Deenah Vollmer

The Compassion-Passion Machine

Can a cardboard box generate empathy between two strangers? Can it help them to fall in love?

Discussed: Womb Twins, An Affection for Shiny Things, Shared Identities, Circus-Contortionist Grandmothers, Dutch Jungians, The Technological Scarring of the Real World, A Futuristic Darth Vader Feel, Michael Stipe

In November 2010, Jon Bernad, a twenty-seven-year-old performance artist who dogsat for a celebrity, stuck his head into a dark box that, from the outside, resembled a chamber for kissing. Hanging from rods like a portable wardrobe rack, the black corrugated cardboard box had an interior divided in half by a two-way mirror. This “Mirrorbox” was installed on the patio outside the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, and hung as part of an art show accompanying a screening of the documentary The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, about an eccentric Japanese scientist.

Jon and a stranger got inside the box and faced each other on either side of the two-way mirror. The box covered their heads, necks, and upper shoulders. Jon and the stranger established eye contact. During a preprogrammed four-minute sequence, LED lights inside the chambers faded in and out, blending their faces from right to left and back again on the surface of the glass. When the light on Jon’s side was brighter, he saw more of himself and less of the stranger. When his light was weaker, his face became obscured by the stranger’s face on the other side of the mirror.

Jon stayed in the box as a series of new strangers replaced one another on the other side of the mirror. Finally, Megan Daalder took a turn. Megan invented the Mirrorbox, which, before settling on a final title, she had called “the Soul Collider” and “the Empathy Accumulator.”

Jon saw his face illuminated and then gradually become Megan’s face. In the middle of the four-minute sequence, he saw the left side of his face blending with the right side of hers. The two became one person. Jon experienced the whole gamut of emotions, he claims, and then the box went black.

Jon filled out a survey afterward, which contained questions about how much he identified with animals, whether he gets called “sensitive,” and if he experienced any aftereffects from the box. He does identify with animals, he does get called sensitive, and when he left the box, he was in love—whether with the box or with Megan, he wasn’t sure.

Jon wondered how real his feelings were. He had felt so connected, so loved, but would those feelings continue to exist outside the box? Was it real love or just a substitute manufactured by the machine? Could art create the real thing?

Soon thereafter, Jon invited John Houx—a fair-skinned folk singer with full lips and a powerful voice—to Megan’s house to experience the Mirrorbox with her. Houx says meeting Megan was like meeting Doc Brown from Back to the Future. She looked like a wacky scientist, albeit one wearing a blue and white dress. Megan’s physical appearance is striking: she is especially tall; her shoulders are broad and angular; her arms are sinewy and muscular; her eyes are piercing and multicolored (mostly blue, but yellow, too). Then there are her outfits, which are works of art in themselves.

At first Houx felt self-conscious; he wondered what his face looked like to Megan. Unease gave way to giggling. And then he feelings deepened. “I rolled further down into the unconscious, where it became sort of primal,” Houx recounted to me. He and Megan grunted, made funny faces, and mimicked each other’s movements. They sang long notes and improvised songs. When the four-minute cycle ended, Megan reached for the switch and reset it.

“At the end of each cycle it became more and more compelling to continue,” Houx said. “I couldn’t imagine leaving this little world.” Outside was an unlimited universe of people and things. Why go back to the abyss when you could play with your twin in the womb?

“You created a love machine,” Houx told Megan when they exited the box, nearly an hour later. “You put any two people in here, and sooner or later, they’re going feel nothing but love.” Though he is unsure if he would still identify with Megan with the same intensity, the Mirrorbox has had long-lasting effects on his worldview. “Now I can walk down the street and look at people’s faces, people from all over the world, and see myself in everyone: kids, old people, men, women.”

Megan agrees. “I think it’s a demonstration of a universal principle, as cheesy as it sounds, that everyone can love each other. It allows you to feel love through a physical process very quickly,” she said. In fact, according to a lecture called “What Is This Thing Called Love?” by sexual behavior expert Dr. Glenn Wilson, “scientific studies prove that adopting a mutual gaze with a stranger, combined with self-disclosure, may generate love in the laboratory. But unlike regular eye contact, the Mirrorbox projects the viewer’s face onto the face of the other. Is the viewer experiencing love for a stranger, or are they falling more deeply in love with their own reflection? Or are they in love with the amalgamated “third” person in the mirror?

