Recording courtesy of TORCH.

Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme delivered by TORCH, University of Oxford, in partnership with Modern Art Oxford.

In a recent panel event called ‘Breathing Worlds’, our team explored breath-related research across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and our own lived experiences. Our presentations and discussions reflected on world events and the instances of breathlessness that have been made palpable throughout the course of 2020. Big thanks to Modern Art Oxford and TORCH at the University of Oxford for hosting.

Breathworks – Breathing and Creativity


Originally a blog post for the Modern Art Oxford website.

Breathworks is a participatory project which invites audiences to produce experimental responses to and recordings of their breath. In the parallel text below, I outline some of the ways in which breathing and creativity interrelate.

Since Breathworks was conceived, breath itself has become a hot topic in 2020. Over the past few months, the purpose of Breathworks – to encourage creative connection through experimental approaches to and representations of breathing — gained newfound relevance for humankind. The immortal and tragic words, “I can’t breathe”, echoed during antiracist protests, follows the global outbreak of an airborne virus which has engulfed any sense of normality provoking, in turn, noticeable reductions in air pollution. I mention these diverse phenomena in one sentence (or in one breath?) not to demean or conflate their ongoing, profound and complex reverberations, but to illustrate that breath is a prominent theme of 2020; it is at the fore of our collective mind.

Introducing Breathworks

Modern Art Oxford

‘The Yard’. MAO gallery entrance designed by KLH architects. Photo: MAO.

New project announcement!

Breathworks, my latest commission from Modern Art Oxford, is a participatory arts project with a strong focus on digital community growth. In August, we will invite a diverse audience to creatively engage with their breath by conveying one of their experiences of breathing through an image and sound recording.  This audience-generated content will be hosted on Modern Art Oxford’s website and shared on social media channels, available to view and interact with across multiple devices. Some of the ‘breathworks’ will also be selected for exhibition in the gallery as part of the Autumn programme. Over 200,000 people are expected to engage with the project, 30% of these being newcomers to the gallery and its work.

Interview: On Breathing and Air Pollution

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 13.05.09

Interview on UK national radio

EC: Presenter, Emma Critchley; LS: Lucy Sabin.

EC: Lucy Sabin has made a composition from her yogic breaths. More than 50 breathing techniques recorded over a three-hour period. Through her installation, she invites audiences to stop and listen to these breaths through her headphones. It’s a space to focus on the often forgotten act of breathing and the importance of air itself.


EC: The quality of the air we breathe, and its relationship to our very existence, underlies Lucy’s work…

LS: Nine out of ten of us are now breathing polluted air, say the World Health Organisation.

Speaking about ‘air quality’ makes it sound abstract but actually, we’re talking about what makes air breathable. Good air is air that we can breathe without any adverse effects.

EC: To most plants, the fumes from cars and buses can be damaging. But Lucy has found and mapped a species of lichen that thrives off pollution –

LS: At the moment, there’s a lot of Xanthoria parietina […] which is the golden yellow, sort of scaly lichen that we often see on roadsides –

EC: – and she has exhibited the lichen using different mediums such as a micrograph video, filmed using a microscope.

LS: So, my idea was to show the lichen on three different scales. So you have the micro and then you have the macro and then you have the human scale. So you can either regard it with the naked human eye or use the magnifying glass. And it was about, I think, troubling, to a certain extent, the human perspective because we often, sort of, assume that what we see and what we experience is the truth. But when we look more closely at something, when we use perhaps a technological perspective as well, such as the microscope, we then see that there are these microcosms that exist all around us, all the time and air pollution is affecting species in ways that we can’t imagine. It’s affecting our lungs that we, perhaps on a daily basis, cannot imagine because the scale is different to what we’re used to perceiving.

Source: ‘Filth’, Art of Now, BBC Radio 4, broadcasted 28 Jan and 1 Feb 2020.

The body topographic in emotional atmospheres


The final full moon of the 2010s. Photo: NASA.

There is a reason why the moon is particularly alluring when it appears ‘full’. The sunlight allows us to see a whole hemisphere of the lunar landscape. It is a big unveiling. This suspended state between waxing and waning prompts us to notice and reflect.

