Artist Caroline Wright writes:
Earlier this year, a two-day project called Space to Breathe took place at Somerset House in London, a building that is located in one of the most highly polluted areas of the city. Commissioned by the organisation Shrinking Space, artists and scientists came together to explore air quality scientifically and creatively.
I have been exploring breath within the project Breath Control, an investigation into how we attempt to control our breath, whether this is in childbirth, when preparing for sport or singing and when teaching ourselves strategies to manage breathing conditions. The project has been realised through creative interactive work, physical and audio installation and performance. I was invited to contribute to Space to Breath and decided to make an interactive installation designed to engage people in thinking about their breath and breathing health. One at a time, people were invited to step inside a constructed Note Collection Station and take a single breath, then sing one note for as long as possible. Each note was recorded and the participants volunteered data – where they lived, worked and a personal rating of their breathing health. Over 150 people, both adults and children, gifted their notes in this way to the project and these beautiful, haunting and powerful notes form a soundscape of humanity.
One of the discernible differences was in note length. Just as our speaking voices differ, so does the sound we produce when singing, and control of available breath can extend or shorten the length of a note. Professionally trained singers knowingly use their breath to achieve the required pitch and melody, mixing notes of different values to give voice to the composer’s intentions. From the data volunteered, self perception of breathing health ranged from 2 to 10 (where 1 is poor and 10 is excellent). Almost a third scored their breathing health as 8 and 14% rated their score as under 5. Several people noted health conditions and those who indicated they had asthma scored themselves from 2 to 7. A subjective assessment presents challenges for clinicians in understanding the level of personal effect of illness.
From the enthusiastic contributor who produced a high volume, high energy short note to the more cautious, considered note that was lower in pitch and quietly delivered from start to finish, every individual note holds unique strength. Taking part in Breath Control generated much discussion about breathing and brought out the competitive nature in some participants, as they tried to out-sing their friends and partners. Space to Breathe was an opportunity for visitors to learn about air pollution and for people to share their thoughts on breathing and their experience of air quality. Concerns were expressed over city traffic fumes, particularly by cyclists who felt they were at real risk. Parents spoke of unease for the health of their children when growing up in a busy city or near a motorway. Our lungs are forming right up to the age of seven years old. Much of the early years is spent sitting in pushchair, which places the child close to exhaust pipe level.
Scientists at Kings College, who also contributed to Space to Breathe, are researching the effects of air pollution and health, publishing a wide range of papers, including:
- an investigation of the air pollution and mortality benefits of the London Congestion Charge;
- the relationship between traffic-related air pollution and emergency hospitalisations; and
- estimating the changes over time in health effects of air pollution using cardio-respiratory hospital admissions
Kings College scientists are also co-investigators on the Traffic and Health project in London (Traffic) funded by the UK Research Council. One aspect of this project is to provide the emissions and monthly/yearly air quality modelling predictions and to investigate a range of health outcomes including child lung function and cardiovascular risk markers, primary care consultations, adverse reproductive outcomes, hospital admissions, acute coronary syndrome and mortality.
Singing a note from a single breath might seem far away from these national and global issues, but is a small step towards raising awareness of the air we breath. Conversations generated by the ongoing note collection have indicated that we often take breathing and vocalising for granted and rarely make the connection between the two functions unless our livelihood or health dictate. In the context of current levels of air pollution, these conversations take on an additional aspect. Every single note gathered for the project was (and continues to be) testimony to our difference and our similarities, to our ability to vocalise and verbally communicate, to our understanding of the relationship between breath and the production of sound, and to our awareness of the inhalations and exhalations of daily life.