“Empathy Academy: Social Practice and the Problem of Objects” (ART 3799) was a semester-long course offered at the Johnson Museum as part of a Museum initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Spring 2017 seminar was team-taught by Stephanie Owens, visiting assistant professor of art and director of the Cornell Council for the Arts, and Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Johnson Museum.

What is left is felt was the culminating project of the "Empathy Academy" course. Developed through a semester-long series of small public interventions and reflections on the social life of objects in the context of the museum, students in this studio course began a collection of cast-off items as a crowd-sourced still life that continued fill the gallery space. Drawing on notions of the art object as relic, artifact, fragment, and implement, the installation was an ongoing invitation to Museum visitors to participate in the exhibition by contributing their own objects which resonate with personal meaning but no longer serve an immediate or significant purpose in their everyday life. 

The formation of What is left is felt emerged, in part, as a material and conceptual response to the installation from the Museum’s collection that preceded it. By identifying the hidden social relationships inherent in display and then seeking representation of these relationships in object form, the students' installation synthesized the tension between form and content apparent in the work previously on view and in opening the work up to the public. 

As a collection of discarded yet significant objects now separated from their previous owners, the installation investigated our contemporary attachment to things—whether purchased, made, or displayed. In a world with endless opportunity to consume and accumulate objects, leading to the many challenges society faces with landfills and oceans choked with plastic debris, this installation asks us to consider the moral dimension of consumption, collection, and nostalgia. 

The initial objects were acquired anonymously through a series of collection boxes distributed across campus in student dormitories and halls. After the exhibition, all objects in good condition were donated to local charities. 

Spring 2017 Empathy Academy students
Lois Nguyen, Landscape Architecture
Kelechukwu Mpamaugo, Art
Adler Faulkner, Art/Engineering
Christina Welzer, Art
Curtis Ho, Art
Pamela Chueh, Architecture
Saiyara Fahmi, Art/Biology