The Empathy Bomber Backpack speculates the extreme activist as an empathy hacker. It is a fictional object, a backpack bomb that releases oxytocin, the ‘love drug’, into the air and nostrils of urban passerby— a bomb to create empathy, instead of violence. The backpack is a metaphor for ‘empathy warfare’ that defines our global conversation, today around violence, terrorism, and war.
Designed and performed in Turin, Italy, the project was inspired by the urban atmosphere of a multicultural northern Italian city, the vibe of the public spaces that Italians have preserved for centuries. It is a comment about Europe’s relationship with its own permeability, its complicated perspective of immigration and refugees. It often seems that the conversation is less to do with who is deserving of citizenship, but rather, who is deserving of empathy. Often acts of urban violence between clashing cultures is the result of a desire to be noticed and understood, rather than an act of hate and vengeance.
This project is for the extremist, the activist, the forgotten urban-dweller of the future, who not only has more sophisticated tools, but also has become more self-aware of their true desire: more empathy.
Starting with a fictional character, I imagined a bio-hacking activist in northern Italy, synthesizing oxytocin to asphyxiate the city with empathy in the air, inducing citizens to shed their assumptions and perceive new societal truths. She disguises the device as a backpack, a cultural camouflage for walking through the city. In a public space, she detonates the backpack, pushing a button to open a tiny window that expels a stream of the drug into the nostrils of passerby. She wears a sealed mask to protect her own preconceptions from the invasive effects of empathy.
If today activists use terror to send a blunt and devastating message, the activists of tomorrow have concocted a plan to go straight to the core of their intentions, to enforce genuine understanding through extreme measures.
The project was developed during a residency and workshop with The School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe at Casa Jasmina and FabLab Torino, and hosted by Officine Arduino. Thank you to Rachel Uwa, Andrew Friend, Sitraka Rakotoniaina, and Matthew Visco.
The Empathy Bomber Backpack was shown at Casa Jasmina in Turin, Italy, the experimental IoT space for Officine Arduino. It was also featured in DesignBoom.