Empathic Cafe Tables / by Daniel Buckley

On the same day we installed the elevator project, Maria and I designed an instal- lation at Peete’s Coffee in the MassArt cafeteria. Our goal was to create a system that complemented the elevator experience, included more questions, used a different me- dium and explored the dynamics of a different social space. Starting with the questions we used in the elevator and my Things I Wish I Could Say survey, Maria and I each created a list of five sentence-starters. Creating a longer list of sentence starters forced to flesh out the area of focus we intended to study.

Maria’s sentence-starters were “Today I Draw…”, “Crowds Make Me…”, “I am Full of Joy When…”, “I Will Play if…”, and “When I Was Small I Used to Play…”. My sentence-starters were “I am Afraid of…”, “The Last Time I Cried was About…”, “I Feel Disappointed When…”, “I Lie About…”, “My Biggest Regret is...”

Peete’s Cafe proved to be more controversial than the elevators due to social dynamics of the space. The cafeteria at MassArt is actually a shared by students from MassArt, Harvard, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services and Wentworth. In the elevator project we designed for use within a single community. The members varied in age, sex and social hierarchical status, but they all belonged to MassArt. That common ground created an understanding amongst the group. However the Peete’s space is inhabited by multiple communities at once. The intermixing of communities made for a tense atmosphere that was reflected in our collection system.

In order to create privacy in a more highly populated space, we installed on the table-top surfaces of Peete’s tall cafe tables. The table tops provided an opportunity to re-contextualize a personal space that already existed. One does not simply walk up and disrupt a stranger at a coffee table. By making it a feedback surface, the table-top would provide a more private and intimate experience for user interaction. A user could inconspicuously interact with and digest the information on the table top at their leisure. The table-top experience could last for long periods of time because it disregarded the pressure of a formal exhibition space. In a gallery setting a user might feel pressured to move along after a short amount of time. By integrating the system into the table, users could spend as much time as they liked with the piece and it would appear as if they were merely enjoying a coffee.

Interaction

It was interesting being in the space and seeing people react to the piece. Some used the piece as we had anticipated, sitting at the cafe tables, writing or reading as they wanted. But surprisingly others experienced the installation as a gallery piece. Those in the latter party stood at the table to view one collection of responses. Some gallery viewers might write their own response before walking to the next table to repeat the process. Most often the gallery viewers took the time to experience all of the tables as a sequence. The table tops had become their own gallery space. Although it was not our intention to create a gallery, we were open to the ways in which our users might define their own experience. I often define the success interaction platform by its ability to cater to a range of user scenarios simultaneously. Using that metric, I considered the Peete’s table installation a success.

Response

As with almost all of objectified Analytic Third pieces I have created, the range of responses that we collected at Peete’s covered a wide range of content and authenticity. In response to a question like “I am afraid of...” I got everything from “Ghosts” to “My external hard drive crashing... oh wait, that just happened.” The ghosts response seems more playful and less introspective relative to the external hard drive comment which seemed more authentic. It’s important to remember that there is no quantitative metric for measuring the authenticity of a response in any of my installations. Rather I rely on my own subjective experience to help me establish an opinion about each participant’s response. Not to say that the responses needed to carry a certain tone in order to be deemed worthy. Although silly in nature, someone else might deeply connect with the ghosts comment and empathize with that anonymous member of their community. I consider that process just as valid.

Specific to this location, I did see responses that were used to create conflict between the various cultures represented in the space. On the “My biggest regret is...” table one user left the response “Not punching everyone who goes to MCPHS in the face. Get out of my cafe and out of my way!” Which instigated a handful of responses including, “Our name’s on the cafe too! (It’s above the door)”, “You’re jealous you’re not making bank!”, and “Fuck You, buddy!” This is a difficult correspondence to analyze. On one hand I was disappointed by the perceived insensitivity of the student who wrote the initial comment. On the other hand, I did ask the question in hopes of receiving honest responses, and that may have been the way that student had felt. By sharing their opinion about the MCPHS students, it created an opportunity for discourse and a platform for the MCPHS students to be open about their feelings as well. Ultimately the table contained my user group’s frustrations rather than let them fester within them. In an even more unfortunate scenario those frustrations could have been communicated directly at the other students.

Conclusion

This installation focused on targeting multiple communities at once. All of my other installations to this point were created and tested in single-community environments. If you are interested in conducting this type of experiment it is important to remember that multi-community experiments pose a greater potential for conflict than experiments within a single community. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Just be conscious of how that will effect the data you collect.

I also conclude that these systems work best when they allow communities to work from the inside out, in parallel with the individual self-identification process. Communities as a whole, have their own personal myths, which means that they too can take part in the self-identification process. Just like individuals, the dynamics within a community are constantly changing dynamic systems. A community must regularly reflect on its emotional well-being. This system is designed to help communities in that process.