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The art of empathy

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Clare Patey, Perth Festival

A Mile in My Shoes, promotional image A Mile in My Shoes, promotional image
photo Kate Raworth
In enlightened programming, Wendy Martin, the new Artistic Director of the Perth Festival of International Arts, has invited curators Clare Patey and Kitty Ross and cultural thinker Roman Krznaric to stage A Mile in My Shoes, a work in which you enter a huge cardboard box, select a pair of shoes belonging to a stranger, put them on and walk a mile listening to the owner of the shoes speaking about themselves. It’s part of a larger project titled The Empathy Museum, founded in London and beginning to travel internationally. Krznaric, raised in Sydney and the author of Empathy, A Handbook for Revolution (Rider, 2014) is a key speaker at the festival’s Writers’ Week.

I spoke via Skype with Clare Patey, an artist and curator who has produced huge installations that directly engage communities and audiences in addressing the nature of their lives and environment. I ask her about the origins of The Museum of Empathy, which go back to the mid-90s in London, where she lives.

Patey says she created a series of museums “in a disused warehouse on the Southbank in London before it was such a cultural quarter. The building was owned by a property developer focused on social housing who wanted to bring life back into the area. I asked what they wanted to do with it and they said they’d quite like it to be a new museum of the River Thames. I decided that at the heart of the project would be a question about the cultural space of the museum and that the whole project should be a participatory forum of debate about what a new museum for London would look like and what people wanted of it. It didn’t happen but it created a model for an experimental museum.

“The first was a Museum of Collections, looking at the psychology of collecting. We invited 42 locals to display their collections—toast racks, cheesy record covers, rejection letters (!), Dolly Parton items, snow domes, coins, ties and 15,000 Kinder toys—all catalogued. We interviewed each person in their home about their collection and what it meant to them and, with a theatre designer, asked them how they’d like their collection shown. We built Dolly Parton’s living room to show that collection.”

I asked about what the museum did for the collectors. “It put them in touch with each other” and raised issues about “when is a collection complete and how do you pass it on and what does it mean when transferred to a museum?” As Patey points out this is critical for any museum object, not just those from everyday collections.

Sharing and participation are elementary to Patey’s practice, if not at the time central to the Museum of Collections, but even then there was a wall dedicated for visitors to make their own contributions to the overall collection—“a love poem in Hungarian; instructions on how to reverse park… We were experimenting with ideas of agency in the audience which became central to subsequent shows.” Next was the Museum of Me, in which the public collected in cans their responses to artworks and observations about themselves in answers to questions—35,000 in the end, time capsules of exhibitions of the self in the year 1999. Then came the Museum of The Unknown (identifying mysterious objects), The Museum of Emotions (with its spaces in which to scream, sigh, feel love and lust and traverse the seven stages of grieving) and eventually, The Museum of the Thames, the overall series taking five years up to 2001 and providing the foundations for the Museum of Empathy.

After the museums project, Patey worked with LIFT [London International Festival of Theatre] on two shows, one of them, Old Dog New Tricks, testing proverbs. The one thing she couldn’t do in the series of caravans that housed this show, she says, “was put a bull in a china shop.”

Patey then went on “to work a lot with food.” A year-long project involved “an allotment, a primary school, chef, gardener and five artists growing and cooking to create an alternative school dinner. It was tied to key in with all areas of the school curriculum. It was like an outdoor classroom. The quality of conversation and the physical acts—and this has to do with empathy—of planting, weeding and harvesting frees you up for a different quality of conversation. Some children didn’t know a carrot came out of the ground—‘Disgusting!’ But later said, ‘I’ll have the beetroot.’” Patey comments on how we’re increasingly aware of the origins of food, but not of consumer items like clothing and furniture.

Clare Patey Clare Patey
Out of this project, starting in 2007, came Feast on the Bridge with the Thames Festival, another year-long project, this time “growing food in allotments, urban gardens and schools. The festival got permission to close a bridge on the river. We lined up banquet tables on it, collected 5,000 food stories from Londoners and illustrated them on tablecloths. The project brought together farmers, ethical food producers, foragers, artists, herbalists and campaigners to explore the whole food narrative, from the soil to growing and eating together and the waste cycle —composting workshops, worm farms, anaerobic digesters…We collected the waste in golden wheelbarrows. Three thousand people sat down and ate together.”

A very busy Patey has also been involved in work around environmental issues, creating The Ministry of Trying To Do Something About It with the New Economics Foundation think tank, stemming a feeling of public helplessness by issuing carbon ration books, based on those of World War II Britain, in a campaign titled Ration Me Up (2009). Patey explains that the book “showed if you were living within your fair global share of CO2 and how to adjust when buying socks or getting a flight to Sydney from London.” She also made a TV program, Our Human Footprint, about the amounts of materials an average British person consumes in a lifetime. I mention paper production and Patey laughs: “The average British family is more likely to have two cars than two books!”

Clare Patey met Roman Krznaric “when working on environmental projects and he’d been to The Museum of Emotions. After he wrote the book he wanted to bring its ideas onto an experiential plane.” Therefore, A Mile in My Shoes is “fitted out like a shoe shop, but with the names of the owners on the boxes. If you don’t know your size, then your feet are measured. In London we had 30 pairs and we’ll add another 40 in Perth. We’re collecting more for British Health and for shows in Beirut and Brazil. Maybe we’ll connect with climate change and refugees, and we’ll be online soon.”

In London, Patey employed 15 audio producers, mostly from radio, to record the stories from a community including “a sewer worker, lifeboat operators, suicide watch staff, a hospice operator, a drag queen, a chess grandmaster and an ex-prisoner who’s now an artist. They just tell personal stories.

“The choice of shoes depends on the sizes available, but a few visitors imagine they’re in a real shoe shop: ‘Have you got these in a red or with a bit of heel?’ Some men are offended by the prospect of wearing the drag queen stilettos which are size 11—which I couldn’t walk in—but a dad in his 50s with his family took to them.” The sewage waders apparently worried some wearers. Feedback comments indicated that people felt they’d got to know the shoe owners, some would have liked to meet them—‘Where is their flower shop?’ For others the experience enabled them to reflect on their own lives, thinking about the hospice and ‘what is a good death?’ Conversations would break out, says Patey, when people returned from their walk. She recalls one night just before closing, two young interns on their way to being surgeons discussing how they’d had to necessarily reduce empathy during their training and were thinking about how to build it again.

Patey explains, “I’m not claiming to totally transform anyone’s life but there’s something about being on a physical journey while you’re on an emotional one and inhabiting that person’s shoes that makes a difference. You find yourself walking and looking down and they’re not your shoes…”

A Mile in My Shoes is the first of a series that will eventually become a fully installed Museum of Empathy, “conceived like a kind of high street as an antidote to the homogenisation of consumerism and high street culture. It will have a library, café, shoe shop, undertaker, gym, laundrette and travel agency.”

Clare Patey is currently working on a project titled Edible Utopia and also with Tipping Point, which addresses cultural responses to climate change. It involves “a group of structural engineers to build an inside-out house,” she says, laughing, “to reveal all the infrastructure that goes into it.”

Perth International Arts Festival, The Museum of Empathy, A Mile in My Shoes, curated by Clare Patey and Kitty Ross in collaboration with Roman Krznaric, Stirling Gardens, 18 Feb-6 March; Roman Krznaric, Writers’ Week, Octagon Theatre, Perth, 18 Feb;

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 23

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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