Empathy has been in short supply over the past few years, shrinking from public discourse and political decisions. An empathetic president is now facing a potentially cantankerous Congress as right-wingers continue to build their coalitions. More people want empathy shown to them than want to show empathy to others, as evidenced by proliferations of violence ~ physical and verbal ~ against marginalized people ranging from Muslim immigrants to the LGBTQI community. But we need not be that specific, as women and people of color still suffer around the world. And who will hear? And who will act?
Sound artist and experimentalist Jen Kutler wades into this mine field with a gem of reflective activity. The artist “outfitted subjects with sensors reading electrodermal activity, breath and heart rate,” then exposed them to alternating aural snippets of silence and violence. Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy examines these readings and combines them with field recordings and mulched music to create a study of human interaction ~ although the sum total sounds less than human, at times even robotic. One might chalk this up to empathy’s enemy, apathy. “feasible” is foreboding, with low tones intimating a threat, or worse, the excitement of witnessing a threat to others, whether a crime show, news report, or violence against peaceful protesters.
It’s a good thing that these sounds are accompanied by more peaceful videos, which temper the threat. “Long Term Memory Loss” includes sudden rattles that might set off a person with post-traumatic stress syndrome, although the skeletal, kaleidoscopic trees suggest a different sort of hypnosis. Just as a person become desensitized to violence, one may develop the opposite feeling when guided in benevolent manner. In another context, an ambient track and video may take on sinister meaning, as in the deprogramming of A Clockwork Orange. “short term memory loss” appears more like a swirling array of scans, data waiting to be interpreted, insoluble questions without answers. “borders” wears its heart on its sleeve; reading the title, it’s impossible not to think of Trump’s wall and the Muslim ban (now halted), or Brexit (still unfolding), but the images and sounds are fluid. The eyes see porous, morphing patterns of liquid; the ears hear waves, implying both border and endless sea.
Without images, it’s hard to know what to make of “fairness,” a Rorschach test of sound. Are these voices crying out in pain, begging for mercy, or forming a choir of empathy? The closing track, “a piece for amplified children,” makes the choral connection even more apparent, adding the soft sounds of birds and water. Which begs the question, “Does this album sound like empathy?” To these ears, it sounds more like pain, the final array of field recordings more a Band-Aid than a cure. It’s obvious that Kutler wants everything to be all right, especially when it comes to children. On the other hand, these layers of suffering may yet produce empathy: the initial experience, the secondary experience of the subject exposed to the sounds, and the tertiary experience of the listener thrice removed. If such, Kutler may have achieved more than the clinical mirror of data may imply. Strangely, the more of the same sort of suffering we witness, the more desensitized we get (for example, repetitions of the same footage). But when exposed to a variety of personalized encounters (represented by the different tracks and timbres), our empathy may be sparked. If listeners are affected even while distanced, hope may yet be feasible. (Richard Allen)