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Digital Empathy by Julianne Swartz

Visiting the High Line, which is in Manhattan’s West Side area was a real treat (especially after reading the National Geographic article Miracle Above Manhattan in the March 2011 issue). This beautifully, well designed park brings serenity even to the busiest, fast-moving city dweller. People were having lunch, talking to friends, or pulling out cameras to capture a photo (an infinite amount of possibilities). One can easily spend a day and evening roaming around the High Line alone. It also reminded me of why people flock to New York. The overall design of the High Line is elegant yet captures the city’s personality in such a way where you know the High Line could only exist in Manhattan.

With a visit to the High Line so early in the trip, it was a thrill that the first physical cue that indicated I was in a completely different environment was installation art by Julianne Swartz. Entering the High Line in the middle, one must take an elevator to the park. Currently, Swartz’s work, Digital Empathy, is a sound piece that involves poems, personal letters, and song lyrics recited by computer-generated voices. At first, walking in the elevator, you hear these intimate messages but the monotone and seemingly cold voice with no inflection makes the message sound eerie and unsettling. After reading the work’s description, I felt compelled to go up and down the High Line looking for the signage to hear a voice and listen. Digital Empathy is a sobering reminder that communication delivered in an unfamiliar way makes us listen carefully and fastidiously. Yet, isn’t that strange, that something unemotional stops and makes our ears and the rest of our senses vigilant? Are the sounds of our own voices not enough? Swartz certainly made me wonder.

Here’s hoping she showcases work in San Francisco. I would definitely see one of her shows and love to talk to her. Julianne Swartz, if you’re reading this, thanks for reminding me to stop, listen, be curious, and stay human.

By Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina American writer, artist, and educator whose academic and research interests include feminist media histories, critical medical anthropology, technology, race, and ethics. She is a Ph.D. student in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz as a Eugene V. Cota-Robles fellow. She received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts and holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco. Her work as been exhibited at Ars Electronica, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the GLBT Historical Society.

Her writing appears in art21, Art in America, Ars Technica, Hyperallergic, Rhizome, Vice Motherboard, and SF MOMA’s Open Space. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture. She is a co-founder of REFRESH, a politically-engaged art and curatorial collective and serves as the Executive Director for the Processing Foundation.

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