The Breathing Room
by Patricia Piccinini (1999)
The Breathing Room is a screen-based installation that looks at the idea of panic within contemporary society. The work reflects a the very contemporary state of anxiety that occurs as new technologies (electronic, biochemical, biotechnological, agricultural) begin to destablise the ‘fundamentals’ of life; the specificity of species, the physicality of space, the continuity of cultural or polical institutions.
The Breathing Room represents this as a tension between two screen spaces. Three large screens show a fragment of a body, a stretch of breathing skin. It is recognizable yet not quite real. We see, hear and feel the rhythm of its breathing. It is huge but almost intimate, both fascinating and claustrophobic. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the Breathing Room panics and we share that viscerally, through vibrations in the floor.
Behind us are a number of small TV monitors, and we hear before we see the strange transgenetic animal scurries from one to next. At first it might be frightening, like the sound of rats in the walls, but gradually it will start to seem almost ordinary. However, the animal never slows down long enough to give us a good look at it. Like the truth in contemporary culture it feels unreal, is strange to look at and moves quickly from one space to the next.
I understand why the scientists in England who received the first Platypus specimens though that they were a hoax. They didn’t look real to them, just as the laboratory rats that glow in the dark or have human ears growing on their backs don’t look real to us. But real they are. In the same way that the use of animal DNA in genetically modified food plants is also both inconcievable and almost invisibly commonplace.
Like the little animal in the breathing room, we live within a space both expanded and contained by technology. It moves in and out of the light so quickly that it is hard to get a grasp on. Or else we see it as a fragment in so much detail that we cannot see how it fits into the whole. It is no wonder that we feel anxious, stressed, even a little paniced sometimes.
It might be argued that we needed the millenium bug. We needed something contemporary to stand in the place of the medieval apocalyse, to give us something to be afraid of. That is not so much because we aren’t afraid of anything - paniced, anxious, phobic, stressed – but more because we aren’t sure of exactly what it is that we should be afraid of.
We live at a moment of panic; an age circumscribed by the ‘anxiety attack’ (where panic become a palpable pathological condition) and ‘extreme sports’ (where panic becomes an end in itself). The rapid pace of technological change in both electronics and biochemistry has rendered the conceptual ground upon which we stand decidedly unstable.
It is little wonder that we panic; we are anxious about cloned farm animals, we are concerned about genetically modified canola seeds, we are worried about child pornography on the internet, we are perturbed by internet censorship, we are apprehensive about technologies set to stop or reverse that aging process, and we are perplexed by why scientists would engineer luminous transgenetic mice, and then alarmed by the news that it was just because they could. However, deep down, we are glad that they did.