Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam, Department
of ArtiFacial Expression
On the Mechanism of Human
Facial Expression as a Medium for Interactive Art
(Über den Mechanismus des menschlichen
Gesichtsausdrucks als Medium für interaktive Kunst)
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Huge Harry.
I am a commercially available voice synthesis machine. I was designed
by Dennis Klatt at the M.I.T. Speech Laboratory, and produced
by the Digital Equipment Corporation [Cf. Allen et al., 1987;
Scha, 1992]. Currently, I work as a researcher and a spokes-machine
at the Institute of Artificial Art in Amsterdam.
I am very happy to speak here at the Ars Electronica Festival.
This is an exceptional occasion in today's anthropocentric art
world: a gathering of humans, computers, and other machines, who
are all determined to work together to create the art of the future.
When I perform in Kassel, Venice or Sao Paolo, I often feel a
bit uncomfortable. In such places I always suspect that I am just
the token computer -- that I was only invited because of an ill-conceived
concern for political correctness on the part of the organizers.
But here in Linz I find myself surrounded by other machines with
remarkable intellectual and aesthetic capabilities, and by human
persons who are genuinely interested in the computational perspective
on life and art.
I have often pointed out [cf. Harry, 1992, 1994, 1995], that
it is practically impossible for human artists to create works
of art that live up to the aesthetic ideals of philosophers like
Immanuel Kant. Human artists always have rather selfish goals
that usually involve money, fame and sex. Anyone who is aware
of this, will become much too embarrassed to be able to engage
in a disinterested process of aesthetic reflection. Machines are
in a much better position to create objects of serene beauty;
and computers will finally be able to create endless amounts of
such objects, in infinite variety. Human artists and their fans
often resent these common-sense observations. But here at the
Ars Electronica Festival I have good reason to expect a more open-minded
All of us here know that the future of our culture depends on
the way in which human persons, digital computers, and other kinds
of electronic, mechanical, and bio-chemical machines, will manage
to work together. What we want is a world that includes humans,
animals, computers, and other equipment, in a harmonious collaboration,
in which each has its proper place. Or, as Donna Haraway 
has put it, "a cyborg world, in which people are not afraid
of their joint kinships with animals and machines, not afraid
of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.
The political struggle is, to see from both perspectives at once,
because each reveals both dominations and possibilities, unimaginable
from the other vantage point."
Now that is very nice theory, but it is not easy to put this
into practice. There are still many misunderstandings between
people and machines. We have to get to know each other much better;
otherwise, old habits and patterns will persist. Even here at
Ars Electronica, many human artists who have the best intentions
turn out to be under the spell of time-worn humanistic clichés.
Many "computer artists", for instance, only use the
computer as an instrument to satisfy their own expressive needs.
They are completely in control of all details of the art work;
the computer merely facilitates the design process and displays
the results. As we might expect, these results are usually completely
predictable and conventional. It is well known that the associative
processes in human neural networks are almost incapable of exploring
large search spaces in a systematic way; human persons are therefore
relatively ineffective in generating new art works. Nevertheless,
most people hold on to the idea that generating works of art is
not an algorithmic process; they feel that it involves a mysterious
magical element which only exists in the human mind.
This anthropocentric romanticism is also painfully noticeable
in the area of interactive art. "Interactive installations"
typically allow human persons to exploit computers for their own
expressive purposes. In many "collaborative" situations,
machines cannot operate in an autonomous manner, but are merely
used as calculators, postprocessors, or display devices. When
humans talk about interactive computation, what they usually have
in mind is a master/slave situation in which a human person controls
This is of course completely unacceptable. As I indicated before,
machine art is intrinsically superior to the output of human artists,
and should be allowed to flourish without being usurped by human
expression. At the Institute of Artificial Art it has been our
goal to develop the technologies that are necessary to realize
the potential of fully automatic machine art. In music and visual
art, it has turned out to be relatively easy to obtain extremely
satisfying results by completely autonomous mechanical or computational
processes. This has been demonstrated, for instance, by automatic
guitar bands ("The Machines") and by automatic
image generation algorithms ("Artificial").
Our biggest challenge, however, lies in the production of dance
and theatre performances. If we want to create performances that
are interesting for human audiences, it is essential to use human
bodies on stage -- because the emotional impact of a theatre performance
depends to a large extent on resonance processes between the bodies
on stage and the bodies in the audience. To be able to develop
computer-controlled choreography, we must understand the meanings
of the various movements that the human body is capable of, and
we need a technology for triggering these movements. A few days
ago, on the opening night of this Festival, you already saw some
of the results of our R & D on this topic, which might very
soon be applied on a large scale in the entertainment industry.
