Newcastle artist stimulates climate change conversation with unique 'breathing' exhibition

Catch Every Breath: Andrew Styan with his interactive exhibit at The Lock-Up. Picture: Simone De Peak
Catch Every Breath: Andrew Styan with his interactive exhibit at The Lock-Up. Picture: Simone De Peak

Every breath you breathe is unique. No two breaths are exactly alike. And yet, for most of us, we spend no time thinking about it.

Andrew Styan has thought about it a lot. The Newcastle artist developed a project, Catch Every Breath, that “captures” a picture of a person’s single individual breath. First shown at The Lock-Up creative art space in Newcastle a year ago, Catch Every Breath has been tweaked by Styan and is at The Lock-Up again, this time as part of a national tour from the Experimenta creative art group in Melbourne.

A former metallurgist, Styan has morphed into an artist with a conscience (“the climate change artist” he says).

“You can’t just talk about climate change,” he says with the earnesty of a scientist and commitment of an artist. “It’s all the deeper issues that feed into it. Its about emissions, about consumption, about all those other things that go into it.

“My practice is looking for something that is a neutral medium that people can latch on to, and hopefully a space where people can have a conversation about things. The camps are polarised, there’s nothing in the middle … I was hoping to create work to stimulate some sort of conversation.”

I was hoping to create work to stimulate some sort of conversation.

Andrew Styan

The interactive Catch Every Breath starts when a visitor breathes a breath into a plastic tube that feeds into a glass tank full of water. The breath becomes a bubble in the water. When the bubble passes across a laser beam in the tank it triggers a camera with a flash that snaps the image of the bubble in the water. A computer captures and stores every image, and in the exhibit the visitor’s “breath bubble” is projected on a wall screen within seconds.

“This work is all about your own breath, visualising something you can’t see,” Styan says. “If we breathe, we take it for granted. We share air, you and I are sharing air right now, we take that for granted. This work tries to make a connection between people who are breathing.”

The first time Catch Every Breath was shown in Newcastle, about 5000 breaths were recorded. Since then, Styan has significantly developed the concept. You can note the number of your breath and track it down on a website if you wish. You can click and get the three “breaths” closest in shape to yours. Or you can click and ask for a social profile of your “breath” on the spot: your “social profile” measures how far to the political left or right you are; your “social class” can be measured by whether your “breath” is at the top of the image or the bottom; your “social tolerance” can be measured by the size of your “breath”.

For instance, your profile could show you as a “fence-sitting chilled hippy”.

“It’s a meditative work, also playful work,” Styan says. “Playing with social media, social profiling and all sorts of things, trying to connect us.  When you breathe a breath and capture it, and compare it with someone else, or find a match … that’s a very personal scale.”

The Experimenta show which has Catch Every Breath will visit nine destinations over the next three years. Styan estimates Catch Every Breath will wind up with more than 30,000 breaths captured by photography and stored on its computer.

“At the beginning, it was a very raw thing, all you had was the breath on the screen,” he says. “But it was powerful. Hopefully, I haven’t compromised it. Mostly it is about the meditative idea about your own breath. But trying to get you to compare it with all these other breaths in the system, the idea there is a national collective breath.”

The entire Experimenta is a challenging show for the human mind.

“A lot of the Experimenta show has capacity for interaction,” The Lock-up director Jessi England says. “There is wow. A bit of wonder about them. You can unpack the ideas behind it.

“The overarching idea, from biologist EO Wilson, is this idea we have all these incredible tools and technologies, but in reality, in our biology and thinking, our influences are paleolithic –  how do we navigate change, how do we react to that.

“The rise of the maker culture is a reaction to technology. This show has advanced technologies and simple mechanics.”

The travelling Experimenta show has a second major work by Styan, Life Support System, but is it not showing at The Lock-Up because it a large installation which featured in a previous show Styan curated at The Lock-Up. The interactive inflatable sculpture features a huge balloon (the economy) with two lung-shapes inside (nature and humanity), all of which can be manipulated by visitors.

The show, Experimenta Make Sense: The International Triennial of Media Art, runs through March 18 at The Lock-Up.

On Sunday, February 18, Experimenta artist Judy Watson will be in conversation at The Lock-Up with Alisa Duff from the Wollotuka Institute about her diverse practice as well as works featured in Experimenta. 

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