MA Art Museum and Gallery Studies student, Roberta Harrison, talks to her father, John Harrison, about his recent public artwork, Empathy Tower. This was curated by the NewBridge Project in Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in October 2016 and had a subsequent iteration at the Project’s former space on New Bridge Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne later that month.

With today’s technology, world news is readily accessible and stories abound for which we may feel empathy – yet rarely is there a chance to express this emotion publicly. It was this that my father, the artist, John Harrison, wished to address with the work, Empathy Tower, following an open call to artists from the Newcastle-based NewBridge Project to create a response to the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ follows the story of a 59 year-old Geordie carpenter, who needed welfare assistance from the State after suffering a heart attack, which rendered him unable to work. The film highlights loopholes in the Benefits system when Daniel finds himself in limbo, instructed by his doctor not to work, but being told to look for employment by Jobseeker Advisors.

Empathy Tower members of the public 'signing on'
1. John Harrison, Empathy Tower, 2016, Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, actor Kema Sikazwe with members of the public ‘signing on’ (photo: Jess Shepherd)

The private response experienced by the viewer while watching the film is likely to remain just that – private. Whereas, Empathy Tower attempted to capture, and share publicly, the empathy many felt. The idea was to create a Jobseeker experience out in the street, visible to anyone on a given day. A desk, computer, chairs, were set-up outside and actors as Jobseeker Advisor characters handed passers-by mock appointment cards to sign on (fig.1). By participating in this physical and visual recreation of the Jobseeker experience people were able to demonstrate their empathy for those going through the real Benefits system.

Wooden blocks symbolising Daniel Blake’s profession as a carpenter, were used as the signing on medium and to build the tower. Wood has a natural honesty in contrast to man-made technology and the de-humanising computerised Jobseeker system. Participators were asked to sign their name or write a slogan on the block of wood before adding it to the growing tower. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ actor, Kema Sikazwe’s block reading ‘We are all Daniel Blake’ was added to the tower alongside many others which carried similar empathetic messages of support such as ‘We care!’, ‘We could all be Daniel’ and ‘Stand together’ (fig.2).

Empathy Tower wooden blocks
2. Empathy Tower detail of the wooden blocks used for ‘signing
on’
(photo: Jess Shepherd)

Empathy can be seen from two perspectives: cognitive empathy, which refers to the ability to deduce another person’s feelings, and emotional empathy, or the ability to vicariously produce an emotional response and share feelings with another person as discussed by psychologist, Paul Van Lange. In his article ‘Does Empathy Trigger Only Altruistic Motivation? How About Selflessness or Justice?’ (Emotion, 2008), Van Lange identifies empathy as key to understanding social interaction and a prerequisite in prompting pro-social change. Yet this needs to be addressed sensitively because empathy also has the potential to create a divide between those empathising and those for whom they are feeling empathy.

I asked my father to explain his thoughts on empathy in relation to this public artwork and to address the question people involved with the project often asked – what is the point in publicly visualising empathy?

Roberta Harrison: Why did this project appeal to you and how does it fit into your practice?

John Harrison: I have had a wide-ranging practice over many years, using both digital and analogue media and I have lots of ideas and projects, which are works in progress. I was aware of the film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and the issues Ken Loach was addressing. The opportunity offered by NewBridge spurred me into action.

RH: What did you hope to achieve in recreating this space?

JH: I felt it was important to recreate a space to which people might have an emotional response, a familiar environment for some, that others would be curious about. The performance on Northumberland Street was an echo of a Jobseeker experience and ultimately sought to bring attention to the treatment of people in an increasingly script-led, automated Benefits system.

RH: Did you research the Job Centre?

JH: The Jobseeker process was based on my own experience of signing on in recent years. It was reinforced by the film and further researched by meeting up with Fran Heathcote of the Public and Commercial Services Union to discuss what it is like to work in the Job Shop from an employee’s point of view.

RH: People can sometimes be reluctant to sign their names. It can feel very personal for the participant, as though they are giving away something of themselves. How do you feel this impacted on the work?

JH: I think this was essential to make the work personal and not just a casual experience. It was actually important to create an environment where people felt as if they were engaging with the bigger picture. This was a way of demonstrating empathy with those going through the Benefits system, by being seen as a Jobseeker and then by signing and defacing the wooden brick, they drew on their empathy to become instrumental in subverting the system. The act of signing their name in support of Jobseekers on a block of wood, which was then used to build a tower of strength, gave both a visual and a physical lasting expression of their empathy.

RH: Which are the examples of empathy from passers-by that stand out for you?

