This project is named after Edward B. Titchener, the early 20th century British psychologist who coined the English word “empathy” in a translation from the German “einfühlung”. At that time the word carried a very different meaning from what it is used for today. It had less to do with purporting to “feel what’s it’s like to be another person”, and more to do with our subjective sensory and aesthetic experience of other people, and even of objects such as works of art.
Present day Virtual Reality / 360° video is often used to “put you in another’s shoes” by allowing you to inhabit the point of view of a person in a remote location, such as a refugee camp or a war zone. This is usually accompanied by claims of a subsequent increase in “empathy” (in its present sense) in the viewer, and by an assumption that this will then prompt people to action. I find this to be mostly unproven hype that is a little absurd and potentially dangerous. As Katherine Hayles warns, a technological understanding of people that is disconnected from the physicality of our own and others’ bodies is a risky proposition for society, and for the well being of the world as a whole.
This project is partially a reaction to this situation, and a bit of a return to the original meaning of “empathy”. It offers an embodied encounter, in which the viewer, though placed in virtual reality, is not disembodied or transplanted into another person’s point of view. Instead she is still aware of the physicality of her own body, which is captured in real-time by a 3d depth sensor and visually rendered in a similar manner as the bodies of the pre-recorded “visitors” she encounters. The viewer’s body is always present, always implicated: even when her point of view seems to suddenly be ejected from her body, providing a fleeting “out of body experience”, her body (which she at this point sees from the outside!) is still visible, a part of the scene. She is not a voyeur but a subject, visible to both herself, and the “visitors” that approach her.
Each “visitor” when being recorded is simply prompted to imagine the future viewer seated at the center of the space, and left alone in the room with the recording equipment. They are asked to interact with the future viewer in whichever way they see fit, to engage verbally or not around the state of their bodies and their lives. The responses range from intimate to interrogatory, from theatrical monologues to intensely physical action, from intimate acknowledgement of the future viewer, to completely ignoring their presence.
I am especially interested in making this project site specific (and thus self reflective), recording the visitors in and around a particular community and later (or even concurrently) installing it there. In the video above, all of the visitors were in some way connected to the place where the project was later installed, the AS220 community art center in Providence, RI.
Where the project is / where it is going
The project is in development and ongoing: Both the technology, and the “visitor archive” will keep developing throughout this year.
Technically speaking, the same system is used for both capture and playback, and is already capable of almost immediate playback of any captured material. This means that another form of presentation could involve making each viewer into a future “visitor” in other viewers’ experiences, or perhaps installing two adjacent copies to concurrently capture and play back.
AS220 Sessions Participants: Caroline, Charlene, Christopher, Kourtney, Lucia, Marc, Plan B, Sarina, Stuart, Xander
About 10 minutes per participant