by Sofie B. Ringstad (2021, Kunsthochschule Weißensee)

Note: This essay was written to be performed as an oral piece.

2020 was the year I became a mother. I didn’t mean to become a mother; through a series of serendipitous events our son Hallvard seemed to just appear. As he grew in my womb, I decided to engage in my newfound situation by taking a course in breathing for birthing women. The year began, and with COVID-19 only a curious, distant news story, I practiced the technique laboropust - labourious breathing, which follows the rhythm of contractions as they begin, intensify and fade.

Contrary to the sounds generally associated with childbirth – the chaotic scene repeated through popular culture – welcoming a new life is usually a fairly quiet affair. Screaming is not encouraged, as it only restricts the much needed airflow through the body. So in its vaginal variation, birth is ultimately about breathing and hard work – hence the word, labour. I laboured on the 4th of March 2020, and gave birth exactly one week before the society around us feel completely silent.

An unborn child is also labouring and practicing their breathing before the birth. That’s where hiccups come from: It’s an automatic movement in the baby’s diaphragm, pulling and ejecting amniotic fluid in to their lungs. The child unknowingly rehearses something it will depend on for the rest of its life on Earth. It’s a universal undertaking – but the neutrality of a mother’s womb does not extend to the breathing of air.   

In her publication Breathing Matters: Feminist Intersectional Politics of Vulnerability from 2016, scholar Dr. Magdalena Górska argues that breathing is multifaceted, and far from an automated, given act. She writes:

“Whereas in physiological discourses breathing operates through humans’ universally shared patterns and structures (e.g., physical principles of the diffusion processes), breathing [can] change through the embodied living of intersectional power relations. Examples of these embodied differences include breathing fresh versus polluted air, having dusty lungs syndrome, corpo-affective distress related to the social structures of discrimination, or living with breathing technologies (e.g., respirators, artificial lungs or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation technologies).” (p.159) 

In other words, it’s not only about if you breathe – but whatyou breathe, and what you breathe with. The latter has become especially crucial in the past year, as the complexity of medical breathing devices made global headlines. Where you breathe also makes a difference. It can shorten your life; it can blur your capacity to think. But where you breathe can also make a difference to the sounds you produce.

In January 2019, I went to Mexico City – the first step of the serendipitous events that would lead to motherhood. I was there to organize the launch of artist Bendik Giske in to the Mexican music market. Giske partially grew up in Bali, where he became fascinated by local flute players and their ability to play it for long stretches, seemingly without catching a breath. This would influence his own practice, which today centres around circular breathing techniques applied to the saxophone.

Breathing, and its empathic power, was something Giske had mentioned often in our conversations, but I didn’t catch its essence until I saw him perform in Mexico City: A capital situated 2250 meters above sea level. He was playing the opening concert of Material Art Fair, and the venue was packed with a buzzing, moist crowd of curators, artists and those who want to be them – not an easy audience. Giske commenced his performance with his signature single, unbroken note – “performing a ritual of focus and concentration”, in his own words. As the room silenced, and the concert progressed, an excited murmur spread: Bendik Giske couldn’t catch his breath.

Instinctively, the crowd understood that Giske’s physically demanding circular breathing had met a challenge in the thin mountain air that smogs Mexico City. An ecstatic energy unfurled through the room: As the performance reached its climax, the usually reserved art audience were wildly cheering Giske on, collectively rooting for him to get through his every note. Giske transcended – he was an artist, but was he not also an athlete, a Pheidippides, ready to die at the end of his mission. As he finally gasped for air, the sound of his breath was deafened by the euphoric cheers.

Giske talks about breathing as a non-threatening invitation to take part in his work, and to exist in the same space. As a queer individual, his breathing – his being – functions as a statement in its own right, and Giske is well aware that his breathing is indeed political – as is the case for many. Among them, we are quick to remember, was George Floyd.

What three words do you remember best from 2020? They might be “I can’t breathe” – words so canonized that they seem now far removed from their original utterance, be it by George Floyd, Eric Garner or others before and after them. But these people were breathers; they lived, but their drawing of air was political enough – provoking enough – for someone to suffocate them.

