Breathing Understudy, Notes I

Breathing Understudy is a work-in-progress initiated in December 2010, on the occasion of the Sea of Marble symposium. The word understudy is mostly used in theater to describe the secondary study of a role by an actor in order to replace the regular actor if they are unable to appear in the play. The provisional sense conveyed by this word fits well with the situation the piece highlights: the suspension of breathing while under water. The second word in the title should be taken quite literally and in order to distance it from any metaphor, I would like to reference a scene from the film Welcome, which deals with the situation of Kurdish immigrants stuck in Northern France while attempting to enter England via the English Channel. This scene depicts the use of plastic bags by the immigrants who wrap their heads to contain breathing and prevent detection while crossing the English border. Breathing in this case does not connote the expression of living but instead, its temporary suppression could ultimately offer its subject better living conditions.

Two types of actions that tend to reoccur in my work may provide a bridge into the ideas that inform this current work. The first of these actions, or innactions, can be described as a bodily insertion in limited spatial situations in public space which have the effect of highlighting regulative mechanisms at play in everyday life. Such is the case in my the work Irrational Intervals, Temporary Occupations and Other Ways. What is operative in these works is the idea of doing something by doing nothing, or close to nothing, by slowing down or stopping, by interrupting a continuous flow or, by deferring or deviating from a determining vector; in other words, by taking a clue on reluctance from Melville’s character Bartleby who responded to orders with the formula: “I would prefer not to.”1

The second of these actions is also related to the body in public space. But this time the action consists of crossing a threshold in the form of various types of physical boundaries, which are sometimes tangible like fences and at other times intangible like the vertical space of a building facade. The result is that the subject of these actions is taken through shifts in perceived subjectivity, from playful to furtive to outrightly invasive. Examples of this can be seen mostly in my videos Upward Mobility and Temporary Occupations. What is operative this time is the idea of changing something, internally or externally, as a result of crossing a threshold.

While addressing the horizon presented by the Sea of Marble symposium, it can be remarked that there’s been no shortage of news about contentious disputes at sea, enough to put to rest notions of it being a space where geopolitical divisions would be somehow less rigorous than those at work in the land. If anything, the sea brings about a doubling of surfaces to be subjected to systemic control (drugs for example are infamously known to be successfully trafficked directly below the surface of the sea). But it also multiplies the number of possibilities to circumvent regulatory measures. Among a wide range of underground activities, and more particularly unauthorized migration, the category of people smuggling delineates well the multiple boundaries put in place to police this field – from restraining law enforcement to regulations detailing the criteria to differentiate between trafficking and smuggling. The figure of the migrant that falls within the categorization of people smuggling fits neatly in between two other figures: the political refugee and the sex slave. The distinction between these figures is not free of contention and often overlaps with one another given the exploitative nature involved in their trajectories. The representationally amorphous migrant body is sometimes deemed worthy of protection, when fleeing officially recognized political persecution, and sometimes hunted down, when suspected of smuggling oneself into the master’s protected territories.

Aside from these associated categories, the global capitalist provides an external counterpoint for the figure of the migrant. But contrary to the profit enhancing motive of the capitalist who ships production to where labor is more easily exploitable, the migrant worker is moved by the predicament of finding elsewhere the conditions of survival that are lacking in their place of origin. Ironically, while capital erodes local labor accomplishments and sustains misery elsewhere, it is the migrant who takes the blame as the destabilizing agent. However, as a couple of charts (the Origin and destination of international migrants, and Flows of international remittances) from the 2009 United Nations Human Development Report show, the migrant ends up contributing to the redistribution of at least some of the world’s concentration of wealth by producing money remittance flows in the reverse direction of their migratory vector. In other words, the migrant’s flight is not unproductive, neither does it constitute a passive reaction to larger forces. Rather, its exodus is a vigorous counter- action, a response that at once displaces, as Paolo Virno put it, the dialectic between acquiescence and transgression.2

The migrants’ journey brings about an opportunity for a life change, indeed, a transformation in their material circumstances and often a substantive alteration in their way of being, that is, as long as they manage to cross a heavily patrolled border. In the words of a fairytale, the traversing of a challenging threshold may bring about good fortune. It is widely reported by the media how challenging this trajectory can be and how troubled is the pursuit to attain fortune wherever they land. But the impulse to resist adverse conditions is what should be remarked on since by taking a flight, one can instantiate new forms of being, regardless of the outcome, and often in spite of the challenges presented by the material environment. As Giorgio Agamben points out, the human is never fully determined by its environment. He goes on to make his point by examining the story of inconclusive metamorphosis of the Axolotl, an amphibian that remains in an aquatic state, never advancing toward full transformation into a terrestrial animal but nevertheless attaining full reproductive capacity and life expression.3

A migrant drowning during their crossing journey, due to the often reported capsized boats, is a blunt way to put an end to the dream of a better life. An antecedent for this fate is to be found in the Villeins, the most common type of serfs in the Middle Ages, who were hand-tied and thrown into the water as punishment for attempting to escape tyrannical working conditions. Michel Foucault stated that in 1399 Frankfurt, the insane were frequently handed over to boatman to be shipped elsewhere, far away from their ungainly sight and unruly meandering through the town.4 To illustrate this, Foucault mentions The Ship of Fools, a work by Hieronymus Bosch. But the best image is to be found in an early study provisionally attributed to Bosch, called the Ship in Flames, in which a man is seen carrying a ship, while people are tortured. While today’s mechanisms to segregate undesirable subjects became more sophisticated, the results are often as crude. The drowning occurrence produces a singular and difficult mental image of a lifeless looking body immersed in water, a body whose ability to breathe was definitively interrupted by a drastic change in environment. But if instead of focusing on the victim of this violent uprooting, we were to shift perspective toward the potentiality for living that also exists at pivotal moments in life, it could be useful to look at a very different situation for what it may suggest about the ability of humans to endure adverse circumstances.

There is another image that although eerily similar to that of a drowned body, stems from a deferral rather than a cessation of breathing, which is to be found in the diving practice known as Static Apnea. Practitioners of this sport dive into a pool or straight into the ocean without the aid of a breathing apparatus and attempt to stay immersed for as long as they can withstand to hold their breath. It is essentially an exercise in endurance and control of the body’s inherent ability, known as the Mammalian reflex, to slow down and subsist temporarily with less oxygen. Aside from a wetsuit to help retain body heat under water, and unlike many other aquatic sports, there is not so much use of prosthesis in Static Apnea. The goal is to improve endurance rather than to enhance movement. Most of the training attention is focused in assuring optimum functioning of the body’s own breathing apparatus.

Here too, the images that result from such training find their doubling elsewhere, they resemble breathing suppression techniques in use during torture sessions, drug consumption or s&m practices. A zone of indistinction envelopes the representation of these varied breathing techniques as much as it does to the similarities between the drowning body and the Static Apnea practitioner. Therein, in the midst of this gray zone, lies a pivotal possibility to turn an adverse situation into a productive alternative. The desire to subvert long established relations of power permeates my work and will guide my steps as I develop this project beyond these preliminary thoughts.

Text by Alex Villar, Published in The Sea-Image: Visual Manifestations of Port Cities and Global Waters (New York: Newgray, 2011)


  1. Gilles Deleuze, Bartleby; or, The Formula in Gilles Deleuze, Essays: Critical and Clinical. Trans. D. Smith & M. Greco. (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) pp. 68-90.

  2. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life (New York: Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents, 2004) p.70.

  3. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose (New York: State University Press, 1995) p.95-98.

  4. Michel Foucault, Stultifera Navis in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 1988) p.8.

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