Sad Emoji: VR as empathy machine

I find it interesting that, although it seems like a given that there will be multiple individual experiences of one particular event, that the aim of artists/practitioners can be understood to be to elicit a specific emotional reaction with a work. Although I understand the compulsion to try and share and experience wholesale via a work of art – I’ve tried to do it many times to varying degrees of success – my experience/gut tells me it can’t be done. This is not to say that a genuine reaction can’t be evoked by an artwork, but rather that it may be impossible to ensure that the lasting experiences was as you intended. You may be able to convey ‘sad’ for instance, but not necessarily ‘regret’.

I’ve had one or two conversations about the experience of VR recently.  When I refer to VR, I mean stereoscopic virtual reality, which uses goggles and handheld control i.e. Oculus or playstation VR. During these conversations, my colleagues suggested that VR gave the potential to create a more visceral experience, and in turn this would enable architect of that experience could elicit a more potent and lasting empathetic connection with their argument. I argued that this wouldn’t be the case for a number of reasons (more elegantly summarised by Deborah Levitt here), including the weighting of visual perception over all other forms of sensory perception, the assumption that being in a space, albeit virtual, creates a more potent experience than is possible through other less representational mediums like poetry or music and the side-lining of VRs potential for invention and speculation. My main objection, however, was the assumption that everyone would take their googles off having had the same experience.

This is in no way to suggest there is not value in VR as an artform – rather that than in the same way that we are inured to discussing more familiar forms of propaganda critically, we should be critical when discussing VR as an ‘empathy machine’. For instance a film may have a specific, if not explicit, intention – but we as a rule to not assume that every individual will interpret it as having the same message. Similarly, the song conjures up painful memories for you may be on my getting ready playlist. There is a sweeping-ness, or reduction of the significance of lived experience in the assumption that because you are looking at the same picture, that you see the same thing. For instance, in November 2018 I lead several workshops in the Tate Modern, with the aim to help young people access their existing visual lexicon and critical voices when discussing art. The turbine hall was hosting a series of works by artist/activist Tania Bruguera. In a small room of the main hall, a room was filled with an organic compound which caused temporary eye irritation similar to cutting onions and induced tears. The artist has described the work as provoking ‘forced empathy’, and reflection on the global migration crisis. The young people I was with, in contrast to this intent, approached the space as a site of play and humour. This is not a failing of the work, rather an indication that an audience is not homogenous and won’t behave as such.

It would be revolutionary if VR could allow us, in this era of non-facts, to create real empathy and knowing. Personally, I would find it alarming – who would have the right hands to hold that kind of influence?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s