foster an environment that pushes eye contact to the next level.
Created: November 28th, 2016
We chose eye contact as the focal point of the project because there is a lot of research on how closely it is related to human connection. Creating a deep human connection is an important concept and goal in art, and by using eye contact, we can create a piece which is universal and emotional. We think we can strengthen the bond that is formed by adding responsiveness and music. By mounting webcams on behind those making eye contact, we can record anytime the contact is broken from blinking and try to escalate the experience for the audience by playing an increasing shepard tone each time. The tones played will enhance to the developing relationship and will be fed to the participants directly through headphones, allowing for less distractions.
Eye contact has been extensively researched by psychologists for decades. From helping infants create emotional connections with their caretakers to conveying one’s presence and interest, eye contact is as intimate as it is robust. It has captivated the curiosity of scientists with its vital role in forging human connection; this role is consistent with the emotional power of art. Drawing ideas from prolific artists such as Marina Abramovic and their works involving eye contact, we were inspired to create an installation which dove even deeper.
In this piece, two people sit across each other in an isolated environment. A series of (seemingly) ever-increasing tones is played each time either person blinks in order to create an intensity which escalates for the 10-minute duration of the experience. The booth-like setting is meant to advance this intensity, making it more private and personal. The two people ideally leave feeling more deeply connected than they did coming in.
Departing from the conventions of traditional performance pieces involving eye contact, this installation gracefully weaves media into ideas which have been worked and reworked for decades. It contributes to the new wave of media art which has dominated the past few years and hopes to inform future works which will delve even further into the intersection of traditional and media art.
We created a media installation which consisted of two chairs that face each other, in which two participants would sit and make eye contact with each other. Using two webcams, Open CV, and blink detection software, the installation would play a shepard tone each time either person blinked. A shepard tone is an auditory illusion which sounds like the pitch is increasing forever, but simultaneously never seems to get any higher. The shepard tones were created with a sequence of notes in which many keys were played at the same time, in a cyclic pattern. The people would maintain eye contact and each time one of them blinked, it seemed like there was an escalation because of the sound that was played, however there was no real escalation because it was just an auditory illusion. An illustration of the development of the shepard tones follows. The installation took place inside a makeshift “booth” which had two whiteboards surrounding in order to create a more personal, intimate space free of distractions. It also provided a reliable place to mount the webcams. The sounds were played through both headphones and speakers in order to provide a very focused environment for the participants and allow the audience to experience what is going on as well. Link to source code: https://github.com/moorejs/eye-contact-opencv
A source of inspiration for this project was Blinking from Module 4, where if either of two people would blink, the other person would push a button and create some sort of visual effect in software that they had written. It was an interesting concept because blinking and eye contact complement each other, and eye contact is something we had been interested in exploring. The amount of research which has been done on eye contact was intriguing: how it affects people's relationships, and how it helps to forge a human connection. By making a piece centering around eye contact, we were hoping to create something which would leave participants different than they were before interacting with the piece, which relates to a common theme of emotion in art. The piece aimed to be memorable to the participants, and at the very least invoke thought about their personal relationships. The shepard tone was chosen because it is an auditory illusion, and in our research we found that making prolonged eye contact can sometimes cause hallucinations and visual illusions, so they would together create an intense experience.
The following 6 works, including performance and media art, which explore eye contact or human connection in some form informed our outcome.
"The Artist Is Present" - Marina Abramovic
In this performance piece, the artist sat down with a chair directly facing her, and invited participants to sit down across from her and see if they could hold her gaze. She was motionless and silent the entire time this piece went on, for nearly three months. The audience can sit there for as long as they want or can. Once iteration, her old friend/lover sat across from her unexpectedly and the artist, who had been emotionless and still for so long, broke into tears upon making eye contact. This piece demonstrates the power of eye contact and how deeply it can affect the human connection. The format of our installation sort of mirrors this one, in which two people sit across from each other and make eye contact.
"From Our Bodies Blinking" - Multiple Artists
This is a series of live performances by a group of artists and performers which explores "the tension between presence and absence; memory and action." Eye contact is closely tied with being present - in a conversation or in a relationship. Conversely, lack of eye contact indicates absence. Although this piece does not literally use the concept of blinking or eye contact, it draws nicely on the ideas presented by these actions. It helps to illustrate the meaning of blinking, what it means for something besides an eye to blink (in this piece, a body). We took these ideas and apply them back to our own piece, with a more subjective and artistic perspective on what blinking really means.
