Kelly Dobson

Two Untitled Projects

Kelly Dobson

Sketch of an idea for the neonatal unit by Kelly Dobson


Begun in 2010, Kelly’s work for the Prospectus consists of designing and prototyping 1) a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) intended to improve the experience of premature infants, their parents/families and medical personnel in the NICU; 2) a two-site, large-scale pair of sculptures that will offer a visceral and autonomic communication bridge between otherwise separated groups of people. Both are works-in-progress and are further explained below through text and sketches.

Kelly is creating the neonatal project in association with Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, having formed relationships with several of its NICU medical personnel, including Dr. Jesse Bender. The sculptural pair is envisioned for a collaboration between Artists in Context and the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University. According to Kelly,

“I am interested in human needs that are present, but are not being addressed by mass-marketed products….I am interested in making apparatuses of engagement to pursue the idea of trans-subjectivity and [what] the ethics of making separate subject/object identities [are]. I want to make it possible for us to see them as less separated.”

Kelly Dobson

Drawing by Kelly Dobson of the Sculpture Pair Bridge

Here are three sketches by Kelly related to the sculpture project that would form “a visceral and autonomic communication bridge.” The fourth image is of a sensor textile test for the sculptures:

Kelly Dobson

Kelly Dobson

Kelly Dobson


Here is earlier work by Kelly Dobson that leads up to her Prospectus projects:

Kelly Dobson

Kelly’s early sketches of Companion Projects


Kelly Dobson

Kelly’s sketch of Omos linked


Kelly Dobson

Omo with Keith Wilbur; cat and Omo


Kelly was one of the Prospectus project presenters at AIC’s national conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA, March 2013. The panel that focused on her work was entitled “Art, Technology and Empathy,” chaired by Dr. Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis; rounding out the panel were Dr. Alice Flaherty, a writer and associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Peggy Reynolds, a sculptor and independent scholar in the humanities. Here is Dr. Cohen’s introduction to the panel and to Kelly’s work:

Welcome to Art, Technology and Empathy!

I am Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University, and I am honored to be moderating what promises to be a compelling presentation and conversation.

I’d like to take a few moments to put words to a theme I felt emerging yesterday in all of the sessions as a way to begin to frame our next conversation. The theme is about epistemology: what counts as valid knowledge? And what are the limitations of the linear, rational, purposive ways of knowing that undergird most of our academic disciplines and our major judicial and economic institutions?

Among other ways of thinking about the arts is that they are a way of making meaning, of bringing disparate elements into generative relationships that have the capacity to reach beneath the constructs of habituated discourse, that lead to new (and ancient) qualities of presence that engage our intellects, spirits, emotions, bodies, as well as our senses — of beauty, justice, humor, grace…. These qualities of presence, and these ways of knowing appear to be much more aligned with the challenges our fragile planet and militarized world are facing than are more linear, solely rational ways of knowing.

We will be focusing in this panel on art, technology and empathy, on the work of a remarkable artist, Kelly Dobson, who creates and explores apparatuses and spaces that facilitate visceral and social connection among persons and groups that would otherwise be separated.

I am going to introduce this panel with a few comments from the perspective of my own field, peacebuilding and the arts. Then Kelly will offer a presentation on her work, followed by brief responses from the two other panelists, writer and professor of neuroscience, Dr. Alice Flaherty; and sculptor and interdisciplinary scholar Dr. Peggy Reynolds, who will bring into conversation perspectives from their work. The artist and panelists will explore themes that animate their work – issues of empathy; agency; possibilities inherent in technology that can facilitate visceral, somatic, non-narrative connections among people who are divided in space or in belief or allegiance. We will then open the floor for comments, questions, discussion, and reserve a couple of moments to for final reflections from the panelists.

Empathy, of course, is a much-studied phenomenon, a concept that has evoked much debate about its meaning. From the perspective of peacebuilding, the capacity to empathize with others can be critical, especially in the efforts at post-violence reconciliation. True reconciliation – that is the true restoration of trust among groups of people after periods of alienation, slavery, occupation, apartheid, economic exploitation, etc. –appears to depend upon the ability of people to empathize with the suffering of “the other” – including those others who may have caused harm to one’s own people. Facilitating this empathy – and balancing it with other aspects of reconciliation – justice seeking, for instance – is one of the great challenges of peacebuilding practice.

One of the many significant contributions of the arts to the creative transformation of conflict is the ability of the arts to engender feelings of empathy and restore the capacity for empathy. We know of Hutu and Tutsi drummers in Burundi who, during periods of ethnic violence, repeatedly chose to save each others’ lives, to privilege their identity and fellow-feeling as drummers, rather than their ethnic groups. It is the combination of the ability to feel into the experience of others AND maintain one’s sense of responsibility and agency as an individual – to not unthinkingly take on the feelings of others as can happen in a mob – that endow empathy with its peacebuilding potential. This is a challenge that the arts are uniquely suited to meet. [Click here to access a paper on this topic.]

Another important dimension of the artwork we are about to see relates to what we in the peacebuilding field refer to as paradoxical curiosity – an eagerness to find ways to hold in generative relationship two or more views that seem to be opposed. It seems at first glance somewhat contradictory that in a time when our overindulgence in technological communication devices seems to be at least as likely to alienate us from real presence to ourselves and each other as to connect us –- that we in fact find in artfully wrought technological productions new resources for feelingful connection at the deepest levels. [See John Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Oxford University Press, 2005.]

So, let’s see what this art/technology/empathy nexus is all about. Our session begins with a presentation by Kelly Dobson, an award-winning artist working in the realms of digital media, machine design, public performance and social systems.

[The entire panel was recorded on video and is shown below.]


Kelly DobsonKelly Dobson is an artist working in the realms of digital media, machine design, public performance and social systems. Her projects involve the parapraxis of machine design – what technological systems do and mean for people other than that for which they were consciously designed. She completed her doctorate at MIT while a member of the Computing Culture Group in the Media Lab and the Interrogative Design Group in MIT’s Visual Studies Program. Kelly is Chair of the Digital + Media Department at RISD. She taught previously at Cornell University and the Oslo National Academy of the Arts and worked as a researcher at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. She has received prestigious fellowships and awards for her work in art, technology and society including the Rockefeller New Media Artist Fellowship, Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art Award and VIDA Art and Artificial Life Honor. Her work is featured in many publications and exhibited internationally including at Witte de With in Rotterdam, Circulo De Bellas Artes in Madrid, the Millennium Museum in Beijing, Goldsmiths College in London, Fringe Exhibitions in Los Angeles and The Kitchen, Eyebeam and Exit Art in New York City.