I prepared only one question for Lindsay Katt when we got together over coffee to talk about art and life: Tell me about “Empathy is Revolution.” Previously, she’d spoken to BLEEP about her life as a musician and on another occasion, about being a filmmaker. But on this day, she spilled out her heart not just for the performance art piece in which she is currently engaged, but for our shared human need for connection and, as the project’s name suggests, empathy.
As told to Ryan Brinson
At first it started right after the election. I had not watched the election results. I’d gone to sleep and when I got up, I refreshed my phone about 15 times, just staring at the news. I had a series of emotional reactions that spanned a couple weeks. What I was struck with most was this feeling of, “you got it wrong,” not because I didn’t predict correctly but because I’d failed to continue listening to people who I didn’t think were right; listening in the way I would want to be listened to. I started thinking about what it means to actually relate to people who do think idealistically very different from me. My family is in that group. They are opposite in most of their political views and most of them voted for Trump so I had an understanding of who those people were and had some humanity for them. But I’d come off of eight years of sort of arrogantly saying, “It doesn’t really matter what you think anymore. Human rights are happening. Get on board.” On many levels, I still feel that way, but there was this other part I felt I needed to cop to if I was going to be spiritually honest about it.
So I thought, “Where did you get it wrong?” and I realized I didn’t consider the story of these people. I have a really big problem when people say, “I don’t care what other people think.” I do think there’s a utility in not worrying about what other people think and not valuing what they think over your own integrity, but I believe it’s deeply unhealthy not to care about other people. So I started thinking about what it meant to be considered and what it meant to be heard. Part of that is to be seen, to be visible, and I started thinking about all the things people on the right might be feeling; whether it was elation or celebration or any number of things.
The audio of the President making misogynistic comments about grabbing women had been released, which boils down to class privilege and the feeling of, “I can do what I want. They’ll let me do whatever I want and it’s fine.” It’s the inherent violation of what that means; how abuse of power when it’s related to privilege is so cutting because there’s no opt out for the people who are being repressed. The people who are in power can do whatever they want, the repressed cannot.
Also, I had questions about what parts we are accountable for if we want to be on the same team as someone. And what does it look like when we’re so polarized that we don’t see us as one anymore and it’s an us and a them thing. Well, asking is step one.
The whole project is called “Empathy is Revolution.” Each installment represents a different moment of time for me and a piece of engaging in empathy as a principle practice in which we broker relationships to other human beings. Not because of what people can do for you or if you agree with them, just as a state of how we want humanity to be reflected in this place.
The first piece happened very fast. I was hit with a rush of an idea, which is not always the case. The second one I planned very meticulously but the first one happened in a flash. The first suit was white, I acquired it years ago and never knew what I was going to do with it. I also had these white opera gloves and I covered my face in a white cheese cloth. On my chest, I wrote, “I FEEL” and for this one, I needed for myself to include the element of humor so I had a ballot box on the ground and a mannequin arm coming out of it. On the arm I wrote down all the things I thought people on the right were feeling. I put a synopsis of the piece on the ground and people were invited to write how they felt on the suit. The white suit was blank and I’d stand for four to six hours. I didn’t speak. It made me quiet within myself for those blocks of time, it made me an active listener to the world around me, and it allowed me to just watch people.
There was one really brilliant moment where a young woman was standing near an older woman who couldn’t see what I was doing. I then got to listen to this person describe to another person their interpretation of the piece. The older woman said, “That sounds really interesting, will you read some of the things to me?” So I stood there and listened to this woman walk around me reading all of the words, both of us hearing them for the first time. It was really powerful and just the act of watching two strangers having a moment of contemplation and reflection about what it means to be here in the world with each other, even for that brief moment, felt important. That’s when I realized this was a much larger project. At that time, I thought of it as more political and a commentary about what we’re going to do to bridge a torn political divide. But this wasn’t just political, it’s integrated into the format and system of how we live; of how we’re conditioned to treat strangers. It felt palpably important to me.
It was amazing to see how different everyone’s stuff was [on the suit]. Some of it followed certain trends, almost as if there were different pulses of people. There’d be a lot of anger and sadness and then there’d be the opposite, something really romantic and not what you’d expect at all. It really reflected the differences of everyone as well as our general similarities. I really liked reading the stuff at the end of the day. People were writing on my skin as well. It was interesting to watch the thing that happens with art when people make it theirs, which is all art really is. You’re making an opportunity for someone to feel something that’s theirs. That’s really the important mechanism of this piece that makes it pulse and breathe.
The second part was “I see you” so it was about eye contact. People were invited to make eye contact and then write what they saw. It was a big jump from the first to the second. I did the first one mostly in the subways. I did the second exclusively in Washington Square Park. The first one, I’d watch people work themselves up to doing it, even if it was just five minutes waiting for their train. What became clear to me with the second one was that people needed sometimes two or three hours to stand there before they’d walk up. Sometimes they’d leave and come back. It was interesting to watch groups of men walk by and make jokes but then one of them would come back and watch for another hour and a half before eventually doing it. I remember their faces. Watching them go through this thing was really something. Watching people decide why they should do this and then watching them break down and cry when they did. Seeing what happened and how they took this moment with them into their lives, that was the meaning.
The third one has yet to be done. It will be done with mirrors. It’s “I am you.” People will be invited to write who they are. I will be wearing a mask made of mirrors so they can see themselves.
I’m so curious to see what people will write and compare these pieces. What they wrote on suit two was very different than what they wrote on suit one. What people thought they saw was very different than what they said they felt. All of the things reflected, they were them.
This project has been one of the most artistically satisfying pieces I’ve ever worked on apart from the film. [“Lindsay Katt on Inspiration & The Avant Gardener”] It feels like the real thing. There were times when there were 30 or 40 people in line and I’d slotted four hours of being there and it turned into six. At the end of the second one, so much of what made it function was fear. In the first part, people would stand there and talk about me because they couldn’t see my eyes. In the second part where they could, it was totally different. I intentionally made the second one very difficult in terms of comfort. I put the sign that said “stand here” with the outline of my feet very close to me so that it would create a level of energy just in that. There was the element where other people had to decide why. There was a fear there which is part of what made it beautiful.
At the end of one of the pieces, I was breaking down my stuff and a young man came up to me. He said, “This changed my year. This was very important to me and I will remember this forever and I just wanted you to know,” and he got totally choked up. I remember thinking, this is useful art that people need.
It speaks to this game as a society that we’ve set up; proving we are worthy of love and belonging. One of the things that connection offers is recognition of the truth and that recognition breeds the truth in us—even if the story being told by society is different. To me, that’s where this is important. It’s not for show. It’s the thing you take home when you’re alone in your room at night and there’s no one to impress. It’s just you and what’s there is enough. True connection creates a pathway that doesn’t allow power to isolate, or other anyone. True connection makes that impossible.
As told to Ryan Brinson
Photography by Christopher Boudewyns