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Notes on respiration

15 July 2021

Teodora Jeremić

Breath underwater

Last night I had a strange dream, although not the first one of this kind during the last year and a half. Living in the time of pandemic means living in the world of altered reality where the only constant is change, where time and space are shifting and diverging, habits are disappearing and being replaced faster than we ever thought possible. With that amount of instability, insecurity, doubtfulness in our conscious lives, one of the first things that experienced a sudden change was our subconscious, and consequently our sleep. Many suffered pandemic-induced insomnia, as a by-product of a state where we tend to stay awake as long as possible or not be able to fall asleep at all, due to irrational fear that sleeping might mean losing an important piece in the flow of information, which was difficult to follow anyway. Luckily, I belonged in the second group, the one with deep sleepers whose regular sleeping hours are not disturbed even by looming apocalypse, although the quality of my sleep was indeed changed to some extent by extremely vivid dreams imbued with modified fragments of the new reality.

Last night, I dreamt that the world was coming to an end in a rather peculiar way. In the light of impending doom whole humanity was supposed to move and settle underwater. Beneath seas, lakes and oceans new cities were sprouting. Along the coral reefs new settlements were established, new kinships were made, new way of life was flourishing. Our nonhuman-human relationships were thriving in this new space of confinement and safety, blurring the line between one world and another, smudging the differences between guests and habitants. The ones who were living under water for a longer time even physically adapted to the new circumstances and appropriated some of the characteristics of sea world creatures. It could be said that a new hybrid species were on the way. In my dream, I was still completely human, just surprisingly light. I was capable of smoothly moving around, sliding through water, walking and swimming, and I was doing all of that with an utter freedom, completely relieved from earthly worries, when a giant, shimmering but quite ordinary looking, and pretty impolite dentex got into my way and reminded me that I don’t know how to breath “down here”. Suddenly, I realized that he must be right, because I really didn’t have any branchiae, and all of a sudden I couldn’t take a breath.

I am breathing fire and a bit too busy to help*

As I’m writing this, I can’t be sure if things would have been different, even if we didn’t have the year of pandemic behind us. Maybe it would have been just the same either way. But I believe that perhaps my continual presence in the moment and being mostly in the company of myself (since I obviously didn’t have anywhere else to be and anyone to be with except occasional nostalgic episodes of daydreamy ping-pongsbetween past and future) was pretty much pandemic-specific and has provided me a great insight of learning how to listen to my body. I didn’t become a guru, or mastered meditation which I hoped to, but I gained some insight of how my body functions and what it needs, and during the last year, air and breathing became very relevant fields of exploration for me.

Like many others I was looking for my personal haven, different ways of keeping my sanity under control and my optimism high as well as options for practicing self-care, and I was privileged enough to be able to do so. Even in the world where pandemic has begun to break down engrained divisions between collective care and self-care, not everyone yet had the possibilities to practice it, but the word “care” did become probably the most used (and borderline exploited) term. The notion of “care” got its high position in almost every circle, with cultural practitioners and institutions particularly focused on discussing ways to offer better care. The only difference is that there were those who are calling for care and awareness for a long time, considering it as the primary tool for fighting against oppression and injustice, and the others who just now recognized (or were made to recognize?) the need for care. Despite some questionable motives, the fact that we needed to start taking care and practice healing many years ago remains crucial, so I’m glad we finally did. No matter the circumstances.

Speaking about self-care is impossible without at least mentioning breathing as it is being considered a number one remedy for relaxation, stress management, calming down, anxiety relief and everything else we need in this day and age, and in the light of pandemic I gave a try to mindful breathing. My technique of conducting it is still not praiseworthy but it helped me a lot in understanding that thinking respiration, being aware of it, living according to it, actually represents a synonym for the changes we need. Slowing down, paying attention, listening carefully, interchange.

We got too scattered, too busy, too repressed by the ideas of greater goals, usefulness, purposefulness and productivity, that it was needed to find our way to the “pause” button for the whole system and enough strength to push it without fear of the potential failure. When we did, when the button was pushed to the end, and as Latour said, we slowed down the system we were told it was impossible to stop, we all got newly conquered spaces for breathing. In that new space, what was needed was to make a proper inhale and exhale, and begin the process of unlearning everything we know, especially regarding this constantly present distress over productivity. To acknowledge that we cannot be productive or creative all the time and that we are not less worthy because of it. But, along with it another question was imposed. Where do we go after the break? What do we do next? Where does that new inhale-exhale dynamic bring us to?

