According to a recent New York Times article, 64 percent of Tumblr users say they care about social causes. Social-justice furors grow quickly in cyberspace, and while that passion doesn't always translate into direct action, there's plenty of evidence that images — e.g., Eric Garner — can still motivate people to protest in the streets.
New York-based French artist Antoine Catala claims that "recent studies show that young people communicate more through a screen than face to face" and that "we become overwhelmed and our capacity for empathy gets challenged."
For the exhibition Antoine Catala: Distant Feel, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Catala has "rebranded" empathy. He posits that empathy is evolving and he seems earnest enough, explaining that he worked with ad agency Droga5 to create a new term and symbol, and to "craft a message to change the world." "Distant feel" is described as "a cool, detached, focused form of empathy," expressible "through the distance of an image."
- Photo by Bryan Conley, courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
- From Antoine Catala's "Feel Images" series
The exhibit includes Catala's video "Empathic Paul," in which a young boy expresses emotions in a flat, robotic manner while the screen is disrupted by a rotating and mutating logo. Another series, "Feel Images," presents pseudo-ads in which words, stuffed like upholstery, protrude from the photographic plane, plush yet uninviting.
Catala encourages us to express our feelings "through the distance of an image." But while he might have a new term for it, look around the museum. Haven't artists been soliciting empathy through images for centuries? Just down the hall, in Charles "Teenie" Harris' photograph of protesters outside the Civic Arena, one holds a sign reading, "The soundness of our cause should prick your conscience." It begs the question of what, exactly, Catala is talking about.
The most unsettling part of Catala's exhibition is that it is distinctly cold and un-touchy-feely. But visitors do seem drawn to one piece. It's a fish tank containing his new logo — a double E with one letter reversed — crafted from shells and live coral, like wreckage reanimated by bright sea creatures. The piece emits a blue glow and a hum, intended to mimic digital screens.
As part of the Hillman Photography Initiative, Distant Feel continues a larger inquiry into the cultural and social impact of new digital formats. However, it adds little that's truly radical to the conversation.