ON EMPATHY – A CURATORIAL APPROACH

lecture by NATASA PETRESIN-BACHELEZ

24th of April 2014, Node Gallery

Current research into empathy in the social sciences, feminism and art centres on two “turns” – the reflexive turn and the affective turn. In the early 1990s, feminist theory challenged the notion according to which the scientific representation of knowledge is objective, and introduced a focus on the importance of being as a mode of knowing, giving rise to the reflexive turn in feminism. During the previous decades in human sciences, this reflexive turn led to the systematic and rigorous disclosure by researchers of their methodology and their own subjective views. As an extension of this movement, the affective turn in feminist theory and the social sciences reflected a body’s capacity to affect and be affected, marking a significant shift away from the text and discourse as key theoretical touchstones and placing the body and personal experience at the heart of the debate.

Empathy gradually came to the fore as a notion that made it possible to view feeling as knowledge, functioning as a window on the experiences of others. This “politics of empathy” is used by researchers and artists in an attempt to understand and support the actions and motivations of those under study. An empathic approach in the form of a conversational style that combines narrations of lived experience with first-person testimonies alongside other observations enables the viewer to feel and understand the material and cultural context. At the same time, discussions about transnational feminism have highlighted the danger of a generalised understanding of empathy as a sentimental attachment to the other, and also even the danger of “cannibalising” the other through the mask of caring about them and their situation. Instead of being considered from the point of view of the abolition of the hierarchy that underpins it and from the spirit of affective solidarity that emanates from it, too often empathy slides into pity, especially when socially or politically privileged people express their concern for the “global others”.

I will discuss on these issues on a few examples from my own practice – through the work on reflexive and situated or embedded institutional practice that I acquired through co-directing Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers (2010-2012), through curating a triennial in times of moral and social decay in Ljubljana, and through current curating of a series of exhibitions on empathy at Jeu de Paume in Paris. I will try to give an insight into why I believe curatorial programmes should teach young students how to be empathic.

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez is an independent curator, living and working in Paris. She graduated in Comparative Literature and History of Art at the University of Ljubljana, and obtained her master’s degree in Theory of Art at the EHESS in Paris. As a curator, Petrešin-Bachelez worked in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, Jeu de Paume, Le Plateau/FRAC Ile-de-France, Paris Photo, and, between 2010 and 2012, was Codirector of Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In 2006, she cofounded the seminar “Something You Should Know” at the EHESS in Paris, with Patricia Falguières, Élisabeth Lebovici, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Among other projects, she collaborated as a curator with the Lyon Biennial (2007) and curated exhibitions for Škuc Gallery, Ljubljana (2004), Living Art Museum, Reykjavik (2006), De Appel, Amsterdam (2007), Transmediale, Berlin (2008), Mala galerija, Ljubljana (2010), ICI, New York (2012), U3 – the 7th triennial of contemporary art in Slovenia at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana (2013), and Jeu de Paume, Paris (forthcoming). Since 2011, she has been appointed as the Chief Editor of Manifesta Journal.