True Voyage is Return:
Augmented Empathy

Someone takes a photograph of a framed image of themself, their face distorted with silver bubbles before it.
Keiken, Sakeema Crook and Ryan Vautier, Augmented Empathy, 2020. Photo by Drew Forsyth. Installation view at FACT, 2020

A glitch in our reality has exposed with acute clarity a system broken beyond repair; one of vast inequalities, disconnection and despair, fraught with social and political divisions. In the surreal landscape of the present, the appetite for a world transformed is palpable. To this end, perhaps it is our shared proximity to catastrophe that carries within it the potential to rebuild. So, from where do we begin? Creating tools of radical empathy seems a good place to start. Tools that encourage us to actively consider the subjectivities of others on their terms, unanchored by our own experience and biases. Impending climate emergency and the global effects of Covid-19 have demonstrated just how intricately connected we all are. In these times of environmental and social crisis, it is precisely the ability to harness a universal empathy that offers a solution to the impasse in which we find ourselves. An ability that could yet be harnessed through the use of digital technologies to rediscover a deep connection to ourselves, each other, and the natural world.

Part of The Living Planet, FACT’s new online programme, Augmented Empathy is a nebulous interactive experience that spans multiple platforms – from instagram filters and IGTV videos, to video installation and performance. Produced by artist collective Keiken, who take their name from the Japanese word for ‘experience’, Augmented Empathy asks users to reconsider how Augmented Reality (AR) can be used as an emancipatory tool. Describing themselves as a ‘cross-dimensional’ collaborative practice, Keiken’s roster is made up of Hana Omori, Isabel Ramos and Tanya Cruz, joined on this occasion by performance artist Sakeema Crook and CGI artist Ryan Vautier. 

Over the past eight months, many of us have found ourselves reliant upon screen-based communication for both work and socialising. If you’re anything like me, you will have also clocked up a number of hours wearing virtual elf ears and bug-like cartoon eyes thanks to the plethora of readily-available social media filters. For this project, Keiken’s medium of choice seems apt for the current moment, questioning what it is that draws us to filters in the first place, and what they allow us to do? On the surface, filters enable various expressions of self in a way the physical world cannot. They can be quick, accessible, non-permanent and playful ways of altering our external aspects, but can filters also spark internal change? Through a series of six filters and accompanying IGTV video challenges (accessible in the exhibition itself and on FACT’s instagram main feed) Keiken opens up new possibilities of embodiment that extend beyond the human. Through cyborgian make-up tutorials, guided meditation with a mute digital guru, and character profiles of mysterious creatures who rely on social media for survival, these playful videos act as templates, offering users unconventional ways to engage with each filter. Beyond the surrealistic visuals, the videos are punctuated by questions that add gravity to an otherwise playful tone, and ground the unreality of the augmented experience within very real issues: ‘How can we value the living planet when we live connected to technology and distant from nature?’

Sometimes paying attention is all it takes for a shift in perception to occur. Using the ‘Octopus’ (2020) filter, the bridge of my nose becomes broad and flat, creating an expanse between the eyes which arch upward along the curve of my newly wide-set cheeks. Following the video’s instructions, I trace my finger over the bumps protruding from my chin like the contour of a seashell. Observing myself on the screen is like watching a David Attenborough documentary; that moment when an orangutan itches its head, or a close up shows a frog in its neon glory and we realise how closely connected we are with these magnificent creatures, in their unique and varying forms. This sensation functions as a call to a kinship and radical trans-species empathy.

Significantly, Octopus, was initially unable to be published on Instagram following the introduction of a new policy in October 2019. Introduced by Facebook, the policy prohibited all effects ‘associated with plastic surgery’ and in doing so, sparked debate about the moral and aesthetic standards at the core of these platforms. The Spark AR community, a group of AR creators of which Keiken are a part, rallied against Facebook’s decision, highlighting the absurdity of targeting creators whilst the platform itself profits from millions of sleekly curated, face-tuned influencers. 

Whilst the effects of ‘snapchat dysmorphia’ are well documented, and rightly cause for concern, what is at stake here is much more intricate than a dichotomy of good and bad. The fundamental problem is not the filters themselves, but something much more insidious to do with how we receive validation in a society that prioritises whiteness, thinness and youth. One of the most powerful ways Keiken produces empathy through filters is to move past validation, toward a place of intersectionality and recognition for who we truly are. By shifting the emphasis from judgement to acceptance, they allow us to connect more authentically with ourselves and others. The aforementioned policy has since been revoked, but Facebook’s initial decision, and the consequent debate, has demonstrated just how real the effects of AR can be, making the medium all the more relevant for artists today. 

An avatar of a black woman with a shaved head is distorted through a transparent sheet so that below her shoulders her body is a series of glitchy shapes and lines.

Keiken Sakeema Crook and Ryan Vautier, ‘All Water is One Water’, video still (2020).

Like any technology, social media is a tool through which ingrained behaviours can flourish, but can equally be used to unlearn the very ways in which we construct identity; to arrive at a more fluid understanding of self. Keiken recognises that appearance, like nature, is never static. We are always more than one body – growing, morphing, augmenting. Using world-building as methodology, Augmented Empathy uses AR as a critical tool to generate new narratives for ourselves and new stories for the future. As we become more restricted in our physical world due to Covid-19, the possibility of escape in the digital realm is increasingly important. These filters offer a space to explore multiple identities, express ourselves beyond our bodies and physical realities, and to explore trans-human and fantastical possibilities.  

Throughout Augmented Empathy there is a strong sense of the natural world, reminding us how disconnected we have become from our environment and other beings. Built in a gaming engine, Keiken’s video ‘All Water is One Water’ (2020, on display at FACT until 14 February 2021 ) draws upon Ursula K Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. In her re-framing of history, she argues that the first tool of mankind was not in fact the spear, but a bag, a vessel – ‘the tool that brings energy home’. 

In the film, as oceans of people stand radiating upon solitary platforms, their pregnant glass bellies carry within them physical manifestations of unconscious desires, the tools of a culture. Through Crook’s mother’s vessel, the viewer traverses Crook’s body, and out into a world of lush forests drenched in light. In union with nature, the avatar dances with a globular mass of water that mirrors the fluid lines of her movement. In her womb she carries a golden tree boasting long majestic roots that propose the vessel as a portal to an intergenerational wisdom. Through this speculative world-building, Keiken emphasises the value new ways of seeing can bring to our understanding of our past, present and future.  

Since the dawn of humanity, storytelling has played a vital role in our perception of the world – the first and arguably most powerful technology in the arsenal of humankind. Like AR and VR, stories offer a way of bringing new realities into being, of configuring and reconfiguring worlds, a way of ‘augmenting empathy’ toward others. In Ursula K Le Guin’s 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed, she writes ‘True voyage is return’. By channeling the ancient technology of storytelling through new mediums, merging physical and digital realms, Augmented Empathy is an expanded exercise in return, prompting an urgent unlearning of limiting beliefs to carve out a space for something better. A space from which new structures and belief systems can be born. 

Augmented Empathy, is online and at FACT Liverpool, 3 September 2020 – 14 February 2021

Stephanie Gavan is a freelance writer based in Liverpool, currently studying MA Writing (2019-2021) at the Royal College of Art

This review is supported by FACT

Published 30.10.2020 by Sinead Nunes in Reviews

1,391 words