A sense of connection through a breath of light

There is a Chinese saying for camaraderie: ‘those who share the same breath share a common destiny.’ In a time when none of us can find the safety and comfort to breathe freely in public spaces, a sense of connection to others is also missing.

Breath of Light, an interactive art installation by Pinyao Liu, aims to bring back that connection between people. The project was recently exhibited at the 13th Shanghai Biennale from March 5 to March 21.

“During COVID, we are deprived of public space. People feel more distant from each other. One of the motivations for the project is how can we connect people more in public space, now that we are gradually taking it back?,” says Liu, a master’s student at the SFU School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

Set in a dark room, the installation turns the space into a communal meditative experience.

The design allows two participants to generate their own light when they are breathing into microphones equipped with sound sensors. Through a custom algorithm, the signal data is then transformed into fluid light particles in real-time. When the two breaths have equal respiration rates, the ripple of light will grow, and a meditative sound of Tibetan singing bowl will appear.

“The moment I am really looking for is when there is breath synchronization. I am trying to build a connection between these two people, even though they might have never met each other before. They might find they have a deeper connection with each other after the experience,” Liu says.

The initial inspiration of the project came to Liu during his first meeting at SFU’s iSpace Lab where he first got to ‘know’ everyone through breathing.

“We did a co-meditation where we would sit in a circle and close our eyes. I feel this feeling of connection with everyone. We are being present and enjoying this moment with each other,” he says.

The project resonates well with the theme, ‘bodies of water,’ that focused on fluid and connection at this year’s Shanghai Biennale, one of the most high-profile contemporary art events in China. Liu says the most challenging and rewarding part of the project was fitting the installation at the gallery to create an immersive experience for the audience since he only had a few days to work in the space and this was his first public project.

When two breaths have equal respiration rates, the ripple of light grows. | Photo courtesy of Pinyao Liu

A budding artist

Liu says he has always had a keen interest in art but he didn’t dare to call himself an artist until his work was recognized at the Shanghai Biennale.

“Nowadays many people call themselves artists. For me, being an artist, you have to move people,” he says, “I feel I can call myself an artist now after some audience [members] walked up to me and told me this is one of their favourite pieces in the gallery and they feel that sense of connection with others. This is the moment I feel my artwork is recognized.”

Liu studied civil engineering as his undergrad, but his path took some interesting turns after he tried to find what he was really passionate about.

“I accidentally took a summer course in positive psychology. Now that I reflect on that choice, I did have a passion for psychology. I am now working at the intersection of psychology, art and technology,” he says.

He cites Randy Pausch and his famous Last Lecture as the most impactful experience that got him onto his current path. Pausch was a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave an inspiring lecture after learning he had terminal cancer and only a few months to live.

“I was fascinated by this human being. He had such a passion for life,” says Liu, “When I was in my third year, I got this opportunity to do this research internship in Canada and you got to choose among 2,700 projects. Maybe that lecture helped me to choose. That is how I got to know my lab and started to form connections with this field.”

Looking ahead, Liu is considering pursuing a PhD in interactive art, combining his artistic desires with more solid research work.

For more information, please visit: http://ispace.iat.sfu.ca/project/breath-of-light/