Breathing in a Time of Disaster: an Invitation to the Communal Breaths Archive

By Dr. Ching-In Chen | Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences |
2022-2023 Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellow

My collaborator Cassie Mira and I have been curating Breathing in a Time of Disaster, a community-based writing, performance and installation project which focuses on exploring the unit of breath through the intersection of meditation, health and environmental justice. The project aims to tell an interactive story highlighting individual and collective responses to disaster, disrupting mainstream narratives of our changing climate in favor of witnessing creative strategies of survival used by everyday people.

In 2019, we invited Houston-area community participants to tell their own stories about their breath, relationship with their environment and how they were responding to individual and collective moments of disaster, especially with Hurricane Harvey in mind. In 2022, we invited Seattle-area participants to participate in story circles, responding to the same questions. In addition, I worked with two cohorts of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/or People of Color) students at the University of Washington to learn story circle and community-based storytelling methodologies and to host their own storytelling circles with other UWB BIPOC students. Interested students were then invited to participate as community members in the larger project. 

In Autumn 2022 and Winter 2023, we curated a multimedia installation in Jack Straw Cultural Center’s New Media Gallery, showcasing the stories and rituals of Houston and Seattle-area BIPOC and trans, nonbinary and/or gender-creative community artists and environmental justice leaders. Community participants were invited to contribute a recording of their breath along with their zip code and neighborhood and contribute a public ritual responding to their experience of the story circle and/or the phrase, “breathing in a time of disaster.”

We collaborated with sound artist Judy Twedt to create breath soundtracks mixing breath recordings and industrial sound based on the air quality data in the zip codes. In the Jack Straw gallery, visitors were able to select and listen to zip codes to play a section of the breath chorus. We intended for Houston and Seattle area breath chorus rituals and story circle excerpts to play simultaneously on two different screens, creating an interactive choral performance. In addition, Judy and I interviewed environmental justice leaders and scientists; excerpts of those recordings were included in the multimedia exhibit.  

With the support of the Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellowship (DSFF) program and Denise Hattwig, the Head of Digital Scholarship and Collections at the University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia College Library, Cassie and I created an online communal Breaths archive showcasing these community stories and rituals, with the intention that the archive be utilized as a community resource. Our goal was to allow a larger audience to access these community offerings and to continue to grow this resource.

The funding from the Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellows award was critical in allowing us to develop a fully functional digital exhibition site with Cassie’s technical expertise so that we could make thoughtful choices about the best way for us to showcase community contributions. In addition, working on the digital exhibit helped us make design choices for future directions for the project.  We look forward to continuing to add to the site by fully transcribing and adding story circle excerpts and interviews as well as encouraging new contributions from community members to the archive. We hope that you will visit the Breathing in a Time of Disaster communal Breaths archive and contribute a breath recording or ritual of your own!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *