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Paul Catanese on The Responsibility of Breath

During the 2019 – 2020 academic year, Columbia College Chicago Professor and artist Paul Catanese was a visiting artist at the University of Michigan in an engagement organized by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, with partnership support from LivingArts Engine.

Catanese was eager to conduct research at U‑M to explore the mysteries of consciousness and sleep, subject areas of his recent creative work. Over the course of the academic year, Catanese worked with the Sleep and Circadian Research Laboratory at Michigan Medicine to collect his own personal sleep research data. He also connected with students in the LivingArts Engine program and worked with singers from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance to explore spatialized sound.

Midway through his residency, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state of Michigan. While the disruptions to research — and life writ large — were massive, the pandemic offered Catanese new insights that fueled his work.

The past year and a half has been defined by breath,” Catanese said. And the most musically, conceptually, and emotionally legible element of my research with Michigan Medicine was breath. It needed to be at the center of my work.” 

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At home in Chicago, fueled by research conducted at U‑M, Catanese created the work-in-progress Breath is a False Flag, a series of video-based studies, breath activated inflatable sculptures, virtual-reality environments, and networked performances that serve as the next phase of development of Catanese’s multimodal opera Century of Progress / Sleep.”

Breath is a False Flag invites viewers to consider the questions: When is our breath no longer an extension of the body? When is one no longer responsible for their breath? What is the half-life of that responsibility? Was our breath ever our own?”

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His new video-based studies feature a choir of slumbering performers, whose breath interacts with soft inflatable sculptures. Breath by breath, the sculptures inflate over time. Sound from a vintage analog encephalography (EEG) machine with a mechanical chart recorder offers viewers a sonic, auditory knowledge of the body as the pens from the machine scratch out vital signs. The performances also feature vibraphone, bowed singing bowls, gongs, voice, synthesizer, lap steel guitar, percussion, harmonium, and musical saw.

The idea for incorporating an analog EEG machine into the performance began to develop during Catanese’s sleep study at Michigan Medicine.

After the sleep study, one of the doctors mentioned that, back in the 1980s when analog EEG machines were in use, you’d know which state of sleep your patient was in by the sound of the pens scratching out graphs,” Catanese said. 

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The auditory delight of analog EEG machines sparked Catanese’s curiosity. He purchased a vintage EEG machine online and learned how to operate it with help from members of ASET, The Neurodiagnostic Society, a professional association for individuals involved in the study and recording of electrical activity in the brain and nervous system.

Catanese is now able to play the data from his sleep study at Michigan Medicine back on the EEG machine, creating a score of sorts from the data revealed in his breath.

As a concept, breath can offer us a lot to consider,” Catanese said. It signals the gentrification of Buddhism, has been a motivating force in the fight for social and racial justice, and of course the pandemic has introduced a different way for humanity to consider the role of breath in terms of its role as part of the collective vs. a simple individual act.”

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In reflecting on the role of research in the development of Breath is a False Flag, Catanese offers that he is interested in the types of new knowledge gained when viewers are invited to a process of inquiry and even skepticism.

My research aims to amplify ambiguity,” Catanese said. I’m interested in what can be discovered when we spend time with the unknown.”

Paul Catanese will be presenting as part of the The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference (SLSA) on Friday, October 1, 2021 from 15:00 – 16:30. This virtual conference is hosted by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, Sept 30-Oct 3 2021.

The SLSA Conference is a FREE opportunity for students, independent scholars, researchers or artists/​designers, pension members, and members of the sponsoring institution (U‑M).

Explore the full Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference schedule and register here.