The final full moon of the 2010s inspired my following reflections on ’emotional atmospheres’ from a perspective of embodied awareness in anecdotal scenarios. The below is not intended to make a particularly academic argument; these musings are experimental, intrasubjective and to be taken lightly.

Interdisciplinary Collisions Made Public


Extract from article by Jessie Bond, published on the RCA website.

MRes RCA introduces students to practice-led interdisciplinary and experimental research processes, helping them position their research within social, historical, cultural and theoretical discourses. For Lucy Sabin, who is on the MRes RCA: Communication Design Pathway, this has resulted in a project that unifies scientific and artistic points of view.

Lucy’s thesis proposes innovative approaches to cartography that move away from land-based maps to focus instead on human relationships with the air and its variations over space and time. She calls this multidisciplinary field of knowledge ‘atmospheric cartography’, and defines atmosphere as both meteorological and emotional.

Coming to study MRes RCA, changed Lucy’s perspective, as she had previously studied an undergraduate degree in French, Spanish and Philosophy. The increased emphasis on visual communication and creativity at the RCA is something she has benefited from: ‘it’s amazing to be able to present my work, which is very philosophical, in the context of professional-level exhibitions held here at the RCA.’

. . .


Breathing and Nothingness


First published in The Polyphony, hosted by the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University.


We have a first breath and a last breath. When a newborn baby inflates her lungs for the first time, this moment signals the beginning of a life-long relationship with air. The sudden rush of air flooding into her body leaves a trace of residual air. From then on, she is engaged in regulating a flow of air between inside and outside her body. Most of the time this regulation is involuntary and unconscious.

Breathing is an intra-action in air. We humans do not live in water, nor fire, nor earth. We live in air. We are immersed in the stuff. It is our only habitable element. This simple yet profound observation was made by French philosopher Luce Irigaray. She criticised Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics which conflated solidity with existence without taking air into account (1983). Of course, air is the very precondition for our existence in the first place. There is no being-in-the-world, to quote Heidegger, without air recycling through our bodies (Dreyfus 1990). We may as well speak of being-in-air.  

The title of Irigaray’s book L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger has been translated into English as The forgetting of air […] (1999). While it is correct to translate ‘oubli’ as ‘forgetting’, the French word can also signify ‘oblivion’. While ‘forgetting’ could be described as a slippage of consciousness that happens from time to time, ‘oblivion’ denotes a state of total unawareness towards surroundings. It is a complete disconnect.

. . .



Sabin, L. (2019). Breathing and Nothingness. The Polyphony [online]. Available at: Accessed: ___.

Breathable for Whom? Air Quality in the Geopolitical Arena

Part of Pow! Interdisciplinary Collisions symposium at the Royal College of Art, 12th September 2019.

Airspaces – atmospheres – can be weathered and differentiated according to air’s ‘breathability’, which is a possible translation of Luce Irigaray’s ‘valeur respirable’ – literally ‘breathable value’ (1983, 13). Breathability refers to how healthy or not air is to breathe. Often the term ‘quality’ – as in ‘air quality’ – is used to express the same idea. Yet I argue that ‘quality’ in this context acts as a euphemism to gloss over the lived and breathed effects of air pollution. There are three geopolitical points to raise here.   

First, qualifications of the breathability of air are being made at a time when human lungs are constantly exposed to the material flows of transport, industry and other polluting activities. At the time of writing this talk, nine out of ten people worldwide are inhaling polluted air (WHO). So the inevitable ‘acceleration of urban development’ has already changed the ‘aerial and atmospheric matter within which urban inhabitants must live’, writes Human Geographer Peter Adey (2013, 299). Human activity is the main influencer of climate and environment. This is the defining condition of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. Air quality indices, therefore, tend to start from a context of accepting that most of us are always already exposed to airborne contamination. In short, inhaling polluted air is normalised.

. . .



Sabin, L. (2019). Breathable for Whom?: Air Quality in the Geopolitical Arena. Pow! Interdisciplinary Collisions. Royal College of Art, London. Thursday 11th September 2019.