Suffocation was and is all around us in the damp clamp of the current pandemic. However, as we lift our gaze from the all-consuming immediacies, we acknowledge that political breathing is far from a passing moment in history, like the COVID-19 virus is. And as the Earth has spun around the sun, turning the calendars to 2021, we might catch our breath and ask: How can we listen to political breathing? What echoes does it pierce through history? In what spaces is it audible?

Because it seems that we first and foremost need to identify it through the noise. Political breathing doesn’t pant; it exists as “These half-breaths / These I don’t know if we are living or dying”, as Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme put it in their work May Amnesia Never Kiss Us On the Mouth (Part One) from last year. In the work, Abbas and Abou-Rahme address the breathing of Palestinians, who are “breathing and being / beingand breathing / in the negative / in the lack / in doubt / in debt / maimed / bruised / broken / broke / returning / here now / on this corner / in this word / in this sentence / this rhythm / this silence”.

Silence. Let’s listen for it for a moment; see if we can find it, and if it’s there, try to hear if anyone is breathing deep within it. In the silence, there is a potential for hearing all the things unsaid, all the moments passed that wants to be forgotten, but where there was breath, and therefore it lingers, still remembered.

We might hear a violence committed on to flesh, resonating still by means of silence. Violence committed on to a body, where “[..] the breath, literally of life, was in them and the brutality was fundamentally because of this irrepressibility.” (p. 72). I site here from Ashon T. Crawley’s 2017 book Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which outlines how not only breathing, but also all the things the breath enables – the voices, the noises, the screams – are highly political, and central to the African diaspora.

Paradoxically, silence, and the breath we find within it, is the force that allows us to track the sounds reverberate through time:

“[…] [it] can be heard in any image – a silence that makes its sonic force known – felt in any cut cloth or severed finger. A silence – a sonic event – that escapes, centrifugitive, like life. If air was there at the scene of subjection, and breath was the desired object to be stolen, the slightest breath at any moment of enframing, of eclipsing, evinces the life that escaped, through screams, through moans, through pleas.” (p. 75) 

It is the breath that pulsates through history. It transcends temporalities, because the breathing itself allows history to manifest. It confirms the subject, the flesh that was there, the witness, the body that continued to breathe despite attempts to prevent it from doing so. In its persistence, these political breaths became acts of resistance. As Crawley phrases it for us (quote):

“To breathe, with [the] western theological-philosophical epistemology, from within the zone of blackness […], is to offer a critical performative intervention into the western juridical apparatus of violent control, repression, and yes, premature death.” (p. 34) 

Removed from its direct link to Crawley’s blackpentecostal context, this quote could easily be reattributed to breathing from within other zones, like that of any non-normative identity or diasporic body. In this way, what Crawley calls “the performative intervention” can manifest in more ways than one, and can exist in multiples spaces. It can be the performative intervention of breathing silently, hoping it will go unnoticed, even if such a thing is impossible. Or it can be instrumentalized: it can be the long note at the beginning of a concert and the yearning gasp for air as it concludes. It can be the intervention of the “enunciated breath” (p.35), the voice, a tool unequivocally linked to air flowing in and out of the body.

Can the performative intervention also be one of listening? As breath reaches us across the waves of time, surely the listener on the other end breathes too? Perhaps the sound of breathing is the very sound of listening: It implies that a someone is there, tentative, only ejecting the sound of their aliveness. Maybe even the sound of attentive breathing, potentially holding space for someone else’s politicized breath, can be as powerful as any protest chant.

After a year where breathing the same air became synonym with putting oneself and others at risk, we might re-consider the spaces where collective breathing, collective being, is possible. These spaces have radical potential: They are spaces where empathy can be evoked, where histories can resound, where new futures can be voiced. Spaces where we can breathe together are hopeful spaces, powerful spaces: they are the spaces I wish for my son to thrive in.

As we enter 2021, he is 10 months old. He laughs, coughs, blathers and – breathes and we gleefully, almost shy, we discover that we are expecting our second child. So, slowly, I start to reconnect with my laborious course material, and prepare to welcome another breather in to this world.


Crawley, A. T., 2017, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, Fordham University Press, New York.

Górska, M., 2016, Breathing Matters: Feminist Intersectional Politics of Vulnerability, TEMA – Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University, Linköping.

May Amnesia Never Kiss Us On the Mouth, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, retrieved 22 January 2020,