Narine Arakelian's performance art introduces Empathy Aesthetics, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Narine Arakelian's performance art introduces Empathy Aesthetics, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Narine Arakelian, an emerging artist, refuses to let present conditions form our current and future emotional reality.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- It is now largely certain that our lives in this world will compel us to experience an increasing general sense of disbelief, and a fading out or disconnection from reality. In large degree we may attribute this sense of alienation to the inherent paradox of identity construction in social media and virtual spaces. This paradox is echoed in the nature of these mediums, the greater the connectivity and number of followers, the less likely it becomes that a unique and meaningful reciprocal bond will form with an individual someone. Our feelings of greater distance, in the context of greater connectivity are causal of the growing cultural tendency to polarize. These are all signs of the erosion of our ability to maintain a level of subjectivity that permits the development of critical thought beyond the need to fulfill transactional relations. The more we represent ourselves digitally, the more the algorithms organize like with like, a continual affirmation of constructed representation. An array of psychological pathologies has now been presented, and existing identity issues have been exasperated by the radical change in the way we know ourselves and others.

The social conditions forced upon us by the pandemic, “shelter in place”, “lockdown”, “social distancing” has all but diminished our interactions to nothing. Our need for emotional connection and affiliation has been denied by an uncontrollable invisible force.

However, Narine Arakelian, an emerging artist, refuses to let present conditions form our current and future emotional reality. Her work brings a new variance of contemporary art, what Richard Wearn, Professor of Art at California State University, Los Angeles, calls ‘Empathy Aesthetics’.

The English word empathy is the interpretation of the German term Einfuhlung, the aesthetic process of “feeling into” an artwork. This “feeling into” accompanies an acceptance of our intersectional identities, and is also a moving beyond social and historic conditions. Empathy should not be mistaken for agreeableness, nor balances of reciprocity. Empathy is not socially constructed, even though it is the basis to civilizing spirit.

Empathy Aesthetics is a new cultural manifestation that holds the recent memory of an Altermodern world curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a new and instrumental operation seeking to utilize technology and experience to promote empathetic responsiveness. The conditions for Empathy Aesthetics are specific to a post-internet, post-social media world. Held in common with Altermodern, is a new universalism that is established on concepts of translation, overdubbing, and image malleability. This new universality is also expressed as a generic form of psychological attribution, as demonstrated by the relationship of an app to the touch screen in the process of its function.

Socially productive and interactive forms of artistic practice are prescient for Empathy Aesthetics. Elements of Dada, Marcel Duchamp, Fluxus Art, Happenings by Allan Kaprow, the Neo-Dada of Joseph Beuys, Feminist Art, and works by Yayoi Kusama and Marina Abramović are situated as the historic context. ‘Relational’ art ‘Network’ art provide a more recent relativism to Empathy Aesthetics. In addition to Narine Arakelian, artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ryan Trecartin, and Hito Steyerl create works that investigate the interpersonal in this world connecting them with Empathy Aesthetics.

Empathy Aesthetics designates forms of contemporary artistic practice that are purposed to open a space of empathy and connection, to offer and generate psychological data that heightens empathetic conditions. Empathy Aesthetics offers a new space for the integration of technology and experience that resists cultural standardization, populism, and massification.

Narine Arakelian is the first artist to use Facebook and Instagram to create an AR art environment as part of the Spark AR Studio Platform. Narine has recast social media platforms used primarily for communication, news or marketing. Her collaboration with Spark AR Studio Platform Studios has created an important innovation in the use of technology and physical art. Arakelian has created a way for her performance work to be collected and exhibited. By implanting an AR performance in a painting through a QR code, Narine’s work integrates her social media platforms, performance and painting into a collectible whole. This in itself represents an important change in the field, and given the pioneering nature of these works and their entry point into the market, it is worthy to make comparison with the evolution of Street Art as an art market force, that it took on the guise of the painting, in order for it to be collected. Art work that operates in the digital space typically cannot take on a commodifiable form, and yet the impact of social media and digital life is absolute. Finding articulation for this impact was previously thwarted by the inability to generate a relevant physical form for digitization. Arakelian’s work honors the operation of digital social media platforms, AR, interactivity, digital features and implants them into a painting, the classical codification of artwork.

