Fellowship Insights: Erica Scourti

Artist Erica Scourti shares the outcomes of her Near Now Fellowship.

Posted on 25th July 2017

Written by Lee Nicholls

Erica Scourti's work draws on personal experience to explore life, labour, gender and love in a fully mediated world.

Erica used her Fellowship to research and develop new work, expand her network and explore new avenues for presenting her art. Erica pursued several projects during her Fellowship, including a collaboration with Near Now Studio member and artist Candice Jacobs, co-curating and co-producing Sweet Talk: The Achatic Rites, the inaugural event of a new artist-led network.

During the Fellowship period, Erica was commissioned by the Wellcome Collection to respond to Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond, their September 2016 - January 2017 exhibition examining the rise and fall of the mental asylum and how it has shaped the complex landscape of mental health today.

Empathy Deck

Through the Wellcome commission, Erica collaborated with technologist Tom Armitage to produce Empathy Deck, a live Twitter bot that responds to its followers with a unique 'empathy card' and an accompanying physical artwork, installed for the exhibition.

One 'empathy card' sent by the Twitter bot to a follower.

One 'empathy card' sent by the Twitter bot to a follower.

The Twitter bot generates responses to tweets by its followers. It makes new ‘cards’ from an imaginary, infinite deck of possible responses, composed of images and text generated from Erica’s personal diary and various self help and therapeutic texts. Cards are a gift for the recipient at that moment in time. Empathy Deck also occasionally makes cards for itself.

Inspired by the language of divination card systems like tarot, the bot uses five years’ worth of the artist’s personal diaries intercut with texts from a range of therapeutic and self help literatures. The texts are accompanied by symbols drawn from the artist’s photo archive, in an echo of the contemporary pictographic language of emoticons. Somewhere between an overly enthusiastic new friend who responds to every tweet with a ‘me-too!’ anecdote of their own and an ever-ready advice dispenser, the bot attempts an empathic response based on similar experiences. It raises questions about the automation of intangible human qualities like empathy, friendship and care, in a world in which online interactions are increasingly replacing mental health and care services.

— From 'Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond' exhibition text

Follow @empathydeck on Twitter to receive your own unique digital card.

Below is an excerpt from Dealing the Empathy Deck, a fascinating and in-depth look at the themes, inspirations and research behind the project, written by Erica Scourti and first published on June 29, 2017.

Dealing the Empathy Deck

Around nine months after the Empathy Deck went live as part of the Wellcome Collection's exhibition 'Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond', the live 'Twitter bot with feelings' received a mini-makeover. To accompany its relaunch I wanted to give a little background on the project, so I set out to write what was meant to be a short essay about the subjects it touches on. Unfortunately, my first attempt came to a halt, partly due to an overwhelming sense of dread that I would fail to cover the concept of empathy from an adequate number of angles, or in sufficient depth.

What people mean when they invoke the word empathy can differ greatly; it appears frequently in journalism and cultural production, in genres as diverse as self-help, marketing, spirituality, neuroscience and politics, not to mention art and literature. It's meaning has also shifted numerous times in the hundred or so years since it first came into English usage via eighteenth century German aesthetic theory, where the term Einfühlung, literally meaning 'feeling-into', described the viewer's active participation in a work of art. In 1908 it entered the English language as the neologism 'empathy', coined from the Greek 'em' for 'in' and 'pathos' for 'feeling'; by mid-century it was increasingly associated with interpersonal relationships, and has been a popular topic of psychological research ever since. While I don't go into any depth on the history of the word, (Madgalena Nowak's essay is a great primer in it) my text reflects the most widely-understood current meaning of empathy as a cousin of compassion: a broadly positive psychological mechanism that enables feeling for, and with, others.

For those not on Twitter, or who don’t follow it, the Empathy Deck (@empathydeck) is a bot, made in collaboration with programmer Tom Armitage, that responds to its followers' tweets with a one-off 'empathy card': a digital image combining my hand-made collages with text drawn from my diaries, plus self-knowledge and advice literature like astrology, personality tests, and dating types. A matching emoticon, key-worded descriptively or according to its healing properties and other attributes (amethyst for money problems, passion-flower for insomnia) completes the picture, creating a culturally-contingent backend of remedies and expressions. The text's tone is somewhere between an overly-literal friend, always eager to share (or compete) with a 'me too' anecdote and a smattering of advice and a demented version of the motivational quotes that feature on tea bag tags, posters, skin (as tattoos) and social media, especially within female-dominated platforms like Pinterest.

The bot's card format also brings to mind tarot decks and their new-agey cousins like oracle, goddess, healing and angel cards, often written by self-help authors like Doreen Virtue; my own 'guidance' cards, which I’ve been making over the years as meditation aids and as support for bad times, partly inspired the project. Drawing on these existing templates for self-advice in a broadly female-dominated marketplace, the Empathy Deck emerges from what Lauren Berlant calls an intimate public that would be recognised as part of women's culture, which binds together disparate strangers through affective ties and a shared worldview. Magazines, chat shows, blogs and other forums all help to bolster this culture, creating a space for sharing experiences that are both particular and generic: heartbreak, family struggles, body issues and so on.

Read the full 'Dealing the Empathy Deck' essay

Further reading

Author

Lee Nicholls

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