reflection of a face and top of the body in mirror with ghostly tentacles and another face appearing in front of the reflection
2022 Rachel Jacobs' Artwork Research

Museum of the Mirrored Self

Museum of the Mirrored Self

Dr Rachel Jacobs and Robin Shackford
TAS Hub Artist in Residence, University of Nottingham
with Xinzhou Zhang, Shuang Zheng and Luce Engels

The Museum of the Mirrored Self features a series of prototype interactive mirrors taking you on a journey from the ancient, mythical, superstitious and instinctive uses of reflective surfaces to present day research into interactive mirror technologies for health and wellbeing, protest and performance, policing and security. This work extends the artists’ previous work with interactive mirrors in 2017 as part of ‘Invisible’, an international collaboration across the UK and Brazil [9] that experimented with the design of a ‘performative mirror space’ [10].

This current work aims to disrupt our ideas of trust in our mirrored reflections. These prototypes have been developed alongside the TAS for Health interactive mirror research project, with the potential to develop meditative and playful apps that could be embedded in a diagnostic mirror that sits in people’s homes. These prototypes also act as an aid for the TAS for Health workshop participants to consider questions of ethics and trust in the design of mirrors as diagnostic tools.

Mirrors, as we think of them now, are relatively new technologies. Yet reflective surfaces have held an important role in human cultural and collective consciousness, referred to in myths, stories and drawings from the first humans as a key component in ritual, death rites and sacred activities. Used by healers as a way of treating and diagnosing people, as well as providing a developmental tool for our ability to distinguish and recognise our public selves in relation to the ‘other’.

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century in Europe that Venetian craftsmen developed an ‘accurately reflective looking glass’, what we now know as a ‘mirror’. Prior to this, the surface of a mirror was often metal and not flat. In the twelfth century, the technology evolved to use glass surfaces, often convex and rarely flat. The first accurately reflective looking glasses were made using high levels of craftsmanship, creating a near perfect and flat, clear glass surface with a quicksilver back. Further refinements of the technology developed the reflective coating, size, shape and materials.

The Divination Mirror

Different styles of mirrors – hand mirrors, pocket mirrors, mirrors with candles in front of them, and earlier sword blades and water had different uses and types of distortions to aid diagnostics or divinations, prior to the development of accurately reflective looking glasses, potential as early as trade in obsidian found in early human civilisations [8]. When mirrors were made of metal and other materials that distorted the reflection ‘practitioners frequently claimed to be able to see things in mirrors that were not physically present before them or to find a connection between this world and the world beyond in those veiled reflections’ [15]. In the 1600s ‘another meaning for a looking glass was a chamber pot or urinal, used by doctors at this time to search a patient’s urine for signs of disease’ [15].

It took a long time for the new ‘accurately reflective’ mirror technology to become accessible around the world and did so alongside colonisation, in Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas. Mirrors were traded by Europeans for land, fur and influence [15]. Practices of divination and medicine, through reflective surfaces have been seen across all cultures, whilst mirrors were also used in burials to deflect evil spirits.

In the 19th and 20th century, vision for Europeans was seen as the ‘noblest sense’, connected to the idea that the mirrored self was an accurate depiction of a ‘trustworthy vision’ of their actual selves and the world. Wealthy Europeans relied on accurately reflective looking glasses to provide key information about their public selves as ‘trusted visual tools in gaining knowledge about, and exerting mastery over, many aspects of the personal front’ [15] this included mirrors that reflected and enhanced the architecture and environments they owned.

Yet, beliefs about reflective powers have remained in superstition, folklore and divination rituals. In many cultures people still believe that mirrors that are broken will bring about bad luck, and turn mirrors to face the wall or cover them at the time of a death.

The Diagnostic Mirror

If mirrors are often seen as a metaphor for truthfulness, how does this impact on the design of interactive mirrors as ‘trustworthy autonomous systems’? How can people trust a mirror that is potentially capturing and analysing data based on what is reflected? How does our relationship with a mirror change when we become aware of it not only reflecting back ourselves and the world but acting as a capture device, and potentially an autonomous diagnostic tool with another hidden ‘viewer’ intervening with the reflection?

The mirror’s evolution has been based on a search for an ‘accurate reflection’. The move away from the mythical, sacred, ritual, spiritual and medicinal uses came as reflections became clearer and more accurate, whilst the most recent developments in mirror technology is potentially harder to understand within this historical context. Moving away from the desire to create the most accurate reflection, an interactive mirror begins again to disrupt, hide and/or reveal ‘things that are not physically present’.

When the reflection is occluded then there is room for imagination, for other entities and possibilities to exist within the frame, opportunities for disruption – for the mirror to tell us more than what is shown on the surface. When the reflection is accurate, the surface is flat, there is no longer room for other possibilities and we begin to believe the reflection – the mirror never lies.

Are autonomous systems, data capture and interactivity the obvious next steps towards a truly accurate reflective surface – or a step back to the occluded mirrors of the past?

Labyrinth of the Mirrored Self

The Labyrinth of the Mirrored Self is a prototype for an immersive experience. The journey through the labyrinth aims to question whether an interactive mirror can help us develop a stronger ‘true, healthy and trustworthy’ sense of self, exploring how these technologies might aid us in achieving an ‘integrated’ sense of wellbeing – that more fully connects our body, mind and spirit [11], whilst bringing us more closely aligned with each other and the natural (non-human) world [7].

