Exhibition: Chameleon, Fabrica, Brighton, until November 29 2009
"You know how car salesmen are really creepy?" asks Tina Gonsalves.
"What they do is they see your body language and copy it. You can see them doing it constantly, and because it's not on cue and it's false you just creep out. The thing about mimicking people is that timing is of the essence."
At first glance, there's something faintly creepy about Gonsalves's Chameleon project, a series of screens displaying life-size video portraits of faces under the darkness of Fabrica’s cavernous interior.
The award-winning Australian multimedia artist has spent 18 months working with neuroscientists, tech geeks and gallery planners to develop her interactive installation, where tiny cameras poised on the screens watch passing viewers, feeding their responses back into specially-developed emotion-reading software.
Tina Gonsalves, Chameleon Project, prototype 08. © a-n The Artists Information Company
"If you go to Japan you don't get much display of emotions, and in England it was harder to grab anger," says Gonsalves, who has examined six "key emotional states" – disgust, happiness, anger, neutrality, sadness and surprise – to teach her system how to read faces.
The portraits also "learn" from adjacent screens and the visitors they see during the run of the show, shaping their temperaments day by day.
"Emotion is a relatively new area in science," explains Gonsalves.
"The databases used are still mainly from the 1960s. I was interested in creating a video database which would elicit stronger emotions."
Maria, Chameleon. © a-n The Artists Information Company
She points to Simon, one of her handful of subjects filmed in one-to-one sessions. "I only realised at the end of the shoot that he'd only just lost his wife, so it was completely heartfelt and a very hard experience for him."
Their reactions were never prescribed – "I wasn't saying, 'you cry now'" – but Gonsalves used various techniques to spark reactions.
"We'd do these shoots and they'd be very personal, just me and the participant. It would just be getting to know them. I wanted whatever they wanted to give – it was a very gentle process.
"Some people would come into the studio and they'd cry for 40 minutes. For me, as an artist on the other side of the camera, all I wanted to do was give them a hug and make it better."
Kevin. © a-n The Artists Information Company
One male contributor "refused to emote", contrasted by a woman who got so angry she howled.
"I was frightened to be in the studio with her, but it's very hard to get men in there," admits Gonsalves.
"Some people thought they were acting out and some people thought it was genuine. A lot of the people said afterwards they felt they wanted to pay me because it was a therapy session."
She wants the project to be "broken apart" for scientific benefit, and it's already been used to analyse patients with autism, but in the end Gonsalves believes there are universal truths to be learnt.
"This emotional transference is a search for empathy," she says.
"We want to reach a semi-neutral, positive state where everything is ok. In the end, we all want to come to the same conclusion."
Open forum for discussion and opinion in response to the exhibition with philosopher of language Kalbir Sohi and Armchair Critics hosts Lorenza Ippolito and Tom Slingsby. November 12, 7pm-8pm.
Artist's Story – David Cotterrell
A presentation of past projects and an insight into his practice from the installation artist and Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University. November 19, 6.30pm-8pm, email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.
Artist-led exhibition tour and discussion which explores the exhibition through sound and touch. Attended by visually impaired and blind participants, but open to all. Booking essential, call 01273 778646 or email email@example.com
All events take place at Fabrica and are free.