Look into my eyes

1st July 2005 at 01:00
As part of her mission to popularise science and art, former fashion designer Helen Storey moved a unique installation into a south London school. Harvey McGavin takes a peek

The room is softly lit, about 12ft square, with purple walls and cushions scattered on the dark blue carpet. The first impression, as you enter through the black drapes over the doorway, is of cosiness. But that is soon replaced by the uneasy feeling of being watched. Instead of windows, letterbox-shaped peepholes have been placed in the walls and ceiling. And behind the peepholes are 16 pairs of eyes looking back at you.

This is Eye and I, a room within a room within a south London school. It is a mixture of installation, experiment and hall-of-mirrors style entertainment; a place where art, science and psychology combine. The peering eyes belong to a group of professional actors, who furrow their brows in doubt, or crease their crow's feet in joy, or stare goggle-eyed in surprise. The idea is that, by silently evoking an emotion, they will provoke a reaction in the room's inhabitants; Eye and I is a kind of laboratory, and the subject for analysis is "authentic feeling".

Volunteers include three-year-old nursery children and pensioners, and pupils and teachers from Charles Edward Brooke girls' school in Lambeth.

They are led into the room without any warning of what to expect, and stay inside for 10 minutes while the actors outside look in, emoting as directed.

Their director and the architect of Eye and I is the former fashion designer Helen Storey. Her interest in the nature of emotion is rooted in experience. In 1990, she was named most innovative British designer, and celebrity clients including Prince and Madonna were beating a path to her door. Five years later, her then husband, who was also her business manager, fell ill with cancer (he later recovered) and her fashion empire collapsed.

She sought new ways to express her creativity, producing a textile-based exhibition with her sister, Kate, a biologist, called Primitive Streak, which toured for several years and was seen by more than two million people. Another thought-provoking exhibition, Mental, followed, until, during a study tour of the United States, a chance meeting with psychologist Dr Jim Coan, from the University of Wisconsin, planted the seed of Eye and I. "We realised we shared a fascination with what authentic emotion was," she says.

Ms Storey was frustrated by the tendency of science to hide its secrets in academic journals, and the way art was so often confined to galleries.

Bringing the two together in a school setting will, she hopes, help children understand them better.

"All sorts of things that people like Jim know about humanity is like gold dust locked away in academia," she says. "More of what they know, we should know. It would inform our lives, particularly young lives, which is why I brought it to a school. As soon as you call it art and stick it in a gallery, the expectation of how it is viewed becomes incredibly limited."

Eye and I has some of the characteristics of a fashion show - the performance aspect, the carefully designed setting, and Helen Storey's guiding hand as she taps the actors on the shoulder to signal a change in mood - but that's where the resemblance ends. "I'm interested in people's interiors and why they do what they do," she says. "This is completely opposite to what I did in fashion. The art is in the emotional response rather than being a finished piece of work.

"This is to do with an intelligence that isn't explored anywhere in the curriculum, but without it you can flounder in life."

The feedback from the children has been instructive; some have been slightly fearful, holding on to cushions for comfort and avoiding the onlooking eyes. Others have been playful, attempting to communicate with the actors through blinking games, or confronting them with stares.

The actors, given the difficult task of maintaining a convincing expression for five minutes at a time, have been surprised by the range of responses.

Trying to transmit "fear" to a group of refugee children was particularly intense. "I was looking at one boy," says Sebastian Stigh, "and he was really trying to look into my eyes. I felt he had dealt with fear quite a lot."

Helen Storey has been equally impressed. "There's a lot more communication than I imagined there would be," she says. "My biggest fear was that there would be indifference or cynicism, and I haven't come across either yet."

Instead, participants have reflected honestly on how our eyes betray our emotions. "It was weird," says one 15-year-old girl afterwards. "They could talk to you without using their mouths."

Dr Coan, who has travelled from the US to observe the experiment, is expert at studying facial tics and signals - what psychologists call "facial leaks". "To look into someone's eyes is an incredibly powerful thing to do," he says. "Clues around the eyes tell us how a person receives information and deals with it based on their personality and current situation, but also what it does to their mind and how it makes them feel."

His work has made him a skilled actor. He demonstrates a submissive smile and, with a barely perceptible shift in his eye muscles, changes it to a false smile, then a real one as he explains his delight at being involved in what he believes is the only experiment of its kind in the world.

"This allows people to experience what I experience as a scientist. They get to be little scientists. There are a lot of people trying to use science as a source material for art, but Helen has a real interest in bringing it full circle. It's an incredibly interesting collaboration and, as far as I know, no one else is doing anything like it."

Michel Inniss, deputy head at Charles Edward Brooke, is convinced that it will have lasting value for the 25 teachers and several dozen students who have taken part. The project has highlighted the importance of reading and responding to facial signals, and of presenting yourself favourably, whether it's in class, at a job interview or just during life in general.

"Within the curriculum we don't have the time to deal with issues like this," she says.

"I think it will give us a fascinating insight into the way in which teachers and students can communicate with each other. It is also an enormously useful way for teachers to understand how to manage and discipline classes through the use of their eyes and facial expressions rather than their voice."

For some students, the Big Brother-like eyes of the actors reminded them of their teachers. "They were quite scared and confused by the experience," says Ms Inniss. "That says a lot about teaching. Certain students have said it's made them realise how important the way they look at their teachers can be." Perhaps, in an age of indiscipline and misunderstanding in schools, bold experiments like this could be a step towards more pupils and teachers seeing eye to eye.

www.helenstoreyfoundation.orgEye and I is a pilot project supported by Creative Partnerships

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