Can physical distance bring us closer?
A new collective consciousness has been born. Through the global experience of isolation and confinement, we have expanded into a shared mental and emotional space that spans cultures, languages, religions and generations. But is this collective consciousness opening our eyes and our minds and our hearts to each other? Or is it enforcing the divisions between us, emphasising the inequalities and vast differences in our readiness to respond?
As an artist so much of my life is about finding certainty in the uncertain, and learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. All of a sudden the whole world has been propelled into this state of being and feeling. I have been keeping an empathy diary since 2016, writing down moments I feel empathy or a lack of it. In the last few months I’ve found myself writing in it several times a day almost obsessively recording and documenting, observing and analysing both my own states of being and feeling, as well as my experiences of our shared collective states of being and feeling.
There’s a newfound intimacy and vulnerability in our interactions. This may have been born from a practical necessity for remote communication, but I feel it has led to more emotionally meaningful connections. Through tech we are now being invited into each other’s homes to bear witness to scenes of everyday life and surprising family moments. We are stepping inside the worlds of others, getting a fuller sense of who they are and an insight into the things they care about and the people they love. We are seeing a more personal and human side of each other.
Through this shared vulnerability we are starting to break down cultural taboos. We are speaking more openly about being furloughed and our financial difficulties. We are sharing our deepest fears and our mental health challenges. By growing our physical distance we are in fact starting to shrink the emotional distance between us. There’s a radical power in realising that we cannot only look after ourselves, instead, we must look after each other and our environment to get through this. We are creating a small opening for a more empathic and equal urgent future.
As artists and designers, we are used to using empathy as an ingredient in our process. We empathise with our audiences, users and environments to create more relevant and more impactful artworks / experiences / products / services. Though it’s an important starting point, it’s no longer enough for us to empathise. We should also ask; how can we encourage empathy in others? My practice as an empathy artist and designer is focused on precisely this; fostering empathy as an outcome of my work. To embrace our shared cultural responsibility and leadership as artists and designers, I am challenging us to be more than empathisers and become catalysts for empathy.
Who do we want to be when the doors open again? This piece was first published on the RCA website in May 2020.