Documentation of Seth Cluett's performance at Ilya Fridman Gallery. Photo credit: Naroa Lizar/Fridman Gallery

Documentation of Seth Cluett’s performance at Fridman Gallery (photo courtesy Naroa Lizar/Fridman Gallery)

Back in the late ’90s, I considered going to raves. There were kids at my high school wearing jelly bracelets, wide-legged JNCO skater jeans, and last night’s eyeliner and mascara, smeared and stained. In our 9am homeroom class I could see the multi-colored, ever-flashing lights of last night’s rave bouncing off my classmates’ whites, the power transcendent and somehow luminescent but never quite spiritual. I wanted to be there, but I didn’t. At Fridman Gallery’s ongoing performance series In the Glow of a Breathing Sphere, I experienced a similar feeling toward a custom-built thing called “PRANA” (which means “breath” or the “life force”): a giant glowing sphere set in the middle of the gallery that is activated by the breath of people who step into it. The name of the exhibition refers both to the act of breathing life force into the sphere and to the ongoing series of performances that activate prana energy in other ways.

Like most apps, computers, or other inventions that emphasize the wonders of technology itself and attempt to create excitement around that, “PRANA” is technologically impressive. Conceived and created at B-Reel, the all-male creative team includes Mike Potter (Art Director/Creator), Wes Falik (Producer), Eric Heaton (Technical Director), and developers Charlie Clark and Joe Zhou. The sphere is custom-built with six 450-watt 90 AMP power supplies, a Xethru respiration sensor on the hardware side, and Javascript animations that connect with the breathing device — all very technologically fun-sounding. But on a human level, “PRANA” doesn’t live up to its promise of a spiritual or meditative experience and neither does it quite breathe new life into the concept. The project ironically speaks to the broader problem of expecting our technologies to offer us post-human experiences in a world that is very much, if not more so today, about fulfilling basic human needs and needing to connect with others who are also looking for the same.

The most “human” aspect of “PRANA” is Xethru, which uses radar technology to detect breathing by tracking the millimeter change in a subject’s chest position. On July 16, artist Seth Cluett gave an auditory, sensory, experiential performance with the sphere using an oscilloscope, which is used for viewing waveforms, to try to sing perfect sine waves while simultaneously integrating recordings of ocean and lake waves, breathing, rain, wind, and empty-room ambiences. The light show that resulted was dazzling, mesmerizing, and fostered an actual connection between the artists’ concept and the audience. Afterwards, I stood outside trying not to check my phone, and so I chatted with a woman who similarly felt like she had transcended that physical space in experiencing the meditative breath work that Cluett performed. We did not have our phones out. Checking one’s phone outside of a gallery, on the street, in effect makes you unapproachable by others, creating your own “glowing sphere” of being in the phone zone and away from human interaction and direct eye contact. The woman and I agreed that we had both had an experience in that room that actually did not have anything to with the technology, but everything to do with the way that this technology helped us transcend and connect to something outside of ourselves and maybe even to each other.

Photo credit: B-Reel

Installation view of ‘In the Glow of a Breathing Sphere’ (photo by B-Reel)

Unfortunately, the act that followed Cluett’s had the opposite effect. Music by MV Carbon activated the sphere’s color-changes while screechy, noise-like sounds travelled across the room; many began plugging their ears. The light show went on, but my attention span and tolerance for more noise in a city that’s already full of it did not make staying something I wanted to do. I couldn’t breathe, and so I left. While Seth Cluett activated and enhanced my breath, Carbon’s sound performance made my body twitch and recoil. The experience reminded me of a yoga class I’d recently attended, where the teacher said, rather than flowing breaths, she kept hearing a series of short inhales followed by people holding their breath, and then exhaling hard like a sigh. “You cannot compromise the breath,” she told us, being as direct as one can be in an environment that’s supposed to be both soothing and meditative. “You have to always stay connected, keep breathing.”

In the Glow of a Breathing Sphere continues at Fridman Gallery (287 Spring Street, Soho, Manhattan) through August 2. 

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...