TO READ THE DAY AFTER THE ELECTION, NOVEMBER 9TH, 2016
by Ayden LeRoux, Nov 9, 2016
When was the first time you were moved by art? I mean really in awe and deeply affected by something, not just a pondering, “hmmm that’s nice” sort of response. I will never forget the first time I experienced Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, wherein the artist asked 107 women in various professions to interpret and dissect a letter from a lover breaking up with her. Ballet dancers moved to convey the feeling of the breakup, a children’s book author rewrote the story of the letter through her own lens, a linguist analyzed the vocabulary, an opera singer sang it, a translator wrote it in Braille. The piece has existed both as an exhibition and as a book both including text and photographs of the women. I couldn’t stop thinking of the work for weeks because I could feel Calle trying to process the split from her lover through the work. I empathized deeply with the fracture in her heart, the need to explain away something so sudden and illogical as a breakup note. I was entranced by the work because I could feel the artist offering herself, being vulnerable, and I was right there with her, grappling with and trying to understand the heartbreak.
I haven’t felt anything close to this during our election cycle. The political arena has been a boxing ring, rather than a pulpit where I got to listen to a skilled orator move me, make me feel the importance and potential in what they say. I stopped watching the debates after VP candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence spent an hour and a half bickering and talking over one another. It’s a strange coincidence that the words “polite” and “politics” are so close in spelling, and yet they have no relation etymologically (the latter being from Latin and meaning polished, the former being from Greek’s polis, or city). It saddens me that we seem to be unable to find a connection between these two words in our current election cycle. Obama swept me away in 2008 with a steady hand, not a snarling comment. He inspired me to believe in change in such a matter of fact way that left no doubt that he saw and understood the struggles of many Americans. Etiquette, courtesy, playing fair, and general human decency have been sparse these past few months. The debates were a mockery because our politicians displayed disregard for the rules of the game they themselves have created. Each candidate focused on the other’s failures and inadequacy, rather than expounding on their deeply held beliefs, I didn’t feel what was being said.
Herein lies where politics has gone wrong. I look at someone like Michelle Obama and think she would make a good president because time and time again when I watch her give speeches, she shows me that she understands how horrific it is to hear a presidential candidate brag about sexually assaulting women. I feel heard and seen by her. I see her be vulnerable about how much pain she is in about the state of our country and I feel something kindred. She shows empathy. When Marina Abramovic sat in the atrium of the MoMA, the lines were so long not because anyone had been all that familiar with her art, but because of her presence. She was offering to be seen, to return the gaze of the person in the chair opposite her. One of the longest standing accusations against artists is that we are narcissists. Today, the day after the weightiest election in our history, I want to question that belief, and offer instead, that art is a vessel for empathy. It is why working with Odyssey Works, where we study the life of one individual, their most essential humanness, to make a twenty-four hour performance for them, has been so enriching. And it is, I think the antidote we need, for the heaviness we feel given the results of yesterday’s election.
This election cycle I encountered a number of people who didn’t plan on voting, and each time I learned the person in front of me wasn’t going to vote I was appalled, clinging to the argument that they would be complicit in the election of Trump, a devastating sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic bigot. It was unfathomable to me that Hillary Clinton could even remotely be as low as he, could feel comparable in any way to voting for Trump. I noticed when I spoke to these people whose opinions differed from mine I felt great discomfort and inability to make eye contact after I knew their opinions. I got argumentative and completely closed off. I judged both of them, their intelligence, their reasoning, their humanity. I am a person who prides herself in her empathetic abilities and so for me, the sensations of those judgments were incredibly uncomfortable, unwelcome. I was immobile. I felt so guarded, so survivalist, and scared of the outcome of this election, that I focused on protecting myself and family and friends who, in my perspective are threatened by Donald Trump’s policies, when I needed to be vulnerable with those whose opinions differ from mine, and share my fear rather than my disbelief. For the last five years, empathy has been the cornerstone of my collaborative art practice, working as the Assistant Director of Odyssey Works.
Instead of walking into a gallery and hoping the audience might feel something, we design our work to be attuned to a particular person’s sensibilities, their history and tastes; we design for them to be moved. We live in an age where it seems harder and harder to have meaningful connections with people, where technology is creating great rifts between us. All of our devices, apps, and services are moving in the trend of customization. We long for specificity, for a world in which everything is bespoke and responds to our particularities and preferences. There are so many tools that really serve as filters in our lives though, that we are barricading ourselves from any sort of difference. It seems impossible to be open in the presence of someone who isn’t like us. We no longer know how to lock eyes with someone and see them, truly see them, without it feeling invasive or like a threat. Empathy is a quality that has guided Odyssey Works and our work for fifteen years. To make a piece of work for one person, we have to eat, sleep, and breathe their world. Our participants, as we call them, fill out a questionnaire that is usually twelve to fifteen pages long (single-spaced!). We interview them, their friends, family, coworkers, students, lovers. Then our team spends a week on retreat channeling our empathic qualities and asking ourselves, “What would you wish for so-and-so?”
This is a powerful question that gets at the heart of how we make work. It is like a love letter, the performance we make for our participant. We try to learn the language of Rick or Carl or Laura, to see the world through their eyes and walk in their shoes. What has left me so dismayed about this election and the apparent division it displays in our country, is that we are no longer in the practice of using empathy to close that gap, to understand and offer and connect with one another, in spite of our differences.
Practicing empathy is radical. One of the most political acts I engage in every week is deep listening. Art institutions have forgotten they are houses of feeling, of resonance, of movement, of complexity, of mystery, not just commerce and displays of what the art market deems as valuable. Their walls are containers in which we, the audience, are invited to a state of empathy. When I read a novel, I hope the protagonist’s experiences resonate with me even if I haven’t had the same experience. I hope that a piece of music might feel as if it embodies my recent upheaval, that a film might strike a visual chord within me and open me to see my own surroundings differently. Art has the power to change our inner landscape but we’ve forgotten as makers that when we say artists are gifted, it means that we have gifts to offer to others. As Lewis Hyde reminds us, to be gifted is not about self-promotion or making our work appeal to the commercial market, it is about the act of giving, which implies a relationship with a recipient, or an audience, if you will. Many creators know audiences to be passive observers, but the key is that the act of giving is relational, and reciprocal. Our audience gives to us as much as we do by receiving. Artists are exactly the narcissists we’re accused of being, if we put our work into the world simply for ourselves and don’t engage with the person and people we give to. My hope is that now, we might turn to our fellow citizens and think of the power empathy has to make us understand one another better, to build bridges and connect with ourselves in a more profound way, regardless of the electoral votes total. No matter how connected we feel to our next elected president, perhaps we can imbue politics with a bit more of this ethos of art. Today, it is with great clarity, that I invite us all to persist in rising above the caricature in front of us who is the president elect, that we realize just how foundationally crucial empathy is in understanding our fellow Americans.