Empathy for Place

Over the River by Edrex Fontanilla and Sarah Nelson Wright
Over the River allows the user to experience the recently vanished landscape of Hunter's Point South, across from the Manhattan skyline. VR is employed to invoke empathy for a place, which takes on a political importance.

When a viewer dons the VR mask for Over the River, they lie virtually amongst riverbank debris, their body embedded in unforgiving rock, their eyes mere inches from the shoreline, threatened by the salty wash that laps against discarded fluorescent blue Styrofoam nearby. Next moment, the viewer hovers above six foot undulations of wind-swept flora, as NYC skyscrapers peek between branches wagging in the distance. And the moment after, the viewer is transported to an abandoned burgundy bridge, precariously balanced on twisted iron wrought by nature. With each revelatory moment, an ache forms in the viewer, a yearning for a magnificent space that is no longer.

This space is Hunter’s Point South, a 30-acre formerly industrial site in Long Island City, across the East River from the Empire State Building. Layers of landfill that were left fallow for 40 years grew into a verdant forest with a robust ecology. It was an “accidental playground” (to use Daniel Campo’s term from his book of the same name) for a diverse group of visitors who wandered into this liminal space. They experienced the magic of being alone in a forest atop a cliff across from the Manhattan skyline, hidden in plain sight. In fall 2015, the city leveled this forest to make way for high-rise condominiums and an official public park.

Documentation of  Over the River, courtesy Edrex Fontanilla & Sarah Nelson Wright

Over the River is a virtual reality documentary that transports users to this uncanny urban space, allowing them to exist in a place that no longer exists. This VR project was installed December 17, 2015, to January 21, 2016, at the Radiator Gallery as part of the Chance Ecologies exhibit curated by Catherine Grau, Nathan Kensinger, and Stephen Zacks. Chance Ecologies offers a framework for artists’ explorations that investigate “un-designed landscapes” and wilderness found in abandoned sites and socially undefined environments, and celebrates the hidden histories of wild spaces as a valuable part of urban ecology. Twenty Chance Ecologies artists spent the summer of 2015 at Hunter’s Point South, holding events and developing works in response to this imminently endangered forest. While some of the visitors to Radiator Gallery had attended events on site, the majority never experienced Hunter’s Point South before the forest vanished. How could a person gain empathy for somewhere they have never been?

Though the ability of virtual reality to invoke true empathy for other humans is contested, we were intrigued by the idea of using “the empathy machine” for an experience almost entirely devoid of human presence. We employed VR in Over the River to invoke empathy for a place.

What does it mean to have empathy for a place? Though it might be hard to imagine that places have feelings we can share and understand, the idea of inhabiting the perspective of a place is more conceivable. If we can spend time there, we experience what a place sees and hears. We sense from its unique energetic presence and the physical scars left behind what it may have seen or heard in the past. In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes, “What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend.”  In his recent book, Robert Lamb Hart extends de Botton’s application of human empathy to landscapes and urban design: “We make emotional judgments: Do we resonate with love and desire, detest, or envy the kind of personality that we read into this place? Does it echo or reflect our values and tastes or reject them? … We, ourselves, are the primary contexts that give a place ‘meaning.'”  Imbuing a place with meaning is prerequisite to believing its existence matters.

Over the River allows the user to experience this recently vanished landscape via an 8-minute looped 360° observational documentary. The viewer’s senses in this VR installation are teased further by the crunch of gravel beneath their feet, and by the ambisonic cues that punctuate key moments and steal the viewer’s attention. Their field of view is not entirely constrained by the project’s filmmakers — as VR offers partial viewing agency to the participant with 360° of visual access to various sites of Hunter’s Point. Over the River offers perceptually rich fragments of media to create unique experiential moments, as we strive to invoke empathy for a place.

We find Seung Chan Lim’s conceptualization of empathy useful here. The practice of empathy, he argues, entails four active processes:  listening, considering, respecting, and acting. These processes deemphasize empathy as a tool for acquiring insight, and instead value the  journey with the “other.” He draws an interesting contrast between the desire to understand the “other” as an end-goal, and simply being in flow “to feel a sense of unity with them over a prolonged duration of time.” The various places we depict become the characters in our films. As we “interview” the different sites along Newtown Creek, the Flushing River, and other liminal New York City spaces in the Chance Ecologies project, we observe, we reflect, we engage with the environment and capture those moments in the hopes that those who would view our work might be able to feel a sense of flow with these places as well. To empathize with place is to experience a sense of unity and engage in historical inquiry with the unplanned, post-industrial wild spaces we explore in our media projects.

In this respect, the VR vignettes of the different places — imperfect depictions of happenstance moments within interstitial sites — might point to 360° video production and its VR counterpart as emergent forms of small gauge authorship. In capturing this liminal space, Over the River invoked Kevin T. Allen’s notion of small gauge scholarship, using “an imperfect tool … for small encounters with small things that usually fall between the cracks.” At the risk of stumbling into the typical pitfall of discussing essence of form, it would be remiss of us not to make note: our use of 360° video capture sits between the immediacy of handheld histories (by way of media created by smartphone and similar connective media devices), and the more significant VR productions (such as by National Geographic and Oculus Rift, or by larger studios with $60K stereoscopic multi-camera rigs). Our investigations of wild, urban landscapes are reflective and deliberate, and with a presence of mind in the act of seeing not unlike what Pauline Oliveros prescribes for “deep listening.” Yet, with small gauge film, we’re empowered (or liable, depending on the scenario) to take greater risks with our filmmaking, framing shots that more frequently break from filmic convention, and sometimes are captured in rather perilous conditions. When Jennifer Heuson enumerated her core principles — care, duration, brokenness, forgetfulness, and rebelliousness — her ideas resonate wonderfully with our approach. “Bumpiness of the road,” indeed!

Fundamentally, our use of small gauge forms celebrates access. Whereas small gauge scholarship might irreverently unpack ideas with the immediacy afforded by social media (a more lively scholarly exchange in this current technological milieu), small gauge authorship would be a bit more literal in manifesting access. In their works for the Newtown Creek Armada, Sarah Nelson Wright, along with Nathan Kensinger and Laura Chipley, fashioned purpose-built aquatic vehicles. These remote-controlled model boats were equipped with underwater video cameras that documented Newtown Creek, a toxic Superfund site, revealing the interplay of nature, industry and pollution on this secluded waterway. For the Chance Ecologies  exhibition at the Queens Museum (due to open October 8, 2016, and will run for three weeks), we captured different sites along the Flushing River that are closed off to the public, or would otherwise be too hazardous for exploration. And in the case of Over the River, the verdant landscape of Hunters Point has been razed. Our interactive documentaries provide access to places that would otherwise be beyond reach for many. Our advocacy is immersing the viewer in these places virtually, in order to promote empathy for these special sites.

Gaining empathy for places takes on a political importance in the contested environment of cities afflicted with hyper-gentrification. A place whose beauty was both invisible and unprofitable, the unique landscape of Hunters Point South was easily swallowed by “the monster that ate New York.” The inaccessibility and subsequent destruction of Hunters Point South presents a challenge to exploring the value of preserving urban wilds and unplanned spaces in the city’s future landscape. It is difficult to advocate for places we cannot access. This challenge has implications for the environmental movement as well; if Edward O. Wilson is to be believed, to save the planet, humans must stay out of at least half of it. Essentially, it may be imperative to feel empathy for places we cannot visit.

Footage courtesy Nathan Kensinger & Laura Chipley

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