Creating an ethnographic study of emotional contagion:

video of first cut (1.8 meg)

Chameleon Prototype 01 results in a single channel film capturing, isolating and amplifying the transference of emotions between friends. The aim was to capture micro expressions that we often miss consciously in day-to-day interactions.

The work documents a four people socializing over an hour. In daily encounters, people automatically and continuously synchronize with the facial expressions, voices, gestures, postures, movements and even physiology of others. Interestingly, these responses happen in milliseconds, often unconsciously. We know that displaying facial expressions enable us to respond to others in appropriate ways. For example, if someone is sad, the corners of their lips often droop, and the bottom lip may tremble, the inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn upwards and the corners of the skin below their eyelids will become raised. As they are sad, we may know not to start laughing at them. Or alternatively they may attempt to hide their sadness, but the physiological response of the body such as crying may reveal there ‘true’ emotional feelings.

If someone is we don’t know is happy and smiles at us, our first reaction might be to ‘fake’ a smile in response. Interestingly, when we fake different emotional responses, just by positioning our facial expression, we may feel the actual emotion. Science has revealed that these shifting muscle movements then trigger the actual emotional feeling by causing the same neurons to fire in the brain as if you were experiencing the emotion naturally. When you feel happy, your brain might send a signal to your mouth to smile. With emotional contagion, the facial tiny muscles movements involved in smiling send a signal to your brain, telling it to feel happy (Hatfield 1996). This is how emotions spread between people.

Chameleon Prototype 01 is inspired by the early work of Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer in 1900’s who used multiple cameras to document motion. It also references scientist Adam Kendon’s early ethnographic experiments in the 1970’s, which document group gestural communication with in social settings. Kendon was one of the first scientists to use video as research tool to monitor and documenting the gestures of people in social spaces. The Chameleon Project, prototype 01 was approached using ethnographic methodologies.

The first take was shot using tracking, one camera and seven participants, conversing over one hour in a lounge room of a house. The second and final take was shot using four participants conversing over an hour in a studio, using four HD video cameras to monitor each face of each participant. The voice is stripped, so the body language can be isolated and amplified. Time codes are kept exact for each channel. It is shot on a black background, in order to focus on the micro-movements of body language. The footage is slowed down to ten per cent of its original pace to isolate movements. The work is approached in a cubist aesthetic so both the emitting and responding to emotions can be seen. This stage was shot at the Banff New Media Institute in March 2008 while undertaking the Liminal Screen Residency.


tina gonsalves

The project is collaboration with UK based neuroscientists prof Hugo Critchley and prof Chris Frith, affective computer scientists Prof Rosalind Picard, and Dr Rana El kaliouby at the MIT Medialab, Cambridge, and curated by Helen Sloan of SCAN. Gonsalves would like to acknowledge the in kind support from the MIT Media Lab, Banff New Media Institute, SCAN and Institute of Neurology at UCL. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust Large Art Award, Australian Network for Art and Technology Synapse Residency, Arts Council England, Australia Arts Council inter-arts board, Australia Arts Council Visual Arts Board.

Chameleon, Prototype 01, still, 2009