The Coral Empathy Device

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We have a lot in common with coral. It builds shelter to protect itself, and lives in symbiosis with microorganisms which – like our microbiome – help it to survive. Coral acts like a steward to much other marine life, providing a home for the algae with which it lives symbiotically, and creating reefs that are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.

The Coral Empathy Device is an experiment in interspecies empathy that explores differences in the way we perceive the world, and translates between a coral’s physical experience in its native marine environment and make its experience understandable to a human in their native terrestrial environment, through an embodied interface. Worn over the head, the device is driven by hydrophone recordings from the marine environment near Norwegian coral reefs. It uses principles behind speaker technologies, sound conveyance, touch and smell to create a vibrating immersion that bypasses the visual and disrupts usual modes of cognitive engagement. It surrounds the wearer in a sensory experience that evokes the marine environment and creates a conversation between us and coral in our role as environmental stewards. The artwork is informed by research into embodied cognition, coral biology and exchanges with marine and interspecies researchers.

When we live close to the land we experience empathy with the land. It has recently been said that indeed our present mode of life has led to the “death of empathy” [2]. Digital life, comfort and protection from the elements have combined to weaken our connection to what we consider the “natural” world. Despite the fact that we are indeed part of the natural world, part of the environment already, it is as though we need reminding. The Coral Empathy Device uses principles of embodied learning to explore whether physical sensation curated by an artist can evoke interspecies empathy in a human for a coral – a creature at once so similar and so alien to us.

coralstillsideThe Coral Empathy Device grew out of experiments to create empathy with another species through exploring modes of embodied perception, and in so doing to connect in an embodied way with environmental systems so that we know them in a multifacted way. Compared to coral, we perceive the world in an entirely different way. And in some ways our environmental problems arise from a problem of perception – many things happen in the world on a scale that we cannot directly perceive, or in a manner that we are unable to perceive. So, we struggle to see cause and consequence between our actions and their effect. This is exacerbated when it comes to the marine environment, an environment from which most of us are even further removed.

Coral is one of the environment’s canaries in a cage. Right now coral is undergoing the largest bleaching event in history due to rising sea temperatures caused by climate change. Algae that live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral abandon their home leaving coral starving. We read about it in the news, but few of us will see it in real life and even fewer will try to change it. Not only this, but corals are subject to anthropogenic marine noise pollution, microplastics and ocean changes in pH. The Coral Empathy Device addresses this by building on the idea of embodiment being “doing without representing” and personal space as an extension of the body schema. The artwork creates a discomforting experience that challenges the visitor’s embodied experience to leverage the fact that “the body schema is the converting system of perception and action” [1]. By bridging the gap between the way we perceive and the way coral perceives, can we connect with the marine environment in a new way? Can we foster action by creating knowledge of another species within the body as a whole?

Coral Empathy Device from Kat Austen on Vimeo.

The Coral Empathy Device was conceived as my contribution for a group workshop exploring microplastics and anthropogenic marine sound in the Bergen fjord, Norway during Piksel 2015, where an initial prototype was constructed. Further prototyping was carried out at Monoshop Berlin with Kasia Justka, and the first completed Coral Empathy Device was constructed during my artistic residency at the PCI in NYU Shanghai and NYU Shanghai Gallery during April 2016, with studio assistance from Shelby Firebaugh and Dylan Crow. See more at Making the Coral Empathy Device and NYU Shanghai’s photos of the associated workshop.

[1] Tanaka, S. (2011). The notion of embodied knowledge. in Theoretical Psychology: Global Transformations and Challenges edited by P. Stenner

[2] Bruce D Perry “The Death of Empathy” in Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development, edited by Darcia Narváez

Coral Empathy Device Travels

Coverage of the Coral Empathy Device in Harper’s Bazaar Art (Chinese)

Pixelache: Interfaces for Empathy

Experiments in Interspecies Empathy: The Coral Empathy Device as part of  Living Systems Aquatic Systems Seminar at Art Laboraty Berlin as part of Robertina Šejanič’s solo show Aural Aquatic Presence, during the gallery’s Non-human Subjectivities Programme

By the Sea: The Coral Empathy Device shown at Piksel Festival, Bergen, Norway in November 2016

By the Sea: The Coral Empathy Device on Acclimatize, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Experiments in Interspecies Empathy: invited lecture given to PhD Students, New Media Programme, University of the Arts, Poznan, Poland

 

Updated 7 December 2016