Q&A/Music/Visual Art

The art of breathing

28 April 2021

Drawing on her training in music and dance, artist Hannah Foley has created a performance work that turns breathing into an artform. Ahead of the work’s appearance in PICA’s annual “Hatched: National Graduate Show”, Nina Levy spoke to Foley to find out more.

Hannah Foley is an interdisciplinary artist based in nipaluna/Hobart. Her practice considers the body as a means to explore ways to be with/in the world, and is primarily performance and sculpture based, incorporating a range of mediums including print-making, text and video.

Foley’s work Breathing Backwards (Breath Score) (2020) will appear in Perth as part of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts’ “Hatched: National Graduate Show”. A performance work, Breathing Backwards (Breath Score) is described by Foley as “an investigation into the reciprocal relationship between body and space; a gentle meditation on the ways in which breath may deepen our understanding of the external world.” She continues, “The performance is an activation of, and conversation with space; movement of breath drawing on, in and with air.”

“Hatched: 2021” is the 30th iteration of PICA’s annual “Hatched” exhibition, which showcases the work of graduating artists from tertiary institutions around Australia.

Nina Levy: As a dance writer, the relationship between body and space is of particular interest to me, and I’m curious to know, what is your training background?
Hannah Foley:
As a child, I trained in Irish dancing, which was my absolute passion at the time. I loved the feeling of making these leaps into the air, and in particular, the fraction of a second at the top of a jump in which I was held by the air, suspended in space, before gravity brought me back down. I also remember having a sense of tracing patterns of line across the stage with my movement. While I no longer practise dance, this experience certainly feeds into my artistic work.

Hannah Foley. Photo: Gabrielle Eve

I am also a folk and classically trained violinist. I had a brilliant teacher when I was young, who really encouraged improvisation and alternative styles of playing. Under his guidance, I developed a good ear and feel for music, and went on to perform and tour with bands. I think that practising music heightens your awareness of the body-space relationship.

Violin is quite an intimate instrument. You hold it to your own ear to play, so it inevitably draws you inward, and yet it is also an instrument that you play with your whole body and that can send sound across vast spaces. As someone who plays primarily with my eyes closed, the sound of an instrument can be an indicator of the qualities of a room and the bodies within it.

NL: And how did you come to have an interdisciplinary practice?
I think in part, this comes from a relentless urge to find new or “better” modes of expression, and also in part due to always having had quite a strong resistance to being categorised or defined.

There have been multiple points in my creative career that I’ve felt constrained by definitions and related expectations. I remember having moved to Melbourne – the “big smoke” for Tasmanians – and realising that the reason I moved was not in fact to play music, but to have the freedom to stop playing. My whole identity had gradually been defined as “violinist” and because of this, it took a long time to realise that I wasn’t enjoying playing in the way that I had before. A beautiful friend, Mia, pointed out to me that I didn’t have to be “just” any(one)thing, and suggested that perhaps I was an artist whose practice happened to include music. Finally, a category without limits.

NL: What appeals to you about working across disciplines? What does it enable you to do that a single discipline cannot?
Working across disciplines allows me follow an idea or point of inquiry without limitation, and let the concept drive. With each project or work, I tend to cast a wide net with my research – both theoretical and practical – testing ideas through a number of processes and medium, before deciding what to keep and what to throw back. By doing so, I can continue with whichever processes are communicating or affecting most strongly.

Often my projects will culminate in a body of work which is multi-faceted and intermedia, as I feel that this helps me to explore a multiplicity of perspectives, each adding context and nuance to the other. Put simply, I find that different conceptual realms lend themselves to different disciplines.

NL: Tell me about Breathing Backwards (Breath Score) – what drove you to make this work?
Breathing Backwards emerged from a previous body of work, Gestures in Isolation (2020), which responded to the confined body during Covid isolation periods. The word “breath” kept coming up within this work – as a term of self-encouragement, as a warning, as hazard.

Reflecting on the role of breath and air within the pandemic context, I began to consider the porous nature of the body-beyond threshold. Research into theories of feminist political ecology and embodied knowledge led me to the notion of breath as an act of negotiation between the body and environment. This in turn stirred a desire to create a work in which the body performed with air.

The music score for 'Breathing Backwards' sits on a music stand. It seems to be placed at the edge of a balcony.
Hannah Foley, ‘Breathing Backwards (breath score)’, 2020, image of breath score installed at the School of Creative Arts and Media in Hobart. Photo: Gabrielle Eve

NL: Talk me through the process of making Breathing Backwards (Breath Score).
The process began with a lot of walking and listening. I would set out on pre-sunrise walks with my notebook and phone, and trek through the bush behind my house. I would find a spot to sit, and then listen to the sound of the wind moving through leaves. I’d draw the patterns of air movement, write stream of conscious snippets and notate the rhythms of bird-calls.

The drawings and rhythms were then used as the basis for composing the score. I approached this as choreographing an act of sculpting of air, as opposed to writing a piece of music. There is no melody, instead, I used different rhythms and breathing techniques to imply qualities of air – a vortex, a gentle breeze – with a focus on the movement of breath being passed between performers.

Excerpts of writing became an accompanying libretto to the piece.

NL: What can audiences expect from the work?
The audience will experience subtle sighs and vibrating vocal chords. Depending on the conditions of the space on the day, they might hear the piece clearly or else they may miss the performance entirely. I consider this to be an important aspect of performing-with space and environment.

There is an almost inevitable bodily response to hearing someone else breathe. Your body can recognise the rhythms of another before there is conscious awareness – your own breath may fall into rhythm with the sound, or there may be a discomfort and resistance (particularly in our peri-Covid era).

What I hope the audience experiences is a deeper awareness of the aerographical realm we all move in, and a sense of intra-connection between themselves and the other bodies with which they share air.

NL: And when you perform the work, what do you experience?
In performing this work I feel a strong sense of connection with the other performers and with the world around me. I think of the theory of Caesar’s last breath – the notion that the molecules from our every exhale disperse throughout the atmosphere, to be inhaled by those that come after us.

In each performance of the work to date, my role has been as conductor, which is a role that I still grapple with conceptually – I consider the human-nature relationship to be non-hierarchical, so what place is there for a conductor? Yet practically, without melody and with long pauses involved, the piece requires a conductor to lead the performers in. I have come to instead consider the role as “conduit” – translating the score between human performers and the air they perform with.

NL: What are you currently working on?
I’m currently studying Honours in Fine Arts, and my project is re-addressing and expanding on some of the themes found within Breathing Backwards. I am thinking about bodies of water – both human and more than human – as well as exploring the idea of an embodied score.

“Hatched: National Graduate Show” runs at PICA from 8 May – 11 July 2021.

Pictured top: Hannah Foley performing ‘Breathing Backwards (breath score)’. Photo: Gabrielle Eve

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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