“You’re listening to a story told by someone you might not normally meet, and the storyteller goes into quite a lot of personal details about an aspect of their life.”
Visitors are given a random pair of footwear that corresponds to one of 35 short personal podcasts, ranging from eight to 12 minutes long. Twenty-three of the stories are told by Melburnians and the rest are from a previous iteration of the project in London. Most focus on the theme of water or, more specifically, the Yarra River.
“Wherever we go we always try to collect local stories to make a new, local, bespoke version of it,” says producer Ania Obolewicz.
The storytellers range from children and teenagers to a refugee, a Metro train driver, a Vietnam vet, an insomniac, a garbage collector, a Big Issue vendor, a former nun and Boon Wurrung/Wiradjuri elder and actor Uncle Jack Charles. There is also a wheelchair-accessible story.
I swapped my Birkenstocks for a pair of pink Converse sneakers that had been owned by 16-year-old Indigenous dancer Ky-ya. Listening as she named the trees, birds and clouds in the Woiwurrung language while walking in her comfy sneakers was quite transporting – even a little eerie.
It touches on our common humanity.
Tiphaine Tailleux, creative producer
A Mile in My Shoes was created by the Empathy Museum, founded in Britain by artist Clare Patey and Australian-born philosopher and School of Life founding faculty member Roman Krznaric (he literally wrote the book on empathy, 2014’s Empathy, available through Penguin), to explore ideas around empathy through interactive projects.
Listening to people’s stories is a powerful enough device for that, says Tailleux, but it’s the “physical and emotional journey together” that takes the experience to another level – that, and the knowledge that the shoes really were worn by the storyteller.
“The point of the whole experience is that it touches on our common humanity,” Tailleux says.
“People often feel very touched when they realise that actually we have a lot more in common than not … that actually we share so much more.”
The unique work has toured the world and collected about 400 stories along the way, from Brazil to Belgium, Ireland, America and even Siberia. Many of the stories can also be accessed online at empathymuseum.com.
This is only the second time A Mile in My Shoes has been to Australia; it travelled to the Perth International Arts Festival in 2016.
Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes is at the Arts Centre Melbourne forecourt until November 17, 10am-6pm Sunday to Wednesday and 10am-8pm Thursday to Saturday. Entry is free.
Hannah Francis is Arts Editor at The Age