The labyrinth also questions our endless desire to capture data and be part of a spectacle, even in our most private moments, exploring the possibility that engaging with interactive mirrors might take us further into being controlled by algorithms, ‘all watched over by machines of loving grace’ as the poet Richard Braughtigan wrote [2], leading us into the madness of the film protagonists Travis Bickle [13] and Donnie Darko [12] – a world of disassociation, fragmentation, paranoia, narcissism and distrust.

The labyrinth is based on a traditional fun fair hall of mirrors, beginning with flat mirrored surfaces, reflecting multiple reflections. These reflections become semi-transparent, introducing an element of interactivity, responding to data captured by sensors placed on the participants. As the participant walks deeper into the labyrinth their reflections become further disrupted, losing a sense of scale, trustworthiness and reality. Finally the user returns to accurately reflective surfaces and a peaceful meditative scene, yet behind lies a hidden room, shadows reveal other people hidden behind the mirror.

These prototypes have been developed in collaboration with Xinzhou Zhang and Shuang Zheng, architecture students at the University of Nottingham. They have extended the concept of the Labyrinth of the Mirrored Self to build their own digital and physical models of this immersive experience.

3D Walkthrough by Shuang Zheng

Just like a well-known sentence in The Little Prince, “What is important is invisible” [6], the hidden things can always stimulate people’s interest as well the desire to explore. The whole model has been prepared in a solid box, and the content within the box will be only shown to the audience in fragmented views from the eye holes on it. Even after observing the interior space from all of the eye holes, there might still be some part invisible and lost, that needs the audience to complete the whole story using their imagination. Different from presenting the complete story, only some scenarios have been set, the audience can not only be listeners but also participants who join in creating this story.

On the other hand, the model itself is a miniature world, just like the world described in Alice in Wonderland [5]. The holes on the box are also the entrance that connect the inside and outside world. The audience can’t really enter into the box, but they can act as pryers from the outside world. They can find how the residents inside the box play with the mirror, and at a time, maybe their reflection will appear in the mirror as well.

3D Walkthrough by Shuang Zheng

The whole walkthrough journey provides participants an interaction with different types, sizes, positions, and angles of mirrors to build up an immersive world of mirrors. It is composed of three different experiences:

Starting from the hallway with a series of normal (opaque) and interactive (translucent) mirrors in regular and irregular sequences, this walkthrough demonstrates a sense of brokenness and interaction with the entire exhibition space. These normal mirrors are presented in different angles and positions, while in the upright interactive translucent mirrors projections randomly appear. The reflections in the mirrors with different positions vary from face to bodies as participants walk through.

arrive in a kaleidoscopic world in the shape of a hexagon, which includes full walls of upright translucent mirrors and distorted opaque mirrors. With the infinite reflections of human bodies and light bulbs, they might enjoy the beauty and ask “Who is the most beautiful person in this world?” If they receive an undesirable answer, they might be confused by these infinite, repeated, and symmetrical but asymmetrical reflections and find a real door to get out this ‘sad’ space. Once they found a way out, they would discover peaceful videos of lily ponds and flowers and ferns on a hill projected behind the translucent mirror to end their journey.

The Mirrored Warrior

Technologies embedded in interactive mirrors have been shown to be controversial. Face tracking and facial recognition software have been found to have built in biases with difficulties detecting our different types of bodies, mobility and movement, skin colour, hair and body shape [1, 3]. This raises ethical questions, particularly when these technologies are used as a tool for security, policing and health, in particular for people marginalised by society for their race, gender, physical and mental abilities.

Historically the concept of the mirrored self has also been shown to be gendered and influenced by the contexts and cultures of where we encounter our mirrored selves. In the past wealthy European women were seen to substitute mirrors for the ‘male gaze’, providing an element of agency and a sense of a secret self over the expectations of how they should look and behave in public. Whilst wealthy European men’s relationships with their mirrored self tended towards seeing mirrors as a way to reflect status, using the mirror as a tool to extend vision (for instance, attached to a gun), and for diagnosing injury, ill health and closeness to death – particularly when hand mirrors were taken onto a battlefield [15].

Mirrors can be seen as a tool of liberation. People from all backgrounds were able to interact with mirrors as ‘items that could be used without having to be touched and used more widely than just by their owners’. This was particularly relevant to African Americans in slavery providing an opportunity to come to know their mirror selves without intervention [15]. This unique ability for a mirror to reflect without judgement whatever is in front of it, becomes a tool of empowerment and revelation.

When the mirror starts to capture data with ‘expert intervention’, require touch for touch screen interactions, use face recognition that may hold biases and judgements (as diagnosis or for behaviour nudging) will this turn the freedom of the mirror space of into a new space of control?

Mirrors have more recently been used as shields by protestors in Ukraine [4] and by the American First Nation water protectors [14] as a way to reflect back the actions of military and security attempting to stop peaceful protests.

The Mirrored Warrior is a wearable interactive mirror designed for environmental protectors to reflect the environment around the person. The interactive mirror at the front provides a way for the wearer to capture, visualise and interpret their own environmental and bio data, taking some control over their interactions with the world.


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