Being Debra VR Trailer 4:30min

Employing Virtual Reality (VR), Being Debra offers the audience a taste of the embodied experience of being a dwarf in contemporary Australian society (with all its challenges, ugliness and triumphs). Shot from a first-person perspective with a 180 degree camera, the project was initiated by artist Debra Keenahan who lives with achondroplasia dwarfism. The VR experience includes flashbacks to Debra’s memories of school, dating, and engaging with authority figures, including doctors, as well as her routine daily encounters in a park.

Over 70 years ago psychologist Alfred Adler described empathy as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another”. This project explores how technology can help promote empathy by affording the viewer an embodied experience of disability and its public reception. But Keenahan’s research also takes a critical view. The notion of VR as the ultimate Empathy Machine, as proclaimed by Chris Milk in 2015, remains contentious. As Wendy Chun suggests, “If you walk in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve taken their shoes”. Is the empathy machine a mechanism of cultural appropriation or is it the means to respectful mutual understanding? VR of course cannot enable us to “be” Debra — but in this work Keenhan reveals in a powerful way what it is like to be the object of looks, glances, abuse and stigma each time she walks in public. By experiencing each of these events through VR, all of which have happened, and many of them much more than once, you will come to an understanding of what it is like to be Debra. That is, how those who are a different kind of different can be treated in this society which ironically places great value on individuality.

Debra Keenahan
As an artist, psychologist and academic, Debra’s work focusses upon the personal/social impacts of disability. She uses 2D and 3D art methods to represent the manifestation of dignity in the disability aesthetic. Debra has exhibited in group and solo exhibitions and her work is held in a number of private collections. Debra lectures at Western Sydney University in Humanitarian and Development Studies, her first PhD was in Psychology on the subject of Dehumanization. Debra is currently studying for her second PhD in Visual Arts at Art & Design UNSW, her research focuses upon developing a Critical Disability Aesthetic through the representation of the female dwarf.

Senior Doctor – Jane Phegan
Student Doctors – Sophie Avellino, Nissa Rogers, Zoe Sadler
School Library
Tanya – Thuy Tran
Loretta – Iris Simpson

Aaron – Alexander Chalwell
Xavier – Curly Fernandez
Charles – Hudson Musty
Specialist’s Consultation Room
Doctor – Frederick Copperwaite
‘Boys in Park’ in order of speaking
Teenage Boy One – George Pople
Teenage Boy Two – Luc Bennett McNeill
Teenage Boy Three – Samuel James Joyce Lane
Teenage Boy Four – Roy Wallace-Cant
‘Everyday in the Park’
Teenage Girl – Alex Maree King
Mature Woman – Kate Mannix
Young Boy – Ben Palangkosh
Mother – Danielle O’Keefe
Camera rental: Daniel Smith – VR Camera Australia
Costumes and Props: Sydney Theatre Company, Katrina Partridge
Access Assistant to Debra Keenahan: Robert Brindley.
A special thankyou goes to: Louise Fowler-Smith, Alex Maree King, Kate Mannix, Danielle O’Keefe, Ben Palangkosh
‘Being Debra’ has been created with the support of funding from: The Australia Council for the Arts; Western Sydney University.

A production of fEEL – Felt Experience and Empathy Lab (UNSW) for The Big Anxiety Festival

Pop up exhibition., UNSW Library, Sydney. 28/10/2019 – 31/10/2019.
Art after Hours. Art Gallery NSW, Sydney. 16/10/2019.
The Empathy Clinic, Big Anxiety Festival, UNSW Art and Design, Sydney. 27/09/2019 – 09/11/2019.