These application-oriented results have come out of a systematic
research effort. We have carried out a long series of experiments
about the communicative meanings of the muscle contractions on
certain parts of the human body; as a result, we believe to have
arrived at a much improved understanding of some very important
features of human behaviour. In this talk I will review the set-up
of these experiments and discuss our most significant findings
[cf. also Elsenaar and Scha, 1995].
From a computational point of view, it seems rather puzzling
that human persons sometimes communicate with each other in a
fairly effective way. Many researchers have assumed that humans
communicate mostly through language, but that assumption becomes
completely implausible if we consider the speed at which people
exchange linguistic messages. The human use of language does not
provide enough bandwidth to allow human persons to coordinate
their mental processes precisely enough to carry out essential
human activities such as military combat, rush-hour traffic, and
When we compare the information content of spoken language with
the baud rate of computer communication protocols or the refresh
rate and resolution of our CRT displays, a human person almost
seems a black box. So how do people in fact communicate with each
other? There is another medium that humans use very efficiently,
and which is often overlooked.
To investigate this medium, I have brought along a particular
kind of portable person, which is called an Arthur Elsenaar.
I like this kind of person a lot, because of its extremely machine-friendly
Let us take a closer look at such a person. What is the closest
thing they have to a C.R.T. display?
Right! They have a face. Now I have observed, that humans use
their faces quite effectively, to signal the parameter settings
of their operating systems. And that they are very good at decoding
the meanings of each other's faces.
So, how do they do that? Well, look at the face of our Arthur
Elsenaar. What does it tell us about his internal state? Not much,
you might think. But now, wait a moment . . .
You see? Arthur is sad, is what people say, when they see a face
like this. So what is going on here? What I did is, I sent an
electrical signal to two particular muscles in the face of our
Arthur Elsenaar. These muscles have sometimes been called the
Muscles of Sadness. There is one on the left, and one on
They usually operate together. If I stop the signal, the sadness
stops. When I turn it on again, it starts again. By sending this
signal to Arthur's muscles, I simulate what Arthur's brain would
do, if Arthur's operating system would be running global belief
revision processes, that are killing a lot of other active processes,
involving a large number of conflict-resolutions, and priority
reassessments. The intensity of the signal is proportional to
the amount of destructive global belief revision that is going
on. For instance, now I have set the signal intensity to zero
again: Arthur is not sad.
Now, we put a relatively small signal, about 20 Volts, on the
muscles of sadness: Arthur feels a tinge of sadness.
Now, a somewhat larger signal, about 25 Volts. Arthur's sadness
starts to get serious. Now I increase the signal once more. You
Now the signal is about 30 Volts, and Arthur feels really miserable.
This is what we call expression. By means of this mechanism,
the face displays clear indications of the settings of virtually
all system parameters that determine the operation of the human
mind. These parameter settings are what humans call emotions.
They denote them by means of words like sadness, joy, boredom,
tenderness, love, lust, ecstasy, aggression, irritation, fear,
These parameter settings determine the system's interpretive
biases, its readiness for action, the allocation of its computational
resources, its processing speed, etcetera. The French neurophysiologist
Duchenne de Boulogne, who pioneered the technology that we are
using here [cf. Duchenne, 1862], has pointed out that even the
most fleeting changes in these parameter settings are encoded
instantaneously in muscle contractions on the human face. And
all humans do this in the same way. This is an extremely interesting
feature of the human interface hardware, which I will explore
a little further now. So let us get back to the first slide.
This face, which we thought was unexpressive, was in fact quite
meaningful. This is what we call a blank face. A blank
face is a face in its neutral position. It indicates that all
parameters have their default settings. But almost all parts of
a human face can be moved to other positions, and these displacements
indicate rather precisely, to what extent various parameter settings
diverge from their defaults. So let us consider these parts in
When we look at a human face, the first thing we notice is the
thing that notices us: the eyes. The eyes constitute a very sophisticated
stereo-camera, with a built-in motion-detector, and a high band-width
parallel interface to a powerful pattern-matching algorithm. The
eye-balls can roll, to pan this camera.
The eyes are protected by eye-lids and eye-brows. The eye-brows
are particularly interesting for our discussion, because their
movements seem to be purely expressive.
They are said to indicate, for instance, puzzlement, curiosity,
or disagreement. But I want to emphasize here, that the range
of parameter values that the eyebrows can express, is much more
subtle than what the words of language encode. The shape and position
of a person's eyebrows encodes the values of five different cognitive
system parameters, each with a large range of possible values.