Jon directed me to a quote from James Grieve’s translation of Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: “Few people understand either the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon of love, or how it creates a supplementary person who is quite different from the one who bears our beloved’s name in the outside world and is mostly formed from elements within ourselves.”

Amanda Hunt, a curator in Los Angeles, wrote of being in the Mirrorbox with Megan: “I wondered if I had found the artist so beautiful because she really is, or if I was actually confusing that attraction with being enamored of my own reflection—a very strange dilemma to grapple with.”

Megan is drawn to primary colors and anything shiny. In a photography project called Searching for the Perfect Compliment, Megan wore a primary color and all-black Converse high-tops on three consecutive days. In a blue dress, she found a woman in an orange shirt. In a yellow dress, she found a woman in a purple jacket. In a red dress, she found a man in a green sweater. Like the Mirrorbox, this piece, too, involved connecting with strangers.

“I think a lot of the art I do seeks a creative way to interact with other people. For a long time I was very shy, totally shy,” Megan said. “A lot of people think the Mirrorbox is confrontational and maybe it is. A face-to-face showdown of who you are.”

Originally, the Mirrorbox was for just one person. Megan wore it on her head with a two-way mirror blocking her face. She could see out, but the people she encountered could see only themselves. Megan walked down Melrose Avenue and talked to strangers, who spoke to their own reflection.

But she realized that if she put lights inside the box, she could reveal herself on the other side of the mirror. She tried it with a friend and the two of them made funny faces at each other and aligned their mouths and noses. She felt like the two of them shared a body or a brain, and Megan began to call the effect “shared identity.”

Afterward, she remembers thinking, Whoa, this is fucking powerful. She wondered why this simple technology created such a strong reaction. Wishing to test her discovery, Megan decided to “perform the role of the scientist,” which to her meant wearing glasses (absent of a prescription), conservative clothing (less colorful), and administering surveys based on the early LSD studies. “I really wanted to know why it was so easy to share an identity,” she said. Clearly, sharing an identity should not be easy.

Though the Mirrorbox feels and looks very high-tech, it’s essentially an analog device. The light sequence is programmed, but what’s happening in the mirror is simply light reacting to the nearly transparent silver surface of the mirror. Some people mistake it for a digital projection of the two faces, but it’s much simpler than that: the amount of light dictates the translucency of the mirror, a technology that has been around since 1903.

Blaine O’Neill, a tech-savvy activist and artist, said the Mirrorbox is closely tied to the New Aesthetic, which he explained as “the real world being aesthetically scarred by our reliance on technology.” The New Aesthetic began as a blog by James Bridle that investigated technology-enabled novelties and how the digital winds up in the physical (for example, street-view photography, drones, or 8-bit fabric designs).

“I think she’s done an amazing job of emulating digital processes in a very analog, simple way. It feels very Photoshop and rendered, even though it’s another human being you can touch and see across from you,” said O’Neill.

Born in Los Angeles in 1986, Megan grew up in what she calls a “European-intellectual-household.” Both her parents are Dutch. Her father, Rene Daalder, is an innovative filmmaker and her mother, Bianca, is a psychologist and painter. Her grandmother was a contortionist in the circus.

Megan’s work is very connected to that of her father, who has developed many digital filmmaking tools. He made the first virtual-reality film for European television, the first feature shot in Sony Digital HD, and was the first to use real-time motion-capture in a film. Megan has worked for her dad’s production company, which is based in their home, and he has helped Megan test the Mirrorbox.

Megan said being in the Mirrorbox with her father was “a symbolic moment of wanting to dissociate from my parents while at the same time having a moment of total identification.”

But the Mirrorbox contains elements of both her parents’ work: the psychological and the cinematic. “That’s what psychoanalysts and filmmakers have in common. They are interested in the world of imagination, the world of in-between,” said Dr. Robert Bosnak, a Dutch Jungian psychologist who has known Megan for several years.

Dr. Bosnak invited Megan to bring the Mirrorbox to the Imagination and Medicine Conference he organized in Santa Barbara in October 2011. He believes the Mirrorbox can be used as a training tool for psychotherapists who, if they spend time in it, might be able to explain their feelings in the state of fusion. This would help them be more aware of how they see themselves in others. “Since it’s impossible to completely differentiate between the self and the other, the Mirrorbox keeps us aware of the fusion state,” he said, which is “what actually happens in all communication.”