Featured Image: Nazneen Ayubb-Wood.

Making research PUBLIC!

The time has arrived to finalise plans for ‘making research public’ at the end-of-year exhibition. I will display my thesis (online version in my portfolio) alongside an interactive installation:

Visitors will be able to sit on a park bench with a plaque reading ‘in memory of air’. I wish to represent the public or shared nature of atmosphere as well as the art of pausing to notice. They will listen to a continuous recording of natural breathing, to which their own rhythm of inhales and exhales will necessarily respond.

The install will appear in a room with other incredible works by Communication postgraduate students who are investigating niches like smell and painting, shadow and cinema, memes and culture.

Oh yes, and I’m presenting Atmospheric Cartography at 1.10 pm during the day-long Symposium on Thursday 12th (e-vite below). Artist Nils Norman will be there to respond to our work!!!

Please RSVP if you would like to join any of the week’s events.

MRes RCA Final Show

General exhibition 9th-12th September, all day 10-6

POW! Symposium on interdisciplinary ‘collisions’, Thursday 12th, 10-6

*Private view* on Thursday 12th, 6-8 pm

All at RCA, Kensington, SW7 2EU


E-vite by Pham Thuy Duong (Elly) in After Effects.

Atmospheric Cartography: In Print and Online

Cartography is not simply a representation of an area. It is a process informed by perspective, purpose and values. Maps, in turn, inform the perspectives, purposes values of the navigators that use them.

Maps of airspaces are increasingly important for monitoring and communicating information about air pollution and climate change. Now is an opportune moment to constructively question the ontological and aesthetic rationale of what I call ‘atmospheric cartography’…

Read the online version here.

Research Interests: breath, phenomenology, embodiment, multi-species storytelling, entanglement, atmosphere, new materialisms, sensory maps, first-person geographies, citizen-science, cultural climatology.

Feeling Planning Colloquium

Now more than ever, it feels important to ‘go public’ and see how peers receive my research before it is formalised in a written thesis. And so I attended a day workshop run by Architecture students at the RCA: ‘Feeling Planning’.

How do we feel in urban space? How can intimate sensations, emotions and feelings come into discourses around planning for urban futures? Contesting the rational, colonial and gendered history of urban planning and planning law, students from the Master of Research in Architecture at the Royal College of Art invite participation in this colloquium workshop on ‘Feeling Planning’.

Our venue: The Workshop, Lambeth.

In the morning, a multidisciplinary group of postgraduate researchers joined together to give five-minute presentations of their works-in-progress. My presentation was a guided meditation with conscious breathing, using our bodies as a tool to connect with the space in a more nuanced way.

I noticed more similarities than differences between our approaches. For example, we all used mapping to conceptually or visually demonstrate how urban spaces change across spacetimes while drawing attention to interlaced stories of inequality.

All of us at the event were curious about urban planning’s effects on identity and mental health. Nick Bell, a PhD candidate in the RCA’s School of Communication, asked us all a question, which I think revealed the theme of the day. He asked us all to think about what a salutogenic approach to planning would look like (supporting and enhancing human health), as opposed to a pathogenic approach (addressing poor health when it arises).

In the same vein, I wondered what a salutogenic approach to atmosphere would look like… 

Through group discussions following the presentations and around the tea urn, we shared references and tips. Among my copious notes, I have prompts to look up ‘mindful design’ and ‘urban design for mental health’.

Mirrors for sky-gazing. By MRes Architecture students, RCA.

In the afternoon, we went for a short walk through Old Paradise Gardens. The facilitators had fabricated these ingenious mirrors that fit around the nose, below the eyes, so that we could walk while seeing an alternative perspective: the sky between the buildings.

Aesthetically, the experience reminded me of a method for mapping atmosphere that one participant came up with in a recent workshop: to film the sky and a shadow at the same time.

After the colloquium, I visited an exhibition at the Migration Museum, serendipitously also located in The Workshop. ‘Room to Breathe’ explores intimate, domestic stories from ‘generations of new arrivals to Britain’. I emailed the curators to ask why they chose such a title; I can imagine why but I think their answer will be even more interesting.