Breath me in, breath me out

Breathing is the process of moving air through the body, facilitating gas exchange with the internal environment, mostly to flush out carbon dioxide and bring in oxygen; to dismiss detrimental and toxic, and take and consume what is beneficial and vital for us. That process is, besides being substantial for living creatures, also a good reminder that already in the very basic concept of life, lies the natural predisposition of the humankind to not only survive, but also distinguish right from wrong, and get rid of the latter, even through the most basic needs.

That being said, even though breathing does have some healing and soothing effects, in the face of air pollution and climate change caused by extractive capitalism, when it’s getting harder and harder to breath not just on ecological but also political level, it is difficult to pretend air is not also the territory of constant struggle. As according to Mbembe, it is certain that the air we breathe will become more and more full of dust, toxic gases, substances and waste, particles and granulations, in short, all kinds of emanation in the time that is yet to come, but it is also even more sure that asphyxiation that is brought to us, comes in many forms making “breathlessness” the permanent contemporary condition.

“There is no air in megalopolises which are suffocating in pollution, in precarious working conditions which exploit workers, in the ubiquitous fear of violence, war, aggression” [1]. Breath is precious source of life, and in the moment in which Berardi`s “breathlessness” is more present than ever, the question of respiration becomes not only the question imposed on an individual, but rather deeply collective, asking what brings us all to the state of being deprived of air and how do we confront it?

Winter 2020/21, Belgrade was one of the most polluted cities in the world, even first place holder on that top chart for some time. One of the rare situations when No 1 status is not to be bragged about. After months and months of the government ignoring the problem and bouncing the questions from ministry to ministry, on the 10th of April several thousand people decided to go out on the streets, and protest in front of the Serbian parliament against the lack of government action to prevent water, land and air pollution by industries. The protest was dubbed the “Ecological Uprising”, it was organized by environmental activists and protestors demanding the introduction of a moratorium on the construction of small hydroelectric power plants, the suspension of deforestation in Serbia, as well as a more intensive afforestation. They called for an end to the misuse of money for ecology, for authorities to stop ignoring environmental impact studies, such as the construction of mini-hydropower plants on the environment, and for citizens to be better informed about environmental issues.

Borjan Grujić [translation: knowledge and talent that’s fine, but what about the desire for change?]

The Defend the Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina (Odbranimo reke Stare planine – ORSP) movement was the main protest organizer, but the gathering was supported by many organizations and associations from all over Serbia, a total of 45, including Pravo na vodu, Eko straža, Građanski preokret, Tvrđava, Trash Hero Serbia. Activists from region, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, joined the protest as well, saying that everyone in the region shares the same concerns and problems, or as Lejla Kusturica from the Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina put it well: “we are here today with you because we share the same problems: unjust, imperious governments, total neglect of local communities for the benefit of some powerful individuals” [2]. Representatives of 45 organizations agreed on dozens of demands including implementation of the constitution and environmental protection law, information and education on environmental protection at all levels, suspension of construction and revision of harmful SHPPs project, participation of citizens in environmental issues etc.