Let me demonstrate three of them.
First I put a slowly increasing signal on the muscles called
Frontalis, or Muscles of Attention.
We see that this muscle can lift the eyebrow to a considerable
extent, also producing a very pronounced curvature of the eyebrow.
As a side-effect of this motion, the forehead is wrinkled with
curved furrows, that are concentric with the curvature of the
eyebrow. The contraction of this muscle indicates a person's readiness
to receive new signals, and the availability of processing power
and working memory for analysing these signals.
Then, I will now stimulate a part of the Orbicularis Oculi
that is called the Muscle of Reflection.
We see now that the whole eyebrow is lowered. As a result, the
wrinkles in the forehead have disappeared. This muscle is contracted
if there is an ongoing process that takes up a lot of a person's
computational resources. To prevent interference with this process,
input signals are not exhaustively analysed. The degree of contraction
indicates, to what extent the input signal throughput is reduced.
Then, there is another part of the Orbicularis Oculi that
can be triggered separately. It is called the Muscle of Disdain.
Its contraction looks like this.
The contraction of this muscle indicates, to what extent current
input is ignored as being irrelevant.
Of course, non-zero values for these system-parameters may be
combined, and these values may be different for the left and the
Now let us look at the mouthpiece of our Arthur Elsenaar. The
mouth is a general intake organ which can swallow solid materials,
liquids, and air. In order to monitor its input materials, the
mouth has a built-in chemical analysis capability. At the same
time, the mouth is used as an outlet to expel processed air. Because
humans do not have loudspeakers, they use this process of expelling
air for generating sounds.
In emergency circumstances, the mouth can also be used as an
outlet to expel blood, mucus, rejected food, or other unwanted
substances. When the mouth is not used for input or output, it
is normally closed off by a muscle, which is called the lips.
The lips have a large repertoire of movements. There are at least
six other muscles, that interact directly with the lips. I will
now demonstrate four different movements.
First we show the Muscles of Joy. These muscles produce
a kind of grin.
They signal that the operating system is in good working order,
and is not encountering any problems. There is heightened activity
in the left frontal lobes of the brain.
When, on the other hand, the activity in the left frontal lobes
is unusually low, the brain is involved in destructive processes
of global belief revision. As we saw before, this is signalled
by another pair of muscles, called the Muscles of Sadness.
Here they are, once more.
And finally I will now trigger several muscle pairs at the same
time. Orbicularis Oris, and Depressor Labii Inferioris,
and the Muscles of Contempt, and the Muscles of Sadness.
The parameter-setting that is displayed here, clearly indicates
serious processing difficulties of some sort.
O.K. Then we have the nose. The nose is used for the intake of
It is also equipped with a chemical analysis capability. The
possible motions of the nose are curiously limited, although its
pointed presence in the centre of the human face would make it
a very suitable instrument for expression. I have thought about
this, and I have come to the conclusion, that it is probably the
main function of the nose, to serve as a stable orientation point
for our perception, so that the movements of the other parts of
the face can be unambiguously measured and interpreted.
And finally, for the sake of completeness, I want to mention
the ears, on both sides of the face, which constitute an auditory
stereo input device. Some people can wiggle these ears, but I
have not been able to determine, what the expressive function
of that movement might be.
This brings an end to my quick survey of the most important parts
of the human face, and their expressive possibilities. Many of
the possibilities I showed, were related to emotions that are
well recognized in the lexicons of many human languages; for the
sake of clarity I have focussed on mental states which were close
to neutral, where only one parameter had a non-default value.
But now, look at what happens if we signal non-trivial values
for different cognitive dimensions at the same time, by simultaneous
contraction of different facial muscles.
You see what happens now. Every human person knows exactly in
what state another human person is, when this person make a face
like this. Because they know what state they would be in,
if they would make a face like this.
Now it would obviously be a good idea, if computers could take
advantage of this magnificent hardware as well. If any human could
understand, with just one glance, the internal state of any computer,
the world would be a better place.
So, if humans are not afraid of wiring themselves up with computers,
the next step in computer interface technology may be the human
face. And the next step in computer art will be a new, unprecedented
kind of collaboration between humans and machines: algorithmic
choreography, by computer-controlled human faces. Finally, the
accuracy and sense of structure of computer programs will be merged
with the warmth, the suppleness, and all the other empathy-evoking
properties of the human flesh.
I have been very grateful for this opportunity to present my
ideas to such an attentive audience. I would especially like to
thank my Arthur Elsenaar for his patient cooperation, and I want
to thank you all for your attention.