"Do Not Look Into The Eyes" - Erik Pirolt
In this piece, an artist had a sculpture of a head inside a glass case. It was labeled with a warning not to look at the sculpture in the eyes, yet people instinctively did anyways. It would then spray water out of its eyes in the direction of the viewer. This is an interesting piece because it involves eye contact, but not with another human. Even though eye contact is important in forging human connection, it is still something that we seek out with non-human objects. This piece asks whether such eye contact can have the same effect as if it were between two humans, which is an interesting thing to think about when creating our own piece - how does the fact that the eye contact occurs strictly between two people affect the outcome? We thought about that and how the human-to-human connection is created by eye contact in our piece, adding sounds to intensify the experience.
"1000 hours of Staring" - Tom Friedman
Tom Friedman put 1000 hours hover 5 years into staring at a white canvas to make this art project. One major thing we took away from this is the immense amount of focus on just being an observer. One can only use their eyes and their mind. Here, the staring is probably a time of great self-reflection. In our project, the focus is on another person, hopefully to spur a connection. It's almost the opposite of self-reflection, except some self-projection is expected. Also, given the total duration of the time spent sitting, it's clear that Friedman spent several hours at a time staring at the canvas. This is similar (yet an extreme) of what our project is doing. You're not there just to pass by briefly; it is supposed to be a ten-minute experience. After a period of engagement beyond what is normal with a piece, surely things become more memorable.
"Lightpools" or "El Ball del Fanalet" - Perry Hoberman
This was a work mentioned in the reading “Performing Interactivity” by S. Dixon. In it, there are light lanterns or “llum del fanalet” that are tracked in three-dimension space and have their light projected onto the floor via a projector (instead of how a lantern would normally project its light onto the floor). Those viewing the exhibit walk around in the dark with the lanterns being their only light and are able to spawn “proto-objects” which move with their light. These “proto-objects” can interact with other “proto-objects” if put close together; the two “proto-objects” will do a dance.
There a lot of things we’ve drawn from this work as part of my inspiration for eye contact. For one, there is an intense atmosphere in which there is a lot of focus. Everyone is in the dark, honed in on the light from their lantern. This creates an intimate interaction. We want to create an isolating environment like this one in our project. Also, these lanterns are part of the tradition of those people. We think this is parallel of how eye contact is a big and interesting part of human culture. Lastly, there is immediate intuition on how the interaction plays out; people are very familiar with how light is supposed to cast from a lantern. We hope to emulate this so people can easily see how blinking influence what’s happening.
The project was modeled after Blinking from Module 4. The challenge here was to take their idea and put our own spin on it, improving what they had. For one, we decided to use automatic blink detection instead of having the participants manually press something when they blinked, to streamline the experience. This way, the participants can focus more on the eye contact that they are making, and less on when their counterpart is blinking. We struggled to figure out what sound to play (or whether to play a sound at all) when someone blinked. At first we thought about using our idea from the wire tree installation in which new sounds were layered on every time something happened (in the case of the tree, the event would be plugging a phone in, and in this case, the event is someone blinking). However, that wouldn't have worked the same way because the event in this project would happen too often, and to layer something on each time would quickly create a cluttered sound space. We played with the idea of creating a visual effect upon a blink, but decided that would be distracting and possibly encourage for the eye contact to be broken. We also had a hard time figuring out other details such as how far apart the two people would sit, how to mount the webcams, and so on.
CollaborationJared wrote the software to make the webcams detect blinking and play sounds when they did. Alice documented the process and research, and analyzed the final product. We both discussed how to physically have the installation set up and worked out details together such as whether to use headphones or speakers.
This piece has a lot to offer the existing collection of works involving eye contact because it introduces a new dimension which hasn’t been broadly explored before: sound. Many works centered around eye contact take a traditional form. Even those which involve media seem to incorporate only visual aspects. Because eye contact itself is a purely visual sensory experience, it seemed intuitive to only incorporate sound. Instead of distracting from the eye contact as visual cues do, the audio creates an enhanced experience which is still focused. The concept behind the installation is one with great potential, because of the intimate relationship between art and emotion, which this installation directly plays with. One thing which could be done differently with more time and resources would be to integrate the sound more smoothly - with limited access to high quality speakers, the final product could have benefitted from better sound quality, considering that it was the focus of the media aspect of the project. To further advance the intensity of the experience, the project could also be place in a more isolated setting if it could be redone. The privacy would contribute to the intimacy of the experience.
Blinking by Sohail Sidique, Tian Zhao, Ruihao Ye, and Carolyn Cai
SoundFont (SF) File from
Demo of what the software:
Video of the installation:
I really like the idea of your project as I quite enjoyed "Blinking". I think your project is well intended, but you might want to think about the ways that you would make the audience participate in the performance. Also it seems a lot of work to me that you are pinpointing the webcams into each other's eyes. The way to put the webcam on the participant is also something to think about. That said, I really look forward to seeing your project!
foster an environment that pushes eye contact to the next level.