Empathy Revisited:
designs for more than one

Starting off from the idea that design comprises the devices, platforms and interfaces through which we relate to one another, Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one wants to think of design as the element that mediates interconnections. In revisiting the origins of the notion of the term, this edition aims to reimagine a role for design concerned with feelings, affects and relations.

Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one celebrates commensality and other protocols for sharing. Interested in tables, pots and dinner sets but also virtual reality headsets, digital currencies and online chat rooms, Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one will avoid cataloguing or classifying, welcoming myth and ceremony.

Some of the fundamental questions that this edition raises are, what structures of collective feeling does design put forward, and how might we design for –and from– more than one perspective, one dimension, one body? It proposes that we address these questions by revitalising our understanding of empathy.

On empathy

The word empathy was invented in the 1910s. The prefix em next to the Greek pathos sought to capture the idea of feeling with, a translation of the German Einfühlung. The term emerged in psychology circles, when a word was required to describe how the aesthetic experience of an object extended to the viewer’s body, emphasizing the transference of feeling from a thing to a human. If nowadays the term is used to describe the capacity to perceive other people’s expressions and feelings, in the 1910s it was much more generous in that it encompassed the relations between bodies other than the human.

Historically, empathy has meant the ability to inhabit, sometimes even bodily, the other’s perspective, entering alien forms, transforming into objects, inhabiting other realities. Be it in psychological, political or aesthetic contexts, empathy has been linked with simulation, imitation, transference and reflection. Violet Page, who used the male pseudonym “Vernon Lee” as she recorded her bodily sensations when observing sculptures in museums in Rome and Florence, thought of empathy as the lending of one’s life to a thing (Lanzoni, 2018).

Now, 100 years after its inception, it seems like the right time to revisit the original sentiment of the term. The ecological crisis we live in can be directly linked with notions of progress and development based on practices of extraction and exploration. The Cartesian model that dominated Western thinking since the Enlightenment is no longer suiting. The post-human paradigm suggests that all things have their own relations with the world, that reality is a multinatural continuum across all living and non-living entities.

By revisiting empathy, the biennial wishes to celebrate design for, from and with:

More than one PERSPECTIVE (or design as re-centring)

Empathy begins with acknowledging the position of our body in relation to the world. It is from a specific place that we perceive, and that place determines what we feel. Astronauts that have seen the earth from space describe an aesthetic experience of “awe and wonder”, a feeling that became known as the “overview effect”. This deeply emotional state promotes a sense of connectedness with the Earth and with one another.

Much like this cognitive shift experienced by astronauts, design tools like mirrors, lenses, cameras and scanners allow us to re-centre our viewpoint and see things that we couldn’t otherwise perceive. New perspectives evoke new feelings and understandings of reality. What design tools reveal what perspectives today? How does design help us sense the world?

More than one DIMENSION (or design as transference)

Empathy describes the transference of feeling from one thing to another. It’s about two bodies being connected with one another remotely. Artificial intelligence is based on the transference of knowledge and thinking processes from humans to machines. The promise of the 5G city is one in which information travels across living and non-living bodies. The Internet of Things is based on the collection of data “sensed” by a network of objects. Augmented reality allows bodies to exist simultaneously across parallel realms. Platforms like Twitch, watched by more people than television, mix up virtual and real worlds. How does empathy form across these platforms? What structures of feeling and care do new mediums put forward?

More than one BODY (or design as immanence)

Empathy describes moments when we are more than one. The post-human paradigm, beyond anthropocentrism, invites us to search new forms of social bonding and community building (Braidotti, 2019). How may we think of design as a practice not suited just for one body but something that links many bodies, be them human bodies, animal bodies, vegetable bodies or mineral bodies? And, if objects orient life in limiting ways by choreographing normative behaviours (Ahmed, 2017), what objects distort and disorient established forms of collectivity?

In a time marked by technological speed and environmental crisis, the biennial is attentive to practices of care, rituals of connection, and things we can feel with. Curious about new-animism or indigenous perspectivism, the biennial will absorb southern and eastern influences in the way it thinks about the relations between things, between people, and both. The 2020 edition privileges local knowledges and territorial practices in the face of the increasing homogeny of a globalizing world, welcoming the work of professionals and amateurs of all ages and backgrounds.

Empathy Revisited: designs for more than one will be about how design brings us together.

References

Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Pres: Durham, NC.
Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.
Lanzoni, S. (2018). Empathy: A History. Yale University Press: New Haven, NY.

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