New Frontier Central at Sundance 2020 Catalytic Pick #2: Breathe

By Sophie Silverstone
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

To follow up our New Frontier Catalytic Pick #1: Solastalgia, we bring you our second pick of the festival’s New Frontier exhibits:

Breathe, by Diego Galafassi in co-creation with Phi Studio and Crimes of Curiosity (Sweden, Canada, U.S.A.)

Climate change scares anyone who stops to think about it. It’s hard to grapple with the gravity of this reality. Leave it to the New Frontier mixed reality space to give us new ways to look at our relationship to the Earth. With a meditative approach, creators Diego Galafassi (artist-in-residence at Phi Studio, Montreal and Johns Hopkins University Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies Lab) and Jess Engel (who worked on VR experience SPHERES), focus on breath as a means of looking at climate change in a different way. For an exhibit in Utah, with some of the country’s worst air quality, Breathe hits close to home.

What is so striking about Breathe is the beauty of the breath particles dancing and colorfully illuminated in the space. By waving your hand across the last bit of swirling air you just exhaled, you can watch your breath disperse into the room. This 12-minute experience is shared with three others in about a 10-ft.-diameter circle, enclosed with a sheer white fabric. Each viewer wears a headset, a belted battery pack and a breathing monitor around the chest that was developed just for this exhibit.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

To begin, the narrator, Zazie Beetz (actress in Joker and Nine Days) takes you through some curiosity-inducing facts: The particles you are currently breathing now take about two years to disperse across the world. Some of the air I’m about to breathe has some particles from my very first breath on this planet.

As participants wave their hands around or cup the orb of air that just came out of their lungs, the narrator instructs us to turn toward another person, and look at the breath they are breathing as well. Everyone’s breath produces a different color, reminding us that this exhibit is not just about the air that we ourselves breathe, but that we all breathe the same air. I immediately thought: “It’s not all about you.”

Exploring different ways to think about the air in our atmosphere and our relationship to it, the narrator leaves you with one more thing to contemplate: What atmosphere will future generations breathe?

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Those outside of the exhibit can see the depth of each viewer’s breath as they go through the experience by looking at the little screens surrounding the space. As the red line of the breath monitor goes up and down on the screen, like a vital signs monitor in an ER, the screen also tells the daily air quality, air pressure, windspeed, and global carbon dioxide concentrations. The day I visited, the global carbon dioxide concentration was 407.4 ppm, not far below the world record of 415 parts per million, which was just set in May 2019 (Scientific American). As a rule of thumb, and an easy tool for remembering what ppm we aim for, campaign helps us remember that 350ppm is the safe level of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

“Climate change can be quite abstract, hard to find the connection [with our individual daily lives]. We found that breathing is a more intimate way to talk about climate change,” Galafassi told me. In talking to various scientists about air quality studies, he also looked to Sam Kean’s book, Ceasar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, and philosopher David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, a classic of environmental literature. One of Abram’s paraphrased quotes that stuck with Galafassi was, “What is climate change if not a simple consequence of taking the air for granted?”

At the end of the experience you can opt into an email campaign to further engage your awareness about the air we breathe. Today I received the first update. The subject read: “You breathed air at Sundance, where is it now?” The embedded seven-second video shows the blue cloud of air moving from Utah eastward across the United States and spreading out across the Pacific Ocean.

Breathe from Centre Phi | Phi Centre on Vimeo.

Galafassi hopes to bring this exhibit to community events in the states, as it does not currently have any bookings in the U.S. A future CATALYST Clean Air Solutions Fair exhibit? We sure hope so.


The New Frontier Central exhibits are open to credential holders. More info can be found on

This article was originally published on January 29, 2020.