Q&A Empathy Loading

An interview with the artist Marie-Eve Levasseur, by the Empathy Loading curatorial team (Maria Cynkier, Jiayi Du, Sakhi Gokhale, Eve Miller, Vanessa Wang, Haseeb Ullah Zafar, Huanzhi Zhang), RCA London


EL: Non-human cognition is a recurring theme in your practice. In A Chatroom Fabulation (2017-18), you developed a fictional cross-species dialogue between humans, plants and algorithms, set in cyberspace. What influenced your practice to look around and think about how we relate to non-humans?

MEL: I think that a certain desire to connect is something quite universal across species. Even plants connect, exchanging chemical messages through the air, or communicating with their roots underneath the earth. To understand other living beings, there is a need to find a common language through which we share perspectives, ideas and affects. Some years ago, I came upon a science-fiction novel by Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), which offers a powerful insight on empathy and care, on this need to connect with and understand other species. In humans, we have different languages (or codes if you prefer), we have mediating devices (like our 💻 and 📱) and we have our bodies 💪. This is what I know. The freedom that I have in order to interpret the codes (or the bodies) is mine (just call it subjectivity). I find this potential for misunderstandings fascinating. When I moved from Canada to Germany, I found myself navigating in another language (even another body language) and my screen space grew more important in keeping a connection with people in Montreal. That is when I started to include the technological factor more seriously in the communication equation. Also, reading Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016) made me shift my perspective, trying to include others in this multi-species configuration and acknowledging the inherent interdependence between living beings themselves, as well as with technological others in this world. A post-human world has to be post-anthropocentric too. So this quest for a way to communicate with each other and develop multiple perspectives has always been involved in my work.

EL: One of the main premises of the project was to expand the understanding of cohabitation with networked non-humans. What influenced your research and creative process while making the work and which events/situations inspired you? 

MEL: Many things. Of course, me living abroad and relying on my screens for connection with home intensified my experience of networked non-humans as extensions and facilitators for efficient communication. This could be seen as a first trigger. I often feed on previous works and external research to start brainstorming. So the inspiration to imagine a communication technology that would function as a wearable augmentation of the body lies in late technological developments, in feminist science-fiction, media theory and philosophy. The idea of technology as a prosthesis of some sort to optimise the incomplete human body was reinforced by Karin Harrasser with her book Körper 2.0: Über die technische Erweiterbarkeit des Menschen (2013). Some research and personal experiences with online dating also helped focus my work on what an intimate connection through a screen could look like. Les sentiments du capitalisme (2007) by Eva Illouz helped me confirm my own feelings on the difficulty to express affects with words in the absence of the physical body (that is, without touch, smell, etc.) So I imagined a second skin that could offer protection (even against viruses), allowing the surface to change colour and texture like the skin of an 🐙 would (so that we too, could communicate chromatically). The second skin would optimise intimacy and empathy by remotely giving tactile sensation to the user. It would also optimise learning processes and allow a body to feel what another body feels. Some elements in science-fiction stories like Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy and Gotta Sing Gotta Dance (1978) by John Varley inspired me to think the device as a sustainable one, that is organic based, symbiotic, biodegradable and temporary.

EL: The organic and synthetic matter operate in different systems of knowledge. In your work, you often blend the two and engage with both human and non-human ecologies. What have you learnt from engaging with non-human ecosystems?

MEL: I have observed how we relate to others through technology and how this affects interactions and intimacies. I have also learnt to think of the concept of humanity as including technological others 🤖 (thanks to philosopher Rosi Braidotti). They are so near to our bodies that we almost cannot separate them from us any more. Implants are not necessary: we are all cyborgs already. Therefore, I think it is an interesting exercise to render technology in a more organic way. It reminds us of a certain fragility and prepares us for empathy. There is a great mutual dependency, between humans and the tools they use and love for what they provide and optimise. Non-human ecosystems have been programmed for a purpose and as long as they fulfil it, they are considered useful and are taken care of. In a capitalist system, non-functional beings are not useful. It makes us, humans and non-humans, disposable. So one thing I wish we’d keep in mind along the way, is that our organic bodies should be taken care of and respected, even if not considered ‘useful’ any more or at all – by whatever capitalist criteria society decided. And I like to think that empathy stays in the continuously updating definition of humanity.

EL: surface 4.0 (chromatic chatter no.2) (2020) presents the symbiotic extension as a device that would allow the wearer to escape ‘definition, meaning, categorisation’ and effectively detach themselves from their own identity. What makes these qualities significant in the context of the work?

MEL: It is more the formation of a singular identity that I find crucial here. With the chromatic way of communicating that the device would allow, I imagine a potential to escape the weight of defining words and to open the possibility of a new language based on iridescent colours, patterns and textures. Given that we wear that second skin device, every individual would be able to choose a different skin colour 🌈 and let it evolve with their sensations. It would result in a multitude of skin tones and patterns, constantly changing, showing the diversity of our becomings. I see the concept of difference here in a Deleuzian sense, as generative and inspirational, a multiplicity that stands for positive emancipation. Some affects and feelings are not easy to categorise or explain. There are parameters for which it is difficult to write a computer program. These are not easily quantifiable, but might be easier to express in colours and patterns, and I think technology can help us achieve that.

EL: Do humans have an ethical responsibility to care for networked non-humans and is it a mutual responsibility? What might this look like?

MEL: I think the responsibility is given by us and above all, by the world we share with other species. We definitely have a responsibility to care for a sustainable way of working with technologies; repairable, recyclable, or biodegradable technologies that are accessible for all to use. This is the responsibility that we should have in mind when thinking and producing new technologies.

EL: As an additional element to the film you sent us an AR filter. What’s the relationship between it and the proposition? Would you say that this is the current technologically feasible version of it?

MEL: Working in the field of media art, I follow technological developments. It informs my work, but I’m still a bit far away from the labs where it actually occurs (for now). There might be already wearable textile-based technologies enhancing tactility and coming near to the science-fiction I imagined. But yes, one could say the AR face filter is a technology that is available to me as the first visualisation of it.

EL: As part of the project, the curators invited you to respond to a brief and come up with a ‘creative proposition’. How did this process of creating a ‘teaser’ for a work feel to you in comparison to creating a finished work?

MEL: I liked the idea of providing an unfinished work, an input to contribute to a bigger conversation. It definitely gave me the opportunity to restructure my perspective, develop certain aspects of a new science-fiction narrative I was working on and see it integrated in an exciting project. Although I am not used to working super fast, I tried to condense the ideas I had in a form that gives an impression of what it could become. Looking forward to seeing the project online!