The Politics of Breathing: From Subsistence Diving to Respiratory Pandemics

August 12, 2021

10am Virtual

Date / Time: 
Thursday, August 12, 2021
10:00 am PDT | 1:00 pm EDT | 6:00 pm BST


About the Event:
Breathing: what could be more basic, but if the past eighteen months have demonstrated anything, it’s how fragile this most basic of animal activities is in the face of the network effects of biospheric capitalism. Join anthropologists Elizabeth Chin and Josh Berson for a wide-ranging discussion of the physiology, culture, and politics of breathing and other overlooked skills. Who gets to breathe at will and who needs to ask permission? Why do we tend to view skills such as holding one’s breath under ten meters of water¬—as in the apnea diving traditions of Korea, Japan, and Tasmania—as less evolved, say, than the manufacture of arrowheads? What implications does this have for how we imagine possible futures?

About the Book:
Humanity has precipitated a planetary crisis of resource consumption—a crisis of stuff. So ingrained is our stuff-centric view that we can barely imagine a way out beyond substituting a new portmanteau of material things for the one we have today.

In The Human Scaffold, anthropologist Josh Berson offers a new theory of adaptation to environmental change. Drawing on niche construction, evolutionary game theory, and the enactive view of cognition, Berson considers cases in the archaeology of adaptation in which technology in the conventional sense was virtually absent. Far from representing anomalies, these cases exemplify an enduring feature of human behavior that has implications for our own fate.

The time has come to ask what the environmental crisis demands of us not as consumers but as biological beings. The Human Scaffold offers a starting point.

About the Speakers:
Josh Berson is an anthropologist whose work explores the ecology of sentient behavior over epochs ranging from the momentary to the geological. He has held appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, among other places, and is the author of Computable Bodies (2015), The Meat Question (2019), and The Human Scaffold (2021).

Elizabeth Chin is Editor-in-Chief of the American Anthropologist and Professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Her work spans a variety of topics—race, consumption, Barbie—but nearly always engages marginalized youth in collaboratively taking on the complexities of the world around them.  She has current projects in Los Angeles, Uganda, and Haiti and has engaged partners ranging from the Los Angeles Police Department to Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in Haiti. A specialist in Haitian Folkloric dance, she has performed professionally and still teaches occasionally. She is the author, among other works, of My Life with Things (2016).


composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.