BREATHING UNDERSTUDY | ALEX VILLAR
Background Last year, when I was shooting Splitting Image, my video for Bring to Light NYC 2011, I had to dive in the East river and swim for a small stretch of water, leading from the ferry platform to the pier on India Street. It was a relevant conceptual step required for my character who had been pursuing an alternate path to reach his destination. The distance was relative short and the surface of the water was so serene that no warm up seemed necessary. But as I got in the water, my body began to be pulled under the bridge. I didnâ€™t foresee that the river had an undercurrent which was going to pose a real challenge. At first I fought back vigorously, only to find myself out of breath. In the process, I submerged and swallowed some water. For a brief moment I let go of the fight and understood that my choice over what to do next would be pivotal. I relaxed my muscles and allowed the current to pull my body as to let it float to the surface. Then, I recovered my breath and calmly swam to the pier. That situation never became critical. But the struggle itself was real and gave me immediate insight over what happens when someone is about to drown. Desperation induces panic, which results in haphazard movements that only accelerate the drowning process. What is required in such situations is a counterintuitive tactic that involves relaxation, controlled breathing and systematic movement. The latter requires training on endurance, similarly to what can be found in Freediving, a diving technique that does not involve artificial breathing apparatus.
Concept I took two elements from this experience which I bringing to my proposed project. One is to do with endurance training, the other with actual experiences of submersion in water. This piece focuses on spatial situations in which breathing is deferred, due to difficulties imposed by a particular type of environment. The subject in the video is immersed in water. He wears a wetsuit to withstand the cool temperature of the water while other diving apparatus are kept to a bare minimum. The degree and duration of submersion vary methodically from one scene to another. And so does the scale of the containing space, which becomes progressively more claustrophobic. The character is suspended in an ambivalent situation where stakes appear to be indistinct, floating somewhere between despair and ecstasy. I am calling this project Breathing Understudy, the latter word being a reference to a practice common to theater that consists in training an actor to take on the character of another. Context In my work I tend to focus on situations where there is a tension between polarizing forces. On one side there is the subjectivizing force of a space while on the other side there is a resisting subject. While the relationship between these contesting forces does not take place in an equal terrain, the expected outcome of their embattlement is sometimes subverted. In most of the pieces I have done over the years, I adopted this single relation between subject and space. In Splitting Image, I unfolded this dynamic into two parallel situations in order to make explicit the different nuances of each experience. In Breathing Understudy I return to my model of presenting a single subject in relation to a space, but brought along from the prior piece a sense of dualism.
Sites What I mean by this is that the spatial situations in which I place my character are of two disparate orders. On one of the poles is the sea with its extensive dimensions and diffuse borders. In it, the subjectivity of my character is expansive, boundless. Throughout the video, the experience becomes ever more contained, all the way to the other extreme pole, where the subject is no longer in water and only parts of the body are subjected to immersion. An empty warehouse, like the ones that exist in Greenpoint would provide the perfect space to record these scenes. Installation The video should be presented as a single projection onto the wall of the building on India Street South Plaza. Its presence at the end of the pier platform situates the piece at the precise intersection between the river waters and warehouses that are typical of this resiliently industrial neighborhood.