Alumna Jodie Chinn brings empathy to political debate

In 2015, a year of general elections in the UK, Jodie Chinn’s BA Design graduation project, “House of Covvens”, attempted to envision a more equal society, questioning the hierarchies of Britain’s parliamentary system and incorporating feminine-coded knowledge. Jodie is now revisiting and expanding the project to fit the even more troubled political environment of today. For two weeks in May, she will hold ‘House of Covvens – South East London’,  an exhibition and event series centred around ten ‘Covvens’, non-hierarchical discussion spaces where everyone’s voice is welcomed and value. Jodie explains:

“When you’re exchanging information in our society, it’s often about the person who can talk the loudest, and it’s hierarchical. This project is about everyone having the space to talk and share what they know, it’s aiming to create a comfortable environment for expression. Halfway through the Covven, everyone is given the chance to reflect on what we’ve discussed, and make a clay object to represent this reflection. We then go around and let everyone explain what they have made, giving everyone the chance to speak and process their thoughts. People can leave their object in the space and these will collect together over the two weeks with a final event on the 29th of May presenting the process of the project. It’s not necessarily about coming up with ideas, but about creating a space for people to share thoughts and learn from each other. As part of this event there will also be foraging walks and sound performances on the new, quarter and full moon!”

On developing the initial concept:

“My inspiration for this project started with the Marshall McLuhan quote: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”, which got me thinking about how the systems in our society are shaped by our beliefs and therefore perpetuate them. Seeing this from a feminist perspective, our society favours human forms of expression and communication which it believes to be ‘masculine’,  such as competition and rationality, whilst undervaluing what it perceives to be ‘feminine’ traits such as empathy, cooperation and intuition. I started to look into the UK’s parliamentary system, and imagined how we could integrate currently undervalued forms, such as empathy, to reduce the hierarchies that exist in our society, which resulted in a design for an imagined political system.”

“For this design I researched belief systems and practises outside of this society which display a more equal use of human traits and was especially inspired by shamanism and Wicca. In my research I found that in shamanic cultures women are often shamans, and a shaman has a role that could be compared with a combination of a doctor, a political leader and a psychologist in our society. These are all very revered professions typically associated with men. I thought that was really interesting, so I did more research into shamanic ceremonies, in which the shamans use rhythms collected from plants and animals to contact the spirits and receive information, for example how to heal someone. An MP is also someone who is meant to represent and serve the people of their constituency, like a vessel of the public, and politics should be societal healing, but it’s not working in this way now.”

“The Covven is how people would gather together to discuss issues and support one another in this imagined society. The term ‘Covven’ is borrowed from Wicca, a religion whose beliefs and practices seem to actively aim for a lack of hierarchy and are about individual and collective empowerment.”

On feedback received from previous participants:

“During my final year at Goldsmiths I held Covvens to test out the design and through this recognised the value in actually doing them, which has brought me to the project I am doing now. I’ve held Covvens with about 200 people in the last two years. Many participants have said it was the first time they have ever felt comfortable talking about politics. Many people have said that they might have all known each other well, but they’d never sat and discussed politics and society together.”

How come traits associated with femininity are seen as weaknesses?

“Our society has attached ‘masculine’ to ‘male’ and ‘feminine’ to ‘female’, and it sees men as superior. In capitalism, competitiveness and rationality are the most revered. Empathy, feeling and intuition can’t be quantified, so maybe they are seen as holding back progress, they won’t benefit society in a monetary way. But this lack of balance in human traits and this ‘rational’, competition-focused society is creating great inequalities and is also massively destructive towards the environment, because we’re not recognising our connection to it. We desperately need more empathy!”

On studying at Goldsmiths and her current practice:

“I like to call myself an artist now, more than a designer. The Goldsmiths course was great for encouraging us to look at society, people and how they interact. That’s why I chose it, because I wanted to think more in those terms, but following the course I have moved more towards the arts and personally feel more freedom in seeing myself as an artist.”

If Jodie’s project sounds interesting to you and you have some spare time in the second half of May, it’s worth knowing that she is looking for volunteers! Participants would help with preparing the space before each discussion takes place and with running the event. There will also be opportunities to look after the gallery space whilst the exhibition is open to the public. Send a short email about you and why you would like to participate to houseofcovvens[@]gmail.com.