A project for linking our personal lived experience to the planetary processes that sustain us.

In 2016 the work Catch Your Breath was created to draw attention to the act of breathing and how it connects us with other people. Since 2016 over 15,000 people have experienced the work and had their breath recorded photographically. Upon escaping from the artwork where did the air go from all those breaths? Where are the breaths now?

In April of 2019 at the Caboolture Hospital in Queensland, my father took his last breath. Ten months later, in Sydney, my second grandson took his first breath. What journey has been taken by the air from the last breath of my father and the air that would become the first breath of my grandson. Did they ever cross paths?

Can contemplating the journey of these breaths around the world help to connect us with the world itself? Perhaps helping to counter our tendency to turn inwards when we should be looking outwards for solutions for these precarious times.

We know that the air in our breath is carried away by the wind, traveling the world and being shared with every other living thing and planetary process [1]. Scientists who study the atmosphere can plot the movement of air on a global scale and use this to track pollution, predict the weather and understand climate change. Using the tools of science [2] this chart shows the trajectory of the first 4 weeks of my father’s last breath.

The journey of my father’s last breath, visualised using scientific software from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, USA.

Taking the data from these tools and expressing it in a less formal way, we can interactively explore the complete trajectories or compare multiple trajectories. We might also include other artistic, scientific and cultural models and images that suggest relationships between the movement of this air and the physical and social processes of the planet.

The data shows that for a few months in 2019 the air from the last breath of my father and the air that would become the first breath of my grandson were circling together around Antarctica. Here is what that looked like. Perhaps the atoms in those parcels of air mingled.

My father’s last breath and the air that would become my grandson’s first breath.
The videos are best viewed full screen.
Trajectories are colour coded for the altitude of the air.

Here is how the complete 16 month journey of those two breaths around the globe presents a seemingly abstract image when the context of the globe itself is absent.

The complete journey of my father’s last breath and my grandson’s first breath.

What of the breaths recorded by the Catch Your Breath project? Where are they now? This video shows the current location of just 3,000 of them.

The present location of 3,000 breaths recorded by the Catch Your Breath project.

At first glance the motion of each breath appears to be independent of the others, but viewed at a global scale it becomes clear that collectively they mirror the global air movements that drive the climate and hence rainfall, temperature, ocean currents, natural bio-systems, agriculture and every aspect of our civilisation. (Global rainfall is shown here in real-time [3].) At the scale of human politics the air ignores the somewhat arbitrary borders we have created to regulate the movement of people, goods and money.

Apart from the obvious links with the physical processes of the earth, have you ever thought where the air you are breathing right now has come from, or is going to and who are we sharing our breath with [4] ? Or the implications of a disease spread by breath that effects us as individuals but also as citizens of a community and a globe ? Or the call to action of the “I Can’t Breathe” movement ? How might these be represented in this project.

I recently learned that the Maori Hongi greeting is a sharing of the breath of the ancestors and that Australian indigenous people think in time scales that span 7 generations. Perhaps these are less tangible, but I’d like to think that this work also touches on those ideas.

This is a prototype for the You Are Here project; aimed at using personal experience to add substance to the claim that ‘everything is connected’.  Our breath and how it connects us with the atmospheric processes of the planet is just one case, there are many others: energy, water, food, money, migration, power, are other examples. The objective is to develop the project as an interactive exploratory mapping platform for presenting curated artistic, scientific or cultural content that explores these ideas, and from any creator. The work currently exists as a desktop computer application; the ultimate presentation format is an interactive video that could be experienced online, but preferably as a large scale video installation alongside some of the artworks linked to the platform [5].

Due to COVID restrictions the work did not get shown at the 3 Festival in Wollongong in June 2020 (cancelled) or Biomes 2020 in Newcastle in September 2020 (exhibited on-line), but a demo video did make it to Biomes and the Ars Electronica global on-line festival.


[1] For further reading see the Every Breath catalogue essay.

[2] The HYSPLIT atmospheric transport and dispersion model developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) in the US.
Note: all of the molecules that make up one breath do not actually follow a single path. The air disperses and spreads out and within a few years has actually mingled with ALL the air in the atmosphere. The single path shows the most likely path of one molecule of the breath.

[3 ] Near real-time images from the JAXA Global Rainfall Watch (Japanese Space Exploration Agency)

[4] This is the idea behind a work being developed using a creative grant from Lake Macquarie City Council

[5] For example Catch Your Breath could be shown alongside this work with each person’s breath becoming a new real-time trajectory in the work as it was recorded.