Last Breath: exploration and art practice as research

by thomasdekeyser

In the previous post I mentioned a project I have been working on that I want to delve into a bit further here (this was also posted on Royal Holloway’s Landscape Surgery blog). Over the last months I initiated my first two ‘real’ academic adventures: a participation in UCL Urban Labs’ Cities Methodologies exhibition (showcasing innovative means of investigating the urban) and in the Reconfiguring Ruins research project (an AHRC-funded platform bringing together museums, academics and artists to reconsider our current understandings of material and immaterial ruins and the process of ruination). Apart from the disastrous technological breakdown minutes before the exhibition’s opening night (no surprises there), it proved to be an exciting experience to present a project I have been working on intensely throughout 2013 and 2014, where the ‘traditional’ boundaries of the researcher were questioned and blurred into spheres of curation, art practice and film making.

Last Breath

Last Breath is a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions that travelled from London to Phnom Penh and Melbourne in search of architecture soon-to-disappear. The identified condemned spaces were opened up to artists through an invitation to contribute a piece of work. This was done on the understanding that their work would not outlast the lifespan of the building. The buildings, then full of interventions, were made public, with the organisers (myself) offering tours. The selected construction, the performing artists and their work were audio-visually captured and wrapped up in 2-minute videos (memento mori) that were shared online and contained invitations for others to take part in future manifestations of Last Breath. At its core, the series is a practice-led study into the potentiality of extending the immaterial lifespan (urban memory) of inherently temporary space through affective, ephemeral material interventions. Perhaps unsurprisingly however, the project did not start of with specific, detailed research intentions in mind; rather these grew with every extra manifestation that took place. As probably the case with all forms of research, the more I started digging (i.e. searching for locations, exploring, organising the events, curating, film making) the more questions emerged beyond the topic of urban memory: what does a non-Western understanding of ruination and demolition look like? Can we consider architectural dematerialisation as, counter to current conceptualisations of (human-induced) ruination, potentially productive of matter and non-human life? What credible role can mediation and representation play in processes of material disintegration? How to ‘reproduce’ affective events? Of course, the list went on beyond the scope of any singular research project.

The sort of process I went through and the kinds of output I created are unlikely to find a place in an official research (funding and publishing) context. However, I believe certain ways of thinking and ‘doing research’ that were accomplished are equally applicable in more official spheres and might have their own specific benefits. First, acknowledging and putting forward the geographer not merely as a distant bystander, but as an active and creative producer of space, appears productive in the ways it prioritises practice-based knowledge. Automatically, in forcing the researcher to take on different roles and engaging with the topic differently (often awkwardly in the beginning), new kinds of knowledge are achieved. Second, and similar in terms of effect, actively engaging with non-academics in the research process (in this case local established and non-established contemporary artists) offered the opportunity to gain alternative insights from differently-schooled, differently-minded individuals. Their perspectives are still too infrequently captured in academic papers/books. Third, knowing that I was producing work that would resonate primarily with non-academic fields (local visitors, news papers, magazines, blogs) forced me to prioritise the notion of relevance over theoretical complexity. I had to be able to explain what I was doing, why I was doing it and what I was learning from it in a limited amount of (accessible) words. Although this was limiting at some points, it allowed me to make sure throughout the entire the process that I was not getting lost too frequently in unnecessary complexity (although I did of course at moments) without returning to lived relevance.

If anyone is interested in getting actively involved in any of the next iterations or is interested in discussing any of the questions the project put forward, please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime, see other episodes here to get a better, more in-depth feel for the project:, or email me: