Becoming increasingly interested in the ways built spaces could be transformed through simple and ephemeral means, I began to use sound as a way of investing space with qualities of emotional texture or symbolic weight.  An opportunity to further explore these ideas resulted in my collaboration with a group of Canadian and Inuit artists in Breathing in the Cold – a series of exhibitions and events relating science, design, health and art at the Design Exchange in Toronto, Canada. The site was an historic building originally designed in 1912 as the Toronto Stock Exchange but currently used as a museum of the history and practice of design.

On my first visit to the Design Exchange, I found the idea of intervening in this visually loaded space overwhelming. Only after spending extended periods of time sitting in the space did I become aware that the building was actually breathing. I became fascinated with the combination of early 20th century ventilation technology and post-modern visual and engineering solutions bringing air in and out of this particular space. This led me to think about the history of architecture, the ways women have historically been thought responsible for the ‘healthy’ functioning of the domestic realm and health of the family, or citizens, by extension.  I decided to make my intervention in the spaces where lack of air movement had historically been understood to be a problem for the health of bodies within the building: the bathroom and the elevator shaft.

Using Sonar, a professional-level digital recording technology, I created three sound pieces using a combination of spoken word, digital or real recorded sound, and interviews. As a collection of sound works, Breathing Spaces takes the respiratory system of the Design Exchange as a point of connection between the institution, the building and the diverse publics who have used this space since its opening in 1937. The purpose of Breathing Spaces is to question the limits and barriers of a building, drawing attention to the parallels with human physiognomy in everyday aspects of architectural design.  Because the sounds of the Design Exchange are considerable when the building is in use, headphones were used in the Vestibule and Elevator Lobby and speakers in the Ladies’ Room. The headphones had the effect of isolating the listener in the noisier spaces of the museum, while the normally quiet restroom was transformed through the most brash and pop of the three pieces.

My research for the sound pieces led me to feminist theory Luce Irirgaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (1999) feminist architectural history Annmarie Adams, Architecture in the Family Way (1996) and standard Canadian building code (as explained by architect Thomas Strickland), in order to question the ways space is coded, for and by different genders, and the ways that public, even modern buildings hold the traces of ideas about gender, responsibility and health.

Credits: self-produced at Park Row West Studios, Montreal, Canada
Special thanks: Thomas Strickland (voice and architectural expertise)