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[Socially-engaged Project] Hidden Keileon, Out of Breath (2022)

Paradoxical Gasp.JPG

Hidden Keileon,Paradoxical Gasp, 2022, experimental events at the Crypt Gallery, London.

In the air we couldn't breathe, we found each other.


Out of Breath is a socially-engaged art project addressing the use of tear gas by repressive regimes as a disproportionate and excessive anti-protesting measure, which initiates intercultural conversations and deals with the traumatic legacy of tear gas exposure around the world. Hidden Keileon creates a sensory experience for the audience to explore the impact of tear gas and how air is used as a form of political control. This project highlights our ongoing concerns about the physical and psychological conditions of individuals in the face of socio-political instabilities in today’s society.


Working closely with researchers, archivists, health practitioners, and art therapists, this project provides a safe and caring space for people to share their stories about tear gas, how tear gas has been used and its impact on their mental and physical health via research, interviews, workshops and public discussions. Through a collaborative approach and socially engaged creative process, ‘Out of Breath’ voices multicultural solidarity for communities which are frequently ignored, silenced, or neglected due to the political tool of oppression. This project includes public engagement workshops, experimental events with immersive performances, and an interactive exhibition of collapsible installations accompanying a publication and a documentary film. It shows how tear gas, which is designed to disperse crowds of people, has instead united us.


New Migrant Community Stories


In recent years, the global majority population has been growing significantly in the UK, owing to recent waves of migration and political repressions in their home countries. Many, if not all, of these new migrants suffer from the impacts of tear gas exposure in the face of social injustice and inequality from the Mexico–United States border crisis, the Chilean protests to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the democratic social movements in Hong Kong.


What many are unaware of is that the UK is a major global exporter and producer of tear gas to other countries, though due to a cloudy export system, nobody knows the true value of these export deals.[1] The UK does not grant licences to sell tear gas to certain countries ‘if there is a clear risk the items might be used for internal repression’, however, a number of sales licences have been approved following known reports of tear gas used for just that. Tear gas and its traumatic legacy play a crucial role in the politics of oppression, domination and violence. These stories carried into the UK by these newly formed communities of diaspora groups lack the attention that they deserve.


Decolonising Trauma


According to colonial archives, including the Himsworth papers (1954-1962) from Wellcome Collection, tear gas has been used as a so-called ‘non-lethal weapon’ by the authorities. Tear gas has been typically used by repressive regimes to distort the narrative to ensure media coverage portrays peaceful protests devolving into riots, leading to a decline in public support for the protestors. Another finding is that the police believe footage of live ammunition and direct violence towards women, such as shooting rubber bullets as another non-lethal option, significantly damages their image, therefore tear gas is the preferred anti-protest tool.


Arendt (1956) describes the structure of authority as being like an onion because it has multiple layers of bureaucracy that are ignorant about what the other layers are doing. The oppressor sits in the middle of the onion, with ultimate control.[2] Interestingly, the exposure to tear gas has been described by many as a thousand onions being chopped in front of their faces all at the same time. An onion is a common cooking ingredient which is known to aid our immune system, but also causes us pain and irritates our eyes as we prepare it. Despite the physical effects of tear gas exposure believed to be temporary, the psychological traumas persist after one has been exposed to its effects. How can we let our traumatic memories turn into a boost of immunity as time passes, and let the wound heal with care? Through collective experiences, what we need to learn is not about avoiding tear gas, but how we protect ourselves against oppression, as an act of walking forward in unity for a progressive society.


United by Vulnerability and Empathy


Personal suffering is the most basic reason for social change.[3] It is important for each individual to tell their own stories that are not reported in the mass media, as a form of resistance against oppression. Out of Breath makes personal traumas visible through public testimony, on as many fronts as possible, by visualising our persistent suffering resulting from tear gas exposure and how oppressive social conditions degrade human experience. Understanding tear gas and its traumatic legacy would expand our capacities to value human life, which serves as a moral basis for social transformations working toward peace and social justice.


Out of Breath not only provides a public space for the oppressed to tell their stories, but also creates an audience of individuals united by vulnerability and empathy. In our shows, art is not an object, a film, or a performance but a space where one might encounter the ‘affects’ by experiencing the work[4]. Throughout the programme, there is a bundle of affects, waiting to be experienced by the audience and connecting everyone in the world, from subjective, individual to social, collective.


Paradoxical Gasp, 2022, Experimental Events.


Paradoxical Gasp is the first public programme of Out of Breath, as a performance and digital project dealing with the traumatic legacy of tear gas exposure. This experimental event is based on archival and community research about the impact and use of tear gas, globally and locally, on society and personal freedom. Running across the historical underground spaces of the Crypt Gallery, Hidden Keileon presents a caring space for traumatic experiences to be heard, inviting the audience to consider how society can stand together in the pursuit of freedom regardless of background, race, and nationality.


Through an experiment that engages with the audience’s senses, ‘Paradoxical Gasp’ explores the links between tear gas as a tangible form of oppression and trauma as an intangible social issue. It makes both physical and emotional wounds visible and shows how pervasively, systematically, and deeply our society injures its own people. On one hand, tear gas can readily lead us to withdraw, shut down, feel silenced, and perceive that decisions have been imposed upon us without our consent. On the other hand, it can lead us to participate in efforts to make ourselves heard or defend positions which we feel are under attack.

An art psychotherapist is present at all performances. The space stays open for quiet reflection for 20 minutes after the event. Visitors are welcome to attend the open studio hosted by Lily Hsu, Art Psychotherapist. One of the shows is accompanied by a British Sign Language tour led by Martin Glover with an interpreter support for sound description, and followed by a BSL interpreted post-show talk.

The production of the event has been supported by the Bloomsbury Festival and supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The research for this project has been supported by Wellcome Collection in connection with the exhibition ‘In the Air’ (2022).

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‘Out of Breath’ is an ongoing project running through 2022 to 2025. Hidden Keileon continues to look for partnerships and collaboration with research institutes, arts and cultural organisations, presentation venues, and independent creatives and investigators.


More information:


[1] Action on Armed Violence, 2021: ‘UK Gov approves export of tear gas to third of world; concerns raised of use in human rights violations’ by Murray Jones, 13 October 2021. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 September 2022].

[2] Arendt, Hannah 1956: ‘Authority in the Twentieth Century’. In: The Review of Politics, 18(4), 403-417.

[3] Wineman, Steven. Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change (2003).

[4] O’Sullivan, Simon 2001: ‘The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art beyond Representation’. In: Journal of The Theoretical Humanities, 6(3), 125-135.

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