The dictionary definition for breathing space or breathing room is: ‘a period of rest in order to increase strength or give you more time to think about what to do next’.

My chalk graffiti in Old Paradise Gardens. Part of Feeling Planning.

Archives of Curiosity: An Anthology

This article was commissioned for the RCA’s website.

The word ‘archive’ may conjure up images of yellowing documents collecting dust or avenues of shelves and filing cabinets. While many archives do take this rather tame shape and form, others defy the stereotype. 

Archives of Curiosity is a book which explores alternative ways of recording information and subverts common assumptions around the practice. Written by a collective of nine students at the Royal College of Art, the anthology introduces the reader to archives of smell, typography, digitised media, colour hues, plant specimens, and more.

Investigating the archive as a communication tool between the past and the present, Janaina Baxevanicreated ‘smellscapes’ at the book launch with the help of the Osmothèque, an inventory of scents located just outside of Paris. She replicated aromas evocative of Old Masters’ paintings to bring the artworks to life.

Reflecting on the past through an ecological framework, contributor Lucy Sabin investigated how air pollution has changed in the UK since the 1950s. She visited the Natural History Museum’s lichen collection to trace the historic distribution of records for pollution-sensitive species,  catalysing a discussion about the human-made composition of the air we breathe. Ha Young Cho (Stephen) also looked at trajectories of change by examining yearly editions of the New York Times, developing a method to show how the intensity of advertising within the print media has increased over the past century.

In the present, the act of archiving communicates which cultural artefacts, sources and informants are worth saving. The team of authors behind Archives of Curiosity continually ask: whose voices are prevalent in this history-making collection and whose are left out? Barry Gross dedicated his chapter to cataloguing the media in his own home – books, DVDs, artworks etc. His contribution personalises the concept of archives, implicitly questioning the validity of ‘official’ sources of information.

The editing of history and heritage through archiving is a serious concern throughout the publication, particularly prevalent in Pham Thuy Duong’s (Elly) chapter about outlawed texts in the Republic of Singapore: the ‘Banned Books’ archive. Despite being a hypothetical archive born of the author’s imagination, the presence/absence of the Banned Books speaks volumes about the values of Singaporean governance. In a similar spirit of imaginative resistance, Shengwei Chen was inspired by non-alphabetic scripts in Reading University’s Department of Typography; the scripts informed his designs for versions of Chinese characters that are undetectable by censorship computer programmes. Shengwei was able to send ‘sensitive characters’ – such as political words and phrases – to a friend during a research trip in the People’s Republic of China.

From verbal censorship to racial bias, Andrea C Simmons, used the Royal College’s own Colour Reference Library in order to uncover spectrums of skin colour that are underrepresented in the fashion industry, creating an interactive installation at the book launch which enabled viewers to discover their Pantone skin colour.

The truths of ordinary people are often not prioritised in the cultivation of archives, yet the internet – the archive of today – is said to democratise and distribute how information is stored. Marie Dalle’s chapter delves into an online archive of internet memes, recognising Know Your Meme as an important resource for mapping contemporary leftist politics. Marie traces recurrent visual codes in socialist sub-cultures with the help of the grass-roots archive.

The internet is becoming better and better at answering our every question. So it seems valid to ask: are archives becoming obsolete? Most internet searches skim the surface and offer us a two-dimensional answer while our behaviour-predicting data is harvested, whereas archives offer unique possibilities to learn from past experiences and shine a light on choices which determine our possible futures.

Transformation Symposium @RCA


Upcoming Symposium

Thursday 4th July
Senior Common Room
Royal College of Art
Kensington Gore
London, SW7 2EU

The one-day symposium, “Transformation”, investigates three themes: ‘Transforming Cities and Society’, ‘Transforming Creativity and Practice’, and ‘Transforming Mobility and Technology’.

It is useful to see my project in the context of a symposium, or any curated event with other researchers. Context and connections become apparent beyond my little bubble. Next week I am going to a ‘Feeling Planning’ workshop run by architecture students at the RCA. The theme is how we feel in urban space.

Workshop: Atmosphere Mapping


After exploring several different workshops and public engagement formats, I have identified this optimal approach to carry forward. Atmosphere Mapping is an ideation workshop which aims to develop alternative processes for engaging with fluctuations in our airy environs over space and time. The half-day session comprises three parts: a lecture, prototyping, and a presentation/discussion. 

The lecture provides a critical understanding of atmosphere. The latter is of course meteorological, constantly fluctuating with material flows influenced by human activity indistinguishable from the weather patterns of a changing climate. It is also aesthetic and emotionally-charged. As our medium for living, atmosphere is an opportunity for engineering cleanliness and protection as well as socioeconomic inequity and uninhabitable spacetimes.

In the lecture, I showcase existing techniques for sensing and recording atmosphere, where sciences and arts intermingle. An example from my own practice of mapping atmosphere is biomonitoring with lichens. I emphasise that cartography is about making choices of what to represent and how; it is, therefore, a ‘world-making’ project of political significance.

After the lecture, participants have a set amount of time, usually 90 minutes, to ideate and prototype their own process of mapping an aspect of the atmosphere they inhabit which is significant to them. So far, I have completed the workshop with MA Sustainable Design students at Brighton University and with fellow MRes Communication Design students.


Ideation taking place. Atmosphere Mapping at the RCA.

Beyond art and design courses, I can envisage adapted versions of the workshop taking place in shared spaces such as offices, schools, and neighbourhoods. The main benefit of the Atmosphere Mapping, in terms of participant experience and research value, is the opportunity and creative means to articulate ambient conditions which are otherwise taken for granted, despite negative effects on wellbeing. A straightforward example is noise pollution, but there are countless others.

Participants at Brighton University worked in groups to present ways of sensing and recording noise pollution’s effect on stress levels (there was a building site nearby). They also established a ‘creative climate’ index based on criteria for optimum studio conditions. At the RCA, participants worked individually and came up with more introspective methods, such as simultaneously filming the sky and a shadow to show the correlation in a rather poetic way (see video above).

After both workshops a sense of calm was remarked upon. The atmosphere reminded me of teaching yoga, when practitioners experience an afterglow following sustained conscious breathing.

Workshop: Lungs and Landscapes

Lungs and Landscapes was the least structured workshop I have taught so far, which seems fitting when your subject of study is something so elusive and literally airy as atmosphere.

What happened this morning can be described as a walking and breathing workshop with the RCA’s Expedition Society. I was asked to collaborate with the Society for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Our focus on atmosphere attuned us to Prana – that’s universal shared energy in yogic philosophy. We acknowledged that breathing isn’t just a human activity; parks themselves are sometimes described as the ‘lungs’ of a city.

For a little while, we sat to breathe consciously together in a dappled glade, inhaling the oxygen generated by the giant trees… I think that this interlude of pranayama (control/extension of life force) heightened our responsiveness to atmospheric connections.

Here are some of my memories:

  • small seeds floating in the air
  • bright colours accentuated by clear skies
  • sound of willow leaves in the air like swishy wind chimes
  • ripples across a pond where air breaks and texturises the surface of water
  • the glare of the sun on one of the first ‘hot’ days of the year
  • feeling the relative coolness of the shade on my bare arms



Contemplating a cloud.

Book Launch: Archives of Curiosity

Archives of Curiosity is a book written by researchers in the School of Communication (myself included) who have conducted field research in an archive.

My chapter is about biosensing atmosphere with lichen as a method for material engagement with atmospheric pollution, and how it changes over time. Specifically, I embarked on field research in the Natural History Museum’s herbarium, to see how ecosystems have responded to changes in atmospheres across the UK since the Clean Air Act in 1956. I was lucky to interview a Botanist who has worked at the Museum for the last half-century.


Our proud team of writers.

Photos: The talented Thuy Duong Pham (Elly).

