Gasp! Making breathlessness less invisible through the creative arts

People living with breathlessness and those interested in how the arts-in-health approach may help make breathlessness less invisible, were invited to join researcher Dr Alice Malpass from the Life of Breath Project and arts-in-health specialist Elspeth Penny to explore how an installation artist, puppeteer, musician, writer, dancer and choreographer use the breath and the experience of breathlessness in their work. Life of Breath researcher Alice Malpass writes:

‘Having conversations in unusual places and in surprising ways’ is one definition of public engagement and it sums up nicely the events that took place in the ‘Dark Room’ at Bristol’s waterside gallery on a wintry evening on the 24th November as part of the national Being Human Festival of the Humantites: Lost and Found.

As people arrived, and entered into the dimly lit room, they heard an audio of two women reading out poetic letters and addresses to their breath. These had been recorded a week before in a workshop led by Elspeth Penny, Dr Alice Malpass and Louise Jenkins, also held as part of the Being Human festival:

“my breath is raspy, soft, hard to get hold of

my breath slips away from myself, out of my hands

my breath is of nothing, I can’t find it.”

The words enveloped the darkness as the audience viewed the art installation piece ‘Suspended Breath’ by Louise Jenkins – a black cubic square, housing 24 bell jars and within each, a suspended ‘breath capsule’. Each capsule is made of paper printed with photographed images of one single letter, often a collage in itself, and then inflated with one breath.

Gasp! Letters to my breath capsules

The 24 letter to the breath capsules are a made out of a selection of over 80 letters to the breath produced by those living with respiratory illness and breathlessness when they took part in Elspeth Penny’s letter to the breath workshops during 2017. Each capsule represents one person’s story of breathlessness and how they relate to their breath. Suspended in air, hovering, enclosed within the bell jar yet illuminated and animated with the movement and life of a single breath, they illustrate how breathlessness ‘cuts you off’ from others.

The piece also captures something about the mystery and beauty of the breath as an entity that is both inside us and outside us, an entity that may even exist separate to the body. It stimulates questions such as where does our breath go? Where does it start and finish? When does breath become air become breath? Louise Jenkins described her intentions for the piece:


“I arrived at the idea of making containers of breath out of the letters. The invisible breath held as a solid form, with the form expressing the energy created by the individual’s breath (or lack of). Suspending the breath within a glass display dome references the clinical gaze, and brings the viewers attention to the isolation and the individual whose story is held within – creating a physical presence of the breath and a visible experience of the creators.” 

Gasp! Letters to my breath capsule
“Suspended Breath” by Louise Jenkins

After collecting a piece of hardboard, paper and pen, the audience took to their seats to listen to Life of Breath researcher Dr Alice Malpass and Elspeth Penny, an arts-in-health specialist, share themes arising in creative writing workshops in which those living with breathlessness are invited to write a letter to their breath. Their research shows letter writing workshops are a helpful, even therapeutic way, to explore our relationship to our breath, to discover whether our breath is ‘us’ or a denigrated or admired ‘other’.

“my breath is dry, rattlely, crunchy like loud music

my breath is blue, foggy, salty

my breath is broken”

Elspeth and Alice present at Gasp!
Elspeth Penny (left) and Alice Malpass (right)

Elspeth guided the audience in a creative writing exercise, in which they were asked to imagine what their breath tastes, smells, feels, sounds and looks like. As the discussion continued on the themes emerging from the letters, the audience were invited to turn back to their own letters and ask, for example, whether they might have addressed their breath in their letter as antagonist or not. And if so, whether they were able to reach a point of recognition or reconciliation, in which they confront their breath as antagonist, and through a shared sense of struggle become united with their breath again:

“Dear breath, I wish I could make it easier for you, I can’t, but together we will battle on” [Participant in letter writing workshop, Coleford Breath Easy]

One audience member said: “Aristotelian ideas about “protagonist and antagonist” were thought provoking and quite surprising, and made me realise, if I understood it correctly, that it is possible to regard your breath as an enemy, and therefore something you have to fight against.”

Elspeth and Alice ended their talk by playing an audio track of the Burnley Singing for Lung Health group. Janet Swan led the group in a call and response song – ‘Breath of life’ – as they wrote their letters to the breath (listen below).

      Audio: \"Breath of Life\" by Burnley Singing for Lung Health

Musician Paul Bradley then took to the stage, responding spontaneously to all that he had heard and seen in the evening so far with a piece of music involving song, guitar and harmonica. He wove words and sounds into this performance, expressing his own experience of living with asthma as a child and now as a musician. Without an introduction, dancer and choreographer Daniel Martin took to the floor. Dressed in everyday track bottoms and t-shirt he looked like a member of the audience, except here he was, standing in front of them looking anxious about not being able to breath. He appeared to collapse to the floor before spiralling his body gently up and over, through the air, moving into a dance sequence of suspended breath moments.

“my breath is tender, soft, responsive like a mattress

my breath is salty, gritty at times, coarse

my breath is the outline of a face, from afar”

Daniel shared later in the Q&A why as a dancer with asthma he had to leave London. The polluted environment led to seven unplanned hospital admissions each year making working in London as a dancer unviable.

Daniel Martin dance performance
Daniel Martin’s dance performance

Louise Jenkins then invited the audience to take the writing they had created with Elspeth at the beginning of the evening and fold it into their own ‘breath capsule’. Everyone exhaled into their paper capsule at the same time, inflating it with their out-breath. This magically brought breath to life in a visible 3D form. It was wonderful to watch participants as they saw their invisible breath take a solid form: we could hear squeals of delight and awe from all corners of the room.

Louise Jenkins inflating a “breath capsule”
Alice helping the panelists make their breath capsules

To bring the audience back to the written word, writer and director Elspeth Penny then shared some work in progress for a piece of theatre, with Paul Bradley reading aloud a piece of Elspeth’s writing entitled ‘Knot’ about a young boy called Tommy looking for his breath. On his travels he comes across a man who recollects the moment in which he first heard his breath-in the icy salt marches of the Nordic Atlantic.

Gasp! Paul Bradley singing
Paul Bradley’s improvised musical performance

As if this smorgasbord of artistic expressions of the breath and breathlessness was not already enough, for the finale of the evening Chris Pirie, Green Ginger’s Artistic Director, introduced everyone to the relationship between breath and puppetry by leading us through a short puppetry exercise (read a version of Chris’ talk “Breath & Puppet” here). Most of us experienced holding our breath without realising it.

Gasp! Chris with puppet
Chris Pirie demonstrates breath in puppetry

Drawing upon the words and images of those who experience breathlessness and weaving them together through the creative arts of music, movement, installation, writing and puppetry, the panel created a public story, going some way along the road to make the experience of breathlessness less invisible

my breath is a whaling call, keen to be heard

“my breath is burnt wood, on the fire, waiting for me”

One audience member summed up the evening – “The most exciting thing for me was the way the evening was fizzing with so many different ideas about breath – how every activity in life depends on it, and how most of us take it completely for granted until something goes wrong.”

Note: all of the quotations in italics are excerpts from letters written to the breath during a workshop, run by Elspeth, Alice and Louise, as part of the Being Human Human Festival (listen below). 

      Audio: Letters to my breath

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