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Inside the Empathy Machine: Going Face-in-Face with Megan May Daalder and Her Mirrorbox

Even after the machine had turned off and the illusion had ended, people still saw themselves in each other.
August 29, 2012, 9:57pm

The author and the artist inside the Mirrorbox.

Megan May Daalder is a young artist in Los Angeles who is responsible for the Mirrorbox, a hands-on piece that uses two-way mirrors and a lighting sequence to allow two participants to momentarily blend their faces together in a genuinely arresting illusion.

People tend to leave the Mirrorbox reeling from the temporary sensation of embodying another identity. Like an echo, the after-effects take a moment to dissipate. In an informal survey Daalder conducted with hundreds of participants early in the project’s development, the same response bobbed up consistently: people still saw themselves in each other, even after the illusion had ended.


Soon, curious neuroscientists and psychiatrists came knocking. As sensory as it is scientific, the Mirrorbox now lives multiple lives: an editioned art object, a participatory experiment, and a research tool at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. The Mirrorbox’s journey from art project to research tool is lovingly documented in Daalder’s self-produced documentary, Mirrorbox: The Story of How Art Became Science, which recently gained some traction on the web after Scientific American picked it as their video of the week.

The Mirrorbox, which, as Daalder puts it, “helps collapse personal boundary thresholds,” has hosted thousands of temporary face-melds in its rounds through art galleries, labs, conventions and media arts festivals. It has, however, never been the site of an interview with the artist herself. In the interest of exploring what it might be like to pick someone’s brain someone while feeling, on some level, that you share a face, I went to Daalder’s studio, stuck my head in a black tandem helmet, and asked questions.

Megan in the Mirrorbox with her father Rene Daalder

Motherboard: Whoa. Tell me how it works.

Megan May Daalder: It’s a two-way mirror, or half-silvered mirror, and it’s literally just light. I programmed the sequence with an Arduino micro-controller and it’s going through a pre-programmed sequence. It’s literally just an optical trick. It’s composed almost as a piece of music would be composed. I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t consider humanity, or some larger scale human phenomena. Also, to point out, we’re not really “doing it” right now. We’re thinking, which is different from how I usually do it. I don’t really think that much when I’m in here. It’s a really sensory experience: there’s my eye, there’s your eye, my mouth is moving, where’s your mouth?


Do you think it takes away from the experience to try to articulate it while you’re doing it?

Kind of, yeah, because you actually have to bypass what’s happening right in front of you. I’ve actually found in the past that language doesn’t really come as easily in here.

There is a claustrophobic element to it, too. Being in here for a really long time with somebody could also be a punishment, once you reach a certain point. Have you ever had that?

Personally, I haven’t, but I can totally imagine.

Do you use in your personal life, to mediate conflicts? You have it in your home, obviously, because you made it. But it could be a kind of emotional household appliance.

That’s what I love! That’s what I wanted. That was part of “the plan,” which actually randomly started to unfold. Everyone should have one. Some people will think it’s a public art installation, some people will think it’s a high art object, but I know what I really want is for everyone to have the experience, for it to be some kind of philosophical mantle piece.

Do you see this as being a cinematic experience?

I didn’t originally think of it that way, but this illusion was used in films to do something called “Pepper’s Ghost,” so it actually has a really direct lineage. When you put someone in this space, in this container, you’re creating a real-time image manipulation. When I explain it, sometimes I say it’s like a Photoshop algorithm, or an effect that you can do in a computer, but to have it done in real-life, right in front of another person, is such a different thing.


Everyone has a “mirror face” that they make, right? That face is the way that you cumulatively over the course of your entire life have determined is the best possible arrangement of your features. That’s a very personal thing, unique to each individual. Going into an environment where you’re potentially sharing that face with somebody else…do people “make faces” in the mirror box? Do they simulate themselves? How much performance is involved?

I think that’s a really good question. Cinema and performance are probably the two best threads at play. And science. Whatever, there’s a lot that comes together in this, which is also why it’s been so fruitful; you can project anything onto this. But there are definitely some ways that I’ve chosen to frame it. I feel like the performance is involuntary. You get in there, someone smiles, and you can’t fucking help it. You can’t do your “mirror face,” because you’re thrown, you’re thrown off. It’s kind of like you have one shoe on all of a sudden. But then sometimes people don’t allow it to break them, and then it doesn’t do anything. You have to engage with it, perform there. You have to allow it in. You have to rearrange yourself for this mirror. Maybe if you arrange yourself for the regular mirror, for this one you also have to recalibrate.

Is the experience different if you’re intimate with somebody?

