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Bridging Perspectives

Research Group: Situated Art and Design

How can situated design contribute to dealing with misunderstood behaviour?

The number of incidents involving persons with disturbed behaviour is rising year on year. Reports registered by the police with the code E33 have increased from 74936 in the year 2016 to 90636 in 2018, and 102353 in 2020. Behind these figures lie human suffering and social nuisance. Psychoses, dementia, suicidal behaviours, and other worrying situations can be misunderstood by neighbours or family. In the aftermath of police reports and social worker intervention, stories of these situations often end up in the hands of administrators and in the media, where the sufferers are discussed as ‘persons with disturbed behaviour’. Those who are given this label are deprived of their social selfhood, separated from regulated society .

A participation society calls for understanding and inclusiveness: at home, on the street, at school, and at work. Everyone must participate, everyone contributes. Friends, neighbours, relatives and colleagues comprise the social bedrock in which ‘people with confused behaviour’ live. How can artists and designers, as part of this bedrock, contribute to mutual understanding between those who need to relate to each other?

VR and immersive storytelling are currently being used in the social domain as treatment, training, and to gain insight into another person’s world of experience. Virtual Reality is sometimes called an ‘empathy machine’: it literally allows the wearer to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Misunderstood experiences can be made visible and tangible, and this can lead to empathy and understanding.

In 2017 Jenny van den Broeke made the Virtual Reality (VR) experience Ver Binnen/Far Inside. The occasion was the non-fiction publication of Karin Anema’s Vandaag koop ik alle kleuren/ Today I Will Buy All the Colours, which describes the life of an artist as he struggles with schizophrenia. Van den Broeke’s VR installation, which draws on Anema’s book, is being shown to caregivers as part of an ongoing workshop programme – it’s used to initiate and engage conversations about the protagonist’s experiences. The installation is not a simulation of an actual psychotic episode, but a new and individual experience. The power of the imagination is central. Situations from life, and visual elements of the protagonist’s own works of art, are used to make tangible a sense of losing grip on the reality that envelops the viewer. The essence of this experience – of losing one’s grip – is made tangible in ways that are distinct from typical real-world manifestations of psychosis. Anema’s protagonist experiences an enormous loneliness because his psychotic experience cannot be shared, nor is it even visible to those close to him. Because of this, he’s misunderstood: living with shame and fear of stigma, he conceals his inner world from the people around him.

The work led to a collaboration with sociologist Xiomara Vado Soto, which resulted in a ‘lab day’  titled ‘Building a VR Empathy Machine’. Process is central to this collaborative format, in which makers work with domain experts to create VR prototypes that engage with particular social issues. ‘Building a VR Empathy Machine’ focused on the question: What can we learn from standing in the shoes of the other? A lab day begins with experts sharing their personal stories as stimulation for the development of the VR prototype.

Further exploration is needed to arrive at the impacts of these processes and experiences (on policy-making, on how bystanders and people with misunderstood behaviour interact in daily life, and on design practice). Based on initial results, van den Broeke intends to further explore the potential of involving experts by experience in the design of VR simulations. ‘Building a VR Empathy Machine’ showed her that co-creation with experts by experience is interesting in that designing with these stakeholders can act as a corrective to the designer’s interpretation and speculation. A logical next step is to undertake a fully situated design approach. As a starting point, this approach would consider not only the personal perspective of a misunderstood individual, but also the context in which their challenging behaviour takes place.

‘Imagination is the key to a strong inclusive society. Artistic work and situated design can contribute to a better understanding of the other.’

Jenny van den Broeke is a researcher within the Situated Art and Design research group, and a tutor on the Photography, Film & the Digital study programme at St. Joost school of Art & Design in Breda. In her own practice she works as a trainer, director, and producer of artistic projects that address social topics.


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Research Group: Situated Art and Design

Living in cities developed around data and acting within the inscrutable structure of our techno-society demands art and design that can help understand how we relate to these rapidly changing surroundings and to reflect on that relationship. The research group Situated Art and Design responds to this exigency by fostering a situated turn in art and design through a diverse portfolio of interdisciplinary research projects in partnership with academic and cultural partners, as well as with government and industry.

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