“Uprising” happened as an answer to years and years of unfair dealing and wrong ruling when it comes to nature. Ecological problems in the region differ from “micro” (local) to “macro” (regional) but based on the same exploiting principles of neo-liberal capitalism that people around the world are struggling with, which at the end it all come to: extraction of common goods, unfair ruling and non-transparent processes behind it, exploitation of nature and destroying nature ecosystem. Very same principle is recognizable both in “small scale” project such as one of many intentions of investors like “Avala Studios” (now 70% held by Cezch company “Sebre”, 30 % Chinese company “Filmax Hong Kong”) to cut 40 hectares of forest and greenery in Košutnjak in Belgrade in order to build residential complex, or equally careless larger scale projects, such as Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto that is examining the possibility to start mining jadarite, a lithium and boron mineral unique to western Serbia, around the river Jadar. If Rio Tinto starts to extract lithium, arsenic will be deposited in the tailings and the entire area will be unfit for agriculture, threatening people’s health, as well as 140 species with extinction. Those are just some of many examples, followed by constant growth of the small hydropower plants in Western Balkan. From the middle of the 2000s onwards, some of the Western Balkans’ countries – notably Albania, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina – started issuing concessions for small hydropower plants. “The EU had set targets in 1997 for the share of renewable energy by 2010, so it was clear there was going to be increased interest by investors in this sector in the future and the reason why the Western Balkans’ targets seem quite high compared to the overall EU target of 20 per cent is that the Balkan countries had quite high levels of renewable energy to start with” [3]. Overall goal of the renewable energy targets to help Europe move away from a fossil-fuel based energy system seems like positive intention, but what is problematic is that indeed the EU does allow some potentially harmful forms of renewable energy to be incentivised as well as that besides contributing to environmental damage, initiatives for hydropower in the Western Balkans are often criticized for benefiting wealthy business for people who are close to or part of region’s governments. In Serbia for example, companies connected to Nikola Petrović, the best man (kum) of President Aleksandar Vučić, are among the top beneficiaries of hydropower support [4].

Borjan Grujić [translation faster, stronger, better!* /slow, strong, good]
*This is the political slogan of Serbian president used during the election campaign and afterwards

Reading the reports and thinking from perspective of someone who is not part of European Union, but whose resources are being exploited for the sake of better and more sustainable life in EU, it is impossible not to think about the work “Naked Freedom” by Marina Gržinić and the parallels and remarks Kwame Nimako made on the attitude Western Europe has towards Africa and Eastern Europe. At the same time, it is very easy to become aware that the other side of “exploitation” coin, belongs to substantially self-exploitative practices that favour particular private interests of few who are not really familiar with the word “common”, no matter the price.

With all of this in mind, from the position of government, “Ecological uprising” was of course read as an act of opposition (a typical “if you are not with me you are against me” kind of rhetoric) and Prime minister in usual manner minimized the problem by responding as “This topic shows jobs and pensions are no longer a priority in Serbia because when you start dealing with the environment, you are dealing with the problems of the first world” [5]. In well-practiced and masterly spinning, it is interesting how fast we came from “we are fighting for basic living conditions (plus you are exploiting our common goods)” to “you are just being too spoiled and living too good when you start to protest about this”. It is even more interesting that anyone who knows average salary in Serbia [6] would even dare to make such remark and comparison between “first world” and the world we are living in, whichever number it is, but concept of “good life” is a changing context I guess, especially when you are misusing information. Still, the most interesting part is how the exact same type of rhetoric is being used by every contemporary autocrat, new type of “democratic” parents of nations, self-proclaimed saviors of the people. Those who exploited crises so many times and in so many ways that the burst of protests and uprisings during this and last year was a common thread that connected many countries, proving that people all over the world are tired of being repressed and used, but also boiling with an accumulated discontent, ready to burst. Along with protests against rampant corruption in Bulgaria, the ones against president Maduro in Venezuela, or tens of thousands of protesters who took the streets in Sudanese cities despite a lockdown to demand a transition towards democracy, global rise of anti-lockdown (actually anti-government) protests was noticeable. There was a similar perception in many countries that political leaders were misusing restrictions for political purposes. Leaders of countries such as Bolivia, Israel, Serbia, Uganda, Brazil shared the irresponsible, inadequate approach to the pandemic, laughing it off at the beginning, but is also worth mentioning how similar is their attitude of minimizing the significance of planetary problems, environmental crisis and climate change, manipulating the information, misusing the trust of the people. Serbia is not any exception to that, with last year and this year protests as a proof.

