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Acquisition of Empathy in Contemporary Art
“What’s Next : A five-hour marathon conversation and more on immigration, migration and home” took place as part of the “Brown People Are the Wrens in the Parking Lot” exhibition at the Logan Center Gallery at the University of Chicago on January 4, 2018. The event was initiated by artist William Pope.L and curator Dieter Roelstraete and brought together University of Chicago faculty, students, staff and community members to reflect on issues of connectedness, home and immigration.
The event can be seen along the lines of what is called “The Educational Turn” that is taking place around the world. “Educational Turn” events are often referred as alternative education, artistic research, and knowledge production in museums, galleries, and biennials through open conversations. Such events often implements a durational dialogue in which no hierarchy is imposed upon participants, meaning that everyone can speak up and freely exchange ideas. Exemplary projects include 16 Beaver Group, “Unitednationsplaza” in Berlin, “The Proto Academy” at Edinburgh College of Art, and “Night School” at the New Museum, to name a few.
Programs such as this point to a larger trend in museums today. The “Education Turn” has successfully shifted the focus of museum practice from the acquisition of art objects to the acquisition of knowledge.
Also, artistic research and knowledge production have become central practices in contemporary art institutions in the recent past years. As “Social Practice” or “Socially-engaged Art” has triumphed in contemporary art discourses, museums have accordingly begun to acquire and present these practices. The Guggenheim Museum, for instance, launched the Social Practice Art Initiative program in 2017, beginning with “…circle through New York” by artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin. Social practices are known for promoting active conversations and direct community engagement, based on a strong belief that the intersubjective engagement with others is what makes a person “a social being.” Although these social practices naturally generate a sense of empathy among participants, a more general movement towards the “acquisition of empathy” has still not been a central focus of contemporary art practices and theories. Arguably “empathy” is more pertinent today than before and should be taken more seriously especially at the beginning of our current, deeply trying political era. What empathy does in contemporary art needs to discussed and even practiced. Let’s begin to talk about the “Empathic Turn.”
It should be said that “What’s Next : A five-hour marathon conversation and more on immigration, migration and home” seemed unique in that the conversation offered the participants a first-person experience of empathy with the people of color and immigrants. A desire for sharing in the experiences of people from different backgrounds pervaded the atmosphere. People spoke about examples of racial discrimination, tough procedures of immigration, existing prejudice against people of color and foreign languages, and more. These issues can be easily found in news media such as CNN and New York Times. Yet, in this conversation, participants looked at each other in a relatively close proximity and empathized with the behavior, emotion, intention, and feelings of others.
When she looked at me, I looked at her face.
When she spoke, I listened to her.
When she twisted up her face and eyes in emotional pain, I twisted up my face and eyes too.
When I heard a sound of a suffering woman, my muscles reacted the same as a response.
When I heard her story of racism, I felt severe pain too.
What conversation participants acquired that day was not only knowledge but empathy. They looked at action, mannerisms, and gestures offered by those around us. This allowed each person in the room to assume the perspective of another. Just as a mirror reflects things, our brain intuitively reflected others’ feelings and intentions–perhaps a different kind of knowledge, or a different kind of experience. Throughout the process, people no longer looked at each other. In the end, we looked in the same direction.