She has created a new tendency specific to our post-pandemic society, promoting a new social and emotional awareness in keeping with social distancing, and its effects on our social and emotional needs. Post-pandemic culture will be marked by our collective experience of the effects of the virus. Our society was shocked into a realization that is scaled beyond previous expectation. Art, and its place in society will be coded and engaged differently. Our social conscience will open the field as a wave of anxious psychic energy resulting from the pandemic will run through culture. Narine is marking a significant expansion in the field that is responsive to the present effects of the pandemic and those to come. The need for renovation in the conditions that have shaped social practices is also apparent, given the impacts.

Given the shifts that will result from the practical fallout from COVID 19, and the resulting collective trauma, we are seeing a re-routing of art theory, a re-evaluation of the hierarchies and priorities of contemporary art. These indicate a reaction driven change in the field, where in developing further the ideas of mobility and inter-connectedness of the Altermodern, Empathy Aesthetics leads us to the focus upon interpersonal politics. A comparison may be drawn with the movement of street art into the cultural institutions of the museums and art market. Street art defined its own terms, and took advantage of social media and the internet, it re-activated arts relationship with minority and subcultural resistance, seeking to invert dominate authorities. Works by Narine Arakelian propose change, and resist suppressive forms of behavior and psychology such as narcissism. It is societal activation through a therapeutic process. A new art movement is born, empathetic and focused upon the psychology of relationships. This could only be made authentic by a female artist, emerging from a culture of male privilege.

Richard Wearn explains, “Narine’s practice has always offered the space for perceiving, communication and discourse around emotionality, love and hope, always presented as gifts or invitations. The installations accompanied by a network of performances may be viewed as physical works that show us Narine’s use of formats that speak to inter-connection, entertainment and interaction. In 2019, Arakelian presented her performance “Cast Iron Pots and Pans” in the “Revolutionary Sensorium” at the Armenian Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale, in conjunction with the solo exhibition “The Pharos Flower” and the “Bloom” performance at the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo - one of Venice’s most iconic landmarks. The intervention “Cast Iron Pots and Pans” by Narine Arakelian, performed on the canals of Venice, commemorated the Velvet Revolution in Armenia in Spring 2018. The performance focused on traditions of gender identity, stereotypes, and women’s identity in the digital media age.

These works exist within a social framework, they are contiguous through Arakelian’s process and conception of her practice as an ongoing exploration. Often the artist’s projects are configured like networks, a virtual arrangement given the remoteness and spaces between the components. Narine’s use of social media as a new space for participatory works, is a natural extension of her practice.

When studying social media from an academic standpoint, it becomes very apparent that it has caused a greater separation between people as it becomes used more and more. Richard explains that “She is utilizing the various platforms including social-media that arguably result in alienation as a means to promote empathy. She is a virus in the system attempting to reverse an outcome...The artist is negotiating through text and imagery a new sensibility and message to humanity that is not transactional. Narine gifts through social media, which works against transactions, which is built into the model of digital life.”

Born in Siberia and of Armenian descent, Narine Arakelian has moved through all levels of art from her hometown, through to headlining the Armenian Pavilion “Revolutionary Sensorium” at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, and most recently in the US with her shows: the “Love&Hope”, a performance at Villa Versace for Art Basel Miami, and the “Initiation” installation at the Mash gallery for Feize Week in Los Angeles in 2019.

Although being physically present to experience her works is the most effective way of understanding them, the current restrictions have not stopped Arakelin’s prolific output.

Narine’s newest work clearly demonstrates her intentions to create a space of deeper empathetic connection. It utilized Instagram, an augmented Reality (AR) filter, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) with #LoveXXL360. Her performances explore the problems of social distancing as a new reality today, in addition to the politics of social responsibility in modern society.

