Campaigning for empathy: meet RAW Labs' artist Enni-Kukka Tuomala
A little over a year since the last local election in Newham, a very different sort of campaign is in motion. This empathy designer's work in the borough is proving timely against a backdrop of broader political uncertainty.
A graduate of Global Innovation Design at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, Enni-Kukka Tuomala has developed her own methodology and tools to create empathy as an outcome.
You launched your Campaign for Empathy in March. Can you tell us more about the project?
Of course. Since late 2017, I’ve been working with a group of Finnish MPs to design a collection of empathy tools with the purpose of reforming dialogue and interaction between politicians. Campaign for Empathy is an evolution of this: it’s the world’s first community-centred campaign, set in Newham, that focuses on bridging the ever-growing distance between communities.
The look and feel adopts a familiar language and aesthetic of political campaigns. I thought it would be interesting to take some of these cues and repurpose them in a different context. The idea is very much that this space is the Campaign for Empathy headquarters. There are slogans on the windows, we have campaign buttons — I’m running the whole residency as a live project and everything is done out in the open.
In your first workshop, you focused on giving empathy a tangible and physical form.
Yes, there’s this very abstract concept of empathy that we all instinctively know is a good thing, but sometimes find it hard to understand what it is in real terms. I ran a number of different exercises that involved participants looking at each other, talking to each other and touching. We drew some of these interactions and tried to understand where empathy and connection physically exist between us. We then made moulds of these physical manifestations from plaster. In the one and a half hour session, we went from simply talking about empathy to physically making these forms. It was amazing to see the evolution.
The campaign is timed to coincide with Brexit; why is empathy so important during this period?
At the core, what I’m trying to do is to help people understand someone else's perspective, and in a time of uncertainty, we need this now more than ever. Global research shows that our ability to empathise is declining quite rapidly, so there is a real need to facilitate both safe spaces and safe conversations — not even specifically to discuss Brexit or politics — but to interact with people who might come from a different place than you.
At the core, what I’m trying to do is to help people understand someone else's perspective, and in a time of uncertainty, we need this now more than ever.
Enni-Kukka Tuomala, empathy designer and artist
You’re very keen for Newham residents to get involved in the campaign to help shape the output.
Absolutely. I want to hear thoughts about empathy in Newham: if locals think it exists, where it already exists, and where it’s needed. I’m at the studio most days, so anyone is welcome to pop in for a chat, or I’m available on email. There are also a series of events open to the public between now and September that covers everything from workshops to exhibitions, and I’ll be staging an empathy rally as part of the London Festival of Architecture in June. We’ll create a manifesto, make banners and posters, there will be food trucks, music, and a few speakers. The day will culminate with a march along the river in an effort to reclaim the public realm as a space for empathy.
What do you hope to achieve with your residency?
On the most basic level, I want to start more conversations about empathy and increase awareness of different perspectives. On a more practical level, I would love to develop an empathy toolkit for citizens and communities if they find that would be useful, which could be shared with different organisations or groups. I’m also keen to keep the campaign’s presence at RAW Labs in some way once the residency is over as it’s so connected to what’s happening around us right now.
The space is so weird and wonderful; it’s not the London most people know. People who visit me end up spending the whole day here.
Enni-Kukka Tuomala, empathy designer and artist
Finally, how would you describe your experience of the Royal Docks and its people?
The space is so weird and wonderful; it’s not the London most people know. People who visit me end up spending the whole day here. It’s such a privilege to be right by the water, you can see the weather change like five times a day. I had an old colleague visit from LA recently and he was so fascinated by the place. We were on the DLR and he said, “I feel like I’m in Blade Runner!” There are these flatlands that you don’t see anywhere else — it’s so cinematic! I spend a lot of time walking around and exploring places, and I’m always struck by how much space there is and how little people there are. But those that I have come across are incredibly friendly, and I have to say in the context of London, that isn’t always the case.
The Boundaries Exhibition curated by Enni-Kukka Tuomala is on until 30 June.
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