Open Windows on Rainy Days: Impromptu Blog

I drifted in and out of sleep since 5 am. For some reason, I was joyous when I realised that the cause of my disturbed slumber was the sound of rain: pattering on the scaffolding and balcony surrounding our first-floor apartment, occasionally slooshing free from a gutter. When I peered through the teary windows into our courtyard, steam rose up from the downstairs inhabitants’ shower. After so many warm Spring days, I felt relieved and revived by the return of the rain.

Yesterday, I read an essay about ‘airing practices’, specifically ‘air management’ in the domestic environment*. It’s less dry than it sounds. The researcher interviewed a handful of Danish women. These interviewees described their routines and tacit knowledge about when to air their homes by opening a window, allowing a breeze to wander through.

I was most interested in the interviewees’ accounts of ‘being in the moment’, prompted by opening the window. Suddenly, after a time of being insulated, the window-opener receives a flavour of the weather outside – the sounds, the smells, the temperatures, the humidity… the ‘freshness’.

This morning I consciously opened windows in my bedroom, kitchen, and living room – where I am writing now. It seemed counter-intuitive to invite the outside in on the first morning of rain. That was until I did it.

Raindrops softly drum the wooden scaffolding boards outside, with the occasional ‘ting’ of impacted metal. Each globule travels at terminal velocity, until it reaches the ground, beginning (again) a subterranean journey back to the sea at the end of our road. Pure prana.

Observing the activity and transience of the weather outside reminds me of a passage in a small, dark book about happiness, written by a Japanese Philosopher a few decades ago. Instinct prompted me to borrow a copy from the library at Durham. Of course, now I cannot find this gem amongst all the self-help books which pop up in my Google search. But I do remember reading about the human ecstasy of watching raindrops fall onto a mahogany terrace while sipping steamy tea.

*Hauge, B. (2013). The air from outside: Getting to know the world through air practices. Journal of Material Culture, 18(2), 171-187.

Bonus: a poem for a rainy day.


Workshop: Lungs and Maps


Mapping atmosphere with MA Sustainable Design students, Brighton University.

What did we do?

In this ideation workshop, MA Sustainable Design students had a go at creating their own atmosphere maps.

The session began with a lecture on mapping and atmosphere. I introduced a critical approach to the research topics

Regarding atmosphere, the lecture covered theories of meteorology, Ingold’s weather-world, social inequality, engineered atmosphere, Sloterdijk’s atmoterrorism, etc.

Regarding mapping, we discussed the map as a 100% designed artefact that articulates a relationship to a spacetime from a particular point of view. Cartography is therefore a worlding project and the skills of mapping can be used by inhabitants of a space to shift the mainstream narrative. I emphasised that their approaches should be innovative and leave land-based maps behind, to paraphrase Tim Choy.


Discussing initial ideas to mapping atmosphere before we ventured out.

What did we learn?

The students had 90 minutes to prototype a mapping process that engaged with atmosphere. They presented their process at the end of the session and opened up to questions.

The results revealed insights that were unique to the inhabitants of the space. One group focussed on noise pollution emanating from the nearby building site, linking the qualities of sounds to different emotional states. The other group created their own Atmosphere Pollution Index, developing criteria for a ‘creative climate’ and ranking their own design studio atmospheres.

There was a magic moment when we were listening to the audio recordings collected by the building site: when the recorder was placed in the grass, the drilling and hammering all faded away. It was a literal grass-roots approach to mapping!


The outdoor context of the workshop.

Related paper:

Howe, C. and Boyer, D. (2016). Aeolian Extractivism and Community Wind in Southern Mexico. Public Culture, 28(2 79): 215-235.

Breathing Beings: Research Poster & Moodboard

My research project is continually evolving, so this poster and moodboard already feel like a snapshot from the past! I am preparing visuals to convey the essence of my thesis at an upcoming book launch. Archives of Curiosity is our new anthology with chapters written by postgrad students who have conducted research in an ‘alternative’ archive (etym = ‘place where records are kept’). I visited the Natural History Museum’s herbarium in order to trace historic distributions of atmosphere-sensitive lichens and thereby perceive – via interspecies sensing – how atmosphere (and ecosystems) are constantly fluctuating due to human polluting activities.