Remedial Empathy Training 101
An examination of nondisabled attitudes to empathy, facial communication and capitalist utility, Remedial Empathy Training 101 confronts participants with an unfamiliar and unexplained visage and social rules before evaluating their performance against an arbitrary and undisclosed rubric.
produced by: Elle Castle
RET101 is a collision of psychodramatic occultism and clinically delivered social violence designed to communicate experiences of discomfort with unspoken social rules. The performance takes the participant out of the established social world into a liminal space where an arbitrary set of unseen rules govern their treatment at the hands of The Assessor, a figure in a position of power who straddles the roles of fortune teller, witch and clinician. Participants are instructed to imitate basic facial expressions as shown on cue cards, The Assessor mimics them, and if the expression is "correctly" performed an eldritch tentacle is summoned from a nearby inkwell to reveal the cue cards' true nature. The participant is then admonished or grudgingly commended for their performance.
Concept and background research
This project began its life as an intention to build a tentacular prosthetic controlled by electromyographs (EMG), that slowly metamorphosed into a performance piece about attitudes to prostheses and the overvaluing of maxillofacial contributions to social communication. If nondisabled capitalist pedagogy insists that bodies are only valuable insofar as they are productive, it should follow that, on a person who does not/cannot make facial expressions, redundant maxillofacial muscles that are repurposed in some other way must surely recoup that lost value. What does it say about the inherent contradiction of capital, disablism and utilitarianism that using our faces to do things other than communicate or process food and sensory data so thoroughly disrupts what we consider to be "adult behaviour", despite the logic of "adult behaviour" being situated so exclusively in the realm of the productive and utilitarian?
A reluctance to use participants' discomfort with prosthetic users in order to access a space of disquiet, and limitations in terms of time and funds to build a physical prosthetic tentacle shifted the piece into a more ritualistic space, using a "magical" projected image instead of a physical tentacle. This in turn led to more fertile thematic ground in terms of my own experiences of clinical remedial affect control and the experience of being taught social skills inside a moralistic and violent context where failing to correctly perform social communication was seen as a moral and medical shortcoming. The use of occult imagery and tentacles is a convenient shorthand for both the unseen and the unheimlich/abject, so I leaned hard into popular conceptions and iconography in order to access as universal a schema for those concepts as possible. On a thematic level I'm drawing on Lovecraftian pop culture (eg 1st image below from Darkest Dungeon) in terms of tentacles from another plane, controlled remotely, with additional aesthetic influences from anime I watched around the time I was undergoing affect training, primarily Hellsing/Ultimate (https://youtu.be/8GbnMSGXEyE?t=285) and Naruto Shippuden (second image below). A common theme in both occultism and anime magic is calligraphy, (hand)writing and sigilcraft so it felt appropriate to use ink as the medium in which magic was seemingly being performed. I elected to use the Colman-Smith Waite tarot deck for the "true nature" reveal both because it's a particularly visually striking deck even in inverted monochrome, and because it's likely the most commonly recognised and understood deck in the public consciousness.
Original plan was to 3d print a cast for silicone, or PLA prosthetic, controlled by air solenoids or banded servos respectively. I've got documentation for the process but it would have been super involved given time constraints so instead I opted first for a 3d animation on a screen, then for a 2d projected image on a table. It felt suitable for a magic ritual for the magic to be worked upon the table as with a typical tarot reading. The projected image is handled in OpenFrameworks on a laptop, which gets values from a connected arduino with MyoWare EMG sensor shield. The sensor shield is attached to electrodes stuck to my face, positioned over major muscle groups.
I'm happy with the methodology choices I made for this project for the most part, but I regret not testing the EMG earlier in the process (wanted to focus on coding, EMGs are effectively plug n play once soldered and attached to arduino). It's not as accurate as I'd hoped and this makes for far more limited readings than expected. I wanted something tangible and wearable because long-term I'm looking at prosthetic/wearable control schemes, but honestly for this project I think computer vision would have been a far more effective input source.
I'm looking forward to performing this in a very dark room so the physical cards completely disappear during the reveal (they came close enough to it with medium ambient light), and I've spent the days since documenting planning costume, set dressing etc. What documentation I have thus far is very bare bones, demonstrating functionality rather than form. This is after all a performance but the cost of setting up everything for a single day precluded doubling up.
In terms of research direction I'm looking into flex sensors and emf sensors as alternatives to EMG in terms of future wearable/prosthetic work, which feels like a natural direction from here given that CV isn't practiceable for everyday/mobile use and EMG's values are so unuseable.
I'm really happy with how the piece looks aesthetically. Working in monochrome on a white table with flat monochrome props looks so good with a decent projector because it's better at adjusting light&dark than it is at convincingly changing colour/shape of flat planes (a reason I was dubious about the artistic potential of projection mapping as a rule). There were a few flourishes I didn't get round to due to time, for example the tentacle growing roots in the cards until they were obscured instead of the bubble reveal effect. I'm happy with how for the first time I've managed my time well enough to finish in the number of hours I allocated myself. I'm most disappointed with how my stubbornness to make this applicable to my overarching research by using EMGs stopped me from just biting the bullet and using CV for a better, if less generaliseable, project. If the performance goes well I suspect I'll rewrite the input and use CV for future performances.