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Object Empathy

I’ve recently become fascinated with inanimate objects and how they gain meaning and importance. No matter how simple or inexpensive, there are some possessions that transcend ordinary usefulness to become precious, sacred or indispensable. 

There are many ways to explore the power of objects and our attachment to them. You can look at talismans: objects of spiritual or religious significance that are sometimes quite ordinary. In film studies, scholars have looked at objects with agency and how they’re used to move plots forward. For product designers concerned with sustainability there’s a growing focus on the emotional durability of a product – how to get consumers to care more about things they buy so they’ll keeps good longer and throw away less. 

But for me, perhaps the most interesting angle is object empathy: the act of caring about objects as if they were human. Below is a list of some my favourite object empathy art – stories, podcasts and drawings where objects become people. 

1. Everything is Alive (Podcast)

In each episode of Everything is Alive, Ian Chillag interviews a different object. The objects are voiced by actors and writers who have done research and prepared for the interview, but the podcast is entirely unscripted. At first, the premise seemed silly and a little bit twee. But 10 minutes in to the first episode I was hooked. It’s philosophical, absurd, funny and tender. 

Some highlights: a can of soda describes the first time he sees the movie Jaws and a lamppost gives her interpretation of the Singing in the Rain.

2. Building Stories (Graphic Novel)

I haven’t read this 2012 graphic novel yet, but it’s my list since I listened to an interview with the author, Chris Ware, on Design Matters with Debbie Millman. Ware tells Millman that “it sounds crazy but if you start thinking about a building it can almost start to seem like a living organism through time.” He goes on to talk about a friend of his who genuinely feels empathy and compassion for buildings – what they’ve experienced throughout the generations. 

The graphic novel is made up of 14 different works (flip books, newspapers, small books) all grouped together in a box set. The buildings in the story are main characters – they have souls, consciousness and they witness the lives that live within their walls. The novel took a decade to complete a received tremendous critical acclaim. 

3. Loser (Short Story)

I first heard Aimee Bender’s short story read aloud on This American Life. It’s about a boy who is telepathically connected to objects, even if they aren’t visible. People in the neighbourhood eventually discover his talent and call upon him to find all manner of trivial objects. But one day a frantic mother calls upon his help to find something much important: her missing son.  

The story is included in Bender’s book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, you can listen to it on This American Life or read it in Granta Magazine.