Curious Choreographies of the Quantified Self: Breath and Biofeedback

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Kate ELSWIT, University of London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, United Kingdom
It is still hard to collect real time data on the act of breathing in the wild, outside of medical facilities that utilize such tools as body plethysmography. Breathing is voluntary and involuntary; it consists of internal and external respiration; it can be diaphragmatic or costal and affect parts of the body located far from the trunk (Calais-Germain 2005). Proxies for breath include motion, emotion, displacement, moisture, and sound. In this sense, “data doubles” of the breath body are a prime examples for critiques of the quantified self that counter any narrative of seamless transition from “feeling to numbers,” instead pointing out the mythic nature of such claims to accuracy and reliability (Crawford/Lingel/Karppi 2015).

This paper focuses on recent media and performance projects that use performers' or users' real-time breath data as biofeedback controllers. There is groundwork for the potential of such work, ranging from research that posits the role of the humanities in bridging epistemic gaps in medicine’s clinical ability to account for experiences of breathing and breathlessness (Mcnaughton/Carel 2016), to scholarship that argues for the use of digital tools to heighten sensory awareness (Davidson 2016). On the other hand, critiques of the quantified self as well as the findings of critical code studies advocate for attention to the biases, symbolic nature, and cultural embeddedness of algorithmic processing (Marino 2006), rather than celebrating such biofeedback work as a black-box feat of hardware and/or software engineering. Balancing these perspectives, I am interested in approaching the impossibility of this collection that is nonetheless translated into interactive representations, and in what is asked of the bodies that interact with them. I ask how such inaccurate and partial data is built into feedback loops that may ultimately offer alternative experiences of embodied breath in the form of curious choreographies of the quantified self.