Moreover, relationships are fluid, never static. Like the moving images produced in the box, they are only as still as it is possible for two living people to be, which is ultimately not very still. “It shows a relationship in flux,” said Tracy Rosenthal, a writer who encountered the Mirrorbox at a salon in LA. “It’s really foregrounding the relationship rather than two individuals,” she said.

This experience can be positive or negative. Friends can find deeper friendship, strangers can fall in love, but some leave the box as quickly as they can. Self-obsession might be a tendency for some, but self-loathing and insecurity can drive people out just as quickly as unwanted intimacy with a stranger.

“There is an incredible amount of discomfort in seeing another image take over your own,” Rosenthal said. “We’re so used to looking at our own image, and our culture is one of such utter narcissism that to have that image deteriorate and the image of the other arise … puts an interdiction on the ability to objectify it,” she said. We might want to objectify the other, and we feel distressed by our inability to do so.

In September of 2011, Megan installed the Mirrorbox at a monthly salon in LA fortuitously called Mindshare. There she met Dr. Sook-Lei Liew, then a PhD candidate at USC in occupational science with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience. At the salon, Dr. Liew shared her research about how the brain reacts to empathy. She uses neuroimaging methods to study human behavior, how we interact with each other, and what parts of our brain are active when we do. After her talk, Megan encouraged her to try the Mirrorbox, and Dr. Liew found the experience was so closely related to her research that she wanted to use it for experiments in her lab.

Currently, Dr. Liew has completed the first stages of a Mirrorbox pilot project. She’s testing the feasibility of using the Mirrorbox as an experimental manipulation between two individuals who do not know one another, and wonders if the Mirrorbox can increase empathic behaviors between individuals who don’t like each other, for example, people from two racial groups with a prejudice against the other race. “It would be great to see if a tool that encourages embodiment of the other person also encourages empathy between two people who don’t see ‘eye to eye.’”

Since so many people want the box in different places, and since Megan wanted Dr. Liew to have one in her lab, Megan decided to build a new version, portable and reproducible.

Megan designed a 3-D model for a bulbous two-person helmet, which was then milled and vacuum formed. It weighs just a few pounds and can be carried under one arm. More than the previous version was, this is an industrial-design object with features that allow people to stay in it comfortably for long periods of time. Whereas the original version had little ventilation, the new one has fans. It’s lined with fabric and feels luxurious inside, like an expensive car. Still resembling a kissing chamber, this one is more futuristic, as if made for reptiles or Darth Vader.

I tried the new version with Megan. I had been inside the previous model with her and I found this one to be darker. The experience was much more techy and felt less intimate. Instead of slowly blending our faces, the light sequence was faster and even had a strobe-light element. I felt like I was at a rave.

Megan was eager to critique the new version with me. “Did you feel you saw too much of you?” she asked. I told her I felt distracted by and self-conscious of my own face. At one point I realized my eyebrows were messy. This feeling inhibited my ability to connect fully with Megan’s face. After all, self-forgetting is a big part of empathy.

“There are all these details. That’s why it never ends,” Megan said. She was working hard to get each detail, from the design to the light sequence, just right.

The new Mirrorbox is in an edition of five. “To make it a single piece on its own would be robbing everyone of the opportunity of using it,” said Megan’s manager, Emma Gray.

Megan seemed a little shy when I asked her how much the new Mirrorbox costs. She sees the project as a public good and a tool for science more than something that will make her rich. The first was sold for ten thousand dollars to collector Christopher Chee, who unveiled his Mirrorbox at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Megan wore a silver cape.

“Ideally, the mass production of Mirrorboxes would produce higher rates of sensitivity,” Megan said, “Owners of Mirrorboxes would become more accustomed to perceiving themselves as intimately connected to most everyone they meet, which may even ease some of the hyper-individuality and egoism in American culture.”

Though a long way away from mass production and a tidal shift in perception, Megan spreads empathy and stranger-connection with a sixth Mirrorbox that she brings to galleries, conferences, and parties.

In July of 2011, Megan and Emma brought the Mirrorbox to the Jack Hanley Gallery, in TriBeCa, for two days. The Mirrorbox rested on a small and wobbly glass table in the gallery space. Emma, the gallery assistants, and Megan instructed pairs of visitors to align their faces in the box. “Don’t be afraid to move your head around until your faces line up,” Megan said, and pressed the button.