JH: A participant talked at length about her own family experiences regarding difficulties with disability benefits. She specifically wanted to talk about how these problems actually caused the onset of depression for the family member – the system was causing depression. A couple, who had had problems in the past through being in and out of work and signing on, were motivated to take part. They were very keen to support what the tower represented because this was the only the chance they had had publicly to say something about their own difficulties. The tower became the focal point for people to talk and empathise with each other.

RH: Were some comments more engaged with the theme of the work than others?

JH: All comments were relevant, but on occasion people would sit down to take part then say ‘I don’t know what to write’ – we would suggest that anything based on their personal response to this Jobseeker environment would be relevant. Comments ranged from very simply ‘Good Luck’ presumably directed at people in the system, to more profound and political comments such as ‘Stand in solidarity against the exploitation of the working class.’

RH: Was it important for this to be a sculptural work?

JH: Yes, it had to be a 3D piece people could inspect and walk around – when there is a problem it is always good to look at the problem from more than one angle – the Benefit system needs to be addressed – interrogated, inspected and reviewed. One aspect that became apparent was that as the tower grew it became vulnerable and began to appear as though it would fall over – it took on a form which could be seen to represent the fragility of the system.

Empathy Tower members of the public showing solidarity
3. Empathy Tower, two members of the public expressing their solidarity (photo: Jess Shepherd)

RH: Did you have to explain the design of the tower or did it take shape naturally? Was it significant that three structures formed?

JH: When the first blocks were signed, I laid the first four down in a shape, which would hold the increasing structure. People generally followed that design. When a block was placed in such a way that it would make the tower unstable it would be corrected. I had intended to have one tower, but logistically without further support this would not have been possible in a live situation. Multiple towers were recreated in the NewBridge Gallery space to reflect what was created in the original performance.

RH: What were participants’ responses to the shape itself?

JH: People seemed to enjoy building something substantial and I think it made the work more significant. Participants signing felt more engaged when they understood that their personal block would be part of the tower. People were quite careful when adding blocks to the tower, and some felt on edge because of its vulnerability.

RH: The act of showing support to those going through the Benefits system struck a chord with a large number of people whether they had seen ‘I, Daniel Blake’ or not (fig.3). Many had experienced the system, directly or indirectly. How was this expressed throughout the project?

JH: An unexpected side effect of the work was that people not only wanted to engage with the work and build the tower, but they also were very keen to give time to stand and talk about their own experiences or those of people they knew within the Benefits system or who were suffering hardship in general. This was extremely revealing and became one of the strengths underpinning the tower. Conversations were held in earnest, some individuals talked about how they were able to beat the system through hard work – these people had little sympathy for others finding hardships in the system, since they could only identify with their own achievement in escaping it.

Empathy Tower at NewBridge Project Gallery
4. John Harrison, Empathy Tower, 2016, NewBridge Project Space, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (photo: Jess Shepherd)

RH: How did the work change when the performance was recreated in its subsequent iteration at the NewBridge Project Gallery? (fig.4)

JH: The performance on Northumberland Street was a raw experience, both for me and for people taking part. In signing a block, individuals were vulnerable and on display themselves. There was real interaction – an impulsive, natural emotional response. The gallery experience was more reflective and evoked a greater aesthetic curiosity – valid but somewhat less empathetic. People in the gallery were no longer participants, but had become observers, the artwork changed from being a live and organic performance provoking emotional empathy to an exhibit evoking cognitive empathy. In Northumberland Street people had been comfortable talking about others they knew and the discomfort of being out of work and claiming benefits. In the gallery, the dynamic was different and visitors were generally discussing the fact that people had signed the wooden blocks, and looking to see what they had been said. The gallery, however, ultimately is the lifeblood of a work like this, because the work can live on, as a totem.

RH: Why do you feel it is important to use art to think about empathy?

JH: In everyday life we come across situations or news stories and can empathise with those involved, but rarely is there a chance to engage with something that allows you to show physical empathy.

Following this conversation with my father, I believe the point in publicly visualising empathy lies in the hope of creating a longer lasting connection between the subject and the individual, rather than just another ephemeral story in a crowded media stream. By creating the space for dialogue around the subject of the Benefits system an opportunity was presented for those who are not directly affected by the topic to identify with something tangible and real in stories that otherwise might seem detached from their lives. It also provided a chance for those, who had struggled in the past, or know those who have, to show solidarity with people undergoing similar problems now, by signing their names and contributing to the tower.

Ultimately, Empathy Tower was a discussion piece on the subject of the failings of the Benefit system in the UK. The hope for this artwork was not to create a divide between those empathising, and the people for whom they are feeling empathy, and not even necessarily to prompt change, but to give a voice to the empathy that would otherwise be left unheard.

Main image: John Harrison, Empathy Tower, 2016, Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


Empathy Tower took place on Northumberland Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 20 October 2016 and was on display at NewBridge Project Space, Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 28 – 30 October 2016.