with Debra Keenanhan, Jill Bennett and Sarah Ticho, 2018
Over 70 years ago psychologist Alfred Adler described empathy as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another”. This project takes an experimental approach, investigating how technology can help to promote empathy and understanding by creating works which afford the viewer an embodied experience of living with disability.
But this research also takes a critical view on the role immersive media plays in the design of subjective experiences or first-hand spatial narrative design. In the current discourse amongst psychologist, artist and film-makers, the notion of VR as the ultimate Empathy Machine, as proclaimed by Chris Milk in 2015, caused a lot of controversy. What are the ethical and political implications in the context of a post- and neocolonial worldview? Wendy Chun, stated “If you walk in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve taken their shoes”. With this argument, the empathy machine is transformed into a mechanism of cultural appropriation.
In 2017 the collaborators started with a series of inter-disciplinary experiments, looking at the potential of virtual reality (VR) technology to enable users to be immersed in another person’s view, and so gain empathy for them and their situation. We focused on Debra’s point-of-view, not only to mirror her perspective, but more importantly to highlight the social dimension of disability.
We experimented with two fundamental principles in “experience capture”, a live camera feed from Debra’s point-of-view to a VR headset, basically to swap bodies, and a pre-recorded immersive video, again from Debra’s viewpoint (refer to online video here). We believe both experiments do have a lot of potential, but for the proposed project, we would like to focus our enquiry on the narrative pre-recorded mode. Working with a script and not impromptu will help us to focus the visual and narrative experience for the viewer. This first-person-view immersive video will be accompanied by voice narration, reflections and poetic observations on the social aspect of disability.