Enni-Kukka Tuomala is representing Finland with her installation The Empathy Echo Chamber at the London Design Biennale 2021. Inside the Empathy Echo Chamber visitors are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and perspectives together and respond to each other through empathy. Enni-Kukka told us about the installation and the empathy emergency we’re experiencing.
You describe yourself as an empathy artist and designer. What do you mean by this?
My entire creative practice is centred around empathy. I strive to foster empathy as the outcome of my work and move empathy from being an ingredient in the artistic process to making it the objective. It’s important that artists and designers don’t just see themselves as empathisers, but act as catalysts for empathy in others. Empathy is fundamental to all collaboration and cooperation.
You diagnose an empathy deficit in contemporary society. Tell us about this crisis of empathy.
The empathy deficit is a well-documented and researched issue. It refers to the decline in human ability to feel empathy towards others and adopt and understand other perspectives. We’re seeing the symptoms of this decline today spread across our daily news headlines. I strongly believe that a decline in empathy both between humans, and humans and our natural environment is one of the root causes behind many of the global challenges we face today, therefore empathy also needs to be part of the solution.
How can art and design address this deficit?
Of course, any solution needs to be approached from a range of perspectives. As an artist and designer, I approach the issue through creativity. At its best, art and design can paint a picture of a different kind of future. It can bring people on the journey to craft that future together and engage people emotionally to open their eyes, hearts and minds to new possibilities.
Tell us about the Empathy Echo Chamber.
We all live inside our own echo chambers more than ever before. For the first time in human history it’s possible for us to live in a world curated by ourselves, in a bubble where what we already think and feel is echoed back to us. These individual echo chambers exemplify isolation, polarisation and mistrust, and hinder us from having a necessary and vital interaction with people who think differently to us. My installation the Empathy Echo Chamber challenges this familiar notion of the echo chamber by transforming it into a visible and tangible space you can step into, in order to reframe it as a positive space of connection and conversation. At the Biennale, it comes to life as a physical installation that you can enter with a stranger as well as a virtual space that you can access from anywhere in the world. Unlike our existing echo chambers, the Empathy Echo Chamber is created for a moment of exchange and shared reflection.
You’ve also developed a virtual Empathy Echo Chamber that will be exhibited at the London Design Biennale, tell us about that.
A through line in all my work is trying to make the intangible tangible. The virtual Empathy Echo Chamber, developed in collaboration with Josue Ibanez, is an extension of the physical installation. It was important for me to create an experience that is accessible for people who can’t be at Somerset House. Everyone who enters the Empathy Echo Chamber online will be invited to immerse themselves in the space, and explore a series of questions that have been left for them by previous visitors. Hopefully, we’ll have amassed a broad ecosystem of questions connecting people across time and space by the end of the exhibition.
What do you hope the Empathy Echo Chamber contributes to the broader world of design on display at the London Design Biennale?
I hope that the piece challenges people to think about how we define “design”, and consider the role of empathy within it. I want to highlight empathy as a tool, theme and outcome at the heart of design. It also feels important and relevant to create an installation that engages people in a physical experience, since we are living through a moment of re-entry into public life. In the Empathy Echo Chamber, the central component is the shared experience.
How are you looking to develop your empathy-focused artistic practice going forward?
My empathy practice is in constant evolution and motion. I’ve recently opened my first Empathy HQ, an open community space and my creative studio, in Bow, London. Another project I’ve just launched with the Design Museum in London is called Forest Empathy and it examines the relationship between humans and the natural world, specifically trees. After focusing on interpersonal empathy between humans for years, I am now excited to expand my work to exploring the role of empathy in human and non-human relationships.
Empathy Echo Chamber is supported by The Finnish Embassy in London, Light Cognitive and the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland.
The Empathy Echo Chamber at London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, WC2R 1LA United Kingdom, 1-27 June, tickets from £16. All details available here.
Text: Volter Rechardt, Image: Jonathan Chan