For her MFA Student Fall Thesis project in the MFA Graphic and Interactive Design Program at Temple University, Karen Watkins responded to a topic prompt on empathy.
Watkins took her research and inspiration from the book Daring Greatly and subsequent TEDx talks by Brené Brown. Brown writes, “Shame needs 3 things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I am alone.” Shame is correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Shame often results in self-talk around feelings of embarrassment, guilt and humiliation. Brown concludes that sharing our most vulnerable experiences with a trusted person who can provide understanding and empathy can be healing.
Watkins’ goal was to create an environment where participants experience empathy in response to reading about the feelings associated with shame such as embarrassment, guilt and vulnerability as expressed by others. She set out to create a response device that enables a connection with these shared feelings.
The underpinning of her work was the belief that “By physically connecting to the feelings associated with shame in the shared sentiment of ‘me too,’ the viewer will experience genuine empathy. Globally, [this was an exercise] to practice understanding others without judgment.”
Because the content was sensitive, Watkins was careful to protect the anonymity of the respondents, and she developed a direct and unbranded approach to telling participants’ stories. Emphasis was placed on presenting the stories without interpretation or judgment. Another challenge was cost. The fabrication costs were addressed by employing simple materials such as black foam board and one simple acrylic intro panel, which fit well with the unbranded approach. The ballot box-like device used to solicit input was a ready-made item purchased online. These unassuming and almost “clinical” devices were deliberately chosen to encourage participation. This approach carried through to the treatment of the final panels, which presented the stories in the same neutral manner, allowing the words to be “heard,” not visualized or interpreted. The stories were numbered to give an idea of the quantity of the responses and to continue the neutral, “clinical” vibe.
In Phase One of her project, Watkins solicited anonymous statements describing feelings of shame experienced in a variety of categories within the community at Tyler School of Art. In Phase Two, she displayed the statements in a direct, non-judgmental, neutral way, using simple text on black foam board panels. With a simple prompt, viewers were invited to respond to the statements by affixing a white sticker dot to the panels they related to—physically connecting with the feelings described by denoting “me too” and invoking a cultural response somewhat similar to a Facebook “like.”
“I didn’t know what to expect when I solicited the anonymous input from the school community. I wondered if anyone would respond seriously or if they would respond at all. The measure of success was agreed to be the number of white stickers placed on the black boards by ‘empathic’ participants,” notes Watkins.
The project was of great interest to the schools’ Student Care group. Its members studied and discussed the responses in the interest of the health of the community. Says Watkins, “I later learned that the advising staff photographed the wall to share at a conference for a discussion about student issues in higher education. Going forward, this interactive experience could have value in a public application such as in schools and workplaces. It would also be interesting to see what the response would be in a different environment than an art school. It’s possible the project could be expanded more globally through social media.”
Watkins’ original idea for the project was simple: create the feeling of empathy by connecting it with the shared experience of shame. The depth and thoughtfulness of the anonymous responses was unexpected and by the end of the project, she had collected more than 120 responses. Even when the exhibit went public, people continued to fill out cards. Some left messages on scraps of discarded paper from the sticker rolls when there were no cards left to write on. Some thanked her for creating the project. In the end, Watkins’ project reinforced Brené Brown’s belief that “People want to connect.”
"In an elegant and detached way, this project presents individual narratives as a collection arranged in a manner that visually might convey sound (storytelling) or community. The installation ultimately moves the viewer to physically acknowledge their shared experience and empathy."
"This exhibition's exploration of shame and the power by which we can diffuse it and other complex emotions through public acknowledgement is simple, direct and beautifully executed."