European Mobile Lab for Interactive Artists
ENACTIVE DIALECTICS: A Composition For Two Chairs

Artists: John Holder, Pia Tikka, Anna Dumitriu

Type of project: Enactive video installation

Dimensions: 7m (length) x 4m (width)

Materials: Two chairs with in-build biosensors, two projectors and two screens

The emotions we present to the world and those we feel inside may often be very different. In fact our facial expressions act as form of communication and manipulation in social settings; a non-verbal ‘language’. The ability to present the correct expression is an important and evolved tool for gaining sympathy, eliciting love, or displaying anger. But would greater inter-subjective understanding be achieved if we had access to hidden emotions? This question is investigated by the interactive media artwork ‘Enactive Dialectics’.

The project ‘Enactive Dialectics’ investigates human enactment within an environment through an embodied and situated approach. The work is inspired by the current interest in enactive cognitive sciences, which emerged from the autopoiesis theory of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. The philosophical background also reflects Theodor Adorno’s notion of ‘Negative Dialectics’. The installation embodies the enactive approach, showing that human beings are inseparably connected to their environment. It comprises two ‘treatment’ chairs directly facing each other, which evoke in the participants a sense of being a subject in an experiment. Behind each chair a digitally modeled synthetic face is projected. Hidden biosensors in the chairs track the participant’s psychophysiological data, which are encoded into a description of participant’s emotional state, these drive artistically authored expressions displayed by a synthetic face above the sitter.

The participant’s experience in ‘Enactive Dialectics’ is intended to set up an emotional feedback loop, which becomes activated through neural mirroring systems. A mirror neuron fires both when the participant acts in a particular manner and when she observes the same action performed by another participant, or perhaps, by the synthetic humanlike face on the screen. The participants’ psychological attempts to conceal their own feelings provoke the physiological biosensitive system in an accelerating manner, which in turn affects the extremity of changes on synthetic faces.

The work emphasizes the ethical implications of tracking and interpreting participant’s emotions as recent science opens up many more possible ways to do this. The exact psycho-physiological data reveal only part of the story and the resulting ‘emotional responses’ are ‘artistically manipulated’ or ‘authored’, based on the media-artist’s best understanding of the emotion theories and human psychology. In ‘Enactive Dialectics’ this interpretation of emotion is addressed as ‘distorted feedback’, which in turn becomes part of the system. This raises the further question that even if we think we have ‘inside information’ we still cannot really ‘know’ how another person is feeling. We cannot even be sure if we ourselves are feeling the way we think we feel, increasing the sense of inter-subjective non-identification.

Through this work we attempt to show that familiar intuitions about personal identity and subjective experience can be re-drawn and experienced with unexpected results through digital mediation. This places the boundary between self and other into question in both real and virtual space. Art is often about persuading audiences to experience the world in novel ways. In contrast ’Enactive Dialectics’ investigates if it is possible for members of an audience to enactively experience themselves in a novel way

Contact artist: Anna Dumitriu (annadumitriu@hotmail.com)


Dr. Blay Whitby (Philosopher/Ethicist), University of Sussex


Enactive biosensor system designed and implemented by Joonas Juutilainen (Enactive Cinema Team)
Biosensor technology by Emfit Ltd
EEG braindata implemented by Luciana Haill and John Holder
EEG Biosensor technology sponsored by IBVA

ENACTIVE MEDIA TEAM, Helsinki University of Technology

Mauri Kaipainen, Södertörn University
Niklas Ravaja, CKIR, Helsinki School of Economics
Tapio Takala, Helsinki School of Technology
Rasmus Vuori, researcher-lecturer, University of Art and Design, Helsinki


The work of Pia Tikka has been supported by the research project aivoAALTO in the Aalto University, Helsinki.


Arts Council England
The Finnish Cultural Foundation
Biosensor technology by Emfit Ltd


Project images
(click to enlarge)