Slavica Obradović, digital art

Still, seeing so many people in the street this time felt much different than standing on the same pavement in front of the building of Parliament last year. We have chanted, we have marched, we have asked for answers to the most urgent question for this and next and any generation that comes after. We have expressed worries, ideas, suggestions, warnings, hopes, desires. We were together, peaceful, united and powerful. Unlike the protest in July 2020. “Ecological Uprising” didn’t turn to violent, and was not even necessarily just of political opponents as much as comrades in the fight for commons: common sense, common goods, and common future, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity, and that gave me hope. A sense of mutual solidarity and honest concern that was prevailing. Standing there, in the midst of banners reading “Cut corruption and crime, not forests!” or “Water is life” and “Plant a tree!”, I was holding my borrowed protest sign saying “In rivers we trust!”, which I obtained after losing mine somewhere in the crowd. I was surrounded by different profiles of people, people from different cities and villages, with different backgrounds and socio-economic conditions, little children, old people, students, parents, friends, well known public personalities. It felt very empowering and like everyone is being aware that the reason for being there is much bigger than them. Much bigger than this government, or next, or previous. It resonated with what Zdenka Badovinac beautifully wrote that “the lesson of Covid for the entire world, and not just for our leaders, is that the interests of capital have interfered too greatly with nature.” [7] and that tampering with nature was the final straw in an endless sequence of exploitation which is not to be tolerated anymore. Because the story of planet and nature exploitation goes hand in hand with every other tale of exploitation we are familiar with.

Slavica Obradović, digital art

And it is not just about capital, but also sexism, racism, classism, speciesism, androcentrism, any other systems of oppression we could possibly remember that reinforce each other and lead to the degradation of life and the destruction of nature. It is constant, ever-lasting, tenacious tendency to put all oppressed groups (women, colonized people, marginalized communities) on an equal level to nature, abusively labeled “as part of nature”, meaning something outside the sphere of reason and history. There is some kind of inherent or even structural connection between the patriarchal domination of women (and, in the view of some theorists, other socially oppressed groups) and the ecologically destructive exploitation of the earth, and something predominantly masculin in emphasizing that “human” and “nature” are separate categories.

Patriarchal exploitation of female bodies, and the capitalist exploitation of workers and planetary resources are rooted in the very same worldview where is important and possible to own things, and in which all that is not human and is not male is devalued. Going back to Franco “Bifo” Berardi, and his megalopolises suffocating in pollution, as well as workers in precarious working conditions and exploitation, or women fighting the hundred-headed beast of inequality treatment, his “breathlessness” parallel works very well as a reminder for how many different oppression we might feel in our contemporary lives, and how “being left breathless” is not always as romantic as it might seem. It is not new that we are suffocating in the unjust, exploitation, inequality for a long time and it is a text written back in 1974. when Francoise d’Eaubonne called upon feminists to wed their cause to that of the environment and lead the way into a post-patriarchal, genuinely ‘humanist’ and ecologically sustainable future [8], which is something to be reconsidered.

Therefore, having an “Ecological Uprising” meant something more than just having a protest. It was not an ecological protest, even though it was the biggest one so far, nor just a political one, but rather an outburst of pure activism that is offering a way to “post-patriarchal” society, through the means of resistance and renovation, linking struggles against environmental degradation with the endeavour to overcome social domination, on all the basis. Street and sidewalks in front of the Serbian Parliament turned to meeting space where the opposites met. People from the villages around Stara Planina, activists from different cities across Serbia and region, university professors, students, pensioners, families with children. The face of the protest was not the face of political opposition and some of its representatives we already know, nor the face of the foreign management as it was of course implied, but the simple and beautiful face of common people, standing for their cause.

Thus, rather than being just another protest, “Ecological Uprising” seemed more like witnessing the genesis of new collective body that is heterogenous, peaceful but determined, sharing the values of equality, celebrating the values of care and well-being, and will for dismantling systems and power structures based on domination and exploitation.

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breath and to love you

Given that everything evaporates and disappears in the air, and that we all breathe it at the same time, it is our most personal piece of space, but in the same time the space in which we all meet. As Lisa Blackman argues: “Instead of existence in which we are connected but autonomous subjects, we actually coexist in a common ecology” (Blackman, 2010). Or as Irigaray writes “I can breathe in my own way, but the air will never simply be mine” [9]. Breathing unites us with the others, at the same time that it underlines our individuality, and the protest reminded me of that. The one who breathes is also breathed upon, the one who takes and consumes is also giving back, and in that very act of sharing breath, lies the very essence of human conviviality. It is a mutual “space” which we inhabit, exchange, in which we meet and live in a common system where every human exists in comparison with the other, and where the idea of “commoning” is closer than anywhere.

