28 October 2020
“Empathy is the most radical of human emotions.” Gloria Steinem
I believe that empathy is the most radical of human emotions. It is the foundation of all collaboration and cooperation, and a tool for building stronger, more connected and more equitable relationships and communities.
As an empathy artist and designer my practice is focused on transforming empathy from an individual feeling to a radical and collective power for change in our society, as well as within specific communities, spaces and places. Through artworks, experiments, installations, games and tools I explore the relationships between us, between us and our environments and between us and the systems and cultures we are a part of. By bringing people together through surprising shared moments, I hope to invite us to better understand each other’s experiences, perspectives and emotions. This is what empathy means to me.
What does empathy mean to you?
As an admirer of Kettle’s Yard and Jim and Helen Ede’s vision for an open house of art and culture that created a space for experiencing, reflecting, pausing, admiring and conversing, I was thrilled to have been selected as the Open House Artist in Residence 2020-21. I jumped at the opportunity to get to know the local area and culture and work with the communities in North Cambridge through my ongoing project the “Campaign for Empathy”. I started my residency in March 2020, just as lockdown began, and like the rest of the world needed to adapt quickly to the new reality. After only 3 visits to Cambridge at the start of the year, everything shut down and all the activities we had planned needed a re-think to work remotely. To the credit of the brilliant team at Kettle’s Yard and the relationships they’ve been building with local people and organisations for years, in April 2020 we were able to launch the “Campaign for Empathy” for North Cambridge.
But, what is the role of an artist during a global pandemic and national lockdown?
And what is the role of empathy in a community in a crisis?
In many ways, in the time of physical distancing empathy – our ability to understand each other’s experiences and perspectives – feels more pressing than ever. Empathy is scientifically proven to increase collaboration between people, even in a conflict situation. It increases positive behaviours towards strangers, reduces conflict between groups even across different value systems. Empathy also reduces unconscious racial bias, one of the hardest to tackle. Yet, when we think of empathy, we often think of a warm and fuzzy, feminine feeling, a soft skill. This leads us to disregard and bypass the transformational power of empathy to help us live and work together in a way that is more collaborative, connected and equitable.
As an artist working with people remotely and in a time of crisis has been an important reminder to listen actively, learn and support. I see my role as an empathy ambassador, bringing us closer together through art.
The Campaign for Empathy is in itself a commitment to understanding what empathy means to us, individually and collectively, and what it could mean to our communities. In North Cambridge, the project is an invitation for us together, to use empathy as a tool to start breaking down some of the barriers between us by opening up new conversations, creating shared experiences across age, gender, race and background, and building opportunities to get to know new people outside our usual circles. Through promoting empathy as a practical and every day set of behaviours and ways of thinking, listening and relating to each other, the Campaign for Empathy aims to bridge the growing emotional, cultural, social, ideological and economic distances between us.
“My message for my neighbourhood is that I hope you’re all doing great and also that you are happy and not so lonely and that you stay cheerful and wake up in the morning and smile.”
– The message a pupil from The Grove Primary School in Arbury wanted to share with his community. Alongside numerous other messages from children, it was recorded in his own words in his own voice as a part of my artwork “A Message” marking the 2020 Arbury Carnival, which took place online in June this year. You can listen to the full audio artwork here.
In the first six months of the campaign, I have had the pleasure to work with the Red Hen Project to deliver “Empathy Activity Kits” to local children and families, with the Holiday Lunches initiative to share a remote empathy activity, with the Care Network to run empathy training with volunteers and staff, with Cambridge Community Arts to start a conversation about empathy, with The Grove Primary School to mark this year’s Empathy Day through classroom activities and to collaborate with the pupils and staff to create an audio artwork “A message”, which travelled all around North Cambridge to celebrate Arbury Carnival. I have created materials and activities which are available for free through the Kettle’s Yard website. And there is much more to come…
What’s the role of empathy in your life, in your community, in your society?