Gemma Crowe Brings Artmaking Home to the Body

Gemma Crowe Breathing Room
Still frame from one of the videos featured in Gemma Crowe's multimedia installation, 'Breathing Room.'
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By Perrin Grauer

Posted on August 17, 2021 | Updated August 30, 2021, 11:27am

The artist and ECU MFA student uses sound, breath and movement to drive empathy and interpersonal experience.

Sound holograms. Sound shadows. Kinaesthetic empathy.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking these for concepts drawn from science fiction. But they belong to the subtle and deeply physical art practice of multidisciplinary artist and Emily Carr University Master of Fine Arts student Gemma Crowe.

I was lucky enough to hear Gemma present on her work earlier this summer, during the 2021 Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) Virtual Symposium.

“I have been investigating the concept of embodiment through creating kinesthetic empathy,” she told the online audience at the time. Embodiment is the process by which an idea, a feeling or an experience is made visible or tangible — in Gemma’s case, in the body. Kinesthetic empathy is an experience of empathy spurred by observing the movements of another human being.

But in Gemma’s work, “observing” isn’t necessarily a visual act.

“I’ve recently begun working exclusively with sound in an effort to further create that embodied experience without any visual cues,” she continues. “My hope is that experience [becomes] rerouted through the body when what is commonly a dominant sense is removed.”

In her work SOUNDESCAPE, for instance, Gemma “wanted someone to be able to put on headphones and feel like they were moving.” To achieve this end, she wore small, in-ear binaural microphones while she moved her body around a room. This produced a subtle, changeful recording which uses sound to “describe” movement to listeners.

“I call these ‘sound shadows,’ and what they do is make us imagine what we would be seeing [if we were] creating the sound,” she says. SOUNDESCAPE, in other words, asks listeners to conjure and experience a scene using senses other than their vision. In doing so, Gemma suggests that participants “re-materialize” this imagined movement in their own perceptual space, resulting in something like a “sound hologram.”

All of which points to one of her art practice’s broader concerns. The human body, she tells me later via email, both unites us and isolates us. We are all familiar with what it means to be made of flesh and bone, and yet no two bodies are truly alike. Tapping into that paradox is one way to explore how people relate, and what it means to be human.

“I believe embodiment is how we make things personal, when we internalize to understand deeply,” she says, adding her own strategy for understanding is to start from that personal place and then work outward.

“I work with my own experience and ask questions about how I came to certain understandings or insight. I feel things first and then try to reproduce the experience and find ways to enhance it through editing and durational experiences. I guess it’s sort of like reverse engineering embodiment to understand it.”

From Gemma Crowe's multimedia installation work 'Breathing Room.'

A recent installation work titled Breathing Room aimed to draw her viewers directly into that process. The work included seven distinct audiovisual projections of different lengths playing on loops in a room. These seven “ideas” interacted and layered over one another in ever-changing ways throughout the three-day duration of the work.

Posted on one of the walls was a text about breath, written partly by Gemma and including an excerpt from the writings of educator, anthropologist and author Tim Ingold. Viewers were encouraged to read this text aloud.

“I took out all the punctuation and made each sentence a little bit longer than the last, so that as you read the time between each breath is extended and you’re forced to take deeper breaths, making the audience more aware of their own breath and also creating an embodied experience.”

Gemma is also currently exploring ideas including the theory of brainwave synchronization (or neural entrainment), and the concept of co-regulation from Polyvagal theory. Though not directly related to one another, both of these ideas describe hypothetical ways the brain or nervous system may become more alert or more relaxed in response to external influences.

Her investigation of these ideas is being conducted as part of a residency with Vancouver-based spatial sound studio Lobe, the first dedicated spatial sound studio in North America to work with a permanently integrated “4D” sound system. Transducers in the floors at Lobe convert sound into vibration, allowing users to “distribute sound and move it in space,” Gemma says.

From Gemma Crowe's multimedia installation work 'Breathing Room.'

“The bigger question I’m asking with embodiment is the extent to which our bodies are affected by other bodies. And with this project, I’m exploring how this can be translated across time and space,” she says. “What transpires between people and is it reliant on physical proximity? And can it be sensed from afar?”

In some ways, Gemma’s investigation of these questions is itself a kind of answer. Encouraging an audience to turn away from an overstimulated visual sense to instead focus on hearing or touch lays the groundwork for a renewed interpersonal experience. When a person refuses to be mesmerized by endless streams of visual content, they are far more likely to realize how vivid a physical, embodied, interpersonal experience of the world can be. By consciously engaging with the most ubiquitous, unconscious processes — such as breathing — an intimate contact is made between a person and their own existential agency.

“The thread I like to chase is the self-understanding that comes with applying concepts about the body to your own experience,” Gemma says. “I specifically think the body needs to move differently to think differently. It’s the long walks, cooking at the end of the day, or even the shower thoughts when we are mentally preparing for work that bring our personal experiences, memories and other information into the process of discovery.”

Gemma’s newest spatial sound installation, titled How Do You Here Me?, will debut at Lobe at 7pm on Sept. 1, 2021, as part of Lobe's Artist in Residence Showcase. Entry is by donation; ten audience members will be permitted per work. Meanwhile, you can learn more about Gemma’s practice at or by visiting the Full Residency Graduate Virtual Studios.