Borjan Grujić [translation regular state of emergency]

Every riot brings a possibility for new after-life. After dismantling the old, new is to be established and the more I was interested in respiration the more I got the feeling that it could explain the contemporary chaos and offer useful methods and system. Thinking about respiration I couldn’t stop thinking about Deleuze and Guattari rhizome concept. Instead of tree structure that became the dominant ontological model in Western thought, that reinforces notions of centrality of authority, state control, and dominance the rhizome has no unique source from which all development occurs (strangely enough, it looks very similar to the respiratory system). The rhizome is both heterogeneous and multiplicitous. It can be entered from many different points, all of which connect to each other. The rhizome does not have a beginning, an end, or an exact center, it is based on sharing and equality, the same way air is.

Thinking about it also reminded me how air was unfairly ignored and forgotten and has received far less attention in the political environmental literature than its sister element water. Still, they function according to a similar principle of connection, non-recognition of boundaries, mobility, and according to the deeply feminist principle of circularity. If there are elements we should listen to while constructing the new post-pandemic systems they’re those two. Just as water, air and respiration reveal key aspects of permeability, relativity, vulnerability and indomitability, which speak of the feminist re-examination of the body as completely open, unstable, changeable, but also recognizing and valuing the same in the social system, and can extend a shared sense of place and a sense of shared responsibility for collective commons or worlds. As Luce Irigraray writes, air is mediator of all perceptions, knowledge, thoughts, language, imagination, action, and as such, respiration is the practice that connects us. It is the principle of exchange, which Irigaray sees as instinctively feminist, since breathing is in its essence, a feminist rearrangement of the procedural and relational course of life. It is a practice of care, nurture, togetherness.

And of course, the focused or any other type of breathing won’t ultimately save us from the crunching capitalism but something else might- learning how to live as air breathing bodies. It made me think of Sarah Ahmed’s text how self-care can be an act of political warfare. “And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters … For those who have to insist they matter to matter: self-care is warfare. [10]

Borjan Grujić

On my way back home from the protest that was fighting for the clean air understood in all beautiful meanings it could possibly have, I was walking to the rhythm of my own breathing, thinking my yoga instructor would be very proud of this. It felt so natural, in sync, and empowering. It sounded like a beat of change. An inhale of solidarity. An exhale of resistance. And just like that it occurred to me that the one of the main characteristics of breath is also that it can be held, but just for a short time. We can put up with a lot of it, but hopefully, not for too long.

Last year rumbled through, followed by great amplitudes in almost every part of our lives while simultaneouslyfeeling like nothing happened. But in the meanwhile, something did. We decided to breath out, to let the stiffness in our lungs and bellies, exhale the stale air and at least try to start shaping new ecosystems. Resistance is building everywhere, and not just against one man, in one country, against one ideology, one -ism, but rather against all the set of values that dominated way too long. A new kind of collective body, isbeing shaped. The one that doesn’t recognize borders, or nations, or leaders, and its only being formed by mutual criticality towards present conditions of living and collective willingness to react.

The other day I had a short zoom talk with Marko Gutić Mižimakov and Karen Nhea Nielsen, and while writing this I simply cannot help but constantly think about their work “Thank You for Being Here with Me” and repeat it in my mind like some kind of mantra. 

“when I say we, I am counting you in

when I say we, I am talking about you too and also you

when I say we, I am speaking from this space

We were one and more than one before”.

Slavica Obradović, lean on

Teodora Jeremić is an art historian, freelance curator, and editor based in Belgrade.

[1] Franco Bifo Berardi, Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, Semiotext(e), pg 15, 2018
[3] “Western Balkans hydropower: Who pays, who profits?”, September 2019, pg 10.
[4] “Western Balkans hydropower: Who pays, who profits?”, September 2019, pg 5.
[5] Prime minister Ana Brnabić was guest on RTS channel where she spoke about “Ecological Uprising”,
[6] According to this year report average salary is around 500 euros. Still, being average it is to be noted that there is a big stratification, where salaries are larger in Belgrade, and the reality of the citizens in most other cities is that people are getting by with 300 euros a month.
[7] Zdenka Badovinac, “Editorial: The Collective Body”,, Journal #119, June 2021
[8] Kate Rigby, “Women and Nature Revisited: Ecofeminist Reconfigurations of an Old Association”, January 2018.
[9] Luce Irigaray, “From The Forgetting of Air to To Be two”, in Nancy Holland; Patricia Huntington. Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001, 209.
[10] Sarah Ahmed, “Selfcare as Warfare,” Feminist Killjoys,
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