Embodying Empathy

The SSHRC-funded Embodying Empathy project is a multidisciplinary critical and creative project that is using emerging digital technology to construct a virtual Canadian Indian Residential School. It was formed through a collaboration between Drs. Muller, Sinclair and Woolford, professors at the University of Manitoba, who discussed the details of the project in a Critical Conversations seminar on Indian Residential Schools on Nov. 23, 2015. The project concerns Indian Residential Schools that lie at the heart of what many say is the attempted genocide of Canadian Indigenous peoples.

The project attempts to bring users closer to traumatic experiences that may be considered unknowable. According to sociologist Woolford, the project “is not attempting to put you in the shoes of a child in a residential school but to help you better understand the experience of being removed from one’s family and culture, and forced into an alien culture.” It also uses technology to mobilize testimony for educational and historical purposes. The project will consider whether similar installations are capable of bridging the distances between victims and secondary witnesses to genocide. The project’s goals also include evaluating the usefulness of immersive design in the representation of atrocities.

Embodying Empathy is community-based and collaborative. Ted Fontaine is the leader of its Survivor Advisory Council and has helped bring together six survivors from Manitoba schools who are participating in the project. Dr. Woolford provided an overview of the process of organizing a community-based participatory project that is respectful of the experiences and autonomy of the individuals and communities affected by Indian Residential Schools. The participatory design of the project means that the project is shaped by the Indigenous participants.

The project is multi-stage and includes various technologies. Dr. Sinclair, director of the University of Manitoba’s Media Lab, reviewed the technological challenges of the project. It is meant to create an environment that is fully immersive and dynamically interactive, and includes testimony, audio-visuals, virtual reality technology and other cutting-edge human-computer interactive components. Sinclair recounted that questions of ethics, trauma and accessibility were considered through the consultation process.

Critics and some literature argue that immersion of this kind is not going to result in empathetic gain; however, work in museum studies suggests that exposure to other people’s accounts makes museum-goers more empathetic. Dr. Muller said the team hopes to contribute to that debate and that the project has value regardless due to its collaborative nature and the testimony of the collaborators.

Questions

How do you deal with the challenge of producing something that is as technologically advanced as the virtual and gaming technology already widely available, especially to children?

The representation has to meet the needs of many different types of audiences. The consultation process will expand to include a survey of these various groups to consider whether it is true to the experiences of the participants. It will never meet the needs of everyone.

Do we need to be immersed in the environment to feel something?

Muller said that question comes up often. He believes what we need are occasions for reflection and knowledge. However, the research team’s approach is informed by contemporary museological practice that assumes we do need immersion to produce lasting impact. The hope is that more immersion equals lasting impact that will result in more action and better people.

Audio podcasts are also available for seminars in this series.

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