The first installment of the AR filter performance work is an animated gold medical mask supporting her “concrete poetry” of affirmation. The words “Love&Hope” circle around the mask. The design is of alluring geometric circles that come from the mask, in addition to animations of gold appliques of Los Angeles City skyline colored by the Southern California sunset that emerge from the subject’s eyebrows and eyelashes.

A Second episode of the AR filter performance is entitled “Paradise Apple”, where participants are given the opportunity to taste the forbidden fruit and experience the consequences. Today’s forbidden fruit is the ultimate cause of climate change: it is occurring as a result of radical overconsumption and irresponsibility. After eating the forbidden fruit - the apple - humans have lost sight of the fact that Paradise is Planet Earth; and that the precariousness we face due to climate change is our doing. Sacred knowledge is humanity’s obligation to maintain Planet Earth’s health. The dualism that characterizes many world cultures is referenced in “Paradise Apple.” An AR animation of bird shit falling from the sky, prophetic of good fortune, allows the participant to become wealthy whilst hearing the trills of birds in Paradise accompanied by the sounds of an abundance of coins. “Paradise Apple” is a reminder to us all that our actions now must be governed by our responsibility to leave the world intact for our children.

The AR filters may be found under the names “Love&Hope” and “Paradise Apple” or search Narine Arakelian’s Instagram handle @narinearakelianofficial.

Narine Arakelian has innovated through the use of her ‘Generative’ art concept that integrates crowd sourcing, an AR performance and a QR code embedded in a physical canvas. The “Generative” process creates two artworks, a physical canvas and an identical AR version.
The painting utilizes a custom designed Artificial Intelligence (AI) code to render a form of “Concrete Poetry”. Arakelian works with the AI program to form compositions consisting of ornamental paintings and text based poetic pieces. The works are crowd sourced - interactive through the use of AI technology where participants may read and contribute self-made messages of love. The interactions initiate #LoveXXL360 by way of a QR code on

The multivalent nature of Arakelian’s practice, its future focus on AI, AR, VR and use of social media’s inherent translations and dynamics is ground breaking. Informed by other socially productive art, Arakelian’s art practice is now closely associated with and denotates the term “Empathy Aesthetics”.

Narine is encouraging a utopic future full of love and hope, and presents an annunciation of thought forms that will generate to the conditions through which a utopia may be formed. In more practical terms she has set in motion actions with a charitable purpose, a gift to the stranger. In response to the health care crisis of COVID-19 Narine established an Instagram account, utilizing one of her AR filters to attract donations of masks to medical workers. With celebrities like AnnaLynne Mccord (90210), Kristin Bauer (True Blood, Once Upon a Time), Sofia Milos (CSI Miami), Briana Evigan (Step Up 2,4,5), Ellie Mumin and Tiffany Brouwer (Vanderpump Rules), Markus Molinari (Socialite), Courtenay Semel (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), Ruth Connell (Supernatural), and Shannon K (Influencer) having already posted donations for the masks. Through these participants Narine has provided many masks to those in the front lines of the COVID 19 response.

Narine continues to show the world that her work anticipates the need for a renewal in empathy. Through a series of high profile exhibitions the artist is emerging as someone who will make a lasting contribution. She is someone to look out for. Focusing on psychological and political themes, Narine has continued an exploration of the wider discourses of feminism, identity and representation. These ideas are filtered through interpersonal experience and a seeking of empathetic condition. In combining sculpture, painting, multimedia and performance art in service of a complex discourse, she has become an artist of considerable relevance. Importantly Narine’s work reaches beyond this sophisticated context, and is also able to be appreciated as being both accessible and emotionally impacting.

Narine’s current works are responsive to the pandemic, speculating on the condition of inter-personal relations as we adapt to a new vulnerability. Responding to this realization, she brings people together in a world altered by coronavirus, and continues to alter what we know with a utopian message of Love and Hope. Arakelian is the start of something incredible. Keep up with her on her website and on Instagram.

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