too. For instance, I would have loved to lie down to lessen the drag of the mouthpiece on my neck but the scrubber on my back had to remain upright. Almost half an hour into the second performance before a small audience of our peers, I began to close my eyes and meditate so that I could endure the physical demands of maintaining my position. I opened my eyes with a start moments later upon realising that I was neglecting Coutts and withdrawing from the duties of care and system monitoring by acting independently. The affect was noticeable and he explained that he did feel abandoned, confronted, alone and anxious within the system. More worrying was the fact that Coutts explained later that he had been anxious more than once. Unless he adopted an obvious communication strategy, I could not always identify or respond to his state of being. Student divers internalise their fears also. Coutts and I were confronting ourselves more so than the interface.
Coutts referred to our biotech unit as one body of the global babushka. The mobius loop-style air traffic challenged our natural “forces to affiliate vs. forces to withdraw”. When we were in equilibrium our level of existence was akin to that of conjoined twins in a womb. The interconnectedness required a sacrifice of the self and a complete trust in the other like the terms of a religious sacrament or the binary unit of yin and yang. We had created our own atmosphere: our own world inside a world and, by sharing air, we directed a passage for exchange between our individual selves through the sharing of our air, breath and spirit.
In terms of performance, we questioned if our state of pneumatoses extended to an audience. From the feedback we received, it appeared to do so. Future examination would reveal how the audience may affect upon our unit. Does their breath affect us? Can they become part of the interdependency? How does our installation or performance separate and unite us? Will we begin to adapt to the system through more use? Will we eventually be able to attempt more physical action or normal pedestrian daily-life activities? Could we travel on public transport for instance? Moreover, will extensive use of the duo-re-breather lead to a point where our two bodies will begin transcending the system to become something else?
This work deserves investment, research and creative development rehearsal.
We should also continue to investigate ways of harnessing our individual working methods more effectively and formalising a research linkage with a diving technology company or a hyperbaric research unit.
We need to reconsider the ergonomics of the design.
The duty of care in performance amplified by this collaborative research process has critical resonances with the state and condition of land-based performances of Aquabatics.
Despite the crudity of our duo-re-breather and bio-shaped re-breathers, the unique biotech systems were a reasonable functional success. The actual design of the apparatus could be refined with an injection of resources and creative experimentation with an industry partner and would benefit from a subsequent creative development workshop exploring closed circuit performance strategies and technologies. This research may lead to patentable hyperbaric biotechnologies that could be useful in therapeutic survival or contamination situations, educational purposes and adapted for use during recreational sport including cave diving for example.
This project also revealed the tremendous creative potentials to integrate biometrics and telemetric broadcast and life monitoring devices with design and operational trajectory modelling software. Amplifying the cardio vascular and respiratory function through an array of intimate earphones connected to the performers for example, could extend the life span and performativity of the actions and interfaces. Extending the beams of connectivity including live surveillance and direct projection could also amplify user/ performer/ technician communication signals extending care and operation systems. In addition to this, internal epidiascope surveillance could record and beam involuntary epiglottal reflexes and mini waterproofed cameras inside a junction of the duo-re-breather tubing route surveying moisture levels. It would also be interesting to explore the use of digital thermal imaging technologies to monitor the energies produced by the chemical and gas exchange within the biotech unit too.