21.06.19 – 06.10.19

Symbiotic Ones





Symbiotic Ones explores the notion that many couples look similar to one another and draws upon research that suggests couples who live together for a long period of time develop similar facial features by virtue of repeated empathic mimicry. Is a perfect partner someone who shares your facial features? As couples grow older together do they become more similar looking? Twelve couples individually answered 28 questions where they rated their perceived similarity to each other in various aspects of their relationship. The total score from each couple became a percentage of similarity, which would determine the width of the mid-section where their photographed faces would merge into each other. The wider the mid-section, the more they would seemingly become one perfectly ‘symbiotic’ person.


Jane Sverdrupsen lives and works as an artist and curator in Bergen, Norway. She received an MFA from Bergen Academy of Art and Design (2013). Her work is inspired by scientific methods and ways of dissemination attributed to the natural sciences, and incorporates elements of this into her artistic approaches. She mainly works with photography, analogue and digital drawing, sculpture and installation. Jane has exhibited in Norway, England, Germany, USA, Iceland and Portugal, and works at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design (KMD) at the University of Bergen and is board member of Kunstgarasjen Art Gallery.


Deeper Dive

Claire Gillan

Assistant Professor, Psychology Department, Trinity College Dublin

Couples tend to look similar – it’s called assortative mating and there are lots of reasons why. We mate within racial and ethnic groupings, and match for age, education, how wealthy we (or our parents) are and by our politics. The former dimensions of similarity explain intrinsic resemblance – the things you can’t really choose, like your skin tone, hair, face shape. The latter leads to an increase in extrinsic commonalities between partners - the hairstyle you choose, makeup you wear, the way you pluck your eyebrows, or button your shirt. Symbiotic Ones is a play on research from the 80’s that added a wrinkle to this rather prosaic explanation – with time, couples grow even more physically similar, and the more similar you grow, the happier your partnership. While it’s not hard to believe that similarity might grow as we share experiences during a long term partnership, there are problems with the science, the statistics and the study design. Symbiotic Ones is a play on our tendency to believe science once ‘it sounds about right’ – and that can impact how we interact in the world and in this case, value our own individuality within a relationship. Cleverly, the exhibit creates an illusion of science-gone-wrong, of subjectivity manifesting in apparent objectivity. We see the faces morph according to how our biases dictate, and we believe that plausible narrative as fact.

Claire Gillan - Assistant Professor, Psychology Department
Claire gained her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013. At NYU, Claire worked on computational approaches to understanding psychiatry with Nathaniel Daw and Liz Phelps. In 2015, she received the Junior Investigator Award from British Association for Psychophamacology for her work on goal-directed learning in obsessive-compulsive disorder. She serves on the editorial board for Brain and Neurosciences Advances, the new flagship journal of the British Neuroscience Association.

What is Symbiotic Ones?

The photographic art project "Symbiotic Ones" investigates how couples perceive the similarity of their individual identities in relation to one another, and processes these findings using methods from both artistic practice and the natural sciences. The result is a hybrid portrait, where no clear conclusion is provided, and the viewers must figure out what the findings mean through their own subjective interpretations of the presented material.

12 couples participated voluntarily in my project. They vary both in age and how long the relationship has lasted, and they come from somewhat different backgrounds. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire comprised of 28 questions where they would individually rate their similarity to each other in various aspects of their relationship on a scale from zero to ten. The questions deal with topics like interests, communication, wellbeing, co-operation, household, physical aspects and family relations. The total score for each couple adds up to a percentage of perceived similarity that determines the width of the mid section where their photographed faces are to be merged into each other. Their level of perceived similarity is thus transferred to their appearance, displaying the joint score for similarity in each couple in such a way that the higher the score, the closer their faces are to become one single individual; a median identity of the two. The portrait photographs are taken digitally in a studio setting. Facial features are traced meticulously from the photographs, and a median is created to guide the manual rearrangement of their facial features into one. The end result show portraits which seem more or less ‘off’ in their credibility. Some of them give the immediate impression of being one face, but slight variations on the sides of the face give it away. Others, with a relatively low score, are satirically obvious. They reveal clearly that this is a portrait of two faces who have been joined together.

What motivated you to do the work?

The project began after reading the scientific study "Convergence in the Physical Appearance of Spouses" by Zajonc, Adelmann, Murphy and Niedenthal. The study concludes that couples, who live together for a long period of time, develop similar facial features by virtue of repeated empathic mimicry. It also states that an increase in resemblance is associated with greater reported marital happiness. This implies that the more similar you and your partner grow, the closer your relationship is to perfection. I discovered that the original study is based on subjective observations made by a mere 110 students shown 24 photographs of 12 couples, before and after 25 years of marriage. The relatively weak data is used to reach this conclusion about developed resemblance which impacts how fundamental human processes are believed to operate. It demonstrates the power dissemination of scientific research can have in manipulating the contemporary public’s understanding of themselves and the world. "Symbiotic Ones" is created as an alternate version of the scientific study. One which also entertains the idea of convergence, but rather as something happening internally from the very beginning, on a psychological and emotional level, long before it potentially manifests itself as the physical changes proposed in the original study. This perceived similarity amongst every couple is staged in portrait photographs as if it is a physical convergence in process: the partners slide into one another to varying extent, all at different stages of becoming the one and the same identity. Identical in their ongoing ‘symbiosis’.

What questions are you raising with the work?

The visual form of the project mimics that of dissemination techniques used in presenting scientific facts to the public. This infographic aesthetic invites trust and signals objectivity and a sense of authority, often regardless of the actual data it is built upon. The viewer is more susceptible to accept information as truth when presented in this manner, and using this aesthetic in the project questions its authority by subverting it in an art project which is solely based on subjectivity.