A lot of people think that it’s scary to do it with a stranger, but I personally – and this might just be my type of personality – but I like doing it with strangers. But I’ve always felt more comfortable with strangers than people that I know, because you don’t have the complexity of a relationship. It’s a blank slate…


And they’re not familiar with your particular form of performance. Whatever you present to them, they’re going to take at face value.

Another thing that happened with this is that I got super interested in what kinds of people had what kinds of experiences. I don’t know if I ever really found out, it’s a huge data set to try and analyze.

Are there certain kinds of people who react to it more strongly?

I think the “easy” way of analyzing that question would be to say that maybe people who are more empathic are more open to the experience, because they can’t help but to read the other person and be open to being read. I mean, that’s what empathy is, in a crude way. I feel like empathy is one of those things that people throw around, and I don’t want to be one of those people that throws it around.

But it’s inherent in the project.

Yeah. What I think is the most fascinating is that there’s a certain type of person who I think is just open. And I think that those people can fall in very different places across a spectrum. My mom is a Jungian psychologist, and the Jungian barometer is from introvert to extrovert…

Where are you on that scale?

I hate it. I personally do not like any scale. It’s kinda funny that I try to analyze what type of person is most open to this experience, when I actually really don’t like confining personalities. I don’t like the idea of “you’re an introvert, so that’s why,” that weird causality, looking for a reason, looking for something to blame, looking to define myself. When actually maybe today I’m like this, tomorrow I’m like that, and it totally fluctuates.


And having experiences changes you.

That’s what really attracted me to the neuroscientist I’m working with. Her whole thesis was about how experiences change the brain. That’s really, like, my life story. I’m so fucking infatuated with how you can change the brain, how you can change behavior, how you can just change.

Can you tell me what kind of research is being done with the Mirrorbox?

Basically what they’re doing – and I’ve been told not to describe it exactly – they’re trying to see, first of all, whether or not there was effect between from when people went in, and when they went out, if they identified more strongly with another person’s face, the person’s face they went in with. They have a control, and then subjects who come in. In a way, I don’t want the results.

Why don’t you want to see the results?

I don’t want it to destroy the magic.

Okay, so you’re like Keats accusing Newton of destroying the rainbow by describing it…but you’re interested in science, right?


And you’ve created an experience that is very personal, but also technological.

Here’s the thing about science. In a non-empirical context, you can say, “this is how I felt,” and nobody can argue with you. This is how I felt: why would you try to tell me that’s not true? Or, “this is how many people felt,” that’s sacred. But then once you try to get empirical about it, it’s like, “OK, that’s how you felt, but these people didn’t feel it, in a controlled environment.” Does that mean other people can’t feel it, or future people won’t feel it? I think it’s really brilliant to analyze how much of an authority empiricism has, in the general scheme of things.


Do you think technology has changed our relationship to time?

Maybe the fact that technology can allow us to see things in a far broader scale, a longer term.

It’s also a really easy thing to say, “technology is changing the way we think.”

The question becomes then, in which direction? How is it changing the way we think? Some people think it’s for the worse, some people think it’s for the better. Fuck, if technology can take care of one thing, let it please be our tendency towards binaries, because it’s such bullshit. It fucks everything up! It’s insane.

But this project specifically, and I would imagine some of your other projects…science people are interested in what you’re doing. And that’s a different audience. The way that science people use the word “experimental,” the way they deal with and categorize experience, it’s different than an art audience. Do you feel like a scientific audience asks you different questions?

From my experience so far, the “scientific audience” has been so enthusiastic about something that’s more playful. They’re easier to please, in some ways, because when you introduce something that can actually bring a very light playful energy into their very serious quantifying environment, there’s an appreciation that doesn’t make it hard to impress them.

What’s the most extreme reaction anyone’s ever had going in the box? Has anyone wigged out?

In a negative way?

In any way. The thing that’s interesting about it is that it’s mirroring: you see what the person is doing and you automatically do what they’re doing, to keep the alignment. You don’t even think about it. Has anyone ever cried in there, and if so: did the other person cry? Or laugh?

Of course, of course laughter. But crying…there was a little bit of an attempt to make that happen, but it was so contrived that it didn’t really work. I would love it if someone cried. I definitely think tearing up has happened. Glassy eyes. I’m sure there have been some glassy eyes. That’s especially when you do it with someone you really care about. There’s a billion stories.

Do you ever think of doing some version of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, where it’s just you in the box, and people come in and watch you for as long as they want?

That’s exactly what it’s like in the scientific version. It’s one person. I was going to say I would be that person, but I was out of town.

See Megan’s website and follow Claire at @TheUniverse