The visitors sat in facing chairs, rested their elbows on the table, and experienced the Mirrorbox light sequence, a little over two minutes long. She had tweaked it since I tried it at her house. The slow fades and intimacy of the first version had been integrated with the strobe-light party effect of the second.

During the opening, Megan went into the box several times. “Every time I do it, I feel a little bit high,” she said. The effect on the crowd, too, was addictive. Strangers asked each other, “Have you tried it yet?” eager to share stories of their altered state in the box. The Mirrorbox was an icebreaker for the whole room. While gallery openings in New York are often stiff and formal, this one encouraged new friend making.

Gallery owner Jack Hanley said the Mirrorbox’s ability to promote instant intimacy was second only to that of LSD (but that he’d still choose LSD). On the hot summer evening, he brought out cold beer and boiled hot dogs to the small crowd. Jack went into the box with an ex-girlfriend, and when I asked him what it was like he said, “It was too much information.”

On Friday, Megan stayed at the gallery all day, talking to journalists and curious admirers. With her self-administered page-boy haircut of short bangs and a slight mullet, black boots, and a pink/beige romper, she looked like a futuristic version of a medieval prince.

At the end of the day, when she was about to pack up the Mirrorbox to be shipped back to Los Angeles, REM front man Michael Stipe walked into the gallery. He went inside the box with a friend, and when he got out I asked him if he was experiencing any aftereffects. “Yes,” he said, “but that’s typical for me.” He told Megan he had posted a picture of the Mirrorbox on Instagram, to which he had added a moody black-and-white filter. Megan was excited and asked how she could find it. He told her to search for him on Instagram, but Megan didn’t know who he was. When Stipe caught on, he typed his name into her phone.

In April 2012, the New Yorker printed an article by Patricia Marx about CouchSurfing.com, the website on which strangers offer their homes to traveling strangers for free, or, Marx argues, for friendship. She wrote:

Has our relation with machines made us feel so deprived of human contact that we befriend anyone and shack up with whoever has a mattress? Moreover, how profound can a social connection be if it is arranged through paperwork and typically lasts only a day or two? “It’s sad when they leave,” Sommer, one of my San Francisco hosts, said. “But then you get another one.” People, it seems, are becoming fungible, and, as in a game of pinball, you score points by bumping up against as many of them as possible.

In performance art, more and more pieces are mediated experiences for strangers to connect with each other in what they perceive to be meaningful ways. Hundreds of people sat across from Marina Abramović at MoMA and cried. Abramović said that she felt unconditional love for every person who sat across from her. Love in a laboratory? I think people would buy a doll that looked at them, cried and loved them, if they could.

Allowing someone to look at you deeply can truly be transformative and healing, and if you are seeking a transformative experience, you will find one. Gurus and sages have done this for hundreds of years. Healers may or may not have special powers, but they do have empathy, openness, and they give you a lot of attention. An alternate name for the Mirrorbox could be “the Attention Machine.”

Like in Megan’s performance-based economy, connection has become a type of currency, a drug. But, like drugs, will we need to up the dose to get the same high? Do the people who reacted deeply to the Mirrorbox have a limitless hunger for connection? Ultimately, the Mirrorbox gives us what we are looking for: whether it’s the opportunity to fall in love, to connect with lots of different people, to empathize, or to attempt to understand the subjective nature of love, narcissistic tendencies, alienation and connection in the digital age.

“I don’t think that technology ever has to be a denial of our physical beings or that it has to take away from our direct experience of the world,” Megan said, “but it can amplify our experience of one another, our experience of what it is to be a human being.”

Jon Bernad offers another interpretation of the Mirrorbox’s appeal. “Why isn’t the greatest work of art a mirror?” he asks rhetorically. “When you add another human, it’s the difference between masturbation and sex. There’s an infinite amount of stories. That’s why you can create so many emotions just by staring at another person, who occasionally is you.”

Deenah Vollmer is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, N+1, Guernica Daily, Interview Magazine, and she won the L Magazine's Literary Upstart contest for short fiction. Last year she lived in Berlin on a Fulbright grant for journalism. This year she plays the pizza box in The Pizza Underground, a pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band and variety show.

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